Wednesday, November 16, 2016

“What Hath God Wrought?”

Thoughts on America’s Election and its President-elect

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

Like most Canadians, I woke up disgusted the day after America’s recent election. And my inbox was full of words of horror. Donald Trump, who can't put two coherent sentences together without the help of a teleprompter, was now President-elect. 

The first note I received was from my friend Robert Bott. “The words in my head on awakening this morning were: ‘What hath God wrought?’” he said. He added that the phrase comes from the Book of Numbers in the Bible. Those were “the first words transmitted by Samuel Morse between Washington and Baltimore on May 24, 1844 to demonstrate the invention of the telegraph.”

Over the next couple of days, his note circulated to others, who contributed ideas of their own. The purpose of this post is to codify them, in the hope that our collective thoughts can throw some light on the madness that had taken place south of the border.

Demagoguery is nothing new. The word dates back to ancient Greece, and it’s hard to imagine that these people were not around for hundreds of millennia before that.  The American election brings the word to the fore again, and I’d like to take this opportunity to comment on what happened south of the Canadian border. I’m speaking, of course, as a Canadian. However, I am starting from the position that – although he clearly won the Electoral College, Trump is unfit to hold office. For example, The Atlantic opined, “the Republican Party’s nominee, Donald J. Trump … might be the most ostentatiously unqualified major-party candidate in the 227-year history of the American presidency.” It was only the third time in the magazine’s long history that it weighed in on a presidential election.

But let’s view the story in another light. It looks as though H.L. Mencken – a cynical, acerbic, dyspeptic but terrific American journalist – nailed last week’s events a century ago: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people,” he wrote, for the Baltimore Evening Sun. “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

“The larger the mob, the harder the test,” he continued. “In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily, adeptly, disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.”

In the email discussion Bob instigated, a number of us opined on the US election. We were all appalled at the outcome, given the election of a resentful, angry, ignorant, boorish, crass, misogynistic clown.

However, Bob put election night’s events into an interesting context: the revolutions that have arisen from the evolution of technologies that affected communications. His points were the following. I don’t use quotation marks, but I am quoting him directly.

1. The evolution of The Gutenberg Press (1436) made possible the dissemination of Martin Luther’s theses (1517).

2. Water-powered paper production was common by the 1700s and undoubtedly facilitated the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions.

3. The telegraph, rotary printing press, and paper manufacture from wood pulp were all commercialized in the 1840s. By this time, railroads and steamships also were accelerating movement of people and goods, including books and newspapers. Not surprising perhaps that popular uprisings erupted in Europe in 1848 and agitation in the 1850s led to the U.S. Civil War.

4. Mass circulation magazines, inexpensive books, the telephone, and the trans-oceanic cables are all in place by the turn of the 20th Century. In the U.S. we see the Progressive movement, muckraking journalism, many reform laws, and labor agitation—followed by WWI mobilization, the Red Scare, women’s suffrage, and Prohibition.  Elsewhere the Boer War, WWI, Bolshevik Revolution, etc.

5. Radio and movies in the 1920s enable and empower Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill (among others) in the 1930-45 period. Then we have television in the 1950s, bringing forth figures like JFK as well as the U.S. civil rights and anti-Vietnam-war movements. Xerox reproduction, FM radio, and offset printing probably played roles too.

6. Facsimile transmission should not be overlooked; fax was a key means of communication in overturning Soviet hegemony in 1989. The spread of multi-channel satellite and cable broadcasting in the 1980s and 1990s certainly had impacts in the U.S. and elsewhere; cable news provided a new kind of access to the Gulf War, Rodney King, the Clarence Thomas hearings and so on. (Blog reader's comment: "Let's not forget that Trump was a TV star for a number of years, a reality tv program. I've never seen it, and have only the sketchiest notion of what it was about. Apparently it was the portrayal of a neo-liberal corporate boss who took pleasure in firing people for their perceived failure to live up to his expectations.")

7. Then, around 1995, the World Wide Web emerges from its government-academic closet and becomes a global mass medium by around 2002 when blogs began to proliferate. A few years later we get the “shared information spaces” like Facebook and Twitter. So far the results include the elections of both Obama and Trump, the Tea Party and Occupy movements, and the spread of radicalism of every kind from ISIS to the Alt-Right.

ALTHOUGH I AM A CANADIAN, I remember well how excited we were because Obama had been clever enough to use social media as a stepping stone to the White House eight years ago. 

As American academic Pamela Rutledge explained at the time, his first Presidential campaign “made history.  Not only was Obama the first African American to be elected president, but he was also the first presidential candidate to effectively use social media as a major campaign strategy. It’s easy to forget, given how ubiquitous social media is today, that in 2008 sending out voting reminders on Twitter and interacting with people on Facebook was a big deal.  When Obama announced his candidacy in 2007, Twitter had only just started and there wasn’t even an iPhone yet.”

As the discussion progressed, the discussion shifted to the great Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, whom Bott quoted from a March 1969 Playboy interview“By stressing that the medium is the message rather than the content,” he said, “I’m not suggesting that content plays no role – merely that it plays a distinctly subordinate role. Even if Hitler had delivered botany lectures, some other demagogue would have used the radio to retribalize the Germans and rekindle the dark atavistic side of the tribal nature that created European fascism in the Twenties and Thirties. By placing all the stress on content and practically none on the medium, we lose all chance of perceiving and influencing the impact of new technologies on man, and thus we are always dumbfounded by – and unprepared for – the revolutionary environmental transformations induced by new media.”

Another participant in this discussion, Seymour Hamilton, had been one of McLuhan’s students in the 1960s. He described the printing press as “a one-to-many communication method,” like radio and TV.  “They are therefore instruments of central power, providing excellent trumpets down which dictators and demagogues shout at their subjects.  Telephone is essentially one-to-one, and as private as a hand-written or typed letter or a fax.” The CBC radio program As It Happens “is a clever adaptation.”  

By contrast, “the internet is one-to-one but public,” which makes it critically different from telephones, faxes and letters, Hamilton says.  It is “much more ubiquitous and immediate and therefore favours simplistic or gnomic utterances.  It flattens communication in ways that were forecast to favour democracy.  Unhappily, this prediction appears to be going the same way as forecasts about radio when it was called “the wireless” The same is true for TV, “which some of us remember being touted as ‘holding infinite promise for education.’”  

The Internet has “flattened discourse down to the lowest common denominator,” he says. “Anyone’s opinion equals anyone else’s opinion, regardless of knowledge or truth.” To cite an extraordinary example, during Trump’s campaign the false news circulated that “News outlets around the world are reporting on the news that Pope Francis has made the unprecedented decision to endorse a US presidential candidate.”  The item originated at “WTOE 5 News,” a fantasy news site. Other examples are legion. In an editorial, The New York Times opined that the adage 'falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it' doesn't describe the problem anymore. "That idea assumes that the truth eventually catches up."  

McLuhan said new technologies “obsolesce something, enhance something, retrieve something, and leapfrog on to the next thing,” Hamilton said.  His example was the zipper, which “obsolesces buttons and bows, enhances clasping, retrieves long flowing garments and leapfrogs on to Velcro.”

And what can we say about the Internet as technology? According to Hamilton it reduces privacy, both individually and internationally. It enhances ubiquity and community of the like-minded.  It also leads to “shaming, bullying, coarse language and pornography.”

But the really new aspect of the digital age, he says, are algorithms – the ones that “lead you to more and more of what you react to. Algorithms enhance the echo-chamber effect, feed the trolls, reinforce lies, misconceptions, and baseless assertions,” he says. And sadly, the whole process is confused with research, therefore proliferating ignorance and falsehood by equating the weight and truth of all opinions.”

Good News? It was a great shock, but there is also good news – for Canadians, at least. For the most part, the border will shield us from the worst of the Trump government’s outrages. As Canadians we will likely benefit economically from unbridled capitalism in the US. Also, of course, there are Constitutional checks and balances in the American government, and the civil service should keep him in check to some degree, at least. Also, unless he actually does a good job, our southern neighbours likely won’t elect him twice. Thus, they’ll only have put up with him for a single term. Or am I being too optimistic?

The bad news that I can’t argue away is that the planet will not do well in terms of global warming and other environmental issues. That may not affect me much, but my progeny it will. 

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