Tuesday, November 29, 2016

On myths, facts, and the blogosphere

I know a friend who despises opinion pieces. He is a cynic when it comes to commentaries and as such, measure commentators (political or otherwise) on the basis of their fidelity to facts. Now facts, as the saying goes, are sacred, and comment free, but for all he cares this friend tends to disparage certain writers based on their lack of regard for the truth: journalism, for him at least, must be stripped of frill. The truth and nothing but the truth is what he aspires for in whatever he reads (barring the occasional novel or comic book, of course). I can’t say I agree with him entirely, but I will say this: I am no fan of opinion columnists, and going by that logic, at least when it comes to such columns, I am no fan of writing them either.

At one level I suppose it has to do with the blogosphere. There are so many writers out there on the net that it’s difficult to set some sense of uniformity. It’s difficult to standardise, in other words. Those who rant and rave, for the lack of a better way of putting it, rant and rave to their hearts’ content, never mind whether or not the extrapolations and the analyses they make come close to the truth.

The best columnists, to my mind at least, don’t indulge in such rants: they are careful to support what they write with what they know. There’s a reason, after all, why Keats, despite his saturated paens and tributes to love, is definitely not the superior of the likes of Pushkin: the former was young, too young, to talk of what he talked about with any concreteness.

All this came to me during the days that followed the American Election. I observed in this column two weeks ago that we shouldn’t care about the results because whoever wins and whoever loses, it’s still the same show when it comes to US foreign policy. There the matter would have ended, if not for the almost ceaseless barrage of comments and opinion pieces that Sri Lankans kept on writing. It would be interesting, I hence thought, to delve into some of these comments and glean from them a sense of the political that their writers exhibit, and how, at the end of the day, they congeal to their awareness (or the lack thereof) of the political in their country.

First and foremost, as Nalaka Gunawardene pointed out in a column last week, Donald Trump is everything the alt-right (or alternative right) could have dreamt of: a global warming sceptic, a panderer to hardcore evangelists and fundamentalists (while being an atheist), and a pragmatist in the world of business. “We can only hope that Trump’s business pragmatism would prevail over climate action” is a parting shot Gunawardene takes at the American president. We agree. In yet another article written before this, he went on to argue that what we saw was a “largely fact-free election choosing a (mostly) fact-resistant winner.” What of that?

To the extent that Trump’s perception as a fact-resistant candidate is based on his crass handling and distortion of facts, I agree. Malinda Seneviratne, on the other hand, who is less prone to dichotomies that characterise the American political scene, argued that it cut both ways: Clinton’s bid for the presidency was defeated because of facts (her past record, her husband’s devious stances on foreign policy, and her economic views), while Trump worked on the fears of outside invasion which can, as I observed two weeks ago, congeal into a whole electorate unless they are addressed in time. The former was based on realities, the latter on myths.

Who won what? As Paul Krugman puts it, “Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than two million, and she would probably be president-elect if the director of the FBI hadn’t laid such a heavy thumb on the scales, just days before the election.” That heavy thumb, to put things in perspective, got a whole lot heavier when Trump supporters whipped up a campaign of irrational frenzy against her.

In a context where political preferences are framed by the obsessive need to pick a champion, how is it possible to (de)select candidates based on the (as important) need to choose the lesser of the two evils? It is here, I think, that most commentators are batting for a six and failing miserably, starting with one pertinent point: dichotomising candidates based on the perceived lesser evil tends to distort the truth.

That is why I can’t understand why writers (here and elsewhere) consider gender as the predominant factor in the election. I believe the tussle between Trump and Clinton was more dependent on perceptions: on who was standing for the Establishment and who was against it. Democrats who are whining about the winner losing at the Electoral College (for Trump is the fifth president to lose the popular vote) should consider the man they ignored. Gender figured in, yes, but if Democrats are so worried about gender, one can ask, why did they conveniently throw out Bernie Sanders (through the flaws of the system) who stood for gender equality in a less ambivalent way than Clinton?

That’s just one fact. Here’s another. Unlike in 2000, when Ralph Nader campaigned as an independent candidate and effectively “robbed” key votes which would have ensured victory for Al Gore, neither Jill Stein nor Gary Johnson (the man who did not know what Aleppo was) courted enough popularity for one to conclude that they did for Clinton what Nader did for Gore.

Fact is, not enough young people voted for Clinton: they were either fed up with the System (because of which Sanders was kicked out) or worried about electing a warmonger for a president (for Clinton, despite what her supporters can and will say, was the lady who jubilantly said, “We came, we saw, he died!” of Muammar Gaddafi). They couldn’t vote for Trump because he was far, far away from their ideals, and because of their idealism they decided to stay at home. How close was the fight, then? “If just one in 100 voters changed their votes to Clinton, the electoral college votes would have been 307 Clinton, 231 Trump. Not much of a landslide, really” was what a lecturer in Political Science in Texas observed. True.

Forget all that. I still don’t get this gender argument. Trump, so the conventional wisdom goes, courted the mythmakers, the worst elements of a society touted as the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave: homophobes, sexists, and racists. Should we be worried? Of course. But to argue that gender (or for that matter ethnicity) was all that figured in the election would be (and I say this at the cost of irking those arguing otherwise) as reductionist as saying that Trump was an anti-Establishment candidate (which is, by the way, the most common observation made by those vouching for the man, even here).

Yes, he made some unseemly comments about women that the mainstream media in the US made use of, only to irk those who supported him even more. But does this make the other candidate progressive? “Progressivism is a disease!” is what Glenn Beck loved to shout out. Now Glenn holds the Founding Fathers in esteem and criticises if not trashes the likes of Clinton, but reading his rants against liberal politicos, I questioned myself, “Who is progressive in this world? Obama? Clinton? Ralph Nader?”

Besides and more importantly, what is progressivism? Is it being soft on foreign policy, in which case no candidate can be singled out and commended? Or is it being soft on domestic policies, in which case one can cut (only) some slack for the Democrats? The truth, as anyone with any sense of history will tell you, is that the American electoral system cannot and will not promote the likes of Howard Dean or Bernie Sanders, by which I am not criticising it (after all there have been electoral systems which have taken in and crowned Hitler and Ferdinand Marcos) but only commenting. And yes, that was a comment for all those who think that the United States is capable of electing a Pierre Trudeau.

Just the other day I came across an article that claimed to explain why so many Sri Lankans (here and there) supported Trump. This article attempted a miracle: to jump from misogyny in the American system to misogyny in Sri Lanka’s education system to the politicisation of Buddhism to the chauvinism inculcated in mono-ethnic schools here! Some points were valid, others were not, but all in all I couldn’t help but think back on that friend I alluded to at the beginning of this piece, and what he had to tell me at one point: shouldn’t such extrapolations be made with a pinch of salt?

Nationalism, some say, is over. I wouldn’t agree. Nationalism is here to stay. Whether you are from the States or from Sri Lanka, if you are a presidential candidate you cannot, will not, and shall not win or clinch the presidency if you belittle the fears of the majority. Obama was no saint (who is?) but when it came to the final reckoning, his perceived saintliness ticked off the fundamentalists whose fears were not being addressed. Can one blame them? I for one cannot, even though there is much in them that I oppose and will continue to oppose.

Going by that, I can with all sincerity say that the most common misconception made by writers of such opinion pieces as that quoted above is this: in their bid to champion the lesser of the two evils, they forget the tendency of the System to twist and contort the most idealistic candidate.

As Padraig Colman pointed out in a series of perceptive articles on Trump and Clinton (published by "Ceylon Today"), neither candidate was perfect. Well, the truth is that no one is perfect, not you and not me, but in this rush to commend the less imperfect person we are entranced by personalities so much that we forget that the mere lack of any DISCERNIBLE flaws cannot and will not salvage a person from his or her corruption at the hands of the Establishment. That explains the many U-turns made by leaders both in America and in this country, U-turns that seem to get no press and which depress the idealist into thinking that there’s no hope left in a polity.

A prominent political commentator once told me, quite candidly, that there was nothing black about Obama, only the colour of his skin: a contention I subscribe to (with some reservation). What Obama did (and his legacy, whether one likes it or not, is not palatable to the idealist) was basically conceal the deficiencies of a system that couldn’t be bottled for long.

To add fuel to the proverbial fire, he was offering as his successor a person who represented everything the American Right wanted in a more aggressive candidate: pushing for interventionism, arguing for external interference, and championing unilateral action in a context where R2P (Responsibility to Protect) is being pointed out as a justifiable alternative to the sovereignty of a country. In this regard, is it a wonder that Trump won? Not really. Blue-eyed idealists, however, will have a hard time swallowing that.

Fidel Castro died last Saturday. He was 90. He spent the better part of his life combating the many myths that the West bred and perpetuated about him. I will not spend time on Castro (I leave that for next week’s column), but I will say this: for a man beset with so many falsities by the mainstream media, he triumphed and trumped. He never lost. Not once. Says a lot about perception and reality, when it comes to politics that is. Commentators who continue to lament the defeat of "idealistic" candidates, I believe therefore, should spend more time reading the many op-eds, essays, and articles written on him, mostly by those who see in him the devil he (almost) never was.

George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” He could have been writing of the voter: suckered into supporting a candidate who hides behind a veneer of sophistication and respectability, who upon victory embraces the same values that same voter opposed. In such a context, who should we blame? Naturally, ourselves.

Written for: Ceylon Today, November 29 2016