Is This Sentence Too Long For You?

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One hundred and forty characters. That is the new delineation between acceptable political discourse, and incomprehensible gibberish, according to the new world order. Twitter me this: Are we so limited in our attention span that we can only understand concepts described in 140 characters or less?

The simple answer is, yes, we have regressed back into simplicity. We are so immersed in the shallowness of thoughts induced by our addiction to our electronic devices, that we now find it uncomfortable to concentrate for longer than a single tweet. And, appropriate for a nation addicted to fluff, we have selected a celebrity leader who epitomizes our shallowness.

When did we begin to worship “the cult of the celebrity?” Certainly in the 1800’s, the emergence of celebrities began. Fostered by the development of mass media (newspapers and magazines), and the growth of cities, a critical mass coalesced whereby people could become familiar with famous people, even if they never had the possibility of seeing these people perform. Think of Jenny Lind (supported by one P. T. Barnum). Think of Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West show. Think of Samuel Clemens and his touring lectures. Certainly in the late 1800’s, it became possible for individuals to become famous for being famous.

By the early 1960’s, the cult of the celebrity was well established. In 1961, Daniel Boorstin wrote in his seminal book “The Image, or What Happened to the American Dream”, “The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness”. At the time he wrote those words, it applied to a much smaller group of people. Zsa Zsa Gabor comes to mind as exemplifying celebrity culture in the late 1950’s, and even then she did have some accomplishments as a movie actress. Boorstin was definitely prescient in foreseeing the direction of the culture.

America has also harbored a strong anti-intellectual bent. One of my favorite movies, Bringing Up Baby (and it’s ’70’s remake, What’s Up Doc), personified the attitudes towards intellectuals and scientists in popular culture. Cary Grant is the hapless paleontologist who inexplicably becomes the pursued object of the alpha female Katherine Hepburn. It is Hepburn as the mob moll, spitting out the end of a cigar, who rescues the scientist from incarceration. Small point, maybe, but except for film biographies of noble scientists struggling against society, movie culture rarely pictured scientists at all, and if they were pictured, more often than not they were objects of ridicule. They were the Nutty Professor instead of the rugged individualists portrayed in hundreds of westerns.

Today, anti-intellectualism is worn as a badge of honor by many in our society. In our schools, those who excel academically are derided and bullied by those who do not value scholastic achievement. In government, our politicians state, “I am not a scientist, but…” just before they explain why they are against scientific consensus on an issue, usually climate change. Anti-vaxxers who couldn’t describe the functions of vaccines in stimulating the immune system, claim that the cost / benefit ratio of vaccines has been miscalculated ever since the invention of the smallpox vaccine. And since the latest Presidential election, the scientists of the Federal government have been demeaned, threatened with slashed funding, and have been removed from any position of power and influence. Indeed, as of early July, no one has been nominated for the position of National Science Advisor.

Science and scientists have taken the brunt of the anti-intellectualism of the Trump administration, but other intellectuals are the victims of his misguided philosophy of dismembering government as a ruling strategy. Why rely upon professional diplomats who have spent decades studying issues and learning about regional and global political issues? Let’s just go to a meeting of world leaders and wing it. What could possibly go wrong?

So now we have the Tweeter-in-Chief using stream of consciousness to posit the latest birth of a thought (A cyber-security cooperative between us and Russia!), only to come back 12 hours later saying, “Not gonna happen!” My question is who is going to end up running the Trump empire once all of the key players end up imprisoned due to their actions during the campaign and subsequent time in power. Maybe we can get a remake of the First Wives Club (or first and second and third wives club) with Ivana, Marla, and Melania? I’d pay to see that.

Back to 140 characters. It is so deeply ironic that when NPR decided this year to not only recite the Declaration of Independence, but to tweet it, that many in the twittersphere took the words of our founding fathers as disrespect against the dear leader. Can you imagine that happening in any time other than the present, that such profound ignorance would display itself in a public medium?

I am reminded of the wisdom of the National Lampoon back in the early 1970’s for their parody, Deteriorata. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ey6ugTmCYMk ). They, too, foresaw what was happening, and where we were headed. One of my favorite lines in this piece is: “Be assured that a walk through the ocean of most souls would barely get your feet wet.” What an appropriate metaphor for government of the tweet, by the twit, and for the twitted.

Media? We Don’t Need No Lying Media! (Or Do We?)

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And now the coarsening of the political discourse continues. To think that a candidate for Congress, on the eve of his election, would be so easily provoked by a reporter’s request for a response about the CBO scoring of the AHCA that he would physically assault and tackle that reporter. That is amazing, but unfortunately it is part of a long chain of events that show a significant decline in the civility towards political discourse.

This coarsening is non-partisan in nature. Both the right (especially the alt-right) and the left are guilty of these incidents. The series of incidents with provocative right-wing speakers on college campuses where the speakers are prevented from speaking due to organized left-wing opposition, combined with anarchist activists who foment violence, has turned college campuses into no discourse zones. As for the right, we have only to review the footage of Donald Trump’s rallies where he excoriated the press, leading to situations where angry crowds surrounded press representatives, causing them to worry that physical violence would follow. And the reaction of Donald Trump to any protestor at his rallies did lead to protestors being assaulted by “right-minded patriots” as the protestors were being led out of rallies.

So the next phase of this war against free speech and the press has begun to play out across our land. In my State Capital building in West Virginia, a credentialed reporter trying to get a response from HHS secretary Tom Price was arrested and charged with “willful disruption of governmental processes”. As of this date, two weeks later, reporter Dan Heyman is still facing these charges.

In a little-reported incident in April, a cameraman for a Las Vegas television station was arrested for filming a tax-day protest on the Las Vegas strip. His crime? Not knowing that the sidewalk in front of an establishment was private property and thus subject to trespass limitations.

Now, with the overt hostility of the Montana candidate towards the press being expressed in a physical takedown of a reporter, the war against the press has taken a sinister turn to violence. It is only a matter of time until someone who feels empowered by the new attitude towards the press takes matters into their own hands and kills a reporter.

Both the right and the left need to step back and cool down. The lack of tolerance shown by the left against conservative speakers needs to dissipate. There are plenty of acceptable ways to demonstrate disapproval against a speaker instead of violently keeping that speaker from talking. And the phenomena of shouting down Republican representatives at town halls does not improve the political climate, as the attitude from the Republicans seems to be that those who protest, must be professional outside agitators paid by George Soros.

I am more concerned though, about the hatred shown by Republicans towards the press. There is a long-standing antipathy towards the press from many Republicans. They view the press as biased towards liberals and Democrats, and thus feel antagonism towards reporters. Then, with the ubiquitous use of cell phones for documentation, there is a paparazzi-like sense that politicians are legitimate targets for harassment from the press. But it is the characterization of mainstream media as “fake news” that is most disturbing. President Trump overtly declaring the media as “The Enemy Of The People!” Trying to delegitimize media as propagating only fake news and being the enemy is very dangerous, since many people no longer have a cultural reference point to distinguish between reality and illusion. The rise in social media as a primary news source for many people is a significant reason for this newfound lack of a cultural reference point. Ongoing balkanization of media sources leads to a lack of knowledge of real facts.

What can be done to reverse this trend towards abandonment of first amendment principles? All of us, regardless of political leanings, need to speak up in public against the war being waged on free speech and the media. This blog post is my own attempt to add my thoughts to the public discourse. I encourage anyone else who believes that we are heading down a dangerous path to also speak out in whatever forum you have available to you. We must stop this before we find that we have lost our freedom of speech and ability to conduct political discourse in public.