- 14 Jul - 20 Jul, 2018
HOW TRUMP IS USING THE MEDIA TO SELL HIMSELF
- 23 Jun - 29 Jun, 2018
- A Letter From America
It’s an interesting challenge in these times, to say the least, to write a topical “Letter from America” for a weekly magazine in Pakistan. And I’ve mentioned before how the challenge is enhanced by the week or so delay between my deadline and publication. That would be challenging in any circumstances, but at a time like this, when so much is so unpredictable from week to week and even day to day, it really is never easy to know what to write about, or how.
I restate this point to remind myself and you that, in a way, it’s the very uncertainty and unpredictability of our world that is the subject we should be writing and reading about. And in a way, the delay between writing and publication is helpful in forcing us to take a longer view. And a longer view is exactly what’s called for.
So what do we see if we take a longer view? We see that we – or at least some of the ancestors of some of us – have been here before. “What is new in totalitarianism,” wrote George Orwell in 1946, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on the pain of damnation, but on the other hand, they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.” Orwell wrote that in an essay suggestively titled “The Prevention of Literature,” invoked recently by the Russian-American writer Masha Gessen in a speech in Spain adapted into an essay in The New Yorker.
“Orwell had observed the disfavour and disappearance of prominent Bolsheviks and the resulting adjustments to the official narratives of the [Russian] Revolution – the endlessly changing and vanishing commissars,” Gessen points out. “[Hannah] Arendt argued that the instability was, in fact, the point and purpose of the purges: the power of the regime depended not so much on eliminating particular men at particular moments but on the ability to eliminate any man at any moment. Survival depended on one’s sensitivity to the ever-changing stories and one’s ability to mold oneself to them.”
The ever-changingness of the stories, and the compulsion, driven from the regime itself, to mode ourselves to them: these should ring a bell for Americans now. Orwell defined literature as (in Gessen’s words) “a sort of conversation” or (in Orwell’s own words) “an attempt to influence the viewpoint of one’s contemporaries by recording experience.” He went on to emphasize that “there is no such thing as a genuinely non-political literature, and least of all in an age like our own, when fears, hatreds, and loyalties of a directly political kind are near the surface of everyone’s consciousness.”
So there is more at stake than mere confusion or distraction. Or rather, confusion and distraction are part of the point of the way Trump is misgoverning the United States. I’m not original in observing this, but it bears repeating early and often. The task at hand, which is both individual and collective, is to exercise our attention. How do we do that? First and foremost, by refusing to accept the framing and definitions proffered by the regime. Some journalists and media outlets help us do this, but many don’t, and we can’t rely on them.
This is the point made recently in a Guardian op-ed by George Lakoff and Gil Duran. “Donald Trump has been a salesman for nearly half a century,” they wrote. “He is now selling himself, his worldview and his self-serving views of the law and the truth. His principal tools are language and the media. By faithfully transmitting Trump’s words and ideas, the press helps him to attack, and thereby control, the press itself. Trump knows the press has a strong instinct to repeat his most outrageous claims, and this allows him to put the press to work as a marketing agency for his ideas. His lies reach millions of people through constant repetition in the press and social media and this... this poses an existential threat to democracy.”
The press is at a disadvantage, they argue, “when dealing with a super salesman with an instinctive ability to manipulate thought by 1) framing first 2) repeating often, and 3) leading others to repeat his words by getting people to attack him within his own frame.”
Having been a practicing journalist for nearly 30 years, I have a practitioner’s understanding of just how difficult it is for working journalists to break out of the trap that Lakoff and Duran correctly identify, functioning within established media institutions and their long-ingrained habits. One of these is the habit of deferring to the presumed dignity and credibility of the presidential office. “As president of the United States, anything he says – true or false – is faithfully parroted by the press,” write Lakoff and Duran. “This needs to change. … Our survival requires that the press halt its unwitting complicity in his power grab.”
I agree, and as a member of the press myself I’m trying to do my part. But increasingly, I’m inclined to feel that the more important opportunity and responsibility belongs not to writers, but to all of us as readers.
What I mean by this is that each of us has the opportunity – and the responsibility – to do the mental exercise of stretching our attention span, just as we do physical exercise to stretch our muscles. Journalists and media outlets have responsibilities, to be sure, just as politicians and political institutions do. But as individuals, you and I can’t control whether they live up to their responsibilities.
So each of us needs to do what’s within his or her own control. And part of what we can control is how we spend our attention. If you go offline and read a good book instead, when you finish it, America and the world will still be in crisis. But your understanding, your attention span, and your emotional state will all be improved. And if enough of us do that every week, the world will be a better place. •
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