Saturday, June 23, 2018

Homey Don’t Play That

By William Hausdorff

Tuning Out the Media after the Diplotainment in Singapore

It’s really easy to become discouraged about global politics and the state of the American experiment. Earlier this month I hit a personal low point, where I felt I was truly missing something, as I watched the US news media’s ability to reduce the US-North Korean “event” to a mixture of wishful thinking and reality TV.  

One can almost forgive the vacuousness of the news coverage of President Trump’s Mighty Handshake with Kim Jong-Un, since the bar was set so ominously low:  just a few months earlier Trump and Kim were publicly comparing missile sizes. 

But other than a rhetorical cease-fire, what kind of deal could have possibly been expected with a US leader who revels in contradicting himself, who surrounds himself with a war-mongering Secretary of State and National Security Advisor that have each spoken about militarily overthrowing the North Korean government, and who are all categorically against negotiations? 

This is the same leader who has just walked away from multiple international agreements endorsed by previous US governments (on climate change, Iran, NAFTA), not to mention his own endorsement of the G-7 communiqué only days before.  With the Trump “negotiators” gleefully admitting to minimal preparation, how could any grown-up reporter or news analyst expect any meaningful agreement with the North Koreans?

Finally, even if the North Korean regime were remotely serious about sticking to an agreement this time, highly doubtful in itself, why would Kim—or indeed, any rational leader--believe that Trump would stick to this particular agreement?  Even though the “agreement” has quickly been revealed to be as vacuous as expected, no one should be fooled that a legally and politically endangered Trump won’t turn on a dime and dangerously lash out at a future “betrayal” by his new role model.

The only saving grace is that this reality TV event has been quickly eclipsed by subsequent episodes.  So indeed, a very logical response is to stop following the news.  To drop out, and asked to be woken up if anything really changes.

And yet…

And yet, the old timers, like the octogenarian Seymour Hersh (the muckraking reporter for The New Yorker who broke many stories, including the Vietnam My Lai massacre and the Iraq Abu Garaib prison scandals), say:

We will survive Trump. America will go on.

While Hersh didn’t mention him, for some reason I began thinking of William “Boss” Tweed, another unbelievably arrogant, corrupt and corpulent New Yorker.  Boss Tweed was a master of fraud, embezzlement, and extortion, at one point the third-largest landowner in New York City, who finally took control of the New York City government in 1869.  Sound familiar?

Yet Tweed made the career of Thomas Nast, the great political cartoonist of the 19th Century for Harper’s Weekly whose gorgeous, hard-hitting caricatures (look at this, this, and this) were brilliantly effective at mobilizing popular and political sentiment against Tweed.  Even more than the drawings, what keeps resonating with me is the legend Nast put to several of them, with Tweed demanding of the reader:

What are you going to do about it?

So what are you going to do about it?

Seeking role models, I began reflecting on the character of Homey D. Clown, played by the brilliant comic Damon Wayans on the short-lived TV comedy show In Living Color of the early 1990s.  As part of his parole conditions, Homey was “forced” to play the role of a children’s clown.  But unlike traditional clowns, Homey refused to do things to humiliate himself (slip on a banana peel, take a creamy pie to his face), and would smack the “children” with a sock when they suggested he did such things.  With a deadpan, he would then deliver his signature line,

Homey don’t play that

Trump is a bully who plays a vicious game, but sometimes enablers unwittingly play it too.  Let’s recall the press coverage of the recent release of Hillary Clinton’s memoirs.  It highlighted her afterthoughts about how she should have handled Trump’s behavior during the second, town hall style debate, when he was lurking menacingly on the stage behind her while she was speaking. 

Unfortunately, nobody, as far as I know, has raised the responsibility of the moderators, Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz, to intervene and instruct him, “Please respect personal space on stage, Mr. Trump” and literally stop the debate until he mumbles an apology and moves his hulk a reasonable distance away.  Although it would have been awkward, both Cooper and Raddatz are cool professionals and could have handled it with aplomb.

This raises the question—what if other people just “stopped playing” the game?

What would not “playing” look like?

While they are getting better at it, the media could more often juxtapose reality in the context of reporting the news.  For example, every news article describing another attack on the Special Counsel’s investigation by Trump or another Republican attack as a “Democratic conspiracy” should note in the second sentence that Mueller is a lifelong Republican.

The media could stop playing the Giuliani game:  there is simply no reason to quote every provocative comment or untruth Trump’s legal advisor Rudy Giuliani makes on the off chance that Giuliani may or may not speak for Trump.  Especially when Giuliani himself admits he is often not serious.

The media could better triage and contextualize Trump’s own tweets.  For example, ones that spew invective and start with “I might…” should be completely ignored.  Cover, and put in context, only those that represent an action, a policy pronouncement.

Some people are already not playing

The most striking examples are the many entertainment stars and sports figures, especially on championship teams, who simply refuse to come to the White House to be honored in photo-ops with the President.  Judging from the amount of effort and invective Trump puts into insulting tweets about such figures, that undoubtedly hurts the TV star president.

Another example is the exasperated decision by U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson to revoke the pre-trial release of Mueller-indicted former Trump Campaign chairman Paul Manafort pending trial because he allegedly contacted witnesses in the case.  She's not playing, and Manafort is finally in jail, at least temporarily.

But it is the recently publicized scandal of the US government forcibly separating children from their immigrant parents that seems to have suddenly emboldened many in the media, in Congress, and even in the private sector, to stop playing.

For example, look at this challenge by reporter Brian Karem to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

You’re a parent. Don’t you have any empathy? Come on, Sarah, you’re a parent! Don’t you have any empathy for what these people are going through? They have less than you do. Sarah, come on, seriously. Seriously.

After parrying this question multiple times, never answering it, the article notes

Sanders stood stern, moving on to the next question — which was about Russia.

This was excellent.  But what could have been even more powerful is if the other reporters, instead of moving on, kept asking her Karem’s question until she answered it. 

It is pathetic that Sanders feels the need to proclaim her honesty even though she is just as mendacious as her short-lived predecessor Sean Spicer.  Don’t these reporters have anything better to do than to dutifully show up at the White House Press Briefings to be stonewalled and lied to?  Why don’t the major media outlets stop playing the game, and announce that the lack of factually-based news at the White House Press Briefings means they will, from now on, assign only a single pool reporter to monitor the White House briefings?

Some members of Congress are finally starting to stop playing. During the umpteenth hearing on the long-dead Hillary Clinton email issue, Jerrold Nadler and Elijah Cummings, top Democrats on Judiciary and Oversight Committees, insisted on raising the issue of the humanitarian crisis on our own borders with forcible separation of children from the parents, causing the Republican chairman to rule them out of order.  

While Trump's last minute executive order put a temporary halt to this separation policy, it's clearly only a stop-gap public relations exercise, as it introduces the notion of indefinite detainment of asylum-seeking families, creates a huge logistical mess for the government to do so and, especially cruelly, does nothing to locate and reunite with their parents the 2000+ children who have already been separated.  The Democrats should continue to stop playing this game until the Administration revokes the whole repugnant policy and puts as serious plan in place.

Even airline companies are getting into the act, at least in some cases upon pressure from anguished flight attendants.  Four major airlines flatly told the DHS they won’t carry children who have been separated from their parents at the border.   

Not giving the racist rhetoric a pass anymore

This immigration scandal was long preceded by the ugliest rhetoric I’ve ever heard from the Trump administration and his enablers in the Cabinet (Homeland Security Secretary Kristin Nielsen) and the Congress.  With enactment into a policy of forcibly separating children from the parents, it’s the first time where the parallel to the Nazis becomes…literal. 

Daniel Goldhagen’s controversial book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” cogently describes the historical evolution of anti-semitism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when it went from the usual negative stereotypes to where Jews began to be referred to as subhuman, and where their “elimination” became a logical next step for the Nazi regime. 

Taking a page from the Nazi manual, Trump has repeatedly spoken of immigrants as infestations and animals, with the media and his Republican enablers simply clucking their tongues.  It is so repulsive that Alexandra Petri penned an eloquent column entitled “How to sleep at night when families are being separated at the border” that offers this advice:

The trick is forgetting that there is such a word as “child.” To remember words like “bad hombre” and “thug” instead. You do not have to say “animals,” if you do not want to. 

(Of course, this is in no way to suggest agreement with Trump's implication that it's somehow acceptable for animals to be treated in a sadistic manner.)

In other words, it is time to take Trump both seriously AND literally.  Judges, the media, celebrities, other politicians have to stop playing the game when the implications are too serious.  All the while that Special Counsel Mueller’s investigations and organizing for the 2018 mid-term elections proceed apace.

And recall that, although magnificently corrupt much of his career, Boss Tweed lasted literally only a couple of years at the top of NYC government before he was indicted and imprisoned, dying in jail only a few years later.