Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Reading Rainbow

Frankly, most of what I read on the intertoobs (obsessively, let us be honest) is of the quality of this:

Still, it’s disconcerting to read a Woodward book that reveals a presidency just as malignant and dysfunctional as the Nixon administration, although in different ways. I confess that I didn’t expect to see two presidents with such monumental character flaws twice in my lifetime. If I didn’t know better I would think there’s something wrong with the Republican Party that it keeps electing these people.
Of course, the Republican Party didn't elect Donald Trump to the Presidency; the American people did; or at least the ones who bothered to vote.  We don't really get very far blaming "them" for what "we" don't like, as if there is a wall between us, and we are only responsible when we approve.  "They" are always responsible for what goes wrong, whether "they" are in the opposing political party, or just don't understand the world correctly, as "we" do.

So let us all give thanks for Andrew Bacevich:

To a far greater extent than Trump’s perpetually hyperventilating critics are willing to acknowledge, the United States remains on a trajectory that does not differ appreciably from what it was prior to POTUS #45 taking office. Post-Trump America, just now beginning to come into view, is shaping up to look remarkably like pre-Trump America.
That's his thesis; on the way to establishing it, he argues that Trump has ceased to govern, if indeed he ever did:

If you spend your days watching CNN or MSNBC or reading columnists employed by the New York Times and the Washington Post, you might conclude otherwise. But those are among the institutions that, on November 8, 2016, suffered a nervous breakdown from which they have yet to recover. Nor, it now seems clear, do they wish to recover as long as Donald Trump remains president. To live in a perpetual state of high dudgeon, denouncing his latest inanity and predicting the onset of fascism, is to enjoy the equivalent of a protracted psychic orgasm, one induced by mutual masturbation.
The state of high dudgeon is not peculiar to the internet, in other words.  It exists in the "real world," which in many ways is a virtual as the one imagined to be salable by Silicon Valley or present in speculative fiction.  And it is as pointless in one place as it is in the other.  I like pausing to consider that, but Bacevich's point is this:

Yet if you look beyond the present to the fairly recent past, it becomes apparent that change on the scale that Trump was promising had actually occurred, even if well before he himself showed up on the scene. The consequences of that Big Change are going to persist long after he is gone. It’s those consequences that now demand our attention, not the ongoing Gong Show jointly orchestrated by the White House and journalists fancying themselves valiant defenders of Truth.
The change that is happening is not necessarily the change we've wanted, but it is the change we have experienced at least since the 1970's.  The U.S. economy was onward and upward until the '70's.  Post-war America built schools and universities and highways and "infrastructure," and then we sat back to enjoy it.  In the '70's inflation started changing aspirations, credit cards started turning us into the consumer society Bacevich derides in his analysis, and as the Fed raised interest rates to wring inflation out of the economy, it brought on both a recession in the '80's, but also the effective repeal of usury laws across the country (interest rates on loans as established by the Fed exceeded the statutory limits of most usury laws; something had to give, and the first real rollback of a regulation designed to protect "little people" gave way to the needs of the financial markets and, most importantly, credit card companies.).  Recessions and "bubbles" became a normal feature of the U.S. economy after that (shades of the 19th century!), and today the country is still in recovery from the Great Recession of 2008.  That's the "Big Change" Bacevich is talking about, the structural change in an industrialized economy from manufacturing to consumption, though it's hard to see how manufacturing functions with consumption on the other end.  Still, these are fundamental questions we have refused to acknowledge, much less try to answer.

But isn't Trump "dangerous" and powerful and soon to embroil us all in his chaos and ineptitude?  Nah.  Bacevich reviews Trump's more notorious actions (the ones the courts haven't shut down, most of those immigration matters), and he concludes:

The point of this informal midterm report card is not to argue that Donald Trump has somehow failed. It is rather to highlight his essential irrelevance.

Trump is not the disruptive force that anti-Trumpers accuse him of being. He is merely a noxious, venal, and ineffectual blowhard, who has assembled a team of associates who are themselves, with few exceptions, noxious, venal, or ineffectual.
And it's true.  Trump is not Uber, or Lyft, or Netflix/Amazon/Hulu convincing people to get off of cable (or even the digital revolution in broadcasting, making so many more over-the-air stations available cable is truly irrelevant even for people who don't pay for a streaming service).  And if he and his associates are noxious, venal, and ineffectual it's because, well, that's what we are as a nation. Is Trump, for example, responsible for the hurricanes of last year and this year, or the fires ravaging California?  Or is he in a long line of Presidents who basically did nothing besides, at best, pay lip service to a problem we've known about, or should have known about, for almost a century?

The nation’s too-little, too-late response to climate change for which a succession of presidents share responsibility illustrates the great and abiding defect of contemporary American politics. When all is said and done, presidents don’t shape the country; the country shapes the presidency — or at least it defines the parameters within which presidents operate. Over the course of the last few decades, those parameters have become increasingly at odds with the collective wellbeing of the American people, not to mention of the planet as a whole.

Yet Americans have been obdurate in refusing to acknowledge that fact. (emphasis added)
Some will say he's dangerous because the GOP still stands behind him.  But this morning a news report mentioned, only in passing at this point, that GOP analysts are beginning to think that maybe Trump doesn't have the hold over his base that all the pundits insist he has.  Certainly if Trump can't turn out his voters in November, he won't have any supporters worth counting on in January, because that amorphous, anonymous "base" won't be calling the shots in the halls of Congress.  18 months ago the GOP was looking at the political landscape and expecting to extend its control of the Senate into a much larger majority in just two years.  Now, rather like 1974 after Nixon won by the greatest landslide in American history in 1972, they barely dare hope to keep their one-vote majority in the upper chamber.  What has Trump disrupted?  The expectations of the pundit class and the blatherskites on the internet (your humble host included).  What has changed since he took office?  Not much of anything, really; and nothing at all that won't change back in two years.

Speaking of disruption:

The cultural front opened by 9/11 keeps widening, and the terms of the struggles along those fronts, as each new technology opens them, are almost impossible to recognize immediately. In 2015, Jeff Giesea published his famous essay on memetic warfare in the NATO journal Defence Strategic Communications. Despite its immense influence—it predicted, and possibly shaped, Russian techniques of disinformation in Ukraine, Russia, and the United States, and Giesea went on to run significant elements of Trump’s election campaign—the essay’s key insight has not really been dealt with seriously. Russian meme factories achieved, with minimal expense and no direct violence, their country’s deepest foreign-policy aims: a sharp decline in U.S. influence in the world, the endangerment of the post-World War II alliances of the liberal order, and the humiliation of the notion of human rights. There has been no retaliation.

Memetic warfare is only the latest element of the diathetical struggle that has been ongoing since the arrival of the internet. The cultural front is along every point of the network—television, the press, movies, songs, sermons, advertising, and social media. Everything that gives meaning is a battleground. Diathetics is the rearrangement of the enemy’s mindset by spectacle and the means of its consumption. This is a new kind of war and a deeply confusing one. Confusion is its purpose. The problems of assessment are substantial. The line between what is military and what isn’t has blurred, and the cultural front seems ridiculous, beneath the dignity of the military and totally beyond the purview of soldiers anyway. Memetic wars, wars of popular culture, are ridiculous. That does not alter their effectiveness. A reality television star with the world’s most elaborate comb-over has helped achieve Russian foreign-policy aims.

Even to look at 9/11 as a work of culture, to investigate its significance, is fraught in itself. The occasion is sacred, suitable for solemn reflection. Real people really died. But as painful and grotesque and offensive as it may seem, if you want to understand America’s current vulnerability, you have to look at 9/11 as a show. It is a war show that the United States lost and continues to lose.

This is a much more difficult article to summarize; and I won't do it the injustice.  The thesis, based on the efforts (in history) of T.E. Lawrence, is identified as the use of diathetics as a weapon of war; it is applied to the work of Osama Bin Laden, to argue, as that quote above concludes, that America lost, and continues to lose, the "war on terror."  But not because we have trampled on civil rights in the name of national security, humanity in the name of torture that "works," or even rising defense budgets in the name of might makes right makes powerful.  No, the thesis is subtler than that:

T.E. Lawrence, who turned himself into the pop culture icon Lawrence of Arabia, was the great innovator of guerrilla information war in the 20th century. His best-known platitude held that “[t]he printing press is the greatest weapon in the armoury of the modern commander.” His autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom provides the fine details of how he came to that understanding. Lawrence was sick, and in camp, in the sweltering heat of his fly-ridden tent, when it occurred to him that Carl von Clausewitz and the other great military theorists of earlier eras would have considered the war he was waging unwinnable. The Arab forces could not destroy the enemy, take the major strongholds, or break the courage of their opponents, which was how the great generals of the past had defined victory. The insight crept up on him: What if those definitions were all wrong? What if, instead of winning the war by the traditional definitions of victory, the definition of victory changed? “[A]s I pondered slowly, it dawned on me that we had won the Hejaz war,” Lawrence writes. “I brushed off the same flies once more from my face patiently, content to know that the Hejaz War was won and finished with: won from the day we took Wejh, if we had had wit to see it.” He didn’t need to win. He just needed to decide he had won and convince the world. The struggle was to change the definition of victory, to change the meaning of the events rather than the events themselves.

The term Lawrence gave to this kind of semantic warfare was diathetics, a phrase borrowed from the Greek philosopher Xenophon. It was a battle for the stories people tell and for the public consciousness that emerges out of the stories that people tell.

"We had to arrange [our soldiers’] minds in order of battle just as carefully and as formally as other officers would arrange their bodies. And not only our own men’s minds, though naturally they came first. We must also arrange the minds of the enemy, so far as we could reach them; then those other minds of the nation supporting us behind the firing line, since more than half the battle passed there in the back; then the minds of the enemy nation waiting the verdict; and of the neutrals looking on; circle beyond circle."

Diathetics is an extension of guerrilla warfare, in the sense that it is used by the weaker force against the stronger and uses the lines of communication against those who have laid them down. The sabotage of lines of communication turns the greatest strength of the more powerful force—the ability to convey information and materiel across distance—into vulnerability everywhere along the line. Rather than sabotage the lines of communication along the periphery, diathetics sabotages the network at the center, the source of the meaning being communicated.

Osama bin Laden understood diathetics instinctively and explicitly. “It is obvious that the media war in this century is one of the strongest methods,” he told Mullah Mohammad Omar in a letter in June 2002. “In fact, its ratio may reach 90 percent of the total preparation for the battles.” The front is cultural, the conflict over narrative.

Think about that last sentence a moment, because the conflict Donald Trump ceaselessly tries to stir is over narrative.  He had the largest crowds at his inaugural; he has accomplished more in 18 months than any President in history; the recovery of Puerto Rico from two hurricanes in a row was an "unsung success."  And, of course, his favorite hobbyhorse:

The conflict is always over narrative, n'est pas?

As I say, I can't do it justice (and I've probably mangled Bacevich's argument, too); read the original and decide for yourself.  This is much more thoughtful and well-reasoned stuff than the froth I usually refer to, and I commend it to your careful attention.  After all, in these days perhaps more than others, we must remember the admonition Dom Crossan attributes to Jesus of Nazareth: "You have heads, use them!"

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