Categories
Books Politics Review

How to ‘Win Bigly’? Have no shame

Until about two years ago I knew Scott Adams only as the Dilbert guy. But once he started accurately predicting Donald Trump’s unconventional political path using the lenses of persuasion and hypnotism, gaining critics along the way but scoring on predictions over and over when most everyone else was aghast at Trump’s successes, I figured his new book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter was worth the read.

Turns out it was worth it, if only for an understanding of some of the concepts undergirding the chaos that Trump inspires. He calls Trump a “Master Persuader” using “weapons-grade” techniques to flummox opponents and win admirers. Whether it’s his constant Twitter attacks—”It tells people that being his friend is better than being his critic,” says Adams—or his bombastic hyperbole about The Wall—being intentionally inaccurate but “directionally” true will win supporters and fluster opponents—Adams detects and explains what he sees as the method behind the madness. (The “Persuasion Tips” peppered throughout the book are applicable far beyond politics.)

He repeatedly claims his interest in this subject stems not from his politics but from his lifelong interest in persuasion techniques. (His other chief interest? Scott Adams.) It seems true to an extent, but Adams loses some of that nonpartisan credibility by the end of the book when he’s openly cheering for a Trump win.

Despite his compelling arguments, I knew there was another key element to the Trump story. I couldn’t pinpoint it until I recalled a passage from Jon Ronson’s excellent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about Max Mosley, a race car driver and son of a prominent British Nazi who was outed by a tabloid for his seemingly Nazi-themed sex party. Ronson’s book is about the people whose lives were upended when their behavior went viral. But Mosley survived his scandal relatively unscathed. Why?

Like me, [Mosley had] been thinking a lot about what it was about him that had helped him to stave off even the most modest public shaming. And now, he wrote, he thought he had the answer. It was simply that he had refused to feel ashamed. “As soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed,” he said, “the whole thing crumbles.”

A-ha, I thought. That’s it: no shame. That’s the key to Trump not only surviving scandal after scandal, but surviving all the way to the presidency. A normal politician running for president probably wouldn’t have lasted long after insulting John McCain’s war record or calling Mexican immigrants rapists. But he thrived.

(This also explains the vociferous #Resistance to all things Trump. He doesn’t conform to the commonly held assumptions about political behavior, so like a new viral strain or zombie he just refuses to (politically) die. That makes him particularly vexing and infuriating as an opponent.)

Adams basically confirms this shame theory: “I don’t feel shame or embarrassment like normal people. I wasn’t always this way. It’s a learned skill.” No wonder he understands Trump so well! Beyond their persuasion prowess, both men are rich New Yorkers with robust egos but no inner filters. Such a skill set helped build the Trump brand in the business world, and it’s now reshaping politics, the presidency, and the world.

Though reliving the 2016 election through this book won’t sound fun for most people, I recommend it. Adams has written a kind of Rosetta Stone for a less examined aspect of The Trumpening, and I think that’s very valuable and illuminating regardless of your political beliefs.

Notes & Quotes

  • Political commentators without business experience were at a disadvantage when trying to interpret Trump
  • Encourages readers to remain skeptical of his book
  • Trump’s hyperbole “weapons-grade persuasion”: i.e. large opening offer
  • Trump matches emotional state and priorities of supporters
  • Not factually true but emotionally and directionally true
  • Campaign policies are “more persuasion than policy”
  • “When Trump’s critics accused him of laziness, ignorance, and cruel intentions, I saw a skilled persuader who knew what mattered and what didn’t.”
  • Adams has a similar “talent stack” as Trump: hypnotist, New Yorker, rich, doesn’t feel shame: “I don’t feel shame or embarrassment like normal people. I wasn’t always this way. It’s a learned skill.”
  • “Intentional wrongness” paired with something that’s “directionally accurate”, like Trump’s Wall, is powerful persuasion
  • Errors suck up attention and energy
  • Persuasion tip #4: “The things that you think about the most will irrationally rise in importance in your mind.”
  • “A good general rule is that people are more influenced by visual persuasion, emotion, repetition, and simplicity than they are by details and facts.”
  • Persuasion tip #8: “People are more influenced by the direction of things than the current state of things.”
  • Trump is actually thick-skinned, having endured a lifetime of criticism
  • Trump’s constant counterattacking is good persuasion: “It tells people that being his friend is better than being his critic.”
  • A good response to someone’s poor action or words: “Is that the person you want to be?” Higher-Ground Maneuver
  • Says “Fairness is an argument for idiots and children.” [WTF?]
  • Trump’s slogans, branding, nicknames were successful because they were “sticky”, simple, and unusual for politics
Categories
America Media Politics Technology

Ursula Le Guin on the ‘media golem’

A pox upon me for never having read Ursula Le Guin before she died last week. I’ll get right on that, as her reputation is high among many different kinds of readers.

Before diving into her novels, though, I encountered her blog (an 88 year old blogging!) on which last year she posted “Constructing the Golem”, pretty thoroughly diagnosing our political moment and offering advice for overcoming it:

When he does something weird (which he does constantly in order to keep media attention on him), look not at him but at the people whom his irresponsible acts or words affect — the Republicans who try to collaborate with him (like collaborating with a loose cannon), the Democrats and Government employees he bullies, the statesmen from friendly countries he offends, the ordinary people he uses, insults, and hurts. Look away from him, and at the people who are working desperately to save what they can save of our Republic and our hope of avoiding nuclear catastrophe. Look away from him, and at reality, and things begin to get back into proportion.

Or: just don’t look.

He is entirely a creature of the media. He is a media golem. If you take the camera and mike off him, if you take your attention off him, nothing is left — mud.

Oh, would that it were so simple. He is the president, and the office of the presidency is unable to be ignored no matter who occupies its office. This is the present conundrum.

Nicholas Carr, incisive as always, speaks to this in an essay at Politico. He first zooms in on the president’s Twitter addiction:

Thanks to Twitter, the national conversation is now yoked to the vagaries of Trump’s mind. Politics has been subsumed by psychology. Twitter’s formal qualities as an informational medium—its immediacy and ephemerality, its vast reach, its lack of filters—mirror and reinforce the impulsiveness, solipsism, and grandiosity that define Trump’s personality and presidency and, by extension, the times. Banal yet mesmerizing, the president’s Twitter stream distills our strange cultural moment—the moment the noise became the signal.

…and then zooms out on its larger implications:

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the nation and its institutions have become a sort of drug-delivery system engineered to feed the compulsions of a single, unusual man. And given what we know about the way media technologies shape society, a bigger question looms: Are we stuck here for good?

Dear lord I hope not.

A president’s pronouncements will always be news, but they don’t have to grab headlines the way Trump’s tweets routinely do. The messages’ enduring power to seize attention and shape debate springs from a deeper source. It reflects the polarized state of the country and its politics. Among both the president’s fans and his foes, the tweets provoke extreme reactions, which serve to reinforce each side’s confidence in the righteousness of its cause. We listen so intently to Trump’s tweets because they tell us what we want to hear about the political brand we’ve chosen. In a perverse way, they serve as the rallying cries of two opposed and warring tribes.

And when you’re stuck between these two warring tribes, you don’t even get to enjoy the psychological benefits from tribalism. You just witness the carnage and wonder which side you’d rather see lose.

Categories
Books Politics

‘Working toward the truth’ in “How to Think”

There goes Alan Jacobs being right again:

it would be better for all concerned if we were content to say that our political opponents are merely wrong. But that’s unlikely to happen, at least widely, because once you say someone is wrong you commit yourself to explaining why he’s wrong — to the world of argument and evidence — and that makes work for you. Plus, you forego the immense pleasures of moral superiority and righteous indignation. So speculation about our enemies’ motives will continue to be a major feature of our political life, which will have the same practical consequences as Old Man Yells at Cloud.

9780451499608

This is something I wrestle with, especially after reading Jacobs’ excellent new book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World At OddsRighteous indignation and moral superiority—the chief renewable energy source of cable news and Twitter—make for an intoxicating but lethal combo. They don’t negate the ability to think and explain reasonably, but they can easily overpower the desire to, and turn the tendency to emote first and think later into a destructive habit.

Jacobs is one of my favorite cultural and political thinkers. Clear headed, fair minded, intellectually rigorous and generous, his insights in this short book and on his blog are encouraging and timely: how to examine biases, how to reckon with cultural “others”, and how to engage in the hard labor of “working toward the truth” with a generosity of spirit and strength of character.

That last point is important. Lacking generosity and strength of character not only make us bad thinkers, but bad people. There’s a reason the book isn’t called How to Be Right:

When people cease to be people because they are, to us, merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate, then we, in our zeal to win, have sacrificed empathy: we have declined the opportunity to understand other people’s desires, principles, fears. And that is a great price to pay for supposed “victory” in debate.

It’s especially difficult to engage with political opponents who are terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad thinkers. But the sooner we all realize how wrong we can be, and how good and healthy that realization is, the sooner we can become better thinkers and break the vicious cycle our unhealthy human tendencies trap us in.

Another thinker I highly respect is Andrew Sullivan, erstwhile blogger at The Dish and now weekly columnist. His latest tackles the danger of the “right side of history” fallacy:

No party, no cause, no struggle, however worthy, is ever free from evil. No earthly cause is entirely good. And to believe with absolute certainty that you are on “the right side of history,” or on the right side of a battle between “good and evil,” is a dangerous and seductive form of idolatry. It flatters yourself. And it will lead you inevitably to lose your moral bearings because soon, you will find yourself doing and justifying things that are evil solely because they advance the cause of the “good.”

Current events are bearing this out. Idolatry is one of the easier sins to commit because anything can be made into an idol, and we live in a culture that’s particular fertile ground for doing so.

Who are some current writers and thinkers you respect, and why?

Categories
Media Politics

Cool down

At our Subaru dealer for a car tune-up, I spotted this sign beneath the TV on the wall in the waiting room:

img_5004

No, thank you. This rule ought to be extended indefinitely and everywhere. Especially public areas. Cable news of any kind is bad for the mind, body, and soul.

I wonder what happened to inspire this. Fistfights over bad coffee and granola bars? I guess a room full of people waiting to hear how much they’ll be shelling out for their car don’t need much of a push to go over the edge.

Also love the attempted copyediting of the hyphen and “either”. Silent protest?

Categories
America Music Politics

Our National Anthem?

As national anthems go, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is strange. It’s hard to sing, it uses antiquated language, and it doesn’t have its nation’s name in it. Though there are several good alternatives (my pick would be “America the Beautiful” sung by the Schuyler Sisters in perpetuity), the Banner is still here, so we must contend with it.

It’s worth reading the lyrics because when you sing a song over and over, the words lose meaning and the ritual becomes rote. Let’s look at the last four lines:

And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Two points can be made out of this. The first is that not only did the flag survive the bombardment, but its survival was made evident by the bombardment itself. Such a metaphor is especially relevant in present times, and it gives me hope that our nation so conceived and so dedicated can endure its great testing. (And I’m not talkin’ about Colin Kaepernick.)

The second is that it ends with a question. In my one year of high school choir, the director pointed out before we began rehearsing the anthem for a performance that this feature is unique among national anthems, and that’s what makes it so important. That it ends with a question doesn’t come through in the musical rendition, which finishes on a triumphantly resolute note. That question symbolizes America: a nation as an unresolved ideal rather than a declarative statement. A nation with the gall to conclude its musical theme song on an ambivalent note.

Because of this, I fully support those who wish to kneel during the anthem. Kneeling is the perfect symbolic gesture given the intent of Kaepernick’s original protest, which was to draw attention to police brutality. It’s peaceful but effective, participatory but not derogatory. Being halfway down could symbolize the historic and ongoing subjugation of African Americans, whether through mass incarceration or disproportionate police brutality. Or, as Kaepernick’s fellow kneeler Eric Reid wrote, “like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

Since NFL teams weren’t even on the field for the anthem until 2009, when the Department of Defense and National Guard began paying the NFL (with taxpayer money) to have ostentatious flag ceremonies before games (!!!), I’m not going to get worked up about coercing displays of patriotism at sporting events, and the traditional “Don’t Tread On Me” crowd should understand why.

Categories
America Politics

On Living in the Messy Middle

I can’t tell you how much I was nodding along to David Brooks’ column “What Moderates Believe”. The whole thing is quote-worthy, but here are some highlights:

Politics is a limited activity. Zealots look to the political realm for salvation and self-fulfillment. They turn politics into a secular religion and ultimately an apocalyptic war of religion because they try to impose one correct answer on all of life. Moderates believe that, at most, government can create a platform upon which the beautiful things in life can flourish. But it cannot itself provide those beautiful things. Government can create economic and physical security and a just order, but meaning, joy and the good life flow from loving relationships, thick communities and wise friends. The moderate is prudent and temperate about political life because he is so passionate about emotional, spiritual and intellectual life.

And:

Truth before justice. All political movements must face inconvenient facts — thoughts and data that seem to aid their foes. If you try to suppress those facts, by banning a speaker or firing an employee, then you are putting the goals of your cause, no matter how noble, above the search for truth. This is the path to fanaticism, and it always backfires in the end.

And:

Partisanship is necessary but blinding. Partisan debate sharpens opinion, but partisans tend to justify their own sins by pointing to the other side’s sins. Moderates are problematic members of their party. They tend to be hard on their peers and sympathetic to their foes.

That last part is so true, much to the chagrin of some of my debate partners. Even if we partly or mostly agree on a certain topic, with the perspective of “the other side” rattling around in my head I’m liable to push back against whatever views we share on the topic. Though it sounds like devil’s-advocating, I don’t do it for the sake of being contrarian. It’s merely an acknowledgement of the part of me that compulsively empathizes with the viewpoint of my idealogical opposite.

I can’t decide if this is a gift or a disease. Part of me wishes I could dedicate myself to a particular cause and banish all doubt about it. Being in the messy middle is a frustrating and sometimes lonely experience, and the walls are always closing in. Turning beliefs into deeply held convictions and advocating for them would provide a reassuring clarity of mission and reduce or eliminate the need for constant vacillation.

But I have to be honest with myself and others about where I stand, even if that means not standing in one place. “Humility is the fundamental virtue,” writes Brooks. “Humility is a radical self-awareness from a position outside yourself — a form of radical honesty. The more the moderate grapples with reality the more she understands how much is beyond our understanding.”

Realizing how little I know, how wrong I probably am, is freedom. It’s freedom from the self-imprisonment we impose on our minds when we insist we know everything, and that everyone else must agree with us or else.

This phenomenon of dogmatic certainty is most evident these days in the ongoing battles between “I love punching Nazis” SJW types and the jack-booted white nationalists #MAGA crowd. These are two groups who are very sure of their beliefs and righteousness of their causes. Hat-tip to Rod Dreher for spotlighting these posts, which illustrate why they are two sides of the same coin:

It’s not fun being a political orphan, or being constantly mired in a swamp of second-guessing. But I’m a moderate because I have to be, and I will not apologize for this. I am open to hearing your opinion, even if I don’t like it and tell you so. The times are too dark to not struggle for the light.

Categories
Politics

Trump: a “marvelously efficient acid bath”

I keep thinking about George Will’s idea that Trump is like chemotherapy for the GOP: “a nauseating but, if carried through to completion, perhaps a curative experience.” Will wrote that column before the election, assuming Trump would lose. The curative experience he expected was for the GOP to realize its error in nominating, in his words, a “venomous charlatan” and finally reform its ways. (LOL)

But what he wrote still stands, even with Trump as president. The curative experience has come not from Trump’s defeat, but from how people have reacted to his success. “Trump is a marvelously efficient acid bath,” Will continued, “stripping away his supporters’ surfaces, exposing their skeletal essences.”

We’ve gotten to see the skeletal essences of many people energized by Trump’s election. Some see in Trump only what they want to see, and others see him for what he really is and say so, even when politically risky. Commentary editor John Podhoretz, commenting on Charlottesville, is one of the latter:

The president’s refusal to name the evil in our midst is the behavior of a man whose moral sense is stunted — if he has a moral sense at all. This is what I feared would be the case when he became president.

Perhaps those who say I have an obligation as a conservative to support Trump should wonder what their moral obligations require.

The last year or so has been very clarifying. David Frum, Bill Kristol, Ross Douthat, John Podhoretz, David French, and other conservative pundits I previously opposed to varying degrees (and still might on some issues) have revealed themselves to be principled thinkers, criticizing Trump early and often, even when doing so during the election exposed them to attack from their right flank. I respect them for standing tall then and sticking with their principles now.

If we make it through all this alive, we’ll be stronger for it.

Categories
America Books Education Politics Review

The Vanishing American Adult

51gFJx7Js5L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI can’t believe it. I think I may have just found a Republican U.S. senator I’d actually vote for.

I’m as surprised as anyone that I read, let alone greatly enjoyed, Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance by Ben Sasse, Republican (but, phew, #NeverTrump) senator from Nebraska. I really think the only reason I picked it up was because Sasse’s face isn’t on the cover. If it were, it would look like every other politician’s memoir and therefore a waste of time.

But this isn’t that, not by a long shot. Sasse, a Ph.D in history and former college president, was troubled by the lack of certain skills and self-sufficiency in his college’s incoming freshman classes. He doesn’t use the term, but it’s those darn Millennials he’s talking about. Though the book does give off the slightest aroma of Kids These Days and Back In My Day, I’m inclined to endure it because Sasse is largely right.

Part I examines education, which Sasse sees as the root of the current coming-of-age crisis. He’s not a fan of John Dewey, who crusaded to make schooling the central influence on children, rather than make it something that was supplemental to the education children should receive at home. (No surprise that the Sasses homeschool their kids.) But he’s right about the self-perpetuating nature of bureaucracy and how it runs counter to good education:

Unfortunately, centralized education and bureaucrats tend to see every failure as a product of still not enough centralized bureaucracy. Most of these experts are blind to the possibility that perhaps we are still trying to spoon-feed young adults who we should instead nudge to travel and to read, to work and to become the kind of students to ask questions before being handed a three-point formulaic answer.

One man’s boilerplate Republican talking point is another’s sensible conservative approach to an evident problem.

Beyond the school walls, Sasse sees a conglomeration of factors that have led to the current coming of age crisis: too much medication, screen time, video games, and porn; living with parents too long and getting married later; too much helicopter parenting and intellectual sheltering and not enough religion. One can debate each of these to death, but taken together it’s a potent cocktail for Peter Panism.

Part II gets into the practicalities of cultivating self-discipline and good character and how they can foster a healthy transition to adulthood: avoid age segregation, work hard, consume less, travel, and read a lot. Basic stuff, right? Sasse dives into each of them. As a librarian I was especially tickled by the chapter on reading: Sasse has developed his own “essential reading” library that is impressive in its scope and depth, and even inspired me to pick up The Iliad in my ongoing quest to fill in the gaps of my public education.

I don’t foresee any more books by politicians on my reading horizon, so I’m glad I lucked out with this one.

Some Quotes

Production > consumption:

Consumption is not the key to happiness; production is. Meaningful work—that actually serves and benefits a neighbor, thereby making a real difference in the world—contributes to long-term happiness and well-being. Consumption just consumes.

Self-sufficiency > permanent dependency:

Allowing our culture to devolve from one that encourages self-sufficiency into one that indulges permanent dependency is to tolerate a disengagement of the soul akin to permanent training wheels. Letting the next generation believe someone else will solve their problems imperils not only them but our whole society.

Aging > perpetual adolescence:

We latch onto evidence hinting that aging can be put off, perhaps indefinitely. It’s no surprise then that our young today inherit a fear of growing up and growing old, and a near allergy to confronting honestly the only certainty in life besides taxes. …

Denying meaningful rites of passage and obscuring the distinction between childhood and adulthood cheats the generation coming of age of something vital. Lowering expectations, cushioning all blows, and tolerating aimlessness not only hurts them, it also deprives their neighbors, who desperately need their engagement.

Categories
America Politics

So?

Remember in 2008 when Dick Cheney, when confronted with polls showing two-thirds of Americans opposed the Iraq War quagmire, responded with So?

I thought about that when I read this part of the Washington Post‘s story on Obama’s struggle to punish Russia for Putin’s election assault:

In early September, Johnson, Comey, and Monaco arrived on Capitol Hill in a caravan of black SUVs for a meeting with 12 key members of Congress, including the leadership of both parties.

The meeting devolved into a partisan squabble.

“The Dems were, ‘Hey, we have to tell the public,’ ” recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.

Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.

So? went McConnell. With apologies to “Make America Great Again”, the most important slogan of the 2016 election was “When they go low, we go high”. It’s a beautiful sentiment that is also a recipe for failure when your opponents are the Dick Cheneys and Mitch McConnells of the world, who go low like their lives depend on it.

If the investigation into Russia’s election interference and the Trump administration’s collusion proves substantive, I predict the only thing we’ll hear from McConnell, Ryan & Co is one big fat So?

The American Health Care Act will throw 23 million people out of health coverage and gut Medicaid in order to give the rich a massive tax cut they don’t need. So?

Trump has mishandled classified info, failed to disclose financial conflicts of interest, threatened the FBI director, and so much more they’d be pissed about if he were a Democrat. So?

And so on.

God help us all.

Categories
Media Politics Presidents

Fakelin Newsevelt

Learned a lot from Susan Douglas’s Listening In: Radio And The American Imagination about the development of radio technology and culture, and their impact on 20th century America. Also learned, in a tidbit about Franklin Roosevelt’s crusade against newspapers, that he sounded a lot like another ostensibly anti-media president:

Privately, the president in 1940 ask the new FCC Chairman, Lawrence Fly, “Will you let me know when you propose to have a hearing on newspaper ownership of radio stations?” Publicly, through his press secretary, Steve Early, Roosevelt told broadcasters that “the government is watching” to see if they air any “false news.” Radio, Early warned, “might have to be taught manners if it were a bad child.” Network executives understood “false news” to be news critical of the administrations policies.

The past isn’t dead, etc.