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Posts Tagged ‘Seward’s Folly

“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

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