Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Good Grief. Class Dismissed

When grief suddenly befalls us, denial and anger are the initial and most formidable emotions we experience.  Unable to accept tragedy, we deny it.  But unable to deny tragedy, we get angry.  The ultimate goal of healing is to accept what has happened without resentment.  But to get there we must first deal with turbulent feelings of anger and denial and find our way beyond them.  It’s not an easy task.  We don't want to face painful facts.  Instead, we vacillate between dream states and waking states, anger and denial, caught in an anguishing battle of emotions.  Many strong people are unable to work beyond anger.  They remain resentful for years to come. It drips from their lips.  Others surrender to the neurosis of denial, a pitiful way to live. Most people eventually work through it, beyond the next stages of bargaining and depression that eventually lead to acceptance. Emotional equilibrium is restored only when we accept the facts for what they are and make peace with them. Most readers are familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief.  I won’t belabor the details. 

Instead, come with me back to the 1980s, when I was a young professor of philosophy at a university in the south.  One of my undergraduate courses was introduction to logic.  I often brought a newspaper editorial to class, and I asked my students to help me analyze it.  The goal was to help them understand the difference between statements of fact and statements of opinion.  Statements of fact oftentimes are nothing more than cleverly disguised statements of opinion.  The writer may not even be aware that he is shifting from fact to fiction.  Verbs, adverbs and modifiers are the clue. Helping students recognize the shift is a satisfying experience.  I enjoyed watching the scales fall off their eyes...then watching them smile like a butcher's dog.

In those days, I didn't care to weigh in with my own opinion about a chosen editorial other than for analytical purposes, or else to parse the logical implications of a truth-claim.  Liberal and conservative editorials were on the table, whether about politics or social issues, and it made no difference which.

Sometimes, with a particular editorial in hand, I divided the class into a "pro" and "con" side and required each side to defend their assigned perspective.  The point of view they had to defend might conflict with their personal views, and perhaps wildly so.  That didn't matter.  The point of the exercise was for each side to research their assigned position and make the best case they could, based on "facts" and reasoning from those facts  I served as moderator.  It was always fun.  I could jump in at any time and stoke the fire, as I often did, but equally for both sides, as needed.

Times have changed.  So have I.  These days, I care little about weighing in unless my personal opinion is included.  I guess that happens with age.  But the pedagogical approach is as useful today as it was then.

Here's an example of how I might analyze a piece of journalism in a classroom today.  My editorial at hand is an article entitled The demagogic genius of Donald J. Trump, by Damon Linker, which I happened upon because of the title.  The title itself is snappy.  Sounds like the author might be a full-throated Trump supporter, except for the word demagogic, which catches my eye, especially when coupled with genius.  Still, the header works. I'm curious.  Words have both denotative and connotative meaning. Here's how the logical math works for most readers. Demagogue = Hitler = bad.  Genius = Einstein = good.  Einstein had little in common with Hitler. Therefore, the descriptor demagogic genius sounds like an oxymoron...the earmark of an editorial that is perfect for classroom use.

In an effort to simulate what I once did in the classroom, I have added editorial comments after each segment of Damon Linker's article.  My comments are in bold.

Anyway, let's begin.  Here's the opening paragraph of Mr. Linker’s article, along with my comments and questions to the class:
(In) the two weeks since Donald Trump's shocking victory, the press has devoted a substantial chunk of its coverage to enumerating the president-elect's many faults.  He's temperamentally unfit to serve as president. He's ignorant of policy. He's corrupt. His early choices to serve in his administration are racistanti-Semiticextremistunhinged. And of course the whole thing is frighteningterrifyinghorrifying.
This appears to be a straight-forward summary of how the press miss the boat by fabricating the visage of a horrible monster. They assign false, imaginary, and pejorative attributes to Trump that most Americans know to be untrue, otherwise they wouldn't have voted for him, but the fabricators (ie, the press) still don't get it, so they continue to fabricate. That's how the paragraph seems to read.  The press bought into their own made-up monster stories.  Too bad for them.  Live and learn seems to be the lesson.
But, wait!  When Mr. Linker refers to Trump's many faults, enumerated in the sentences that follow, is he describing the press's mistaken perspective of Trump or voicing his own belief about Trump?  The answer matters.  One can read the paragraph several ways.  More probing is needed.
So on we go, forging into the meat of Mr. Linker's article.  In the next paragraph, he writes:
The ominous fact is that Trump is undeniably one of the greatest intuitive political geniuses in history.
Hmm.  That's an interesting twist and quite an astounding claim.  In the first paragraph, we were talking about mistakes made by the press, or so it seemed.  In the second paragraph, the author seems to stating his personal opinion.  Let's investigate.
An ominous fact?  To whom, Mr. Linker?  The press?  You?  All of us?  I'm starting to enjoy your writing, but the sense of it is confusing.  Please clarify.  
An ominous fact? What makes it factual?  Facts are stubborn things. Give me some.
Then there's the word undeniable.  Undeniable to whom?  Are you still talking about the press and its fantasies?  It doesn't seem you are.  
And then there's your most creative phrase in the article.  After referring to the claim as undeniable, you insist that Trump is one of the greatest intuitive political geniuses in history.  That's a creative assembly of descriptors.  I'm jealous of your wordsmith skills.  But, seriously?  Who are you comparing him to, and why?  A genius?  Seriously?  Who believes this, other than you? And for what reasons? Birds seem like geniuses to lizards.  But does that make birds hyper-intelligent? Maybe the only difference between them is that birds can fly.  Might you feel insecure over having been caught with your pants down. Give us some facts. Trump claimed that he tapped into a movement. Does that mean most Americans are intuitive geniuses...among the greatest in political history...merely by virtue of recognizing Trump's siren call?  Such as moi?  That's doubtful. And you know as much.  Most of us are just plain folks who understand plain facts.
I'm getting confused by the author's lack of facts and substantial evidence.  This is beginning to sound a lot like journalistic hyperbole, a guy with a keyboard, some word skills, and an axe to grind.  But, hey, maybe I'm wrong.  Mr. Linker may be promoting me from vulgarian to genius.  I'll read on to find out.
He continues: 
This doesn't mean that Trump had it all planned out ahead of time, like some Machiavelli from Manhattan . On the contrary, I suspect he's as surprised as anyone that the quixotic campaign he launched in June of 2015 has delivered him to the front door of the White House. As I said, he's an intuitive genius. Radicalizing certain recent tendencies of the Republican Party and diverging from it in others, Trump tried something new and it worked. The most discontented voters in the party listened to his message and responded to it, probably without realizing that this is what they wanted. In that sense, Trump conjured into existence the very populist movement that has now catapulted him to the presidency. In the process, he managed to rejigger the GOP electoral coalition and wrest control of the party away from its leadership.

First, if Trump actually contemplated running for President before he announced it, does that make him a scheming Machiavellian?  Consider that it might also make him normal.  Most people know what they are about to do. Machiavallian scheming is not a prerequisite.  Is there something you're not telling us, Mr. Linker?
Second, suspect is a weasel word.  It means you are simply guessing but want to sound wise.
Third, you claim that Trump radicalized tendencies among Republicans.  But hasn't it been shown that it was Democrats who paid good money for activists to create havoc and violence at Trump rallies? Do you recall the hired activists who shut down a Trump rally in Chicago and blocked traffic and incited fights at other rallies around the country? You might want to mention those facts.  Bernie fans will nod in approval if you do.
Fourth, why might Trump have been surprised by his success?  Can you cite the moment when his surprise was evident to you or any other reasonable observer? And what about it was quixotic?  As in Don Quixote, tilting at windmills?  Facts, please.  At least a couple.  And explain what you mean. I'm getting impatient.  As I mentioned earlier, your writing style is lucid but your meaning is opaque.  It makes me antsy.  I'm getting frustrated.
Fifth, are you saying Trump's discontented voters didn't realize what they wanted? Or were not self-aware? Or were stupid?  Please clarify.  You claim they didn't realize what they wanted until they heard him speak?  Does that mean they can't think for themselves until someone tells them what to think?  Isn't that a silly conundrum?  All these questions are making me dizzy.  I need some answers. Anything.  Throw me a bone.
Sixth, you go on to say that Trump conjured into existence a populist movement. Really?  He claims that he tapped into a massive national sentiment.  You say that he hypnotized the masses. To quote Jeb Bush in the primary debates, C'mon, man. Pick one side or the other, Mr. Linker. Are they naturally stupid, or did Trump mesmerize them into stupidity?  Please choose one, or choose an alternative, and then explain.
Finally, isn't jiggering racist, and rejiggering even more racist?  Have you no decency, Mr. Linker?  Two can play this game. And, BTW, Trump's alleged rejiggering led to more votes from blacks, hispanics, independents and cross-over Democrats than occurred in either the 2008 or 2012 election, based on actual facts, so please explain the jiggering involved, other than suggesting that the jigs are white and non-white people who are stupid and subject to hypnosis.  Perhaps you simply are referring to Hamilton cast members?  Your referent is unclear.
I'd like to say that Mr. Linker is done, but he's not.  Having built a head of steam, he heads straight for the brick wall:

The revolution was about policy — immigration, trade, and the economic and cultural decline of the white working class — but it was at least as much about attitude. Trump was (and continues to be) George Wallace with a Twitter account — a demagogue spewing venomous anger and disgust about the multiple "disasters" confronting the country directly to like-minded voters with no intermediary at all, circumventing the heads of his party, mainstream media outlets, and even the retinue of advisers who ran his campaign.
Trump's unorthodox actions, regularly ridiculed by pundits, revealed just how institutionally conservative the gatekeepers are. They strive to uphold norms, propriety, habits — and Trump shredded them over and over again. 

Ah, finally, we're introduced to the taxpaying white working class, 'cause at this point you knew it was coming.  Those folks once were the darlings of Democrats, who demanded justice for the working man and woman.  Not so much these days. Social Marxism now requires working-class whites to be thrown under the bus, along with any minorities who share their work ethic.  Since Nov 8, we've been constantly reminded that nothing ruins a good election like those damn tax-paying working-class white people.  You know the ones. They finished high school and went to work. Or went to college and got a job.  The same folks that voted twice for Obama, or at least most of them did, though they now regret it.  I guess that fact didn't fit the narrative of Linker's mythical genius.
Donald Trump is George Wallace with a twitter account?  That's a clever phrase but too cute by half.  What happened to the Hitler analogy?  Too hackneyed?  Is the mask now off, Mr. Linker?
He is a demagogue?  Supporting evidence, please.  He was as popular among voters as Obama in 2012, under the circumstances, a fact that cannot be parsed merely by throwing out the word demagogue.  You can do better, and you know it.
He spews venomous anger?  Please cite compelling evidence of venomous anger and spewing,
Trump's anger has arisen due to multiple "disasters?"  Note to Mr. Linker.  Putting a word in quotes does not make its meaning trivial. 
Who are the intermediaries you reference?  Do you mean yourself?  Or the NY Times, WaPo, NBC, CNN or their corporate media cousins?  Are you claiming they are our paradigms of propriety and the true custodians of public information?  You say they uphold the norms, propriety, (and) habits that Trump shredded?  In what sense are they institutionally conservative?  Normative?  Proper?  I'm not familiar with those features of contemporary journalism.
BTW, who comprises the retinue of advisers that Trump ignored.  Weren't son-in-law Jared Kushner and campaign strategist Steve Bannon central players in that retinue? What did they recommend that he ignored?  Facts suggest just the opposite of what you claim. 
Nice try, Mr. Linker, but sorry, you can't put lipstick on that pig. 
I'll stop the fantasy analysis here.  It becomes tiresome after a while.  The rest of the article is but more of the same drivel.  You might read it f you need the practice.  I'll warn you in advance, though, you won't learn much in terms of fact.  But it may help sharpen your analytical skills. 

In the final analysis, Mr. Linker proves to be a butt-kisser with a conflicted conscience.  He attempts to discreetly signal his solidarity with his media colleagues.  He knows they have been as presumptuous and willfully blind as he is.  They have been myth-makers, in fact, though none will admit it.  Mr. Linker wants to be the one to say so.  Confession is good for the soul.  I regard Linker's confession as a left-handed mea culpa.  And I say this to his credit.  He's almost beyond the denial stage.  I'm rooting for him.

Grief is painful.  Denial and anger are difficult emotions to maneuver on the way to final acceptance. Mr. Linker has a ways to go.  But he seems to be on the journey.  He might consult Kubler-Ross on the various rites of passage.  It's a road less traveled by journalists these days.

Class dismissed.


R. Stephen Bowden blogs at the Steve Bowden Journal.