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I am not your enabler

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) is doing away with its message boards:

IMDb is the world’s most popular and authoritative source for movie, TV and celebrity content. As part of our ongoing effort to continually evaluate and enhance the customer experience on IMDb, we have decided to disable IMDb’s message boards on February 20, 2017. This includes the Private Message system. After in-depth discussion and examination, we have concluded that IMDb’s message boards are no longer providing a positive, useful experience for the vast majority of our more than 250 million monthly users worldwide. The decision to retire a long-standing feature was made only after careful consideration and was based on data and traffic.

The example James Pilant cited on his business ethics blog was that many IMDb members have effectively driven down the ratings of the new documentary film about James Baldwin. I Am Not Your Negro has been nominated for a Best Documentary Feature, has a 96/100 Metacritics rating, and a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but only 5.8 out of 10 on IMDb. When I look at the votes at this moment, some 585 have given it a perfect ten, 482 have voted it an awful one, and 300 or so members have voted at some number in between. Pilant’s source had the ones leading the tens about 400 to 300, but readers seem to have responded.

I will be sorry to see the boards go. I like to check on some old TV show like Sky King, or some actress who played a small part in The Time Travelers, and I usually learn some interesting tidbit. But it seems to be the rule that an interesting and informative core group will always be forced out by trolls and abusers. I like to peruse the videos on LiveLeak, but the comments section is a misogynistic, racist and jingoistic nightmare. I watch TYT Network, but the comments are infested by trolls who seem to either love or hate only Cenk or only Ana. And Gamergate, the anti-Social Justice Warrior movement came to light when women objected to being harassed on gaming sites.

I hear you thinking of suggesting moderation, but in my experience trolls are too smart to be held back by anything but a dedicated human moderator with nothing else to do. I like to read some comments sections, and I comment myself, but I’ve stopped feeling like I’m part of a community anywhere.

The Meritocratic Elite

A few days ago I listened to a three-months-old discussion between Robert Scheer and Thomas Frank – author of What’s the Matter With Kansas, and Listen, Liberal – in which Frank defined what I had been calling the comfortable class as the meritocratic elite: people who go to the same sorts of schools, know the same sorts of people, enjoy the same sort of success, etc. Frank sees them as the top ten percent, while I was thinking more like top twenty of thirty percent.

Anyway, for those who are still ticked off at our choice of presidential candidates, Mr Frank brings up the elite again in an article in Harper’s called Swat Team, The media’s extermination of Bernie Sanders, and real reform

But 2016 was different. It was a volcanic year, with the middle class erupting over a recovery that didn’t include them and the obvious indifference of Washington, D.C., toward the economic suffering in vast reaches of the country.

For once, a politician like Sanders seemed to have a chance with the public. He won a stunning victory over Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, and despite his advanced age and avuncular finger-wagging, he was wildly popular among young voters. Eventually he was flattened by the Clinton juggernaut, of course, but Sanders managed to stay competitive almost all the way to the California primary in June.

His chances with the prestige press were considerably more limited. Before we go into details here, let me confess: I was a Sanders voter, and even interviewed him back in 2014, so perhaps I am naturally inclined to find fault in others’ reporting on his candidacy. Perhaps it was the very particular media diet I was on in early 2016, which consisted of daily megadoses of the New York Times and the Washington Post and almost nothing else. Even so, I have never before seen the press take sides like they did this year, openly and even gleefully bad-mouthing candidates who did not meet with their approval.

Torpedoing Trump

My news-watching habits have changed a lot during this election cycle. I’ve dropped my NY Times subscription, and I’ve stopped paying much attention to evening news, Meet the Press, Face the Nation or This Week. I’ve been watching Democracy Now! for almost fifteen years, but now DN and The Young Turks have become my primary sources, along with progressive sites like Truthdig, Common Dreams and Counterpunch.

I’ve been criticizing Clinton and the mainstream press so much that a lot of my Facebook friends probably think I’m pulling for Trump. Actually I’m appalled that the establishment media is so openly in the bag for the establishment candidate. It was fairly clear that most of the media, including so-called new media, sandbagged Bernie Sanders, declaring the race over long before it was over; now, there is no doubt that they are doing their best to torpedo Donald Trump. He certainly deserves scrutiny, but all pretense of objectivity has vanished and the election coverage has become strictly a matter of competing identity politics.

Richard King discusses some of the reasons in a persuasive article, MEDIA CULPA: JOURNALISTS TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR TRUMP, MANAGE TO MISS THE POINT which he has posted to 3 Quarks Daily:

To observe the rather pompous way that certain newspapers and magazines have broken with their traditional “neutrality” by endorsing Clinton or disendorsing Trump is to see this ideology in action. The implication is that a careful poise of detached objectivity has been momentarily abandoned in order to meet a political crisis the like of which the US has never seen. But there is a difference between “objectivity” and merely acting as the referee between two kinds of conservatism: the Democratic kind and the Republican kind.

King pokes fun at media “self-aggrandizement” but skips over the point that establishment media is going to bat for the establishment candidate. And like the mainstream media, King dismisses Trump’s politics as, “protectionist, parochial, paranoid.” Yes, many of his supporters are protectionist, and yes, they are parochial, but as the joke goes, they aren’t paranoid if someone really is out to get them. America’s hinterland economies have been sold out by the oligarchy in a way that the coastal and urban elites have (so far) avoided. Whether you like them or not, America’s white middle class electorate is actually staring into deep decline, and no longer expect any help from establishment government.

You don’t have to be a Trump supporter to wonder who will get sold out next.

Update: Alternet warns, We Are Ignoring the Worst Dangers of Trumpism at Our Own Peril

History shows that the support base for right-wing extremist movements tends to be primarily the petty bourgeoisie—small businesspeople, professionals at the lower levels—but populism never gets far without the support of large numbers of the permanently unemployed. The official economic statistics would have us believe—and Trump vigorously contests this—that we are at or near full employment. In fact, this is a gross deception, because there are tens of millions of Americans who have given up looking for employment, who for various reasons are not employable in any meaningful sense of the word. Trump claims it is 30 percent of the population, but whatever number it really is, experience shows that it is pervasive, outside a few humming urban centers that give the illusion of high employment. As a matter of policy, the U.S. has not been committed to full employment since the 1970s, as part of the anti-inflationary monetary policy inaugurated by Paul Volcker and carried on by other committed neoliberals.

It is interesting to read bemused articles by correspondents at elite magazines like the Atlantic and the New Yorker, wondering who the Trump supporters really are (as they do after every populist upsurge), acting as though they were writing about aliens from another planet (which they are in a sense, since the elite commentators cannot understand why the Trumpists take such a dire view of the economy, since everything, from their point of view, seems pretty decent, with a 5% unemployment rate, the stock market doing well, and the evidence of their own booming urban areas).

Update: Robert Scheer and Thomas Frank on Democrats’ Shift Away From Addressing Inequality (Audio)

In their conversation, [Thomas] Frank tells [Robert] Scheer how the [Democratic] party has become class-based, now representing primarily the “professional” or upper socioeconomic class. Frank also talks about the Clintons’ role in this shift and why he believes people who might have earlier voted for Democrats are now flocking to Donald Trump.

When Scheer suggests that Bill and Hillary Clinton may not represent a lesser evil—when compared to Republicans—but merely a “different kind of evil,” Frank responds: “You could make the argument that Bill Clinton did things in the 1990s that no Republican would have been capable of doing. … Reagan couldn’t push bank deregulation as far as Clinton did. Clinton did things that Reagan would never have dared to do: welfare reform … [and] NAFTA. George Bush couldn’t get NAFTA passed. … So you start to think that the game that the Clintons play with us, where we vote for them because we have nowhere else to go. … There’s a sort of political economics of how we the voters are manipulated in this situation, and they’re very, very good at playing that game. And so people like you and me who are on the left are captured, basically. We don’t have anywhere else to go. And they play us in a certain way.”

He continues: “I have a lot of friends who say you can’t criticize the Democrats because you’ll just weaken them and then the Republicans will get in. But I say that we can’t give up our critical faculties just because of the ugly historical situation that we’re in.”

Frank also adds that while he is no fan of Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner for the presidency leaves “no uncertainty in the minds of his listeners, after they’ve sat through one of his speeches, that he is a guy that is gonna get tough with American companies that want to move their factories to Mexico or China or anywhere like that. Left parties the world over were founded in order to give voice to and to help and to serve working people. That’s what they exist for. And those people are now flocking to Donald Trump, who is railing against things like NAFTA. We’re in this situation now where thanks to the Clintons and thanks to Obama, the social dynamics of the two-party system have been … mostly turned on their head.”

A Subtle Dialectic …

“A subtle dialectic pervades the consciousness of the elite bourgeois soul.” – Manfredo Tafuri

Manfredo Tafuri was an art historian, his densely-packed articles often featured in Oppositions, the glossy red architectural journal that seemed to magically appear in the hands of all the cool kids at CMU around my second or third year. Architecture professor Ed Levin had his students reading Tafuri’s book, Architecture and Utopia, and invited him in for a general lecture and a followup session with a theory class. Later, our own architectural history professor Howard Saalman warned us that Tafuri was a Marxist – in case we couldn’t figure that out from Tafuri’s opening line above, or from his predictions of apocalyptic capitalism.

Thanks to Tafuri, I almost always see dialectics pervading elite bourgeois souls – some not that subtle. Just now, the establishment media is both trying to assure us that Hillary Clinton is leading comfortably while at the same time desperately trying to persuade us that, say, voting for Jill Stein would be tantamount to courting nuclear annihilation. Comically-inclined media types, like John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, etc, admit that Trump is a godsend to infotainment and comedy, but are at the same time gobsmacked that Trump is actually a candidate for President. They make a little fun of Hillary, but reserve their harshest digs for the Donald. Peggy Noonan sums it up:

There is another aspect of this year’s media environment, and it would be wrong not to speak it. It is that the mainstream media appear to have decided Donald Trump is so uniquely a threat to democracy, so appalling as a political figure, such a break with wholesome political tradition, that they are justified in showing, day by day, not only opposition but utter antagonism toward him.

I wonder if the media realize a) how tangential they have already become, and b) that no one will ever take them seriously again.

Like many bloggers, Juan Cole tries to explain why Trump has gotten as far as he has in, Whose Fault is Trump? Top 7 Culprits. Cole’s bullet points are:
1. The use of media by politicians to create an alternative reality.
2. Elevating terrorism above other crimes, to the status of existential threat.
3. Islamophobia.
4. Misogyny.
5. The replacement of television journalism with infotainment.
6. Climate Change Denial.
7. Racism.

Cole’s points certainly have validity as problems in current American culture, but do not by themselves explain why Trump has the support of so many otherwise sensible people. In The Atlantic, Yoni Appelbaum comes closer with, Trump Is No Moral Exemplar—He’s a Champion:

… coalitions that believe the moral consensus is cracking, that see their values under attack, and fear their own eclipse may turn away from candidates whose own lives exemplify a moral vision that the broader society no longer endorses. Instead, they seek out figures who seem strong enough, tough enough, ruthless enough to roll back social change, or at least to hold it at bay. They look for a champion.

Appelbaum, however, mostly attributes white support of Trump to anxiety over shifting demographics and loss of supremacy. But is that enough? Could there be rational reasons to look for a champion, even a deeply flawed one?

Though they deride his values, left-leaning observers like Michael Moore and Cenk Uygur admit that Trump is on message insofar as he echoes Bernie Sanders’ criticisms of money in politics and the oligarchy. Cole, Appelbaum, and indeed most journalists are loath to mention the establishment corporate and governmental policies that have savaged the working class. To find that message one has to turn to media outsiders like wealthy Nick Hanauer seeing pitchforks, archdruid John Michael Greer discussing the wage class vs salary class, various pundits comparing Trump to the Brexit vote, or oddly enough, conservative Peggy Noonan citing the “unprotected” classes.

Trump is almost certainly the wrong champion, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need one.

Demise of the News

During the so-called economic recovery, Gawker was one of the few media outlets that covered stories of people that weren’t finding jobs. They could be scurrilous, and reveled in snark, but I forgave them a lot because of, Hello From the Underclass.

Gawker’s final story was of its own demise, at the hidden hand of a wealthy man who didn’t like being in the news:

As our experience has shown, that freedom was illusory. The system is still there. It pushed back. The power structure remains. There are just some new people at the apex, prime among them the techlords flush with monopoly profits. They are as sensitive to criticism as any other ruling class, but with the confidence that they can transform and disrupt anything, from government to the press.

One of Gawker’s most cherished tags was “How Things Work,” a rubric that applied to posts revealing the sausage-making, the secret ways that power manifests itself. The phrase has a children’s book feel to it, bringing to mind colorful illustrations of animals in human work clothes building houses or delivering mail. Of course it also carries the morbid sense of innocence lost, and the distance between the stories we tell ourselves about the world and the way it actually works. Collapsing that distance is, in many ways, what Gawker has always been about.

And so Gawker’s demise turns out to be the ultimate Gawker story. It shows how things work.

But though Gawker is technically out of business, I just read a stat claiming that someone at Harvard estimates that only one of ten persons between the ages of 20 to 34 believes what they read, hear or see on the news. That should not be a surprise.

Earlier this year, the media gorged itself on jocular stories of Donald Trump’s run for President of the United States. Very few people gave him much chance of securing the nomination, but at the same time they were ignoring Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, virtually all the media gave him millions of dollars worth of free advertising in the form of guest appearances on talk shows and news broadcasts, and little or no serious criticism.

Since Trump actually secured the nomination, though, the media has become a juggernaut of anti-Trump scare stories. I believe Trump is a weak candidate, but – as they did with Sanders – the media are A: taking any story and twisting it for maximum anti-Trump effect while at the same time B: declaring the election to be already over.

For example, Trump visited flooded parts of Louisiana, bringing a truck with diapers, baby formula, cleaning supplies, blankets, socks, school supplies and toys for the victims. The first media story I saw made sport of him for giving them Play-Doh, as if that was all he had brought.

So instead of evaluating Trump’s (and Clinton’s) real weaknesses, media are proving just how beholden to the establishment they have become. Any criticism of Clinton is deflected, and any discussion against Trump is magnified.

TSV Missiles

Have you ever heard of TOW missiles?  They are a cheap but deadly anti-tank missile. Do you know what TOW stands for? Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided. The operator fires the missile, then keeps his sight on the target even if it moves, and wires send signals from the sight to the missile as it rockets towards the target.

Have you ever heard of TSV missiles? Of course not, I just made that up. It stands for Trump-launched, Socially-guided, Voter-impacted. I got the idea from yet another Scott Adams blog post on Trump being a Master Persuader, an expert in autosuggestion, a combination of salesman and hypnotist as described by Émile Coué or Norman Vincent Peale.

Adams thinks that Trump calling out Hillary Clinton for having no stamina is a, “linguistic kill shot.”

The best Trump kill shots have the following qualities.

1. Fresh word that is not generally used in politics

2. Relates to the physicality of the subject (so you are always reminded)

Clinton has already experienced some coughing fits on the campaign trail. And her voice often sounds hoarse, which is to be expected when you give speeches every day. Neither of those things mean much. But add the Internet rumors that Clinton has some lingering brain issues from a concussion, plus her long bathroom break during that one debate, and some rumors that she has trouble with balance, and there you go. That’s enough circumstantial “evidence” to convict her of being unhealthy.

As noted by one of Adams blog commenters, in one of the few Dr Who episodes I have seen with David Tennant, a lady Prime Minister ordered an attack on a bunch of aliens that were no longer a threat, and in fact leaving Earth. The ticked-off Doctor remarked to an aide, “Don’t you think she looks tired?” and within hours she was facing a vote of no confidence. That’s important because if it happened in Dr Who, it must be possible.

But seriously, I’ve been getting stuff like TSVs for years. Usually they come from Drudge, or Little Green Footballs, or Redstate, and by way of my uncritical siblings end up in my Facebook feed. They always fail the Snopes test, but no one in my family have ever admitted that they were wrong, and no one seems to have started fact-checking memes before reposting them – because they want to believe what they are being told.

So let’s test this meme. I’m refraining from posting this on social media, and I’ll be interested to see if and when a ‘Hillary has no stamina’ post shows up on my Facebook feed. Let me know if you see one, too.

The Economy is Less Bad For Some, Still Bad For Others

FiveThirty-Eight offers a thoughtful article with a misleading title: The Economy is Better. Why Don’t Voters Believe It?

This is one of the central paradoxes of the 2016 presidential campaign. The economy is, by virtually any measure, drastically improved from when President Obama took office nearly seven years ago. And yet poll after poll reveals a national electorate that is deeply skeptical of that progress. In one recent Wall Street Journal poll, more than half of voters said the economic and political system was “stacked against people like me.” That sense of alienation has fueled the insurgent candidacies of Trump and Bernie Sanders, and led even establishment candidates to emphasize inequality, middle-class stagnation and related issues.

I write ‘misleading’ because FiveThirty-Eight answers their own question, but refuses to accept it.

The easiest explanation for this paradox is that it isn’t a paradox at all: Americans are pessimistic about the economy because, for many of them, the economy hasn’t gotten better. Unemployment is down, but incomes are flat. Millions of Americans left the labor force in the recession and haven’t returned. Millions more are stuck in low-wage jobs or are working part time because they can’t find full-time work.

Since the Great Recession, hardly anyone trusts the people that tell us the economy is great (cough, Jim Cramer, cough, Ben Stein, cough). We don’t even believe Robert Reich when he tells us that we can grow our way out of debt.

Many of us are spending more on necessities, and giving up luxuries. Many of us know people that are essentially unemployed, living off relatives, and abusing alcohol, meth, even heroin. One might dismiss them as ne’er-do-wells, but most of these people used to have good jobs.

FiveThirty-Eight goes on to show us all sorts of people that are doing well – but so what. I know some people that are doing well. I just know more that aren’t.