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Posts Tagged ‘democracy

“You have to remember one thing about the will of the people: it wasn’t that long ago that we were swept away by the Macarena”*…

 

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At the higher elevations of informed American opinion these days, the voices of reason stand united in their fear and loathing of Donald J. Trump, real estate mogul, reality-TV star, forty-fifth president of the United States. Their viewing with alarm is bipartisan and heartfelt, but the dumbfounded question, “How can such things be?” is well behind the times. Trump is undoubtedly a menace, but he isn’t a surprise. His smug and self-satisfied face is the face of the way things are and have been in Washington and Wall Street for the last quarter of a century.

Trump staked his claim to the White House on the proposition that he was “really rich,” embodiment of the divine right of money and therefore free to say and do whatever it took to make America great again. A deus ex machina descending an escalator into the atrium of his eponymous tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in June 2015, Trump was there to say, and say it plainly, that money is power, and power, ladies and gentlemen, is not self-sacrificing or democratic…

Trump is a product of the junk entertainment industry but also product of what Marshall McLuhan recognized nearly half a century ago as an “acoustic world” in which there is “no continuity, no homogeneity, no connections, no stasis…an information environment of which humanity has never had any experience whatever.” McLuhan’s Understanding Media appeared in 1964 with the proposition that new means of communication give rise to new structures of feeling and thought. “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” We become what we behold, and “the medium is the message.” Shift the means of communication from printed page to enchanted screen, and they establish new rules for what counts as knowledge. The visual order of print sustains a sequence of cause and effect, tells a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The speed of light spreads stories that run around in circles, eliminate the dimensions of space and time, construct a world in which nothing follows from anything else. Sequence becomes additive instead of causative, “Graphic Man” replaces “Typographic Man,” and images of government become a government of images signifying nothing other than their own transient magnificence. Like the moon acting upon the movement of the tides, the idols of divine celebrity (Ronald Reagan and Madonna, Lady Gaga and Donald Trump) call forth collective surges of emotion that rise and fall with as little inherent meaning as the surf breaking on the beach at Malibu.

The sound bites come and go on a reassuringly familiar loop, the same footage, the same spokespeople, the same commentaries. What was said last week certain to be said this week, next week, and then again six weeks from now. The ritual returns as surely as the sun, demanding of the constant viewer little else except devout observance. Pattern recognition becomes applied knowledge; the making of as many as 12,000 connections in the course of a day’s googling and shopping (Miller beer is wet, Nike is a sneaker or a cap, Rolex is not a golf ball), adds to the sum of all ye know or need to know on the yellow brick road to truth and beauty…

Advertising is the voice of money talking to money, a dialect characterized by Toni Morrison in her 1993 Nobel Prize speech as “language that drinks blood…dumb, predatory, and sentimental,” prioritized to “sanction ignorance and preserve privilege.” Which is the language in which we do our shopping and our politics. Typographic Man wrote the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address; Graphic Man elects the president of the United States. The media on the campaign trail with Donald Trump weren’t following a train of thought. Like flies to death and honey, they were drawn to the splendour and flash of money, to the romance of crime and the sweet decaying smell of overripe celebrity…

The consequence is the destruction of a credible political discourse without which democracy cannot exist…

From an essay (adapted from a talk) by Lewis Lapham, arguing that this “destruction of credible political discourse” started long before President Trump–  eminently worth reading in its entirety: “The Myth of American Democracy.”

[The source of the image above, “American Democracy Is Broken. Here’s How to Fix It” makes a series of smart suggestions for adjustments to the mechanism of our democracy…  but stops short of addressing the zeitgeist that Lapham dissects.]

* John Stewart

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As we return from our patriotically-justified holidays, we might send annexing birthday greetings to Frederick William Seward; he was born on this date in 1830.  Seward served twice as Assistant Secretary of State, from 1861 to 1869 under both Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson and then from 1877 to 1879 in the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes.  In his first stint, he served under his father, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and helped him engineer “Seward’s Folly,” the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867 from Russia.

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And we might recall that it was on this date in 1898 that Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith uttered his last words: “My God, don’t shoot!”  Smith, a confidence man who was “following the gold,” had moved to Skagway, Alaska, after successful criminal careers in Denver and Creede, Colorado.  He’d assembled a gang and taken control of the docks– an important distribution point in the Klondike Gold Rush.  A committee of vigilantes formed to rid the town of Smith and his gang.  When federal authorities failed to act, they decided to confront Soapy themselves.  Smith met them carrying a Winchester rifle.  In the event, only one of the citizen’s committee– Frank Reid, who’d been a bartender in on of Smith’s saloons– was armed. The two men struggled and wounded each other, after which another member of the committee, Jesse Murphy (a recently-arrived employee of the railroad) wrestled the rifle from Smith and killed him with it.  Reid also died from his wounds; though his own reputation was far from untarnished, his funeral was the largest in Skagway’s history, and his gravestone was inscribed with the words “He gave his life for the honor of Skagway.”

Soapy Smith

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Written by LW

July 8, 2018 at 1:01 am

“A certain elementary training in statistical method is becoming as necessary for everyone living in this world of today as reading and writing”*…

 

The declining authority of statistics – and the experts who analyse them – is at the heart of the crisis that has become known as “post-truth” politics. And in this uncertain new world, attitudes towards quantitative expertise have become increasingly divided. From one perspective, grounding politics in statistics is elitist, undemocratic and oblivious to people’s emotional investments in their community and nation. It is just one more way that privileged people in London, Washington DC or Brussels seek to impose their worldview on everybody else. From the opposite perspective, statistics are quite the opposite of elitist. They enable journalists, citizens and politicians to discuss society as a whole, not on the basis of anecdote, sentiment or prejudice, but in ways that can be validated. The alternative to quantitative expertise is less likely to be democracy than an unleashing of tabloid editors and demagogues to provide their own “truth” of what is going on across society.

Is there a way out of this polarisation? Must we simply choose between a politics of facts and one of emotions, or is there another way of looking at this situation?One way is to view statistics through the lens of their history. We need to try and see them for what they are: neither unquestionable truths nor elite conspiracies, but rather as tools designed to simplify the job of government, for better or worse. Viewed historically, we can see what a crucial role statistics have played in our understanding of nation states and their progress. This raises the alarming question of how – if at all – we will continue to have common ideas of society and collective progress, should statistics fall by the wayside…

The ability of statistics to represent the world accurately is declining. In its wake, a new age of big data controlled by private companies is taking over – and putting democracy in peril.  William Davies provides historical context, a clear diagnosis of the problem, and thoughts on a response in his important essay, “How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next.”

* H.G. Wells, World Brain (1938)

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As we take note of numbers, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Roger Newland Shepard; he was born on this date in 1929.  A cognitive scientist and emeritus professor at Stanford, he has received both the National Medal of Science and the Rumelhart Prize.  While his contributions to his field are many, Shepard is probably best known as inventor of multidimensional scaling, a method for representing certain kinds of statistical data in a plane (or in space) with minimal distortion, so that the data can be apprehended by non-specialists.

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Written by LW

January 30, 2017 at 1:01 am

Democracy in action…

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Alvin Greene came (literally) out of nowhere to win the Democratic primary race to face Tea Party champion Jim DeMint for the honor of representing your correspondent’s home state in the Senate.  Wonkette reports on the result achieved last Tuesday by the candidate who never really campaigned, raised funds, hired a staff, nor for that matter, explained who in the world he is, and whose most news-worthy achievement during the campaign was to be indicted for showing pornographic pictures to a college student, then asking about going back to her room:

Presented without commentary, here are some of the Senate candidates who received fewer votes than Alvin Greene did yesterday, according to the most current AP numbers:

Senator Harry Reid: 361,655
Senator-elect Mike Lee: 360,050
Alvin Greene: 358,069
Sharron Angle: 320,996
Senator Mike Crapo: 318,468
Senator-elect Joe Manchin: 281,661
Senator Blanche Lincoln: 280,167
Senator John Thune: 227,903
Senator Daniel Inouye: 276,867
Senator-elect Kelly Ayotte: 265,967
Senator-elect John Hoeven: 181,409
Senator-elect Chris Coons: 173,900
Senator Patrick Leahy: 145,486
Senator Lisa Murkowski (Total Write-In): 81,876
Joe Miller: 68,288

Yes, yes– your correspondent appreciates that the states in question are not all the same size… still…

As we wonder when someone will get around to investigating the functioning of the electronic voting machines used in the primary in which Greene emerged, we might recall that it was on this date in 1968 that Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority” strategy paid off:  after losing to John F. Kennedy in 1960 and then Pat Brown (in a run for Governor of California two years later), he defeated Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace to become the 37th President of the United States.  It was one of the closest elections in history, decided by under 500,000 votes.

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