What We Are Flirting With


A few weeks ago I wrote about certain similarities between Trump’s crass, vindictive political style and the contours of fascism.

Today I’d like to note two more unsavory tendencies we are flirting with in this populist revolution of ours.

The first is the contention that the media is constitutionally unable to tell the truth. I hope no one believes this proposition in its full strength, but we all seem to believe it a little bit. The ease with which we apply the label of “fake news” to anything that displeases us belies a reflexive lack of faith in news media.

Lurking behind this attitude is an even more worrisome one, that perhaps there are no objective facts at all, or if there are, they deserve to be overpowered by whatever political imperatives appeal to us most.

So here I go proving that internet theorem true about invoking Hitler so early on in a discussion, but this last idea is something both Hitler and his rival Joseph Stalin believed in deeply–that they could marginalize or destroy the petit burgeois press through the overwhelming popular support of their political movements.

And just in case you think they did not know what they were doing, they did. Or at least their senior advisors did. They didn’t actually believe the press was mostly wrong, most of the time. But they did want the press out of the way, and they had no intention of playing by the rules. The press would be discredited not by a conscientious review of side-by-side claims and facts; it would simply be shouted down.

In one of the best political novels of the 20th century, Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler reminisces on how his once-beloved communist party justified this brave new tactic:

We were the first to replace the 19th century’s liberal ethics of “fair play” by the revolutionary ethics of the 20th century. In that we were right: a revolution conducted according to the rules of cricket is an absurdity. Politics can be relatively fair in the breathing spaces of history; at its critical turning points there is no other rule than the old one, that the ends justifies the means.

Trump’s attempts to discredit the press by summoning faux skepticism and rousing hoots of derision from the masses highlights a second unlovely trend–his open attempts to identify his attitudes and prerogative with the people’s will. Dictators, whether big and successful or forgotten by history, all do this. They all try to persuade the masses that flabby, suspect things like institutions will never disrupt the organic, muscular bond between Leader and People.


For now I am an optimist; I think Trump’s overt aping of authoritarian tactics will put him on the trashheap of history, or that he will even swagger away from his current mode of theater to something that proves easier. But in the meantime, one must face certain facts. These rallies of Trump’s, even if they pale comically in comparison to Hitler’s, serve the same purpose. They burnish the link between Leader and People. They cement the bond that suffers no questioning by institutions, no skepticism, no facts worth checking. They say to the masses, “Nothing will ever come between you and me.”




The Varieties of Being Lied To


A modest proposition occurs to me this morning. I am thinking back to the grave, decorous presidency of George W. Bush. I savor a moment of fondness for how straight and true the ship of state sailed back then.

And I muse: Even after the war in Iraq became an obvious fiasco, the reaction of the bien pensant was a refusal to say “I told you so” that oscillated between sullen and noble. The streets did not fill up with protesters demanding the heads of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld despite the fact that their war had managed–against all odds–to advance the causes of both al-Qaeda and Iran, at a financial cost of trillions of dollars and a human cost of tens of thousands of civilian lives. Mmm, sorry, our bad.

The Bush II presidency just sort of slunk away into the ignominy of history under a pall of silence that we citizens allowed to happen, indeed in which we collaborated. And we moved on.

Why do we see the Trump presidency as one that thoroughly debases the office? Why does it seem to be a clod of toxin that the republic is already heaving to expel?

I think one reason is the difference between the crises that precipitated the two presidencies. Bush faced a real crisis. His instincts were to lie low and content himself just tinkering with tax codes and education after his skin-of-the-teeth election in 2000, but then 9/11 happened and he came to full power. The attack was a catastrophe, for all to see, and we cut Bush a large check of credibility to shape our response. When he shifted attention from Afghanistan to Iraq, those of us who disagreed–even those of us who saw the basis of the decision as a deliberate distortion of facts–wrote it off as an ordinary political mistake. It was not the first time in the history of warfare that a large power used a just war to underwrite an attractive adventure.

trump-flagBut what was the precipitating crisis that allowed Trump’s rise? We are told it was the alienation of the poor, white working class. Let’s assume that’s the case for the moment. What evidence was proffered for the narrative that the poor whites’ disaffection constituted a national crisis? Every part of the story Trump told was either favorable hearsay, a lie that could be wriggled out of, or a generalization calculated to appeal to those who do not know what generalizations mean.

Trump’s claims during his campaign that the reported unemployment rate was wrong were a cheap appeal to hearsay, which he now ( at least tactically) disowns. His final bid on the “real” unemployment rate during his campaign–“I just heard it might be as high as 42 percent.”–is the sort of offhand use of the superlative that barkers use to draw passers by into carnival attractions or cheap seaside restaurants. “The steaks here weigh one, two, I heard someone say five pounds!”

Politicians know exactly what kind of lies can be wriggled out of: basically all of them. Clinton did not have sexual relations with that woman. Trump did not grab any pussies; it was smutty but ordinary locker room talk. What was unusal in Trump’s case, though, was that he effectively announced to his consituency ahead of his presidency that lies would be told and wriggled out of. And we loved him for it. He was telling the political establishment, whose currency has been built on lies, that he could outdo them at every turn and never pay a price for it. Instead of shame, which many of us felt for Clinton, we now stand and applaud Trump’s brave new adventures in lying.

“They’re sending rapists.” True? Or false? Well, as Clinton himself could have pointed out, it’s true, on a certain construction. Mexico is indeed “sending” people if we attribute to it certain forces of globalization. Have some of those “sent” been rapists? Read the papers. If you trust the media, yes, some Mexican immigrants have commited rape in the United States. But how useful or informative is this generalization? It’s as useful as other generalizations of the same form, for example, that the auto industry is sending cars to kill you. You can work out a construction that makes it true, but is it a generalization that corresponds with the relevant statistics, and if so, is it one amenable to a policy solution?

Without delving into a nerdish discussion, Trump’s Mexican rapists claim is a blatant appeal to a cognitive defect we all have, known as the representation bias. The representation bias says simply that the easier we can recall or envision an event, the more probable we think that kind of event is, no matter what its actual frequency is in real life. This is one reason why the fear of flying is so prevalent. The personal horror with which we can envision our plane going down biases us against the ability to appreciate the actual odds of disaster. (The odds of a catastrophic plane crash, last time I checked, were about one in three million.)

So the Trump administration is shaping up to be one of dishonesty entrepeneurs. Their range of untruths goes beyond ordinary political lies, to include doubling down, bullshitting and tactical joking. Two things are sure, the Trump administration will continue to innovate falsehoods, and we will continue to cheer him on. That’s how we live now.

Uphill Climbing: The Four Paces


What a lot of arresting things come in fours. The seasons, the directions on a map, Aristotle’s cardinal virtues, Rumsfeld’s epistemic categories, the brothers Karamazov, and, of course, the Christian Gospels.

And like the Gospels, one of the four usually keeps its secrets, discloses itself only to the sly, the industrious or the fanatical. Only John, the single gnostic Gospel that made the canon, dares so many metaphysical claims, so much poetry; the synoptic Gospels stick prosaically to the Nazerene’s life, death and sayings.

The brothers Karamazov? There seem to be only three, until we learn that Smerdyakov–Young Stinker–the family servant, was sired by Father Karamazov with the deranged, unbathed gypsy woman who occasionally came around the back alley. Smerdyakov tells the story’s secrets.

Rumsfeld clearly mapped out only three of his categories–known knowns, then unknowns both known and unknown–but he passed over the fourth category in silence. He never mentioned the existence of unknown knowns, the very foundation of our Mesopatamian disaster. There were facts looming right in front of us which we declined to “know.” (I stole this category from Slavoj Zizek.)

But before I work myself into a froth, my subject today is running, uphill running to be precise. Well into my preseason training now, I’ve discovered I have four paces for uphill climbing. (The phrase is from a great 1970s poet of schlock-pop. Do you have it?) And one of them has a secret.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered to name my strides if running didn’t require a certain amount of journal keeping. Just about anyone who takes the sport seriously must at least jot down the basics of each training session. Like so much else these days, running is data-driven, even if the data happen to be handwritten notes in an appointment book.

I can keep a quick but easy pace on a 3 percent uphill grade for an hour and a half now. I call it gliding. It clocks in at about 8:00 minutes per mile. I doubt my 50-year old body looks like it is gliding, but that’s what it feels like, so I’m keeping the term.

Next up comes cruising. I dial the pace back to about 9:15 and take the elevation up to six percent. You can probably tell I do a lot of this kind of thing on the treadmill, but it just so happens that my favorite longish training run out in the real world features a 6 percent hill of about 2 miles right at the halfway point. It’s beautiful.

Grinding away, somewhere above Heidelberg

Trail runners do a certain amount of power walking. It comes with the territory. I was doing a mountain run a few years ago, cruising along (yes, cruising), when a switchback put me smack at the bottom of some kind of maintence road for ski cats. It must have had a grade of at least 18 percent: it felt like you would tip over backward had you tried it in a car. Even on my freshest legs I could not have jogged more than 100m up the thing. Anyway, this kind of territory is where even the proudest dial down the speed to a walk of four mph or so and just chug. At first I called this pace pumping, for the piston-like arm movements, but pop culture has given this term certain connotations that might inspire whoops or chuckles. I’m open to suggestions.

But my gnostic Gospel, my secret pace, is the one that fits right between cruising and pumping. Fearlessly courting even more double entendres, I call it grinding. It happens on a 10 to eleven percent grade, and it’s the steepest hill on which I can keep up a respectable running motion, of about 11 minutes per mile, for longer than 30 minutes. It is where I strike gold. I enjoy it immensely, and I have no idea why.

At the bottom of the running experience, runners rarely know why. Practice does not deliver the insight. A good friend of mine, who is slyer, more industrious and more fanatical than I am, just finished his first 100-mile ultra, and won his age group. As he records in his thoughts on the race, at the ragged edges of running, where it becomes hard enough to inspire anyone to ask why, existential disorientation reigns. In a line I’d like to steal, he says he doesn’t know if he is running away from something or toward it. I don’t know either, but as long as I’m going up, I don’t give a damn.