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Ways of Living With ‘Alternative Facts’: An Anecdote

6 Feb

 

 

A couple of nights ago I went to see A Quiet Heart, a fine film about a young Jewish woman, an accomplished pianist from Tel Aviv who had come to Jerusalem, apparently to get away from her family and former boy friend. She moved into an apartment in the ultra-Orthodox part of the city where acute hostility is exhibited toward more secular Jews and local Christians connected with a nearby monastic church. The film was being shown at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, and was a special selection in the ‘sidebar’ devoted to Israeli films and sponsored by the strongly pro-Israeli NGO, Anti-Defamation League, or ADL. As was the case for all films at the Festival, someone from the sponsors or Festival staff makes a brief introduction to the audience. In this case an ADL staff person gave some helpful background information. He made a closing comment that showing a film set in Jerusalem was especially appropriate in 2017 as it was ‘the 50th anniversary of the reunification of the city.’

 

At the time I was struck by the oddness and insensitivity of such a remark, which from my perspective, was a completely unfamiliar way of acknowledging the impact of 1967 on Jerusalem. I had recently been attuned to the importance of 2017 as tragic anniversaries of the Balfour Declaration (1917), Partition Resolution (1947), and the 1967 War (1967). As I reflected on what 1967 meant from a Zionist/Israel perspective, the conquest and unified control of Jerusalem was a natural way of perceiving, as were the accompanying exclusions of international law (Israel was unanimously instructed by the UN Security Council to withdraw from the city to the pre-war borders with small negotiated modifications) and the Palestinian people (as if they had no claim to Jerusalem, and hence were invisible). It should be expected that contrasting meanings would be attached to the importance of 1967 by most Israelis and Zionists on one side and by those who identified with the Palestinian national struggle on the other side.

 

Is there a right and wrong about such differing perceptions? On one level, no, merely different ways of ‘seeing.’ On other level, yes; it is a matter of whether to validate the status quo as authoritative or to allow international law and UN authority to have the last word. Dialogue, especially if among equals, can let us see and feel as the other, possibly narrowing differences, or at least raising consciousness of their existence. In ideal form, Martin Buber’s I-Thou spirit of meeting the other suggests the true nature of an authentic quest for an understanding of otherness than transcends our own deeply conditioned and inevitably partials perceptions.

 

At the same time, if the circumstances that underlie the contrasting perceptions are hierarchical or oppressive, then it is deeply misleading to suggest that both sides are equally responsible for the unhappy situation that prevails. The side in control, in this instance Israel, is primarily responsible for treating Jerusalem as appropriately and permanently unified under Israeli governmental and political control in 1967. This Israeli insistenc defies international public opinion as well as some elementary precepts of international morality, although it reflects the current realpolitik reading of the situation.

 

This brings me inevitably to Kellyann Conway’s reliance on ‘alternative facts’ to validate the White House claim that Donald Trump’s inaugural crowd was bigger than that of Barack Obama. She was contesting contrasting pictures shown by CNN and other media outlets in which even the most casual observer could tell that Trumps crowd was by far smaller. Of course, only a narcissistic lack of self-esteem would lead someone to be foolish enough to call attention to such a discrepancy. The childish comparison of inaugural crowd sizes would have totally disappeared from public consciousness by the next moon had not Trump thrown a fit. With the help of that feisty provocation, ‘alternative facts’ a seemingly trivial controversy has been given a prominent and likely permanent place in American political discourse. Poor Ms. Conway, normally a refreshingly coherent and informed advocate of Trump’s worldview, will now likely be remembered above all, and maybe only, for this one extravagant trope that so blatantly crossed the line of plausibility! Or possibly for pointing to ‘the Bowling Green massacre’ as evidence that the media was guilty, as Trump complained, of underreporting terrorist incidents. This time Ms. Conway didn’t rely on alternative facts but on no facts. As she admitted a couple of nights later, there never was a Bowling Green massacre, there was simply no such event, but this did not inhibit her from repeating the absurd contention of her boss that the media downplays terrorism. From my angle of vision the opposite complaint could much more plausibly be made.

 

Without getting carried away with glee, it is helpful to remember that our daily existence tends to be dominated by alternative facts. Lawyers make a living by the careful selection of those facts favorable to their client, while ignoring or downplaying those that are unfavorable. And all of us nearly all the time, whether consciously or not, are coming up with our preferred menu of facts. The interpretation of facts is what creates the social and political fabric of life.

 

Yet there is a distinction between Ms. Conway’s alternative facts and those that are the stuff of nightly news debates, Her use of alternative facts flew in the face of what seemed to be a public truth, almost undeniable from the perspective of reason, and hence seemed more a ‘lie’ than an ‘interpretation.’ Crossing such a line weakens public discourse in a democratic society, turning politics into a deadly game in which the unaccountable whims of the leader amount to a death sentence imposed on innocence. Without the protection of innocence, there is scant prospect of justice. And so we are led to think that slaughtering political language might properly be viewed as an impeachable offense.

 

 

Anticipating the Trump Presidency

13 Nov

 

 

[Prefatory Note: The post below was commissioned by the global-e journal ( http://www.21global.ucsb.edu/global-e ) and appears there as Volume 9, No. 3, November 2016.]

 

 

In the weeks prior to the American presidential election I received a large number of independent messages from progressive friends abroad who were either expats or citizens of other countries. I was not too surprised that almost every message expressed hostility to Hillary Clinton, but I was shocked that so many were opting for Trump to win the election or advocating a stay-at-home boycott or third party vote believing that neither Trump nor Clinton deserved support, and there was no basis for making one preferable to the other. I shared some of these sentiments, but overcame my doubts about the better option as the campaign wore on, becoming increasingly definite about supporting Clinton, initially as the lesser of evils and later more affirmatively, as she had become a woman unduly victimized by the nasty virulence of Trump’s hurtful misogynist slurs. I increasingly felt that my overseas friends were out of touch with the internal dynamics of American society, specifically, not appreciating that Trump’s election, in view of his campaign, would be a dark day of foreboding, hurt, rejection, and despair for African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, women, and supporters of progressive causes.

 

The views of my pro-Trump foreign friends have over the years been consistently humane and congenial. Their various reasons for being anti-Clinton or pro-Trump resulted from adopting predominantly structural outlooks or reflect preoccupations with specific substantive concerns. The structural arguments were two-fold: first, that both political parties in the US were equally subservient to the logic of neoliberal globalization (‘the Washington consensus’) that they believed was the source of many of the worst evils in the world, making Trump seem almost like a third party candidate who was challenging the core elements of economic globalization. For them, the only moral response was either to boycott the election altogether, as it made no difference which side won; or alternatively, take a chance with Trump, as he at least seemed likely to repudiate NAFTA and kill the TPP.

 

A second structural argument, often overlapping with the first, was that the military industrial corporate complex was embraced by the mainstream of both parties, making American global militarism bipartisan. Such a view was reinforced by the degree to which the Washington national security establishment and neocon think tanks overwhelmingly stepped forward to support Clinton, including many prominent Republicans, fearing that Trump would choose a security path that was adventurously dangerous or, worse, might even pursue an anti-militarist neo-isolationist foreign policy. Trump so threatened the Republican national security establishment that Washington’s political elite generally agreed he would make an unreliable and irresponsible leader of the American ‘global state.’ Trump’s repeated calls to rebuild America’s allegedly broken military capabilities were almost irrelevant, given his disorienting comments about alliances, nonproliferation, and regime-changing interventions. Although Trump’s challenge to political correctness in the security domain was anathema to Washington’s political class, it was music to the ears of my foreign friends.

There is a third version of structural analysis, ignored by my friends abroad, that seems helpful in explaining what happened in the American election. It is the extent to which various forms of ultra-nationalist populism are succeeding in electing leaders throughout the world by large margins, including Russia, India, Japan, Turkey, Egypt, Philippines, and now the United States. The Brexit vote in Britain, along with the rise of right wing political parties in Europe, exhibit a similar backlash against globalizing tendencies and foreign interventions that have in turn engendered menacing transnational migrations of desperate people fleeing war torn zones and escaping from extreme poverty. These migrations fuel chauvinism in the West that toxically interacts with economic stagnation, high levels of unemployment, terrorist anxieties, and closely related threats to indigenous ethnic and racial identities. In effect, right wing populism is a response to the failures of Western political, economic, and cultural systems to protect the material and psycho-political wellbeing of their respective national populations.

 

Over all, my foreign friends were generally opposed to Clinton’s global security agenda, especially as it pertained to Russia and the Middle East, and preferred Trump’s vague generalities and even regarded his inexperience as an asset. The pro-Trump arguments here concentrated on Clinton’s past record of support for regime-changing military interventions in the Middle East and her support for a No Fly Zone in Syria whose establishment would almost certainly result in a confrontation with Russia that could escalate into yet another American-sponsored regime-changing intervention in a Muslim country. Such an intervention was particularly feared as it could easily lead to a new cold war, with hot war dangers. More than a couple of my correspondents quoted her chilling remark in Libya shortly after Qaddafi’s capture and grisly execution, “We came, we saw, he died,” feeling that it embodied the heartless geopolitics in the Middle East that had produced the current regional turmoil.

 

Although these perceptions are anecdotal, I find them revealing and disturbing. Because American elections, especially this one, seem so important to people in other countries, the results are watched closely, sometimes more closely than their own national elections. Early reactions to the Trump victory in Mexico and Russia reveal contradictory priorities in various parts of the world. The Mexican reaction has been reported to be one of uniform shock and sorrow, as well as feelings of deep concern for their relatives and friends living in the US or worries that remittances from America for very poor families would now be in jeopardy or heavily taxed. In the streets of Moscow, there was rejoicing, since Russians, whether they liked Putin or not, seemed convinced that Trump would act as a practical business man and work toward cooperative relations that would help both governments diminish the frightening tensions currently associated with NATO, Ukraine, and Syria, and avoid any further downward spiral in relations that they quite reasonably feared would be the trajectory of a more ideological Clinton presidency.

 

Outside the U.S., many people, whether American or not, tend to view the Trump victory and the Clinton defeat through a single-issue optic that mostly pertains to international economic and security policy. In contrast, those living here in the United States, if drawn to Trump, are likely to be attracted by his anti-establishment outsider outlook combined with their own internal preoccupations with national economic policy, especially jobs and trade, and cultural liberalism (e.g., gays, pro-choice, race, immigration, and recreational drugs). Trump supporters with a more self-consciously conservative bent believe he would keep the Supreme Court appointment process in Republican hands for the next four years. This prospect alone apparently led many wavering suburban Republicans to vote for Trump in the end, disregarding qualms that might otherwise have kept them home on election day.

 

In his victory speech, Trump sounded gentle and benign, promising to govern for all citizens as a unifying leader, stressing the need to rebuild the decaying American infrastructure and even offering gracious praise to Hilary Clinton for a hard fought campaign. Unfortunately, this cheerful aftermath is bound to be short lived. Major struggles loom, and will begin as soon as Trump announces his appointments of cabinet members and key staff. Not long after some doubtless provocative choices, bitter policy controversies will emerge a he seeks to implement his programmatic priorities: scrapping Obamacare, NAFTA, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the Iran nuclear deal. Altogether, this will sadly erase from the books the best parts of the Obama legacy. It is not a pretty picture without even considering whether Trump will follow through on his most notorious pledges: mass deportation of ‘illegal’ immigrants, imposition of an airtight anti-Muslim immigration ban, and the construction a police friendly ‘law and order’ regime to combat ‘black lives matter’ activism and inner city crime.

 

In this period, American resilience will certainly be tested, probably as much or more than at any time since the American Civil War. The haunting uncertainty is whether the likely incivility of the Trump presidency will decisively darken the political destiny of the country, or only be a transitory period of regression. Can the creative energies of resistance and reform build a transformative movement of sufficient strength to balance the Trump juggernaut? On this slim possibility, somewhat prefigured by the primary campaign of Bernie Sanders, our hopes rest for a resilient and resurrected America again dedicated to achieving peace abroad and justice at home.

 

There is a final observation that deserves commentary and reflection. It should not be overlooked that Clinton won the popular vote by a comfortable margin (thanks to California) despite her high unfavorability ratings. If not for that peculiar anachronistic American institution—the Electoral College—Clinton would be the winner, Trump the loser, and political gurus would be busy telling us why such an outcome was inevitable. With real world clarity, it is mere cocktail party phantasy to think that American democracy will sometime soon be democratized by counting every person’s vote equally. Entrenched Republican Party interests will never let the US Constitution be so modernized, but what this popular vote does confirm is that country is almost evenly divided, and that progressive values continue to enjoy a slight majority. It is therefore wildly premature to think that this election signals that the American people have descended into the swamps of racism and nativism, but it will still take a vigilant opposition movement to prevent Trump’s government from imposing its horrendous agenda on our collective future.

 

 

 

 

In the weeks prior to the American presidential election I received a large number of independent messages from progressive friends abroad who were either expats or citizens of other countries. I was not too surprised that almost every message expressed hostility to Hillary Clinton, but I was shocked that so many were opting for Trump to win the election or advocating a stay-at-home boycott or third party vote believing that neither Trump nor Clinton deserved support, and there was no basis for making one preferable to the other. I shared some of these sentiments, but overcame my doubts about the better option as the campaign wore on, becoming increasingly definite about supporting Clinton, initially as the lesser of evils and later more affirmatively, as she had become a woman unduly victimized by the nasty virulence of Trump’s hurtful misogynist slurs. I increasingly felt that my overseas friends were out of touch with the internal dynamics of American society, specifically, not appreciating that Trump’s election, in view of his campaign, would be a dark day of foreboding, hurt, rejection, and despair for African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, women, and supporters of progressive causes.

 

The views of my pro-Trump foreign friends have over the years been consistently humane and congenial. Their various reasons for being anti-Clinton or pro-Trump resulted from adopting predominantly structural outlooks or reflect preoccupations with specific substantive concerns. The structural arguments were two-fold: first, that both political parties in the US were equally subservient to the logic of neoliberal globalization (‘the Washington consensus’) that they believed was the source of many of the worst evils in the world, making Trump seem almost like a third party candidate who was challenging the core elements of economic globalization. For them, the only moral response was either to boycott the election altogether, as it made no difference which side won; or alternatively, take a chance with Trump, as he at least seemed likely to repudiate NAFTA and kill the TPP.

 

A second structural argument, often overlapping with the first, was that the military industrial corporate complex was embraced by the mainstream of both parties, making American global militarism bipartisan. Such a view was reinforced by the degree to which the Washington national security establishment and neocon think tanks overwhelmingly stepped forward to support Clinton, including many prominent Republicans, fearing that Trump would choose a security path that was adventurously dangerous or, worse, might even pursue an anti-militarist neo-isolationist foreign policy. Trump so threatened the Republican national security establishment that Washington’s political elite generally agreed he would make an unreliable and irresponsible leader of the American ‘global state.’ Trump’s repeated calls to rebuild America’s allegedly broken military capabilities were almost irrelevant, given his disorienting comments about alliances, nonproliferation, and regime-changing interventions. Although Trump’s challenge to political correctness in the security domain was anathema to Washington’s political class, it was music to the ears of my foreign friends.

There is a third version of structural analysis, ignored by my friends abroad, that seems helpful in explaining what happened in the American election. It is the extent to which various forms of ultra-nationalist populism are succeeding in electing leaders throughout the world by large margins, including Russia, India, Japan, Turkey, Egypt, Philippines, and now the United States. The Brexit vote in Britain, along with the rise of right wing political parties in Europe, exhibit a similar backlash against globalizing tendencies and foreign interventions that have in turn engendered menacing transnational migrations of desperate people fleeing war torn zones and escaping from extreme poverty. These migrations fuel chauvinism in the West that toxically interacts with economic stagnation, high levels of unemployment, terrorist anxieties, and closely related threats to indigenous ethnic and racial identities. In effect, right wing populism is a response to the failures of Western political, economic, and cultural systems to protect the material and psycho-political wellbeing of their respective national populations.

 

Over all, my foreign friends were generally opposed to Clinton’s global security agenda, especially as it pertained to Russia and the Middle East, and preferred Trump’s vague generalities and even regarded his inexperience as an asset. The pro-Trump arguments here concentrated on Clinton’s past record of support for regime-changing military interventions in the Middle East and her support for a No Fly Zone in Syria whose establishment would almost certainly result in a confrontation with Russia that could escalate into yet another American-sponsored regime-changing intervention in a Muslim country. Such an intervention was particularly feared as it could easily lead to a new cold war, with hot war dangers. More than a couple of my correspondents quoted her chilling remark in Libya shortly after Qaddafi’s capture and grisly execution, “We came, we saw, he died,” feeling that it embodied the heartless geopolitics in the Middle East that had produced the current regional turmoil.

 

Although these perceptions are anecdotal, I find them revealing and disturbing. Because American elections, especially this one, seem so important to people in other countries, the results are watched closely, sometimes more closely than their own national elections. Early reactions to the Trump victory in Mexico and Russia reveal contradictory priorities in various parts of the world. The Mexican reaction has been reported to be one of uniform shock and sorrow, as well as feelings of deep concern for their relatives and friends living in the US or worries that remittances from America for very poor families would now be in jeopardy or heavily taxed. In the streets of Moscow, there was rejoicing, since Russians, whether they liked Putin or not, seemed convinced that Trump would act as a practical business man and work toward cooperative relations that would help both governments diminish the frightening tensions currently associated with NATO, Ukraine, and Syria, and avoid any further downward spiral in relations that they quite reasonably feared would be the trajectory of a more ideological Clinton presidency.

 

Outside the U.S., many people, whether American or not, tend to view the Trump victory and the Clinton defeat through a single-issue optic that mostly pertains to international economic and security policy. In contrast, those living here in the United States, if drawn to Trump, are likely to be attracted by his anti-establishment outsider outlook combined with their own internal preoccupations with national economic policy, especially jobs and trade, and cultural liberalism (e.g., gays, pro-choice, race, immigration, and recreational drugs). Trump supporters with a more self-consciously conservative bent believe he would keep the Supreme Court appointment process in Republican hands for the next four years. This prospect alone apparently led many wavering suburban Republicans to vote for Trump in the end, disregarding qualms that might otherwise have kept them home on election day.

 

In his victory speech, Trump sounded gentle and benign, promising to govern for all citizens as a unifying leader, stressing the need to rebuild the decaying American infrastructure and even offering gracious praise to Hilary Clinton for a hard fought campaign. Unfortunately, this cheerful aftermath is bound to be short lived. Major struggles loom, and will begin as soon as Trump announces his appointments of cabinet members and key staff. Not long after some doubtless provocative choices, bitter policy controversies will emerge a he seeks to implement his programmatic priorities: scrapping Obamacare, NAFTA, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the Iran nuclear deal. Altogether, this will sadly erase from the books the best parts of the Obama legacy. It is not a pretty picture without even considering whether Trump will follow through on his most notorious pledges: mass deportation of ‘illegal’ immigrants, imposition of an airtight anti-Muslim immigration ban, and the construction a police friendly ‘law and order’ regime to combat ‘black lives matter’ activism and inner city crime.

 

In this period, American resilience will certainly be tested, probably as much or more than at any time since the American Civil War. The haunting uncertainty is whether the likely incivility of the Trump presidency will decisively darken the political destiny of the country, or only be a transitory period of regression. Can the creative energies of resistance and reform build a transformative movement of sufficient strength to balance the Trump juggernaut? On this slim possibility, somewhat prefigured by the primary campaign of Bernie Sanders, our hopes rest for a resilient and resurrected America again dedicated to achieving peace abroad and justice at home.

 

There is a final observation that deserves commentary and reflection. It should not be overlooked that Clinton won the popular vote by a comfortable margin (thanks to California) despite her high unfavorability ratings. If not for that peculiar anachronistic American institution—the Electoral College—Clinton would be the winner, Trump the loser, and political gurus would be busy telling us why such an outcome was inevitable. With real world clarity, it is mere cocktail party phantasy to think that American democracy will sometime soon be democratized by counting every person’s vote equally. Entrenched Republican Party interests will never let the US Constitution be so modernized, but what this popular vote does confirm is that country is almost evenly divided, and that progressive values continue to enjoy a slight majority. It is therefore wildly premature to think that this election signals that the American people have descended into the swamps of racism and nativism, but it will still take a vigilant opposition movement to prevent Trump’s government from imposing its horrendous agenda on our collective future.