Friday, June 9, 2017

Trump, McCarthy, and the Art of the Pseudo-Event

I've been thinking lately about Daniel Boorstin, and how well his discussion of pseudo-events, a term he coined, applies to the contemporary political scene. In a sense, the concept of the pseudo-event presages that of fake news, but it's not the news that is fake when it comes to pseudo-events, but rather the event that the news supposedly reports on.

Boorstin's argument is that the introduction of steam-powered printing, as opposed to printing presses powered by hand, made it possible to produce mass circulation papers that could be manufactured cheaply, hence the penny press, and could be distributed on a daily basis. So the technology was in place for the daily newspaper, but the problem was that there just wasn't enough news to fill the papers day after day after day.

For this reason, Boorstin argues, newspapers shifted from news gathering to news making, from relying solely on events that actually occurred in reality, that would have occurred regardless of whether they were reported on or not, to events that were manufactured solely for the purpose of providing content for the media, events that therefore were not real or true events, but pseudo-events.

  Pseudo-events include the interview, the publicity stunt, the press release, the press conference, the background briefing, trial balloon, and news leak. These provide content for the news media, but based on nothing that actually happened in the world. Boorstin notes that pseudo-events are designed to be dramatic, vivid, easy to disseminate and to digest (although also quite ambiguous as to their meaning, but that adds to their interest and intrigue), because they are specifically designed to be reported on or appear on the news media, whereas real events are not. He also notes that pseudo-events spawn other pseudo-events in geometric fashion, as an interview, for example, will lead to further discussion and interviews, etc.

This is a very quick and cursory summary, so let me take this opportunity to encourage you to read the book Boorstin wrote on this subject, The Image. The original version, published way back in 1961, was entitled The Image or What Happened to the American Dream, but a revised edition was published in 1978 with the new title, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America


This book is essential reading for anyone interested in media ecology, and apart from the topic of news, Boorstin also discusses the shift from heroes to celebrities (something I've written about), from travel to tourism, and other topics related to a loss of authenticity and coherence. Much of it is a conservative critique, but one that is more often than not right on target, and forms the basis of others that followed, including Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death.

So, there is no question that Trump, as a celebrity, is a human pseudo-event, but also someone highly skilled at publicity, which is to say, at manufacturing pseudo-events and manipulating the press. This has been the case for decades, but what seems especially relevant now is the way that he used Twitter as a candidate, and uses it now as president, as a kind of instantaneous press release. And every tweet has been treated by the news media as if it were a singular event requiring attention and analysis.

And in thinking about that, Boorstin's discussion of Senator Joseph McCarthy just recently jumped out at me. I think the parallels are quite clear, and altogether stunning (and if you don't know who McCarthy was or don't know much about him, no judgment, it has been a long time now, I've linked his name above to the Wikipedia entry on him, and please go take a look).

So let me turn now to Dr. Boorstin, and consider what he had to say:

... it is possible to build a political career almost entirely on pseudo-events. Such was that of the late Joseph R. McCarthy, Senator from Wisconsin from 1947-1957. His career might have been impossible without the elaborate, perpetually grinding machinery of "information" ... And he was a natural genius at creating reportable happenings that had an interestingly ambiguous relation to underlying reality. Richard Rovere, a reporter in Washington during McCarthy's heyday recalls:

He knew how to get into the news even on those rate occasions when invention failed him and he had no unfacts to give out. For example, he invented the morning press conference called for the purpose of announcing an afternoon press conference. The reporters would come in—they were beginning, in this period, to respond to his summonses like Pavlov's dogs at the clang of a bell—and McCarthy would say that he just wanted to give them the word that he expected to be ready with a shattering announcement later in the day, for use in the papers the following morning. This would gain him a headline in the afternoon papers: "New McCarthy Revelations Awaited in Capital." Afternoon would come, and if McCarthy had something, he would give it out, but often enough he had nothing, and this was a matter of slight concern. He would simply say that he wasn't quite ready, that he was having difficulty in getting some of the "documents" he needed or that a "witness" was proving elusive. Morning headlines: "Delay Seen in McCarthy Case—Mystery Witness Being Sought."

 I'm not sure I want to characterize Trump as a genius, but this seems so very similar to the ways in which Trump has masterminded the process of getting the attention of the news media, often in attempts to distract from other less favorable news items. The ambiguity characteristic of pseudo-events is very much a part of this process, as an inordinate amount of time and space is devoted to trying to figure out what his tweets mean, whether they're to be taken literally or figuratively, whether they represent policy, or simply what the hell covfefe means.

The really perverse part of all this is the ways in which journalists are manipulated to serve the politician's ends, despite their own best intentions. Let's read a little more of what Boorstin has to say about McCarthy:

 He had a diabolical fascination and an almost hypnotic power over news-hungry reporters. They were somehow reluctantly grateful to him for turning out their product. They stood astonished that he could make so much news from such meager raw material. Many hated him; all helped him. They were victims of what one of them called their "indiscriminate objectivity." In other words, McCarthy and the newsmen both thrived on the same synthetic commodity.

Senator McCarthy's political fortunes were promoted almost as much by newsmen who considered themselves his enemies as by those few who were his friends. Without the active help of all of them he could never have created the pseudo-events which brought him notoriety and power. Newspaper editors, who self-righteously attacked the Senator's "collaborators," themselves proved worse than powerless to cut him down to size. Even while they attacked him on the editorial page inside, they were building him up in front-page headlines. Newspapermen were his most potent allies, for they were his co-manufacturers of pseudo-events. They were caught in their own web. Honest newsmen and the unscrupulous Senator McCarthy were in separate branches of the same business.
And that business is entertainment, as Postman would point out. And this is where we really need to take our journalists to task as collaborators. They were seduced by the higher ratings they gained by reporting on Trump, when what they really needed to do during the election was to stop reporting on him so much of the time with no valid justification, stop giving him so much attention for no real reason, stop feeding the beast. The constant mentioning of his name, the continual focus on his candidacy, reinforced his image as an important figure, and therefore as someone who could legitimately become president. Journalists simply could not help themselves, but all that coverage, even when it was not positive, helped him much more than it hurt him.

So now, we have a human pseudo-event as president. I guess you could say that what we have now, I am sorry to say, is a pseudo-president. And, what else is there to say but that what we have now is the triumph of the image.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

On Media Ecology Books and Book Series

In my previous post, A Good Causality, I neglected to mention that our new co-edited anthology, Taking Up McLuhan's Cause: Perspectives on Media and Formal Causality, was published as part of the UK publisher Intellect's new book series on media ecology, which is being edited by my friend and fellow media ecologist Phil Rose. 

This represents the third book series devoted to the field of media ecology to have been launched. The first one, which I proposed and was supervisory editor for, came courtesy of Hampton Press, back circa 1994-1995. After publishing many books in the series for well over a decade, Hampton decided to stop publishing new books of any kind, the owner was essentially retiring, so although the books that were published would continue to be sold, this essentially brought the series to a close.

For several years, there was no active book series devoted to media ecology, and I have to credit Phil Rose for the push to find a new publisher to start one up. It was at his urging that, following the successful publication of Amazing Ourselves to Death, that I proposed a new book series to my publisher, Peter Lang, which was accepted with the title, "Understanding Media Ecology" (that's a title I was going to use for a book of my own, but Peter Lang wanted to distinguish the new series from the old Hampton Press series, and like that title, so I gave it up).

So far, three books have been published in the Peter Lang Series: the second edition of Bob Logan's Understanding New Media: Extending Marshall McLuhan; Bob's collaboration with Marshall McLuhan that had never been published, with additional material updating it for the contemporary media environment, The Future of the Library: From Electric Media to Digital Media; and Dennis Cali's attempt to produce a media ecology textbook, Mapping Media Ecology: An Introduction to the Field.


The next book in the series is one that is very near and dear to my heart, and is already listed for pre-order:


But more on that when the time comes...

In the meantime, as I mentioned, Phil Rose was also able to successfully propose a new media ecology series for Intellect, and Taking Up McLuhan's Cause was the first book published in the series, and hard on its heals was another anthology, this one edited by Phil, entitled Confronting Technopoly: Charting a Course Towards Human Survival. The term technopoly was coined by Neil Postman, and the book follows up on his major media ecological work, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.


As you can see, this second offering from Intellect is also, unfortunately, only available in hardcover, and priced for library sales. In any event, here is the blurb describing the collection:

In 1992, Neil Postman presciently coined the term “technopoly” to refer to “the surrender of culture to technology.” This book brings together a number of contributors from different disciplinary perspectives to analyze technopoly both as a concept and as it is seen and understood in contemporary society. Contributors present both analysis of and strategies for managing socio-technical conflict, and they also open up a number of fruitful new lines of thought around emerging technological, social, and even psychological forms.

And here are the contents (you'll probably notice a familiar name early on):

Introduction: The Question Concerning Technopoly
Phil Rose
Part I: Contextualization 
Chapter 1: Contextualizing Technopoly
Lance Strate
Part II: Digital Manifestations  
Chapter 2: The Omnipresent Opiate: Rethinking Internet Addiction in the Network Era
Ryan S. Eanes
Chapter 3: Probing the Media Ecology of Self-Tracking Technologies:  A Postmanist Critique and Defence
Yoni Van Den Eede
Chapter 4: Navigating the Mobile Village
Zack Stiegler and Nick Artman
Chapter 5: Insolent Networks: The Auto-Mated Social Life
Gary Kenton
Part III: Ideology and Geopolitical Considerations  
Chapter 6: Striking Symbols: Re-Sounding Words from Leonard Cohen to Neil Postman
Ruthanne Wrobel
Chapter 7: Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing! The End of Progress and the Beginning of a Third Way
Arthur W. Hunt III

Chapter 8: Divinizing Technology and Violence: Technopoly, the Warfare State, and the Revolution in Military Affairs
Phil Rose
Chapter 9: Posthuman Postmanism: Confronting Technopoly with Deep Media Ecology
Niall Stephens
Part IV: Confrontations: From Education to Liberation  
Chapter 10: Postman’s Hope: Rethinking the Role of Education in Technopoly
Ellen Rose
Chapter 11: The New Social Media Curriculum: Confronting Technopoly with Education
Geraldine E. Forsberg
Chapter 12: Black Mountain College: Experiments in Form
Michael Plugh
Chapter 13: The Arts of Liberation in the Age of Technopoly
Edward E. Tywoniak

A very nice collection of work indeed, and an important addition to the media ecology literature. It may be too much for most folks to buy, but again, maybe you can beg, borrow, or steal a copy!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Good Causality

So, while I'm on the subject of books published relatively recently, as per my previous post, Mandarin McLuhan and Media Ecology, I would like to share with you the publication of an anthology that I co-edited along with my media ecology colleagues, Corey Anton and Bob Logan.

But first, let me remind that back in 2011, in conjunction with NeoPoiesis Press, I helped to get Media and Formal Cause by Marshall and Eric McLuhan published. It is, of course, required reading for any card carrying media ecologist, and on the off off chance you don't have a copy, well, here:

ºººººººººººººººººººº ºººººººººººººººººººº

You can also read my posts here on Blog Time Passing introducing the book back in 2011, Media and Formal Cause and Media and Formal Cause in Effect!, and see also Artforum Informs that Media and Formal Cause is 1 of the 10 Best of 2011 why don't you? 

Now then, this little book was considered such a big breakthrough in understanding McLuhan, and providing a new way of understanding our understanding of media, and the kinds of media effects we tend to be concerned with in the field of media ecology, that it generated a great deal of interest and ferment in the field.

For some, it meant a retrieval of Aristotelian metaphysics, for others a link back to Thomas Aquinas and Thomist philosophy, and for some a link forward to systems theory and the concept of emergence. And given all the interest that has been generated, a follow-up volume was inevitable, hence the anthology we co-edited, Taking Up McLuhan's Cause: Perspectives on Media and Formal Causality (do you like the pun in "taking up McLuhan's cause"? I came up with it).

The anthology is published by Intellect out of the UK, and distributed in the US by the University of Chicago Press Here's the blurb that goes with it:

This book brings together a number of prominent scholars to explore a relatively under-studied area of Marshall McLuhan’s thought: his idea of formal cause and the role that formal cause plays in the emergence of new technologies and in structuring societal relations. Aiming to open a new way of understanding McLuhan’s thought in this area, and to provide methodological grounding for future media ecology research, the book runs the gamut, from contributions that directly support McLuhan’s arguments to those that see in them the germs of future developments in emergent dynamics and complexity theory.

And here is the listing of the books contents:

Eric McLuhan
A Trialogic Introduction
Robert K. Logan, Corey Anton, and Lance Strate
Chapter One: The Form of Things to Come: A Review of Media and Formal Cause
Corey Anton
Chapter Two: McLuhan, Formal Cause and the Future of Technological Mediation & Postscript
Corey Anton
Chapter Three: Medium as ‘Metaform’: An Inquiry into the Life of Forms
Paolo Granata
Chapter Four: From Aristotle via Aquinas: Understanding Formal Cause in Marshall McLuhan’s Philosophy
Laura Trujillo Liñán
Chapter Five: The Effects That Give Cause, and the Pattern That Directs
Lance Strate
Chapter Six: McLuhan and Causality: Technological Determinism, Formal Cause and Emergence
Robert K. Logan
Chapter Seven: Formal Cause: McLuhan’s ‘Objective Turn’?
Yoni Van Den Eede
Chapter Eight: Forms of Causality
Chad Hansen
Chapter Nine: Anti-Environmental Art and Its Role in Making Formal Cause Visible
Steve Reagles
Chapter Ten: Of Memes, Modes, Minor Audiences and Formal Cause
Eric S. Jenkins
Chapter Eleven: After Effects, Before Causes: Technique, Artistic Intent and Formal Causality
Kirk Zamieroski
Chapter Twelve: Re-Cognizing Formal Cause
Peter Zhang
Chapter Thirteen: Disrobing the Probe, Unpacking the Sprachage: Formal Cause or the Cause of Form Reframing McLuhan and the Kabbalah
Adeena Karasick

And here's a nice review blurb that we received:

'Very good essays on a crucial intellectual topic. I’m hopeful that this anthology will help kick off another McLuhan movement rooted in McLuhan’s place in the great tradition of philosophies of causation. ' – Graham Harman, American University in Cairo 
Not too shabby, huh? Well, that's all the good news, but now here's the bad news:


 Notice the price? Unfortunately, it's only available in hardcover, and while the pricing is not that bad when it comes to academic books priced for library sales, it's not terribly affordable for the average Joe Scholar. But please do ask your library to order a copy if you can. And beg, borrow, or steal a copy if the cost is too much to bear, I really do think you'll find the collection worth your while.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Mandarin McLuhan and Media Ecology

So, it's time to get back to the old blogging board, and long past time to let you know about a book I published last year. It was a bit different from the other books I've published, as you can no doubt detect from the books title:


And just in case your ability to decode the Chinese logographic writing system has gotten a little bit rusty, that translates to

McLuhan and Media Ecology

And now, before you get the impression that I am anything other than a typical monolingual American, let me assure you that I did not write the book in Mandarin. The translator was Hu Julan, who is also on the faculty of Henan University, where I have been a guest, and the book is published by Henan University Press. Here is what it looks like:

There's a nice view of it on this Chinese website where it's being sold, and here's a link to it's page. And I don't know if it will work right, but I also see it strangely appearing after scrolling down a little on this page, mixed in with a random assortment of products.

Of course, you can find it on a number of other sides as well. The cover is kinda small on this one, there's a really interesting effect when you scroll over the cover on this one, and then there' a funny version on this one, let me see if I can get it on here:

But as we all know, you can get anything you want on the original American Amazon's restaurant, and just in case you want to purchase a copy here in the good old USA, here you go:

*** 麦克卢汉与媒介生态学 (McLuhan and Media Ecology) ***

I also want to make it clear that this is a new book, not a translation of a book that was already published in the English language. It is an original collection of essays, some of which you may have read elsewhere. In case you're wondering what you're missing out on, assuming you can't written Chinese, here's the contents:

Introduction to McLuhan and Media Ecology

Media Ecology and the Legacy of McLuhan

The Medium and McLuhan's Message

Korzybski and McLuhan

The Effects that Give Cause, and the Pattern That Directs

McLuhan and New Media

Counting Electric Sheep: Understanding Information in the Context of Media Ecology

The Fall of Nations: The Fate of Social Systems in the New Media Environment

On the Binding Biases of Time

Heroes and/as Communication

Drugs: The Intensions of Humanity

Narcissism and Echolalia: Sense and the Struggle for the Self

And there you have it, my first foray into Chinese book publishing. And not my last, as translation is already underway for another collection. I'll keep you posted!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

On Being Weary and Wary of ‘Awareness’

Before the month ends, I think I better share my latest op-ed published in the April 28th issue of the Jewish Standard, and posted online on their website hosted by the Times of Israel. The title of the piece is On Being Weary and Wary of ‘Awareness’ and I think I'll let it speak for itself:

April is Autism Awareness Month. As we are close to the end of the month, chances are that you’ve already seen or heard that statement.

So let me ask you: Are you more aware of autism now than you were at the beginning of the month? And what do we mean by this vague thing we call “awareness” anyway?

I looked online and found a “Cause/Awareness Monthly Calendar,” which confirmed my suspicions that almost every month of the year has multiple causes assigned to it. April has six listings, including Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month. If there’s a cause out there that does not emphasize the goal of awareness, I have yet to come across it.

And yet I don’t see much in the way of assessment of this goal. How is awareness measured? Who measures it? How are the results distributed? I believe that awareness actually refers to attention, which is the basic currency of our electronically mediated environment. The primary question is: Is the cause in question getting enough attention from the news media, the entertainment media, and our social media? And secondarily, are the audiences and participants paying enough attention to these messages?

My daughter turned 21 this winter. When she was 2½ years old, she was diagnosed with autism. Looking back some 18 years ago, I know that what we call autism awareness was not very widespread, not even here in northern New Jersey, where there are the largest numbers and the greatest concentration of children with autism in the United States.

Back then, most estimates ranged from 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 500 children with autism nationwide. Increased awareness coincided with increased incidence, and now the estimates range between 1 in 45 and 1 in 68. And given the higher numbers in our region, this means that chances are you know someone with autism, or someone with a family member who has autism.

As the numbers grew, autism advocates began to call it an epidemic. Specifically, they referred to the epidemic of childhood autism. And it was an epidemic that affected families from all walks of life, from every income bracket and socioeconomic status, as well as every race, ethnicity, and religion.

A major turning point in autism awareness came when a grandson of Bob Wright was diagnosed with autism. Wright was the CEO of NBC at the time, and he and his wife, the late Suzanne Wright, founded Autism Speaks in 2005. Through his influence, autism suddenly received much more attention in the news and entertainment media than it ever had before.

It is worth asking ourselves why social problems only receive attention when the rich, the famous, and the powerful are touched by them, when the problem is experienced by someone close to a media professional or politician. Of course we are grateful when someone with a public platform finally speaks out. But why do awareness and attention have to depend on a contemporary variation on noblesse oblige?

And again, what is “awareness” all about? It is certainly a far cry from understanding.

I recently spoke with a friend and colleague whose son, about 10 years older than my daughter, also has autism. And we talked about the fact that our children will never really grow up, be able to live independently, have their own place, hold a normal job, marry, or raise children. About how much they depend on us and continue to depend on us. And about how uncertain their future is as we grow older, grow less and less able to care for them, and eventually will become unable to provide them with a home and necessary supervision.

We talked about what will happen to them when we’re gone.

It is so very hard for us to watch the parents of typical children celebrate the usual rites of passage and talk with mixed feelings about becoming empty nesters, knowing that fate has something else in store for us. Our special needs children require so much more of their parents than typical children as they’re growing up, and their special needs do not magically disappear when they become adults. The pressure never lets up, and it never goes away.

Awareness? Feh! Let’s face it, if you don’t live it, you just don’t understand, just can’t understand, not really. Not fully. So forgive me if I find all this talk about awareness to be awfully shallow, promoting the illusion that something real is happening merely by calling attention to causes on our news, entertainment, and social media.

I remember when Ronald Reagan was elected president, budgets were cut, policies were changed, and all of a sudden we saw schizophrenic individuals who previously had been institutionalized winding up on the streets, homeless and helpless, unable to take care of themselves. It was a shonda, a national disgrace.

Now think this through with me. For the past two decades, we’ve been made aware that there is an epidemic of childhood autism, with numbers steadily increasing. And be aware that there is no cure for autism. So now, be aware that we are facing an epidemic of adults with autism. And let me ask you, are you aware of what is being done to deal with this ticking social time bomb?


Local school districts are required to provide people with autism with an appropriate education until they age out after their 21st birthdays. After that, services are limited, if any exist at all. And for all but the most severe and violent individuals, we parents will try our best to take care of our children for as long as we are physically and psychically able.

How much longer do you think that will be?

We could have begun to prepare for the problem when Barack Obama was elected president. He had the right outlook. But the economy had just crashed under George W. Bush, Obama understandably was preoccupied with recovery from recession and with affordable healthcare, and he was faced with an obstructionist Congress for most of his tenure. Now that we have a Republican president, House and Senate, our government is back to cutting social services, so I doubt we can expect any proactive measures in the near future.

No, in all probability nothing will happen until the time when the parents of adults with autism no longer are able to provide them with a home, and the streets again are flooded with homeless people helpless to take care of themselves. When that happens, in the not too distant future, awareness will become more than a matter of news reports, feel-good films and TV programs, and social media memes. Awareness will become a face-to- face reality, an embarrassment, a source of guilt for the more enlightened, a source of fear for others. And only then will the public demand action, and public officials respond in kind. That’s what happened with the schizophrenics on the streets back in the 1980s.

So what does awareness mean to you? I guess it means that you’re aware that it’s Autism Awareness Month. I guess that amounts to awareness of awareness. And maybe, maybe, if you’re really made aware, that can lead to being informed. Maybe.My guess is that how well informed you are about autism depends on how close you are to an actual person with autism. And even then, after all, being informed is a far cry from actual action.

So please forgive me for being weary and wary of awareness. But please be aware of what’s coming down the pike, and when it happens, be aware that you were warned about it. And be aware that it was a failure of understanding, compassion, and foresight, and above all political will, that caused the problem.

That is the kind of awareness that we need to get across right now, in this month of April.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Farce, Tragedy, and Hope

So, I suppose I shouldn't wait too long to share my latest op-ed for the Jewish Standard, which has already been published online on my blog for their Times of Israel site. This one was published in their February 24th issue, and "Farce, Tragedy, and Hope" was my original title for the piece, but the editor changed it to "Seasons of Scenarios" (you can let me know which one you think is better).

As I try to stress in this piece, I am not hoping or wishing or looking or calling for any of these outcomes. I am simply assessing the situation and giving my opinion on what might happen. The odds are great against any one of the four main scenarios happening, but taken together, I think they are pretty good that one of the four will occur.

So anyway, without further ado, my op-ed:

Judging by the topsy-turvy nature of the Trump administration’s first few weeks in office, you’d think that Purim has come early this year. Except for the fact that the story of Purim is something of a farce, albeit one that involves narrowly avoiding a tragedy, while the Trump presidency, many of us fear, is a farce that may, or will, or already has become a tragedy the likes of which even Shakespeare could not have imagined.

Before looking ahead to what may come to pass, let me begin by noting that as far back as the autumn of 2015 I started saying that Trump was going to be our next president. This was not an act of prophecy, I hasten to add, but rather an exercise in the sort of futurism that Alvin Toffler made popular with the publication of Future Shock back in 1970. What this requires is a careful review of history and attention to patterns and trends of the past.


In this instance, I noticed the parallels between the reality-TV-star-turned-candidate and our first (and so far only) movie star president, Ronald Reagan. As different as their demeanors and even their messages may have been, both were masters of the electronic media. For Reagan it was radio and television; for Trump it is TV and Twitter. And both exhibited that Teflon quality, whereby scandals and accusations that would sink anyone else’s political career seemed to bounce right off them. I was sure enough of the outcome that I bet a colleague $100 that Trump would be our next president, and did so at a time when it didn’t even seem likely that he would gain the Republican nomination.

When I was making my prediction, some thought it meant that I wanted Trump to win. I most certainly did not. For me, the point was to analyze the facts objectively and draw a logical conclusion. I stress this because now I want to make it clear that what I think may come next is based on the same kind of analysis. I am not absolutely certain about this, but I do believe there is a better than average, maybe even a good chance, that Trump will not finish his term.

I want to emphasize that I am not predicting that this will happen. I simply am noting that there are four distinct ways in which Donald Trump could be the first president since Nixon to serve less than the full four years to which he was elected.

The first possibility, and the one on everyone’s minds, is impeachment. It is nothing short of astounding that the possibility was being discussed even before the election took place. I won’t bother to list the many reasons why the House of Representatives might vote to bring articles of impeachment against Trump, and a trial leading to conviction and removal from office might take place in the Senate. I only want to note that the possibility exists now, even with Republican majorities in both chambers, and would become even more likely if midterm elections gave the Democrats full control of Congress.

A second possibility is resignation. Recall that Nixon was the last (and only) president to resign, and he did so to avoid impeachment. Trump might follow the same course if impeachment seems likely, or he faces some other legal action regarding his finances. And while many believe he has the kind of personality that would lead him to hold on and fight, everything about him as a politician has been characterized as unprecedented, so is it really unimaginable that he might decide that being president isn’t worth it to him, that walking out would be just like declaring a bankruptcy, and that he could do so while pinning the blame on the media, his political opponents, and anyone else he deems an enemy?

A third possibility is based on the fact that at the age of 70, he is the oldest person to move into the Oval Office, which means that his future life expectancy is limited. It follows that there is a chance he might die in office, or be otherwise unable to fulfill his responsibilities due to medical disability. Despite claims of good health, little about his medical history has been released to the public. Even if he has no pre-existing conditions, there is no getting around the fact that he was born in 1946; as any insurance agency would explain, it’s all a matter of statistical probabilities. (I’m not including the possibility of incapacity due to psychological issues here, because all but the most extreme forms of mental incapacity are difficult to prove.)

No doubt, even if it was clear that disability or death were due to natural causes, conspiracy theories about assassination attempts would abound. And given the friction that seems to exist between Trump and the intelligence community, the possibility of some form of poisoning, a time-honored staple for monarchies, dictatorships, and film and TV melodramas, undoubtedly would come to mind. The more straightforward forms of assassination would also constitute a fourth possibility. The last president to get shot was Reagan, a little more than two months into his first term. Gerald Ford was the victim of two assassination attempts; both times the shooters missed.

It would be only natural to assume that any attempt on Trump’s life would come from someone on the left, or perhaps an angry Muslim or Mexican. But I think it might well come from one of those alt-right types or Second Amendment people that Trump has been courting throughout his campaign and first weeks in office. If he doesn’t come through on the promises he made to them, or that they think he made to them, we can only imagine the kind of anger that a sense of betrayal would produce in extremists of that sort. As the prophet Hosea observed, “they that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.”

I want to stress that I am not wishing for any of these outcomes, and certainly not advocating for them. Any one of them would constitute a national trauma, and leave the United States even more divided into hostile camps than ever before. And after all, wouldn’t it be better still if Mr. Trump had a change of heart, and mind, and became the kind of president we all would hope for?

For this reason, let me outline a fifth scenario, and let’s call it a Purim scenario, with Trump in the role of the foolish king, Ahashverosh. We have some good candidates for the part of Haman in his administration, most notably in his senior counselor, Steve Bannon. Melania Trump has pulled a Vashti by not joining her husband at the White House. To select a replacement, Ahashverosh held what is sometimes considered the very first beauty pageant—Trump has had a long history with such events— but if anyone can play the role of Esther in this scenario, it would be his daughter Ivanka, a Jew by choice, who has been acting as a de facto first lady. Trump actually has said that he would want to date Ivanka if she wasn’t his daughter, and some find these and other comments he’s made about her creepy, but then again the traditional Purim story does not quite fit modern standards of propriety when it comes to attitudes toward women.

The important point is that Ivanka is known to be a moderating, even progressive influence on her father, and she is in the perfect position to play the role of savior in the manner of Queen Esther. All we need now is a Mordecai to help to motivate her. With Purim almost upon us, hope (and hopefully humor) springs eternal.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Swimming Up Mainstream

So, I had an interesting exchange with Andrew Hoskins, a professor at the University of Glasgow, based on my quotes in the New York Times, as discussed in my recent blog post, How Netflix Is Deepening Our Cultural Echo Chambers. 

Andrew is currently working on a book about news and the concept of the "mainstream" and how that ideal or myth or sociological reality (take your pick, or view it as some combination of all three) might relate to changes in the media environment. As he put it, "You are spot on when you say that broadcast TV at its height served very significant social, cultural and political roles, but I wonder then to what extent its absence/demise today has shaped the current crisis in faith in the ‘mainstream’?"

Here now is my response, with a bit of editing to make it suitable for Blog Time Passing readers:

I think it might be fruitful to trace the idea of the mainstream back to that of the public. At the start of The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan states that the public was a product of printing. And I think that when you look at Elizabeth Eisenstein's study of typography and its effects, the argument that the printing revolution formed the basis of the public sphere as outlined by Jürgen Habermas, among others, makes a lot of sense. 

This is the basis of Jay Rosen's notion of public journalism. Like me, Jay was a student of Neil Postman's, and his idea parallel's Postman's in Teaching as a Conserving Activity in looking at print-based institutions as needing to work against the biases of the electronic media environment. That's why  Jay argues that journalists need to create a public, and not only try to reach one. 

Of course, the problem is that the public is no more in an electronic environment, the effects of which include the blurring of public and private, as McLuhan, Joshua Meyrowitz in No Sense of Place, and others have noted (much more has been said about the decline and disappearance of privacy, but the fate of the private and the public are intertwined).

I would also note that Jacques Ellul, in his book Propaganda, explains how individualism, in breaking down ties based on tradition, locality, tribe, etc., leads to the mass, which consists of large numbers of individuals without any organic ties. Perhaps we can break this process down, so that the first stage of individualism, which McLuhan, Walter Ong, and others connect to the isolating effect of literacy, results in the formation of the public. 

Detribalized, able to free themselves from the need, in the absence of any external storage medium, to preserve knowledge through collective memory, able to view and review their thoughts and engage in critical evaluation, to think independently and to think novel thoughts, a group of readers becomes a public. As individual members of a public, they share a common literate culture, but one that also depends on orality in the form of public speaking, discussion, debate, deliberation, etc. We associate this type of speech with the agora and other gathering places, from Eisenstein's printers' shops to Habermas's coffee houses, but again it is an orality produced by literate mentalities, as are the dialogues Plato attributes to Socrates. 

Media environments are always built on and incorporate the environments that came before, so the ideal of the Enlightenment is based on a balance between literacy and orality, as Postman has suggested. And maybe there is an inverse relationship between the amount of dialogue and speech that mediates between print media and readers, and the shift from a public to the mass. 

The shift goes along with new technologies, steam powered printing for shifting the orality-literacy balance away from hearing and towards reading, the mechanical reproduction of images and photography as antagonistic to the word in all modes (spoken, written, and printed), telegraphy and further developments in telecommunications as increasing the potential for mass communication. It would follow that what Daniel Boorstin in The Image describes as the graphic revolution, based on these and other innovations, results in a shift from the public to the mass.

Anyway, what I would say is that electronic technology amplified the effects of print, at first, for example in the way that telegraphic messages took the form of telegrams and wire service reports in newspapers. With radio and then television, print became the content of broadcasting, as McLuhan would put it, as programming was often scripted, including news reporting, while programming following a schedule is also very much a typographic type of structure. 

So typographic biases were initially amplified, but it is important to keep in mind that amplification often turns into distortion. 

It was the internet that fully unleashed the potential of the electronic media, bringing back in a new way a kind of neo-tribalism. This relates to McLuhan's laws of media, specifically the law of reversal, as the mass, as an effect of the first stage of electronic telecommunications, flips into siloing, a reversal from the anonymous heterogeneity of the mass into groups based on affinity and shared identity. And/or, maybe the mass in and of itself is ultimately unsustainable, certainly going against the grain of human nature? 

Certainly, printing was associated with homogenizing culture and society, and electronic media always had the potential and the actuality of undoing that effect, that potential muted as long as print remained the content of broadcasting, but now unleashed as broadcasting and telecommunications become the content of online media.

It follows then, that the crisis of the mainstream, or its actual disappearance, is an effect of the electronic media, and quite possibly an irrevocable one at that. 

So, those are my thoughts on the matter, more or less, at least for now. Where do we go from here? That is a hard question to answer.