Tag Archives: Alternative Facts

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.

 

 

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Trump’s Pre-Fascism and Progressive Populist Opportunities

25 Jan

The Dismal Cartography of the Pre-Fascist State

 

Points of Departure

 

Listening to Donald Trump’s inaugural speech on January 20th led me to muse about what it might mean to live in a pre-fascist state. After reflecting on key passages and conversations with friends, I came to the view that all the elements were in place, although set before us with the imprecision of a demagogue. Yet I do not doubt that there are many ideologues waiting in the wings, perhaps now comfortably situated in the West Wing, ready to cover the conceptual rough spots, and supply an ideological overlay, and add the semblance of coherence. Considering the daily outrages emanating from the White House since the inaugural jolt, the coming years will be rough riding for all of us, with many cruelties being readied for those most vulnerable.

 

Of course, the Woman’s March on January 21st was temporarily redemptive, and if such energy can be sustained potentially transformative. It is odd to contemplate, but there just may be tacit and effective cooperation between the national security deep state and a progressive populism converging around their divergent reasons for being deeply opposed to the shock and awe of the Trump presidency. Trump may invent ‘alternative facts’ to restore his narcissistic self-esteem, but when it comes to program he has sadly so far been true to his word! This alone should encourage a unified, energetic, and determined opposition. If the Tea Party could do it, why can’t we?

 

 

The Pre-Fascist Moment

 

First, it is necessary to set forth the case for viewing Trump’s Inaugural Address as a pre-fascist plea:

 

  1. Locating power and legitimacy in the people, but only those whose support was instrumental in the election of the new president; the popular majority that were opposed are presumed irrelevant, or worse;
  2. Denigrating the political class of both political parties as corrupt and responsible for the decline of the country and the hardships inflicted on his followers;
  3. Presuming mass and unconditional trust in the great leader who promises a rupture with the past, and who alone will be able overcome the old established order, and produce needed changes at home and overseas;
  4. Making the vision of change credible by the appointment of mainly white men, most with alt-right credentials, billionaires either blissfully ignorant about their assigned roles or a past record of opposition to the bureaucratic mission they are pledged to carry out (whether environment, energy, education, economy);
  5. An endorsement of exclusionary nationalism that elevates ‘America First’ to the status of First Principle, erects a wall against its Latino neighbor, adopts a cruel and punitive stance toward Muslims and undocumented immigrants, hostility to womens’ rights, gay marriage, trans dignity, as well as posing threats to non-white minorities, inner city residents, and independent voices in the media and elsewhere;
  6. Lauds the military and police as the backbone of national character, loosens protection from civilian or military abuse, which helps explain the selection of a series of generals to serve in sensitive civilian roles, as well as the revitalization of Guantanamo and the weakening of anti-torture policies.
  7. The disturbing absence of a sufficiently mobilized anti-fascist opposition movement, leadership, and program. The Democratic Party has not seized the moment vigorously and creatively; progressive populist leadership has yet to emerge inspiring trust and hope; so far there are sparks but no fire.

 

Fortunately, there are some more encouraging tendencies that could mount anti-fascist challenges from within and below:

    

  1. Trump lost the popular vote, casting a cloud over his claimed mandate to be the vehicle of ‘the people.’ Furthermore, his approval rating keeps falling, and is now below 40% according to reliable polls.
  2. The signs of intense dissatisfaction are giving rise to protest activities that are massive and seem deeply rooted in beliefs and commitments of ordinary citizens, especially women and young people;
  3. American society is not in crisis, and right-wing extremist appeals are forced to rely on a greatly exaggerated and misleading portrayal of distress in the American economy, the evils of economic globalization and unfair trade relations that are widely understood to be largely ‘fake’;
  4. There are fissures within the Republican Party and governmental/think tank establishments, especially on international economic and security policy, that could produce escalating tensions within and challenges to the Trump leadership;
  5. There is growing dissatisfaction within the bipartisan intelligence and national security bureaucracies as whether Trump and Trumpism can be tamed before it wrecks the post-1945 international order that rests on America’s global military presence, a global network of alliances, and a disposition toward a second cold war focused on hostility to Russia; if untamed, impeachment scenarios will soon surface, based not on the real concerns, but constructed around economic conflicts of interests, emoluments, and unlawful transactions.   

 

Certainly in my lifetime, with the possible exception of the Great Depression, America has not been tested as it is now. Maybe not since the American Civil War has so much been at stake, and put at risk.

 

Traditional reliance on political parties and elections will not be helpful until the political climate is radically altered by forces from below and without or above and within. It is strange, but the two main forces of resistance to the pre-fascist reality menacing the country’s and the world’s future are progressive populism as evident in the widespread grassroots protest movement taking shape in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s ascension to the presidency, and the deep state as exhibited by the anti-Trump defection of intelligence and national security specialists from both Republican and Democratic ranks during and after the recent presidential campaign.

 

Finally, the depiction of the present political reality as ‘pre-fascist’ rather than ‘fascist’ is crucial to this effort to depict accurately the historical moment associated with Donald Trump’s formal induction as the 45th president of the United States. To speak as if the United States is a fascist state is to falsify the nature of fascism, and to discredit critical discourse by making it seem hysterical. There is no doubt that the pieces are in place that might facilitate a horrifying transition from pre-fascism to fascism, and it could happen with lightning speed. It is also sadly true that the election of Donald Trump makes fascism a sword of Damocles hanging by a frayed thread over the American body politic.

 

Yet we should not overlook the quite different realities that pertain to pre-fascism. It remains possible in the United States to organize, protest, and oppose without serious fears of reprisals or detentions. The media can expose, ridicule, and criticize without closures or punitive actions, facing only angered and insulting Trump tweets, although such a backlash should not be minimized as it could have a dangerous intimidating impact on how the news is reported. We are in a situation where the essential political challenge is to muster the energy and creativity to construct a firewall around constitutional democracy as it now exists in the United States, and hope that a saner, more humane political mood leads quickly and decisively to repudiate those policies and attitudes that flow from this pre-fascist set of circumstances.