“Sorry to Bother You” and leftist art

If someone had quickly summarized the plot of “Sorry to Bother You” for me before I saw it, I would’ve probably entered quite skeptically. In broad strokes, it sounds like a painfully cliche-laden leftist pamphlet entitled, “Why Capitalism is Evil and Here’s How We End It.”

So I saw the movie, and there is some of that, but fortunately it’s more than that. (No plot spoilers ahead.) I thought it had some flaws but overall it was quite good, because of the execution: Its humor and lightheartedness blunt the edge of the preachiness; the surrealism injects unpredictability and freshness into an otherwise paint-by-numbers depiction of class exploitation; the rapid, off-kilter pacing ensures that you are viscerally engaged.

It’s not that I would’ve disliked the politics of a radical leftie movie, of course. It’s that pure didacticism bores me, and seems to undermine the entire purpose of communicating through the medium of art. I’d rather read a pamphlet than watch a movie in the guise of a pamphlet. If you’re a leftist artist, respect your medium. A film allows you to stir emotions, to capture the nuances of lived experience, to use the power of fantasy to explore potential outcomes of the logic of our society, to force us to deeply reckon with existential dilemmas, and so on.

I don’t think I really learned a lot from watching “Sorry to Bother You” and it was a pretty straight-forward parable. But it was fun and visually inventive enough so that I enjoyed it. I’m also trying to keep in mind that movies address a lot of different audiences. This one might be just the right kind of provocation for people — especially young people — who feel that something is amiss but aren’t sure how to situate their class experience. Perhaps nuance isn’t always that important.

Trump TV

Trumpism is a mass phenomenon, a genre of consumerism that has corroded the republic and shows no signs of slowing.

Trumpism isn’t just about Donald Trump’s reactionary depravity, staggering corruption, and ceaseless mishaps. It’s also about the zeal with which people love to watch it.

CNN President Jeff Zucker has confessed that he gave Trump extra airtime during the 2016 primaries because he “delivered big on ratings” — and in the process he probably helped Trump’s bid for the White House get traction at a critical stage during his campaign.

Today it’s virtually impossible to read a single front page that isn’t saturated with Trump coverage or to spend more than a few seconds on social media without encountering his name. From water cooler banter to dinner parties to late night talk shows, the question “Did you hear what Trump just did?” seems inescapable.

What makes things even worse is that the Trump era is coinciding with a particularly rocky chapter for the American media sector. These days once-profitable outlets are missing their revenue targets, the digital media venture capital bubble is popping, and legacy outlets are laying off workers en masse; there is no solution to the media’s business model crisis in sight. Foreign bureaus are shuttering, local coverage is plummeting, and and freelancers are reporting a decline in publications’ interest in what were once bombshell stories. There is one reliable way for media outlets to make money: cash in on the Trump spectacle.

Every national publication knows that Trump is the main way to keep the clicks coming. And in the process, vital discussion of other branches of the federal government, public policy, foreign affairs, local news, the environment, social movements, and so on is being crowded out.

I’m not particularly interested in trying to disentangle the chicken-or-the-egg question of whether Trump coverage is driven by public demand or if Trump coverage generates public obsession. The reality is nobody’s hands are clean. It’s obvious that both chroniclers and consumers alike are compulsively drawn to bear witness to and share stories of the tragicomedy of the Trump administration.

I don’t mean to suggest that I’m not sympathetic to why it’s happening, or to suggest that I’m not fully complicit. (I am.) Trump must be covered. And citizens are justifiably horrified by his conduct.

But this monomania is cancerous. And I’m not just worried about how the homogeneity of popular discourse. I fear that Trump TV is robbing people of their agency. I hear so many people talking about feeling burnt out and fatigued and numb because of the news cycle. Many of them would be better off taking a break from the media, or at least strictly rationing consumption of it, and spending the extra energy getting involved in some more activism — something concrete that reminds them of their own power, that counteracts the impotence of perpetual outrage. And also maybe just reading some books about birds or something.

Why the right is uneasy about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Conservatives are growing nervous about the rise of the socialist left because they know its message is powerful.

Virginia Kruta, an editor at the right-wing news site Daily Caller, visited an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rally in Missouri over the weekend and found it to be “terrifying” because she saw “just how easy it would be, were I less involved and less certain of our nation’s founding and its history, to fall for the populist lines they were shouting from that stage.”

She goes on:

• I saw how easy it would be, as a parent, to accept the idea that my children deserve healthcare and education.”

• I saw how easy it would be, as someone who has struggled to make ends meet, to accept the idea that a ‘living wage’ was a human right.

• “Above all, I saw how easy it would be to accept the notion that it was the government’s job to make sure that those things were provided.

First of all, yes, some of that reads like self-parody. But it’s worth thinking through this too. It’s difficult to imagine conservatives as worried about the siren call of, say, Hillary Clinton’s promise in 2016 to expand Pell Grants for students from below a certain income threshold, or improve Obamacare as it suffered from skyrocketing premiums and left people under-insured.

Social rights like a universal right to quality health care or education resonate with people instinctively and have a tremendous capacity to mobilize citizens. They have a clear moral mandate and they’re immediately intelligible to non-wonks. The right recognizes that.

And conservatives like Kruta also see how hard it is to object to it without sounding barbaric. It can be easier for conservatives to take down Dems working to reform a flawed system than it is to slam Dems who are acknowledging how flawed the system is in the first place. Yes the right will fear-monger about how this is all a slippery slope to Soviet-style totalitarianism, but they recognize how language about social rights has a special ability to engage many ordinary people where they are right now: beleaguered, bereft of faith in the system.

Some centrist liberals are going to say the left is over-promising. But policy-wise, there’s evidence across the affluent world that government-backed health care, child care, tuition-free higher ed etc. are entirely feasible projects. As for political capital to push through these kinds of reforms— you generate it by persuading people that it’s necessary and good. With pride, and without apology. That seems to be happening right now.

What explains Trump’s behavior toward Russia?

I believe that Trump’s behavior toward Putin is over-determined. That is, there are multiple causes which could, on their own, explain Trump’s extraordinary behavior toward Russia — and that matters when it comes to interpreting the meaning of this moment.

The most exciting theory for many critics of the president is the idea that Putin has “kompromat” on Trump — some damning evidence of a misdeed so enormous that it could ruin his presidency — and that Trump feels obligated to cater to Putin in order to prevent its release. Whether a salacious pee tape or some kind of document showing high-level collusion traceable to Trump, in this theory Trump is willing to serve as Putin’s puppet to ensure his own political survival.

But there are also other explanations for Trump’s pro-Moscow orientation. The biggest one is probably that he considers claims of Russian meddling in the 2016 election to be a blow to his mandate and credibility — Trump is obsessed with eliminating any notion that he didn’t win the election all by himself. By downplaying Russian interference, he protects the legitimacy of his victory.

The fact that he goes about this by undermining the assessments of his own intelligence services lays bare another potential motive. Trump has a political interest in damaging the authority of the intelligence community that’s probing his ties to Russia. By making the intelligence community look fallible or wrongheaded, he weakens the Mueller probe’s credibility among his supporters.

There are other factors as well: Trump has business ties to Russia and has sought to build a Trump Tower there in the past — it’s possible that he sees warming ties with Putin as a long-term business play. During his career he has demonstrated a more sustained interest in his own wealth and power than geopolitics.

Trump also has a cultural affinity for Russia. There are parallels between the look of some of his grandiose properties and stereotypical Russian aesthetics. He appears to love Eastern European women. He shares Putin’s Islamophobia and machismo. And Trump has an obvious admiration for authoritarian strongmen from Xi Jinping to Recep Tayyip Erdogan — he is impressed by men who seem to have a strong grip on power in their countries. Striking deals with these leaders and aligning with their worldview holds allure for him.

And lastly, there is of course the do-it-to-spite-the-mainstream-media impulse.

Trying to figure out why Trump is doing what he does is often a fool’s errand. But it does matter that there are a range of possible motives for his behavior. Many of Trump’s critics see his deference to Putin as the most telling sign that he’s got something to hide, and then paint him as Putin’s lapdog. But if Trump isn’t actually motivated by kompromat, then he’s not really being manipulated — he’s deliberately trying to align the US with Russia, or least has few qualms about making concessions to Russian interests.

This is all a long-winded way of saying don’t assume that Trump’s pro-Russia behavior is proof that Trump is guiltier than we have evidence of. There are plenty of reasons to believe he’s acting of his own volition.

Are some liberals losing their minds over the Trump-Putin presser?

In some liberal quarters it appears that Trump’s lovefest with Putin on Monday was about the worst thing that’s ever happened to America.

Prominent liberal journalist Sarah Kendzior co-signed a tweet from political activist Garry Kasparov calling it “the darkest hour in the history of the American presidency.” Former Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks cried out that Trump’s performance “will live in infamy as much as the Pearl Harbor attack or Kristallnacht.”

This kind of hyperbole is ahistorical to the point of being offensive. Kasparov’s statement is mind-boggling: Surely the defense and expansion of slavery, ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, sending Japanese-Americans to internment camps, incinerating tens of thousands of civilians with nuclear bombs, and launching wars of aggression on false pretenses in the Middle East are … quite a bit darker. And it’s hard to know how to take Wine-Banks seriously as she likens a press conference to attacks that took human lives.

What Trump did was very bad: He undermined his own intelligence services; he excused Russia’s interference with the American electoral process; he gave Moscow the green light to pursue its most vicious foreign policy strategies and goals that are odds with US interests; he elevated Putin while putting down his own citizens; he dealt yet another blow to a liberal international order which, while unjust by many measures, is keeping the world relatively peaceful at the moment; he made the US look like a joke before the whole world.

Why not just call it what it is? Where does this need to instantly canonize it as the Worst Thing in American History come from? Why the need to rank it alongside or ahead of cleansings and massacres and enslavement? (None of which, I should say, I’m inclined to rank as the “worst” considering how disparate they are.)

I think there are two major drivers of it:

(1) The spectacle of Trump siding with an adversary of the US over his own government is deeply shocking to people, and the fact that it’s happening with Russia of all countries makes it intolerable for many. The Cold War still shapes American perceptions of Russia, and among many the idea of Trump colluding with Moscow appears to be the highest form of betrayal that a president can commit. For some reason infidelity to the nation-state seems to register as more dishonorable than mass atrocities.

(2) The desperation to see Trump taken down over his ties to Russia is doing unhealthy things to some people’s minds. The more that Trump’s “treasonous” behavior is framed as a singular kind of sin, the stronger of a case they have for impeachment. Or so they hope.

Again, what Trump did was disturbing on a number of levels, many of which I didn’t touch on. But it’s important to keep perspective. Not just so that dark chapters of American history aren’t eclipsed, but so that today’s advocates can remain judicious and strategic.

 

Notes on Hawaii

DSC00597Size and space are eerie things in Hawaii. When I visited the Big Island last summer, there was so much packed into so little. I was told that two-thirds of the world’s major geographical features could be found there. Over the course of a drive you could pass a volcano, a rainforest, and a desert. Dense cloudscapes would billow overhead then vanish; rain cascaded over the sun in sheets. Lush green fields bordered scorched yellow expanses which bordered black lava fields. Sulfur leaked out fissures, magma frolicked in calderas, waterfalls streamed over giant cliff faces, eucalyptus forests towered along ridges. It felt like you were traveling through time and catching a glimpse of what came before human life.

One evening after visiting a volcano I looked at the sky and was transfixed. Never had I seen a more colossal moon. Never had I seen rowdier stars. The sky hung low, the island shrank, and I didn’t trust gravity to keep me on the ground. I looked out toward the water and felt another rush, a taunt by another infinity. It was all too vivid. The sky and the sea had shed their roles as backdrop and muse; they were just there, staring and swallowing.

The beauty was melancholic, like a vast library where you know you can’t ever read a fraction of the books. And it was menacing, as you take in how little you do to take care of the world, and how easily it will exact its revenge.

Notes on Trump at the UN

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Covering Trump’s speech at the UN General Assembly yesterday was one of the wilder experiences I’ve ever had as a journalist.

Have you ever noticed Trump’s slack-armed amble when he mills around during important gigs? It’s such a blatant admission of his indifference to the events he’s witnessing and shaping. He looks like he’s been told to be somewhere but he’s not sure why. He’s not opposed to being there, but he’s not committed to it either. That is, until the moment that he steps up to the podium and he speaks. And then his body comes alive with such force that it’s almost as if it’s a different person. He barks and points and sneers and flashes his teeth. It almost seems as if he’s a ventriloquist manipulating his own body. But then he misses and stumbles over words, and places the emphasis on the wrong part of sentences, and you remember that the passion has less to do with the language than it does with him harnessing the power of the scene. He is animated by the spectacle, given life by the authority to command. He is pantomiming the American affect, and revealing its darkest essence.

(Cross-posted on Facebook.)