Donald Trump’s Allies: Our Craven Media (And Our Apathy)

Here are some damning statistics (reported by the Washington Post) from “the Tyndall Report, which tracks the airtime that the various flagship news programs on NBC, CBS and ABC dedicate to a variety of stories.”

Quick, depressing, highlights:

1. The Republican primary race received more than twice as much coverage as the Democratic contest. (The larger number of candidates perhaps necessitated this but undoubtedly their illiterate pronouncements made for better copy.)

2. Donald Trump has received more airtime (234 minutes) than the entire Democratic field (226 minutes).

3. Joe Biden, who is not running for president, got far more coverage (56 minutes) than Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (10 minutes), who is running.

4. As Nate Silver pointed out on Twitter: “There are (slightly) more Bernie supporters than Trump ones, but Trump has gotten 23X more network news coverage.”

(Donald Trump and the rest of the xenophobic, racist, nativist, Republican candidates have not just received ample, disproportionate prime-time coverage; rather, when they have gone on air, their fact-challenged assertions have gone unchallenged. )

Some twenty or so years ago, in the course of a conversation with a disgruntled academic whose career had been spun off into the backwaters–thanks to the usual depressing combination of overzealous gatekeepers, unimaginative senior academics, and unsympathetic university administration–I heard him blurt out in disgust, “Scum rises to the top.” Yes, well, it does, but it needs help too from forces that impel it upwards.

Fascists and demagogues don’t magically acquire power; they draw it from their environment. In his rise to the top, or his race to the bottom, depending on your perspective, Trump has been aided and abetted by a media corps that prefers sensation over substance. This is not a new complaint in the American political context, but it needs to be made and aired yet again just so that when the time for reckoning comes, when the smoke has cleared, and this nation will–hopefully–wake up from this nightmare, blame can be apportioned fairly. (Even if uselessly.)

The problem, of course, is the insanity created by the election ‘season,’ which with each passing year becomes lengthier, more expensive, and as such, ever more vapid and offensive. Television channels run twenty-four hours a day; they need content and ratings and sponsors; and political candidates supply it. A vicious feedback cycle is rapidly created: Trump says outrageous things; other candidates try to match the bid; supporters in the respective camps take the rhetoric to newer depths; and all of this then makes it back to the newsroom. (I’ve never been happier about my decision to have cancelled my cable subscription a few years ago.)

Over at Corey Robin‘s blog, he asks what is to be done, besides gnashing our teeth, were Trump to come to power.  This is an excellent question (even though Robin seemingly only directs it at the ‘professoriat’): after all, it is unclear whether Trump will provoke serious in-the-streets resistance were he to become President. This is a nation that let a presidential election get stolen in 2000, which does not punish mass murderers and war criminals like the Cheney-Bush-Rumsfeld troika, and whose population is narcotized by television and long working hours.

Long dark nights and all that.

War Criminal Charges Money To Speak At Fundraiser For Veterans

If you declare an illegal war, send thousands of men to their death, and cause the death of hundreds of thousands others, the ones who are bombed, shelled, and then later, become the victims of fratricidal conflict; if you refuse to adequately protect those you send to war, and care little for their eventual rehabilitation–physically, mentally, and socially; if you have been lucky enough to escape prosecution as a mass murdering war criminal because the political class you are a member of protects its own and would rather get on with the business of lining its pockets; then, hopefully, for the sake of this world’s moral orderings, you possess a modicum of self-aware shame that causes you to slink away–post-retirement–into the shadows, keeping a low profile and hoping a prosecutorial boom is never lowered on you.

But if you are George W. Bush, you do no such thing. Instead, you double and triple down, and ask for exorbitant speaking fees at fundraisers for the very community you have done the most to betray: military veterans. And you ask to be flown there in a private jet.

There was a time, when in the midst of some fulmination against the Unholy Troika of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, I would stop and say, “You know, Dubya feels a little less malevolent to me; his mental capacities seem diminished; perhaps one can forgive him just a tad; this much benevolence can be shown to those who are not as blessed as we are.” But that time passed quickly, because Dubya was always as bad as he came across as being. We shouldn’t expect any less from a man whose very rise to the Presidency was ensured by a compliant Supreme Court, who never had a mandate of any kind, but acted as if he had been elected by a landslide, who roped in old, encrusted remnants of another criminal administration as his Vice President and Secretary of Defense.

Dubya’s speaking engagement highlights yet another coach on the gravy train that our elected representatives can look forward to occupying during their long, lucrative careers: the speaking circuit. Fools and their money are parted every day, and there is no end to the national–or perhaps international–obsession with getting ‘big names’ to ‘speak to us.’ Whether it’s commencement or ground-breaking, we, as a species, as a culture, are convinced that among the most profitable–no pun intended–way to spend our time is to pay pontificators large amounts of money. Think silence is golden? Think again. (This disease is noticeably manifest in academia where departments fall over each other to deplete their budgets as quickly as possible so that they may invite a ‘superstar’ to come shower his intellectual benedictions on them.)

The Deadly Trio–Dubya, Dick and Donald–are the most vivid elements of a long, never-ending national nightmare. Having escaped jail time, they now mock us, not from the sidelines, but from the cultural center. Their time on this planet, like ours, is finite. But not finite enough.

Dickipedia Was Invented For Dick Cheney

Dick Cheney‘s continued existence, his persistent and unconscionable consumption of space, oxygen, and sundry precious natural resources, has long been an airtight argument against the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient God. To wit, does such a God know of his existence? If not, then he is not all-knowing. If God does know of his existence, his foul, malevolent presence, his blighting of our lives, why does he not bring it to an end? If he chooses to not do so, then he is not all-good. If he wants to, but cannot, then he is not omnipotent. QED.

As Ivan might have said in The Brothers Karamazov, if the price of admission to your heaven, your promised abode of well-being, your supposed land of milk and honey, O Lord, is to tolerate this Dick, then I’d rather be intolerant; if the fraternity of man includes this Dick, then I don’t wish to put up with this hazing.  Mighty theologians tremble in the face of the Cheney phenomenon; they prepare to change professions; they acknowledge defeat; they know well their usual sophisticated maneuvers, their slippery, sophistical evasions, will find no traction here. No invocation of the free will of man, no suggestions that the suffering of Man is the suffering of God, no suggestion that this benighted presence prepares us for greater bliss,  will do justice to this ineluctable fact, this producer of dread. We are, yet again, confronted with an awful truth: there is no God. There is, instead, this Dick.

Not only does Dick Cheney survive heart attacks–again and again, and I think, again, shoot friends, and wage illegal wars that cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents, he shows up on national media, grinning and leering, reminding us that cartoon villains have a long way to go in catching up to him in the evil stakes. Defending the torture of innocents for the sake of a patently useless, ineffective and counterproductive tactic establishes that fact pretty clearly. Those not inclined to be force-fed this latest serving of Dick Soup will change channels or cancel subscriptions; the rest of us will defriend those who share video links showing his foul visage.

As mass-murdering war criminals go, this Dick hasn’t done too badly. He will never face trial, be cross-questioned, or spend time in jail, thanks to an administration that resolutely turns its face away–perhaps it holds its nose instead; he has many cheerleaders, who admire his forthright disavowal of humanity and decency, having long forsworn their own. Indeed, thanks to Halliburton and the determined dispensation of favors to cronies, he will continue acquire considerable fortunes, thumbing through gigantic stacks of greenbacks, now rapidly acquiring a distinctive shade of crimson thanks to the unwashable blood on his war-profiteering hands.

This Dick will live a long life, and die an old man, surrounded by those who, mysteriously, persist in their love for him. If the arc of his life thus far is any indication, he will feel no pain, no misery, no fear. In death, even as he is lowered into his grave, he will grin back at us, a rictus of triumph reminding us that he outwitted us all.

The only hope, if any, for this world, is that his grave will not be left unmarked. Perhaps sometime in the future, a well-placed and firmly hammered stake–or two, just to make sure–will bring deliverance and closure.

The Death Penalty Revisited

My post on Anders Behring Breivik and the argument his case provided against death penalty sparked some very interesting responses. Will Schenk described an interesting–and from the sound of it, extremely disturbing–meeting with a person whom he felt ‘deserved’ to be destroyed. I don’t think I’m exaggerating; please correct me if so. For Will did say,

It’s not my place to pass these judgements, not really sure if it’s anyones place, but there’s a sense of letting my fellow people down by not acting on the impulse to destroy this person. It’s not retribution nor even a matter of breaking the law, it’s a impulse that there needs to be some level of common humanity between everyone for us to live together, and that on some level this person wasn’t really Human. He was too Different.

Will’s comment expresses the feeling that the death penalty should be deployed against those who are not part of our ‘community of persons’ (that is what the capitalized ‘Human’ is pointing to in his comment). The failure to abide by some agreed upon standard of membership–in this moral community–is the disqualification for further continuance of life. But of course, the decision to act on what might be a flawed assessment of this failure to achieve a ‘level of common humanity’,  or not a universally shared one, is what is problematic: Why is destruction an appropriate response to this recognition of an Other? That still needs an added argument – we share our world with many creatures that are not persons and do not share our common humanity (and many of them are dangerous to us) – but we do not destroy them all, surely?

Noah Barth also wrote, expressing another intuition that might be familiar, that the death penalty could be brought out for those ‘beyond redemption’:

I think that Breivik illustrates the most cogent argument I have heard in favor of the death penalty. Namely, that some people are beyond retribution. On some level or another any moratorium campaigner is anti-capital punishment because they want to believe in the sacredness of human life. Part of this is the assumption of one’s ability to redeem oneself. But what about a case of a clear, absolute sociopath such as Breivik? He undoubtedly will never be able to re-enter society.

Note that Noah links the argument against death penalty to a belief in the ‘sacredness of human life.’ This might be implicit in my earlier post and if so, there is a flaw in my argument. I don’t think human life is ‘sacred’ in any way. There is moreover, another problem: How are we to gauge the possibility of redemption? On a case-by-case basis? That seems intractable especially since it is not clear how such evaluations could be carried out; they appear subject to too many prejudices. Which brings me to the next comment.

Daniel Kaufman wrote in to say,

The death penalty is unacceptable for one simple reason: it is an irreversible punishment. Given the inherent fallibility of human institutions, states should never issue punishments that cannot be taken back later, if it turns out that a mistake was made. The death penalty is such a punishment and for that reason alone, is indefensible..

This argument has some very desirable features: it avoids mention of the intrinsic value of human life, avoids difficulties in assessing membership of a moral community and in ascertaining possibilities of redemption. It concentrates on an undeniable aspect of the death penalty: it cannot be reversed. Of course, neither can time spent in a jail, but there at least the possibility of release remains a ‘live’ one. (No pun intended!)

Anders Behring Breivik: An Argument Against The Death Penalty

Anders Behring Breivik has complicated matters for us. Most killers like him are not brought to justice; they kill themselves or are killed in the fracas following their murders. They do not create the opportunities that Breivik has created for us to think about appropriate punishments for those accused of heinous crimes. Breivik is now on the stand, equipped with a megaphone with which to articulate his homicidal world view. And one prominent reaction–at least in the US–to the cold-blooded pronouncements of this racist mass-killer is, ‘If anyone deserves the chair (or the injection or whatever) it’s this guy’.

But I think Breivik provides us with a very good argument against the death penalty. (Norway does not have the death penalty; it is unclear at this point what the maximum sentence for Brevik could be.)

Breivik committed his murders in the service of an ideology: quite simply, he was killing on the basis of principle. These principles had as their consequence the conclusion that some people deserved to die, that their actions–or intellectual subscriptions–made them unworthy of living. The death penalty functions in much the same way: We take retribution, we seek to deter, we ensure the killer does not kill again. No matter what the motivation, the killer has died for his actions. And in order to make this happen, a massive, often opaque, expensive, and cumbersome machinery of policing and law swings into action; the state deploys its considerable energies and monies to make this come about. But in doing so, the state and its criminal justice resembles nothing quite as much as it does the killers that it puts to death. For in so acting, the state has acted to instantiate some ideology or the other: perhaps that of retribution, perhaps that of a theory of deterrence growing out our criminological theorizing. The death penalty is these ideologies put into effect and brought to bear on some human being.

The law makes distinctions in its reckonings of homicide by distinguishing the premeditated murder from the crime of passion, by distinguishing conspiracy from second-degree murder. It is the deliberateness of the killing that makes the conspiratorial or premeditated murder more punishment-worthy. In carrying out the death penalty, the state and its people engage in an act of pre-meditated killing, carried out for a purpose, to make a point. We can dress it up in retribution or deterrence but it remains premeditated killing. (Declarations of war lead to mass murders too.)

So send Breivik to jail; lock him up; prevent him from impinging on the freedoms of others; don’t let him interrupt the lives of others, or disrupt the projects that people have made for themselves; study him in a pyschiatric ward if needed in order to understand how this mind works; but stay away from the business of ‘putting to death’. The moment that step is taken, the state and Breivik land up in the same docket: they are both guilty of taking deadly action on behalf of an argument, of killing for the sake of principle.