Person of the Year

What does this title bring to mind? As that same wise person said to me, what’s “Salesman of the Year”? What’s “Student of the Year”? What’s “Teacher of the Year”?These monikers evoke excellence surpassing all others. So it’s only natural that “Person of the Year” bring visions of an individual beyond our everyday goodness, someone who exemplifies humanity.

TIME magazine (I am not linking to the story, you can find it yourselves) has chosen the president-elect as their “Person of the Year.” I get that according to their criteria (mainly impact on the news within the prior year) he is the runaway choice. And I also get that by the same criteria, their covers and stories were in various years devoted to Hitler, Stalin, Ayatollah Khomeini and Khrushchev. However, this year’s choice misses one critical reality: We do not live in normal times.

What I mean is that we are witnessing an attempted coup, a take over of our Democratic Republic by a gang of fascist authoritarians. And no, I don’t need to look up these definitions — their words and deeds tell us who they are. Our president-elect has railed against media, has shut out many of the credible outlets, has tweeted outright lies, has been enabled by the Republican leadership to create his own reality, has called upon citizens exercising their right to free speech to be either imprisoned or expelled from the country, and all this in just the last couple of weeks. On top of this, he flouts all prior decorum and honor, and even the Emoluments clause of the US Constitution, by refusing to divest himself of the clear conflicts of interest inherent in his financial dealings. And already his pockets are getting fuller from his future title — see reports of his projects in Taiwan, Argentina, India, Turkey, and his daughter’s global deals, not to mention foreign diplomats falling all over themselves to book into his new DC hotel.

I come from a country that has passed from dictator to dictator for generations, whose people exists in a hypnotic trance of lies engineered so precisely as to keep them docile and compliant, lashing out only at the state-designated enemies of the state. Like an abusive spouse, Putin the dictator of Russia, much like Stalin and others, has once again isolated citizens from any opposing opinion or a narrative that clashes with his own. Our president-elect has similarly claimed a stake in our truth right here under our noses, with a large swath of the population already nodding their eager ascent, offering their wrists for binding and mouths for gagging.

So, no, this is not a normal time, and it is not a time to feed the beast with the title of “Person of the Year.” Despite TIME’s claim of equipoise, their own commemorative issue on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of conferring this title says this about its recipients:

Here are the great makers of history in our time…

And the Wikipedia entry for “Person of the Year” clearly says the following, referencing the same 75th anniversary issue:

Despite the magazine’s frequent statements to the contrary, the designation is often regarded as an honor, and spoken of as an award or prize, simply based on many previous selections of admirable people.

And furthermore, in 2001 the magazine gave the title to Rudy Giuliani, instead of Osama bin Laden, giving in, rightfully, to the concern over potential backlash from the traumatized Americans.

So, I am not wrong to call out this breach of trust, if not of journalistic ethics, by the magazine in their choice of our president-elect as the Person of the Year, given the threat that he and his apologists/enablers present to the Republic. Other despots and murderers aside, having a ring-side seat in this real-time spectacle of an historic overthrow of human decency and centuries of decorum in our democratic nation, all good journalism must educate and resist. Alas, TIME has conceded to the lowest common denominator.

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Thou shalt not fear thy neighbor

I went for a walk yesterday. I do it a lot here in my town nestled into the foothills of the Berkshires in the Western part of the blue state of Massachusetts. A curtain of mist had settled in the distance upon the hay fields, the bare tree crowns peering out above its straight upper border.

On days like this, when the cold hasn’t yet reached the ferocity of the deep New England winter, a teeshirt with a down coat will do. If cold, I zip the coat all the way to my chin. But when I overheat, there is the option to unzip and let the cold air chill me. And on this ordinary late fall day here in Massachusetts, for the first time since I arrived in the US as a teenager in 1977, I am giving my choice of teeshirts some thought for reasons other than fashion.

You see, when I got up yesterday morning, I put on my Clinton/Kaine 2016 shirt, and its soft blue still envelops me as I lace up my hiking boots. My coat on, reaching for the door handle, I realize the potential thorniness of walking on our roads, coat open, my chest advertising my implicit resistance against what has been elected.

Now, it’s not a secret that Massachusetts is and always has been a blue state, our penchant for electing Republican governors notwithstanding. Yet when parsed, all this means is the majority of our voters overall go Dem. This leaves a substantial swath to support the other side. And generally, it’s good for a Democracy when people don’t walk in lockstep, don’t all fall in line with a single governing philosophy, do challenge each other’s views and convictions. Dissent is patriotic and Democratic, after all. But this election season has been different, and now, with my damp teeshirt clinging to me half-way through my walk, I am reluctant to unzip my coat.

To be precise, over 60% of Mass votes went to Hillary, and the breakdown in my small rural town was roughly the same. And when I walk around here, I always wave to the drivers going by, and stop to say “hi” to and chat with my neighbors. So you would think in a small rural town like mine, inhabited in part by Yanks with deep local roots and in part by city explants like myself, we can handle a political disagreement better than most. Yet I shrink when I see a Trump flag hanging limply on a pole in my neighbor’s front yard, a flag that either wasn’t there before the election day or that I hadn’t noticed in my blind trust in the wisdom of our voters.

I keep walking, and I see my neighbor R., an older man whom I have known for years, though not well. He is walking from the garage to the front door. R. is the one you can see everywhere in our town, no job too big or too small. Need a trail cleared from a felled tree? R. is there with his chainsaw and rolled up sleeves. Looking to place a memorial bench for a beloved member of the community after her unexpected death? R. delivers and installs it. A while ago, he was our animal control officer, driving into our driveways in his pickup, making sure the dogs’ licenses were up to date, and the chickens were treated humanely.

I don’t know for whom R. voted, though if I had to guess… A few months ago, at the time many of us were vigorously protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline through our state, the sign in his yard urged “Build the Pipeline,” its slogan tinged with something close to hope about American jobs.

Since the election I’ve been wanting to reach out to my neighbors, if only to understand how they deal with the cognitive dissonance of electing a serial liar, racist, misogynist, homophobic know-nothing with self-confessed history of sexual assault to the highest office in the land. I want to understand their priorities, their views, want to convince myself their choice wasn’t driven by the same rank -isms their candidate continues to flaunt. But how to start?

I take out my earbuds and walk up R.’s driveway toward him.

“Hey, long time,” I say. “I haven’t seen you in a few weeks. How are you?”

“I see you all the time,” he says, his green Carhartt jacket open, the plaid shirt underneath covered in wood dust. “You walk here a lot.”

“Yeah,” I say, “You should come with me sometime.”

“I don’t walk,” he replies. I know, he is too busy working on projects, his own and our town’s.

I turn to walk away, but hesitate, move closer toward him instead and pull him into an embrace. He hugs me back for a long moment before we part with a “goodbye, see you again soon.”

Here in my rural town in the foothills of the Berkshires we haven’t been hit with the wave of hate crimes gripping the nation since the election. The similarities in our skin hues hide a number of more subtle differences of religion, ethnicity, sexuality, philosophy. Everyone here still waves back, still says “hello” with a smile. But I feel that cold fear in my gut now, the fear that until three weeks ago would have been an anachronism, a useless left-over of my childhood in the Soviet Union.

I don’t want to live in a place where I have to worry for my safety and the safety of my loved ones. I don’t want to live in a place where accents and different skin tones and opposing views are not welcome. I don’t want to live in a place where I have to question the decency of people whom until just a few weeks ago I knew to be decent.

I will be walking with my coat wide open. I will be hugging R. again, and perhaps my other neighbors with their flaccid Trump flag. I will not let fear determine my actions. Because, as someone very wise recently said to me, if I do, the big nefarious “THEY” has already won.

No better than tsarist Russia

In 1682, the year of Peter the Great’s accession to the Russian throne at the age of 10, there was a coup fomented through a misinformation campaign from one of the warring factions. At issue was the legitimacy of Peter as the heir to the throne. While one influential faction of lords backed Peter, the opposition wanted his half-brother Ivan to rule the kingdom. The campaign of misinformation that climaxed with a revolt of the Streltzy, the palace guard, used well-known propaganda tactics to incite violence among masses. How did they do it? By spreading a lie that Ivan had been executed. And since this happened in the absence of the free press or any kind of checks and balances to verify the story, the fearful pawns, pre-primed into anger, their preconceived notions confirmed, did their job. The bloodshed was ghastly and occurred before the eyes of the child tsar, scarring him forever and informing his ruthlessly pragmatic ruling style. Ivan, very much alive, stood next to Peter on the stairs of the palace while the unleashed mob, unable to stop even in the face of seeing Ivan alive, bludgeoned members of the royal household.

The sleazy manipulation tactics of misinformation campaigns have come a long way. Fox, Drudge, Bannon and the like, are keen psychologists first, and purveyors of misinformation second, aided by the technological advances of the 21st century. The trick with misinformation is that in order to make it credible, it has to be at least somewhat true. Misinformation is just the composted cow manure that helps grow the seeds of emotional volatility among the mob. This emotional volatility, once watered by peer validation (just look at the comments on Breitbart), is not subject to rational examination or logical argument. This is the agitprop of dictatorships, so successful at steering people to go against their own interests. They turn off higher cognitive functions in favor of the autopilot of the reptilian brain. That’s the danger, this locomotive of unrestrained and unexamined toxic emotionality.

This is what the new President-elect has willfully unleashed and legitimized. Yesterday’s “meeting” in his Rapunzel tower with the leaders of the main stream press was a chilling and direct threat to our Democracy, which cannot exist without the freedom of the press. The report of this meeting on Breitbart was met with cheers for the dictator to destroy the mainstream media and put them all in jail. This is what abject fear looks like when it owns you. This is the addictive drug of righteous anger, the only relief they can get from that fear. Breitbart and the like are the drug dealers that will take their addicted followers’ last dime to further their own agendas. And the masses are willingly bringing themselves to be slaughtered.

This ugly blob of toothpaste will take some time to wrestle back into the tube.

How propaganda works

Earlier today I came across a report that Steve Bannon, our President-Elect’s newly appointed chief strategist, suggested that Silicon Valley had too many Asian CEOs. This was a year ago in November. (You have to wonder why the HuffPo is resurrecting this story now, and knowing how Bannon operates, also wonder if he planted it.) To this our populist anti-elites President-Elect responded, “When someone is going to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Stanford, all the greats… we throw them out of the country, and they can’t get back in… I think that’s terrible.”

Dissent among the ranks? Don’t be fooled. This is a strategy, or will be used as such even if a priori it was just a conversation. There are two thoughts I have about how this will go down.

1. Bannon stays in the position given him and continues to lob lunatic fringe ideas into the ether, just so that our President-Elect can counter them and thereby increase his sanity quotient in the public’s eye.

2. The job offer to Bannon is rescinded, which makes our President-Elect look even more sane and even willing to strike a compromise.

Either way, Bannon is a multipurpose tool, on the one hand allowing our President-Elect to appear at least somewhat sane, and on the other winking to the neo-nazi base that their atrocious agenda is represented. And either way, it will make all of us liberals pant with admiration, and we will settle back and watch the rest of the inferno that will be his presidency through the lens of this single push-pull dynamic. This will obscure all the other atrocities going on underneath.

Given Bannon’s cunning, I think he must prefer the first scenario. So we need to push really hard for the second. And stay vigilant and not give our President-Elect a pass on anything that remotely resembles like a dismantling of the ramparts of our Democracy.

This is how professional propaganda machine works.