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The Reviled American Media, Part 1

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Donald Trump versus the media: bad cop, bad cop

A throwaway line in a Washington Post article goes some way to revealing exactly why the American media is so widely despised and mistrusted.

Musing about why many Trump supporters stubbornly insist on viewing his presidency as a success thus far (rather than the cataclysmic failure portrayed by mainstream narratives), the Post reports:

Several people said they would have liked to see more coverage of a measure that Trump signed Thursday that rolled back a last-minute Obama regulation that would have restricted coal mines from dumping debris in nearby streams. At the signing, Trump was joined by coal miners in hard hats.

“If he hadn’t gotten into office, 70,000 miners would have been put out of work,” Patricia Nana, a 42-year-old naturalized citizen from Cameroon. “I saw the ceremony where he signed that bill, giving them their jobs back, and he had miners with their hard hats and everything — you could see how happy they were.”

The regulation actually would have cost relatively few mining jobs and would have created nearly as many new jobs on the regulatory side, according to a government report — an example of the frequent distance between Trump’s rhetoric, which many of his supporters wholeheartedly believe, and verifiable facts.

My emphasis in bold.

Now, this is not about the merits and disadvantages of expanding coal mining. This is about the blasé arrogance of the Washington Post, suggesting to its readers that the creation of government regulatory jobs in any way makes up for the loss of manual jobs in coal mining.

How many ex-coal miners with high school-level educations will be eligible for these new regulatory jobs? Probably very few. But these jobs will enormously benefit the college-educated, Washington D.C.-dwelling professional class who are eligible for attractive jobs in the Department of Energy or the Environmental Protection Agency.

It is difficult to know whether the Post’s dismissal of concerns about coal mining job losses because they will be “offset” by new regulatory jobs is merely ignorant or deliberately callous towards the working classes. But either way, it reveals a huge gulf between the perspective of the Washington Post and its readership on the one hand, and Trump-supporting people from coal country on the other.

Maybe those coal mining jobs should be killed anyway. Ultimately, of course, they certainly should be phased out as part of a move away from fossil fuel dependence. But for the Post to speak haughtily about Trump supporters’ aversion to “verifiable facts” while misleading its own readership by pretending that the Obama-era environmental regulations (whatever their core merits) were anything other than a transfer of wealth and opportunity away from coal country manual workers towards the DC professional class is morally dubious and a dereliction of their professional duty as a supposedly objective national news outlet.

Essentially, the Post is suggesting that Trump supporters are somehow being irrational to cheer the overturning of anti-coal regulations that will restore some coal mining jobs, because they should instead be rejoicing at the creation of other, office-based jobs for which they are almost certainly ineligible. How terribly unenlightened of them to not cheer as their small-town jobs are sacrificed to create other jobs for city-dwelling public sector bureaucrats.

Assuming the best of intentions rather than the worst, this represents a vast gulf of understanding between the Washington media class and a large segment of the country on which they report. The frequent complaint of Trump supporters is that their interests have long been ignored by a political and economic elite who have time and compassion for everyone and everything save the rural and suburban squeezed white lower middle and working classes, with politicians and the media colluding to keep their struggles, concerns and aspirations off the political agenda. And now the media, which seems to be relishing its oppositional role to President Trump, seems determined to live up to that stereotype.

Accusations that the mainstream media is “fake news” go too far – the Washington Post or New York Times will never publish a breathless story about Michelle Obama being arrested for treason or Hillary Clinton participating in witchcraft rituals, the kind of ludicrous and obviously false clickbait which pollutes the internet and is sadly shared by too many a credulous conservative. The mainstream media’s form of bias is subtler and much more insidious. There are few outright falsehoods in the prestige media, but one can often achieve just as much through deliberately one-sided story selection and a deliberately skewed angle of coverage, made all the more effective because unlike fake news sites, respected outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times actually influence the worldviews and opinions of key decision makers in Washington D.C. and beyond.

In other words, too many respectable, prestige mainstream media outlets have squandered any trust and goodwill they one held with the public by subtly but repeatedly pushing a political agenda (the largely bipartisan agenda of the DC political elite). This climate of distrust is a problem of the media’s own making. And it all begins with having newsrooms full of reporters and editors with so few (if any) roots in the kind of community which came out strongly for Donald Trump in the 2016 election that they are utterly incapable of reporting on them with any real understanding, subtlety or empathy.

If the goal is to avoid events like the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, surely our first step must be one of introspection – not furiously shouting insults at people who often voted for Trump through despair or resignation, not misrepresenting their political views to the point of slander, but rather understanding how the political mainstream managed to consistently fail these people so badly that they felt they were left with little alternative. The Washington Post, for all the good reporting they often do, is light years away from recognising this fact, let alone showing such introspection in their coverage.

Indeed, if anything, the American media is moving in the opposite direction. Spurred by President Trump’s reprehensible attacks on the media as a whole, the Washington press corps is doing what they love to do best – talking about themselves and wallowing in a sense of victimhood and persecution, laughably painting themselves as noble and selfless heroes and seekers of truth in this new authoritarian age.

I’m sorry, but that is nonsense. Many of these reporters are the same ones who in the 2000s used to leap smartly to their feet, offering obsequious respect and nary a searching question whenever president George W Bush strolled into the White House press briefing room to announce the erosion of core civil liberties, exaggerate the threat posed by Iraq and then downplay his administration’s calamitous handling of the war. This is the same press corps that often treated every utterance from President Obama as sacred, unquestionable unicorn song, hyping his candidacy and forgiving his administration’s missteps.

This is the same press corps which gathers every year for the White House Correspondents Dinner, in which journalists and politicians slap each other on the back and toady up to power in one of the most sickening modern day political rituals known to man. Oh yes, and they are the ratings whores who gave blanket, uncritical rolling news coverage of Donald Trump’s every garbled word back when he was still just a laughable Republican Party presidential primary candidate, acting as oxygen to the the flames of the Trump campaign in the first place.

A healthy democracy needs a free press. But it sure as hell doesn’t need the craven, self-satisfied press we are stuck with at the moment. You can probably count the number of Washington or New York-based political journalists with a record of consistently principled, inquisitive and objective work on two hands. None of them work in television news. The rest are every bit as much a part of the fetid, corrupt political class as the politicians on whom they report. And now they take the angry anti-media rantings of President Trump and use them as an excuse to prance around playing the noble, heroic victim. We should not fall for their tawdry act.

Increasingly, the presidency of Donald Trump will require us to hold two competing thoughts in our head simultaneously: that yes, the Trump administration is troubling in a whole host of ways, but also that many of the people opposing Trump (from the sanctimonious, rootless, unreformed Democrats to the lazy and morally compromised Washington media) are also grievously at fault. And the sins of Donald Trump do not excuse the failings of those forces ranged against him, just as the spineless, uncurious, self-aggrandising behaviour of the Washington media does not excuse the authoritarian, impulsive excesses of the new president.

It is sheer lunacy to believe that the forces which gave us President Trump will be placated and put back in their box by a coordinated campaign of opposition from a Democratic Party and Washington political media class who have spent precisely zero hours pondering their own role in this period of “American carnage”, and who have shown zero willingness to change their own behaviour and policy preferences. Indeed, as newspaper subscriptions and cable news show ratings rise in step with the turmoil emanating from the White House, many in the Washington media are probably deluding themselves into thinking that they are actually doing a good job.

This could not be further from the truth.

As things stand, both sides will continue to antagonise one another; an out-of-touch Washington media class will continue to report on the residents of Trumpland as though they are some kind of fascinating but dangerous medical specimen best kept behind the safety glass in a lab, and Trump supporters, feeling patronised and wilfully misunderstood, will continue to distrust everything that the mainstream media says (including the 90% which is reasonably accurate, if sometimes politically skewed).

One side will have to blink first. You would hope that it might be the DC chattering class – through some instinctive self-preservation reflex, if nothing else.

 

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New Year Update

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A few changes for 2017

Greetings from Texas. Getting the blog up and running again after a longer-than-anticipated Christmas and New Year break is somewhat harder than in previous years – or rather, I should say that it is proving difficult to spurn the joy of unstructured leisure time for the largely thankless task of ranting into WordPress.

Having taken a full fortnight away from the daily grind has been refreshing, and also revelatory. 2016 was the fifth year of Semi-Partisan Politics and by far the most successful, with a threefold increase in readership compared to 2015, helped along in large part by the EU referendum campaign and the American presidential election. But this positive trajectory has come at the cost of nearly every free moment in my all-too-undisciplined free time.

Writing a political blog (and trying to make it successful) is hard. In order to build and maintain an audience you have to publish nearly every day, often multiple times. Unless you have the benefit of establishment connections to furnish you with gossip or pimp out your work, you have to be demonically active on social media, tweeting effectively and trawling for pageviews on Facebook. And for a one-man outfit like this, time spent promoting the blog on social media is time taken away from writing and the all-important reading and research which adds value to the content, while too much time spent reading and writing at the expense of self-promotion means that one’s best work often goes largely unread.

Whatever value Facebook has as a medium for discussion and promoting this blog, it is also a black hole from which I now intend to escape. I could easily double or triple this blog’s readership in a short time by actively promoting articles on the various political Facebook groups – and indeed I did so for a time in the buildup to the EU referendum. But my time is limited, and I will no longer waste it affirming people’s current biases to a lazy applause of “likes” or posting in hostile groups only to receive endless comments telling me that I am Hitler. A well-placed Facebook intervention may draw in countless likes and re-shares resulting in a thousand additional pageviews, but too often this is low quality traffic with no loyalty or engagement. The readers I value most are the ones who stick around without Facebook nagging, and who both educate and argue with me through the Comments.

SEO is a cruel mistress. This blog’s most-read piece for 2016 was a short, throwaway piece about Tony Benn’s euroscepticism and likely stance on Brexit. Because of an inadvertently well-chosen headline and a dearth of similar articles it placed well on Google, and attracted many thousands more views than the polemics, fisking pieces or other articles of which I am far more proud and which contain much greater originality.

Meanwhile, the British media establishment continue their demented hostility toward the political blogosphere and dogged refusal to acknowledge some of the best and most original analysis out there (though fully aware that it exists) simply because it appears on a site with a .wordpress or .blogspot suffix and does not carry the imprimatur of the prestige titles which increasingly churn out so much unoriginal pseudo-analysis or breathless court gossip.

This blog has been linked several times in both the National Review and the New Republic, the premier conservative and liberal journals in America, despite the limited attention that I have given to US politics this year. Meanwhile, links from the incestuous British media are almost non-existent – though I am grateful to the Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow for occasionally citing this blog in his own excellent and comprehensive political liveblogs. But the idea of sullying myself trying to attract the attention of SW1’s finest on Twitter in exchange for a mere “like” or (rarer still) a retweet no longer holds any appeal.

Then there is the constant feeling that one is only as good as one’s most recent blog post – which, if you are me, means long periods of self-doubt and wondering why I am bothering in the first place. As the email bulletins and Google alerts ping into the inbox every hour of every day there is the constant feeling of needing to go “on the record” about whatever new person or event is driving the 24-hour news cycle, of committing a hot take to public record while it is still relevant, to assimilate the latest information and latest developments, and then inevitable feelings of inadequacy when this high bar – impossible to achieve while working a full time job – is not met.

I have also been dwelling on the fact that the words published on any political blog do not hold their value for long. Sure, some articles will be blessed by the SEO gods and provide a constant stream of traffic, but generally speaking a reaction piece I write in response to a Guardian headline today will be lining the digital waste paper bin by tomorrow. I increasingly want to write words that hold their value for longer, and to some extent this means stepping back from the fray and going more in depth, which in turn requires more expertise (and a rebalancing away from writing toward reading and research).

The upshot of all this introspection is that the thought of returning to the fray – spending the bulk of my free time hunched over the laptop, only to be studiously ignored by those who drive the national conversation – has been less than appealing, especially while I am still enjoying the company of my American family and have easy access to some of the best tacos and Tex-Mex food that money can buy.

Fear not, though. Or don’t start celebrating, if you are a fire-breathing SJW who hates my guts. I’m not going away. This blog will continue. But I have taken a long, hard look at my priorities and there will be some changes afoot.

I am not yet at liberty to discuss the most significant change that I will be making from a personal perspective. Suffice it to say that I have decided that being taken seriously without some serious form of credential is almost impossible, and that it is time to bow to this inevitable fact. At present, I am neither a politician nor a lawyer, nor an accredited expert on the constitution, the European Union, healthcare reform or any of the other subjects on which this blog touches. Over time, this will now change. The focus of this blog may therefore shift and be refined slightly over time, though there will be no immediate change.

The fruits of this work may not be visible for some time, but I hope to be able to provide more detail in due course. In the meantime, here’s what you can expect:

  1. Slightly less frequent updates (I religiously posted nearly every day in 2016; this tempo is now likely to decrease)
  2. More short reaction pieces or flags (bringing other worthy articles or videos to your attention with only limited commentary from myself)
  3. Fewer “fisking” pieces (taking apart and critiquing articles and speeches line-by-line)
  4. Hopefully a few more longer-form, ruminative pieces on certain subjects close to this blog’s heart (Brexit, free speech, identity politics, healthcare reform and the NHS)

And one thing will not change. This blog will continue to be stridently independent, and I will at no time “sell out” to raise my profile through artificial means. If I happen to be published, linked or quoted elsewhere in the coming year, it will not be the result of modifying my positions or moderating my tone. Likewise if by some chance I end up back on the BBC as the token “anti-social justice” guy.

I will still be in Texas for the next couple of weeks, but activity on the blog will now slowly start to ramp up again. Please accept my apologies if I am slow to approve or respond to comments, emails or tweets – the backlog is long, and I am still very much in holiday mode.

I wish all my readers a very happy and prosperous 2017.

Sam Hooper.

 

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No, Donald Trump Was Not Swept To Victory By Resurgent White Nationalism

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No, “nationalism” is not the same as “white nationalism” – and the American Left urgently needs to find a way of opposing populist, protectionist ideas without resorting to the nuclear option of accusing their adherents of being secretly racist

A lot is being written at the moment about the future presence of Steve Bannon as a key adviser in Donald Trump’s administration, and whether this represents a calamity on the scale of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake or more closely resembles the Chicxulub Asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

We are constantly being told by hysterical news outlets and media commentators that Steve Bannon is a “white nationalist“, which would obviously be utterly appalling and terrible if it were true. But considering that many of the news outlets making the allegation are the same ones screeching loudest about the impact of “fake news” on the election, they seem remarkably unwilling to come forth with evidence of racist, white nationalist sentiments previously expressed by Bannon, and equally unwilling to report the many times when Bannon has disavowed such ideas.

At this point, I have to make the customary disclaimer before those who do not frequently read this blog rip me to shreds. No, I did not and do not support Donald Trump. I dislike Trump’s character as well as many (though not all) of his policies, and believe that he is temperamentally unsuited to lead America, to say nothing of setting an appalling example for younger Americans. Just so that’s clear.

But outlets like the Guardian have accused Bannon outright of being a white nationalist, while prestige outlets like CNN have sought to tar him with association, going up to the line of suggesting that Bannon will advocate for white nationalists.

But nationalism and white nationalism are not one and the same thing. People – including many in the media who should know better – seem more than happy to bolt the two words together, either to aid with the cadence of their sentences or as a deliberate way of smearing nationalism, but the two worldviews are quite different. Nationalism can be boiled down as a “country-first” mindset, prioritising the citizens of a country (no matter their race, gender or other characteristics) over those from outside the country. Such a worldview manifests itself through clear policies on immigration, illegal immigration and foreign policy. Meanwhile, white nationalism seeks to favour typically white protestant people in America over other races, and is manifested through discriminatory and divisive policies of racial segregation and persecution.

Clearly, the two are quite different, and hearing the media talk airily about “white nationalism” as a means of slandering the alt-right or nationalism in general is starting to become extremely tiresome. If people want to attack Steve Bannon’s actual ideas, they should feel free to do so. But lobbing baseless accusations of overt racism with the term “white nationalism” is cheating, a lazy attempt to excommunicate Bannon from respectable political debate without having to do the intellectual heavy-lifting of taking on his ideas. Which is reprehensible.

Gene Callahan puts it well in The American Conservative:

Perhaps, given my limited knowledge of him, Bannon really is, secretly, a “white nationalist,” despite his repeated public rejection of white nationalism. Perhaps he really is, secretly, a supporter of the racist elements of the alt-right, despite the fact that he has said he has “zero tolerance” for those elements. Perhaps he really is, secretly, anti-Semitic, despite his strong support for Israel (a support too strong, by my standards), and despite the character testimony provided for him by many Jews. But the evidence that Bannon holds these hidden views, as far as I have been able to examine it, is pathetic, and entirely inadequate to support such serious charges. No competent prosecutor would ever bring a case against a suspect based on such flimsy evidence.

So is there an alternative hypothesis as to why Bannon has been attacked in this fashion? Well, let us imagine that there is a globalist elite that doesn’t really care at all about the American people. When the housing crisis hit in 2007, instead of bailing out low-income homeowners (many of whom were African-American and Hispanic) who had been duped into taking on adjustable-rate mortgages that only someone with a degree in finance could understand, they instead bailed out the bankers who had made such loans. Instead of worrying about the impact of massive immigration on the lives our our own most vulnerable citizens (many of whom are African-American and Hispanic), they celebrated such immigration, since, after all, it provided them with cheap gardeners and nannies and maids, and their factories with cheap assembly-line workers. Now imagine that they are threatened by the possible ascendancy into power of people who do actually believe that the American government should put the interest of American citizens, be they black or Hispanic or white or Asian, first in our government’s policies? I would imagine that this (entirely imagined on my part!) elite would embark on a relentless smear campaign against anyone expressing such “ethno-nationalist” concern for our own citizens on the part of our own government, so that they could continue to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us.

Dear reader, please decide for yourself which hypothesis is most probable.

Read the whole thing if you have a few minutes to spare. This blog is certainly convinced that Callahan is right while the hysterical accusers are wrong. And note: one can still dislike Steve Bannon, his political views and what he stands for. There is just no plausible evidence that he is guilty of the accusations now being thrown his way, and therefore responsible media outlets should stop reproducing them without further evidence.

More importantly, we need to rescue the word “nationalism” from toxic association with white nationalism, which of course remains abhorrent. But nationalism itself is nothing more than a belief in the nation state. Nationalism (not white nationalism) helped to drive the vote for Brexit in the UK because people believed that the European Union is a poor guarantor of our rights and freedoms, more obsessed with building the secretive federal project than actually winning legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens or doing them any good. And so the British people decided that Britain should be run for the benefit of British citizens – all of us, no matter our colour or ethnicity – rather than as a colonial outpost of the Brussels project. And of course the leftist opposition to Brexit has been making shrill claims that the vote was motivated by racism ever since, even though no such evidence exists (and can only be hinted at if one makes the unsupportable claim that opposition to mass immigration is inherently racist).

We now see a similar tale unfold in America following Donald Trump’s election victory. Trump’s endlessly repeated intention to “Make America Great Again” and to put legal American citizens first may be simplistic and lacking in detail. It may even be counterproductive and morally wrong at times, especially if the threat to deport millions of otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants lured to America by a succession of permissive past regimes is actually carried out. But it is not inherently racist, unless one is willing to take the position that borders are inherently racist, and with them the very idea of the nation state. If this is actually the view of those who criticise Donald Trump and Steve Bannon the loudest, then they should have the courage to openly admit their intention to do away with borders and essentially abolish America. But of course they will not – their support would shrink rather dramatically were they to be so honest.

Steve Bannon call his worldview “economic nationalism”, as described by Peter Nicholas in the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Bannon, in the interview, said he is animated by an economic populism that has the potential to create an enduring political realignment in the U.S.

“I’m not a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist,” he told Mr. Wolff. “I’m an economic nationalist.

“The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get f—— over.” In a shot at Democrats’ close ties to Silicon Valley, he continued: “They were talking to these people with companies with a $9 billion market cap employing nine people. It’s not reality. They lost sight of what the world is about.”

Mr. Bannon offered a few hints about how Mr. Trump intends to govern. One focus will be a dramatic new public works building program that takes advantage of low interest rates – a project that Democrats have long favored.

“It’s everything related to jobs,” Mr. Bannon said. “The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Ship yards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”

One can disagree with parts (or all) of this message. This blog certainly disagrees with throwing fiscal conservatism out the window, frittering away federal money on dubious infrastructure projects and trying to resurrect dead industries in America where global comparative advantage has seen those industries move to other parts of the world.

But millions of Americans – enough to put Donald Trump in the White House – apparently did agree with this message of populist economic nationalism. And you can fisk it all you want, but you simply won’t find a shred of racism in it. That doesn’t mean that Donald Trump does not appeal to racists, or that he has not sometimes courted people with xenophobic beliefs – he has, and it is reprehensible. But still, this is different from Donald Trump’s policy platform and key advisers being openly racist – it is not, and they are not, bad though they are in other ways.

And at some point, the anti-Trump Left is going to have to stop resorting to the nuclear option of declaring people “racist” or “white nationalist” whenever they depart from the centre-left political consensus in America. Not only is it slanderous, it is making some people more fearful than they should be about the incoming administration.

As Scott Alexander put it so well recently:

Stop fearmongering. Somewhere in America, there are still like three or four people who believe the media, and those people are cowering in their houses waiting for the death squads.

Stop crying wolf. God forbid, one day we might have somebody who doesn’t give speeches about how diversity makes this country great and how he wants to fight for minorities, who doesn’t pose holding a rainbow flag and state that he proudly supports transgender people, who doesn’t outperform his party among minority voters, who wasn’t the leader of the Salute to Israel Parade, and who doesn’t offer minorities major cabinet positions. And we won’t be able to call that guy an “openly white supremacist Nazi homophobe”, because we already wasted all those terms this year.

Stop talking about dog whistles. The kabbalistic similarities between “dog-whistling” and “wolf-crying” are too obvious to ignore.

Stop writing articles breathlessly following everything the KKK says. Stop writing several times more articles about the KKK than there are actual Klansmen. Remember that thing where Trump started out as a random joke, and then the media covered him way more than any other candidate because he was so outrageous, and gave him what was essentially free advertising, and then he became President-elect of the United States? Is the lesson you learned from this experience that you need 24-7 coverage of the Ku Klux Klan?

[..] Stop turning everything into identity politics. The only thing the media has been able to do for the last five years is shout “IDENTITY POLITICS IDENTITY POLITICS IDENTITY POLITICS IDENTITY POLITICS IDENTITY POLITICS!” at everything, and then when the right wing finally says “Um, i…den-tity….poli-tics?” you freak out and figure that the only way they could have possibly learned that phrase is from the KKK.

[..] Stop centering criticism of Donald Trump around this sort of stuff, and switch to literally anything else. Here is an incompetent thin-skinned ignorant boorish fraudulent omnihypocritical demagogue with no idea how to run a country, whose philosophy of governance basically boils down to “I’m going to win and not lose, details to be filled in later”, and all you can do is repeat, again and again, how he seems popular among weird Internet teenagers who post frog memes.

In the middle of an emotionally incontinent reality TV show host getting his hand on the nuclear button, your chief complaint is that in the middle of a few dozen denunciations of the KKK, he once delayed denouncing the KKK for an entire 24 hours before going back to denouncing it again. When a guy who says outright that he won’t respect elections unless he wins them does, somehow, win an election, the headlines are how he once said he didn’t like globalists which means he must be anti-Semitic.

Stop making people suicidal. Stop telling people they’re going to be killed. Stop terrifying children. Stop giving racism free advertising. Stop trying to convince Americans that all the other Americans hate them. Stop. Stop. Stop.

And to that we can add: Stop this tacit, corrosive insinuation that nationalism, wanting to put America and American citizens first, is somehow a negative trait in an American president. Stop trying to insinuate that those who want the American government to prioritise American workers are motivated by racism. Stop trying to sneakily undermine the nation state at every turn, or at least have the courage to stand up and proudly declare that you want to bring the era of the nation state to an end and effectively abolish America.

Stop stop stop.

But they will not stop. Making blanket accusations of racism and a “white nationalist” resurgence just feels so good when one is smarting from an unexpected electoral defeat. And it is far easier to cow people into silence by accusing them of racism than it is to deconstruct and oppose the incoming Trump administration’s protectionist, mercantilist ideas – let alone offer a more appealing alternative.

 

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Facebook And The Fake News Monster

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The mainstream media looks to Facebook and technology to solve the problem of “fake news”, while utterly ignoring their own starring role in driving readers into the arms of more disreputable news outlets

Jeff Chiu has an interesting rumination in Newsweek on the way that Facebook tacitly encouraged the monster of “fake news” which it is now being ordered to help slay.

Chiu writes:

Think back just a couple of years, before the 2016 election cycle and before Facebook set itself up as the world’s newswire. Facebook grew to a billion users by being a social network. It’s where you found old friends and kept up with family. I just looked back at my 2014 Facebook timeline. Almost zero politics! And that’s how most people liked it. Many users back then even beseeched friends to avoid political posts, or muted the violators if they persisted. In real life, most of us don’t want to argue politics with our friends and family, so why would we want to do it online?

Then, over the past two years, Facebook aggressively morphed into a media site. It set up deals with publishers to populate all our timelines with stories. It subtly encouraged users to post stories and to “like” and comment on them. Facebook, of course, did this with its own goals in mind. To maximize profit, Facebook needs to keep users engaged and on the site as long as possible, and to get those users to create or interact with all the content in their feeds. That thrum of activity helps Facebook’s algorithms more deftly target ads to more people, which makes Facebook even more attractive to advertisers.

Since politics is traditionally news, of course that topic started to slip into our feeds, and Facebook’s setup encouraged sinister practices. As users zip through their news feeds, scanning only the headlines, they are more likely to click on and share stories that are outrageous or stir emotions. In other words, Facebook—unwittingly, from what I hear—incentivized clickbait “news” over more serious news, and the success of clickbait opened the way for fake news. “We’re more likely to share inflammatory posts than non-inflammatory ones, which means that each Facebook session is a process by which we double down on the most radical beliefs in our feed,” writes Mike Caulfield, an expert in learning environments. “Marketers figured this out and realized that to get you to click, they had to up the ante. So they produced conspiracy sites that have carefully designed, fictional stories that are inflammatory enough that you will click.”

It’s hard to say whether Facebook is the chicken or the egg in this wave of political propaganda—whether it helped create the acidic and divided politics around the world or if the ugly political environment merely found an accommodating home on Facebook. No doubt it was some of both, and the result is that our feeds are now overwhelmed with wingnut political content that gets amplified even if it’s crazy. During the election, a lot of Facebook users just didn’t care if something was true, says Paul Mihailidis, a media literacy professor at Emerson College. “They saw it as a way to advocate,” he says. “They see a catchy headline, and the default is to share.” If you look globally—the U.S., the U.K., France, Colombia, the Philippines—politics are getting more caustic, not less. In this kind of environment, all the media outlets that now rely on Facebook’s audience are driven to flood us with click-worthy headlines that play to our fears and anger. Every trend line points to more of what we’re growing to hate on Facebook.

The perverse incentives created by Facebook’s dominance and algorithms cannot be overstated. At peak times, when I am actively promoting Semi-Partisan Politics during newsworthy events, up to 50 percent of total traffic can come from Facebook alone, some days even more. Other sites have an even greater dependency on Facebook as a source of traffic.

And for media professionals, with this dependency on Facebook comes the temptation to generate extra precious pageviews by pushing the boundaries of acceptable journalistic practice, whether as a ploy to increase web ad revenue or merely for the supposed prestige of more clicks. All other ways of generating extra traffic – like, say, producing better content – are far more arduous and time intensive than simply being a bit more provocative on Facebook. And the returns are nowhere near as good. It would take a media organisation of exceptional poise and integrity to withstand these temptations. And as we know, there are few publications where the words “poise” or “integrity” come naturally as descriptors.

Compounding the problem is the fact that this Facebook traffic is both fickle and disloyal. One can win the passing attention of their eyeballs for a few brief passing seconds with a catchy headline (and often a provocative picture), but the moment your articles stop appearing in the Facebook feed, the vast majority of users will not go seek you out independently as a publisher of content – as a publisher, you are utterly replaceable by the swarm of other sites churning out often superficially similar-looking stuff.

This leads to an arms race of hysteria in terms of online political coverage, with some of those outlets now shouting loudest about pro-Trump “fake news” being themselves the worst offenders. Many of the headlines or Facebook post descriptions published by left-leaning sites like Huffington Post or MotherJones sound like the breathless, hysterical reactions of a high school student as opposed to sober, reasoned analysis, and of course the same goes for the likes of Breitbart on the right. Every utterance by Donald Trump is “scary”, every pronouncement by Hillary Clinton a “threat to America” – and these people dare to accuse others of generating a toxic climate for political discourse.

Chiu goes on to ponder the implications for Facebook:

Despite recent statements by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about his efforts to rein in fake news, he won’t be able to do that easily. Zuckerberg hit on the reason when he said it would be problematic to set up Facebook editors or algorithms as “arbiters of truth.” Because—what’s truth? Centuries ago, it was true that the world was flat. When I was a kid, a mom would sit in a car’s front seat and put her baby on her lap and not wear a seat belt. If someone said that was insanely unsafe, you probably would’ve blinked quizzically and said, “That’s not true.”

Facebook apparently is working on software that would flag or block fake news. Last year, Google published research on a knowledge-based trust algorithm that would sort for truth. Some college kids recently got attention for creating a Google Chrome extension they called FiB that automatically labels allegedly iffy sources. British technologist Peter Cochrane recently talked to me about developing software he called a truth engine. These might succeed in banning certain sites or identifying stories likely to be fake because they come from a single source, and yet software solutions can probably never overcome the problem that truth to me might not be truth to you, and truth today won’t necessarily be truth tomorrow.

[..] One constant about the technology industry is that every seemingly bulletproof superpower at some point has a Waterloo. It happened to IBM, AOL, Microsoft, Intel; and it will happen to Apple, Amazon and Google. You might be witnessing Facebook’s moment of truth, in a very literal sense. If Facebook turns into a bottomless cesspool of competing political “truths,” a lot of us are going to soil ourselves and escape to something else.

Frankly, I am a lot less worried about the future of Facebook than I am about the future of political journalism. In Britain, the EU referendum and surprise Brexit vote exposed the mainstream media as horribly glib, superficial, biased and lacking in basic understanding of the topics that they were covering. While the shining ones in Westminster write their articles in prestige publications or pontificate in the TV news studios, one frequently has to turn to the independent political blogosphere – largely strangled in its crib by the big media companies over the course of a decade – for anything approaching serious, granular analysis.

Yet many of these writers are unpaid, doing what they do as a labour of love rather than as a viable career. Many of them could vastly increase their audiences by adopting the same clickbait tactics as practiced by the likes of Buzzfeed, HuffPo or InfoWars. From a medium term career perspective, the best thing that many of these writers and journalists could do for themselves would be to sell out, start trotting out establishment talking points wrapped up in the kind of hysterical catastrophisation which prospers under the Facebook algorithms.

The problem is partly one of human nature: there will always be a much bigger market for sensationalist partisan fluff than serious, sober analyis. But also important is the fact that there is not a neat dividing line between real news and “fake news”. Fake news can incorporate false facts, but also correct facts which have been deliberately misinterpreted or spun. And far more insidious than any one fake news story, no matter how egregious, is the way in which language is often used to subtly change public perceptions over time – note how we now speak about “undocumented” rather than “illegal ” immigrants, a change adopted by nearly all of the mainstream media in America, and now in Britain too.

When the media is secretly complicit in ideologically-driven agendas, trust in the more reputable media is rightly weakened. But this leaves people more vulnerable to peddlers of deliberately fake news, as they search for alternatives. The obvious answer is for mainstream prestige outlets to rediscover their integrity and stop forcing readers away with ideologically skewed coverage, but they will not desist, and so they fuel the exodus of readers away to the fringes of the internet, a place where the more outrageous a story sounds, the more people will read it.

We present this as a crisis of technology – or at least those who work for mainstream publications, unwilling to examine their own culpability, present it that way. If only Facebook could stop people falling prey to the great evil of fake news, they cry in anguish, utterly ignoring the role that they themselves play in driving people toward fake news.

But this is not a crisis of technology. It is a crisis of human integrity, and the prestige mainstream media need to examine their own consciences long and hard before finding fault in other people.

 

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What It Is Like To Be A Donald Trump Supporter On Campus

The New York Times (in a rare change of perspective) publishes a first-hand account of what it is like to be a moderate, unenthusiastic Trump voter at college.

K.N. Pineda writes:

The presidential election was the last thing on my mind on Nov. 8. I had essays to write and Italian vocabulary to learn. Sure, I kept New York Times and Wall Street Journal tabs open on my laptop, but I was uninterested in indulging in conversation about an election that most everyone could agree was a time bomb.

As a student at New York University and the daughter of a civil servant at the United States Department of State, I am familiar with political unrest and its potentially disastrous outcomes in the arms of ignorance and hysteria. I did not hold any particularly strong opinions about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. If I had voted, however, I would have picked Mr. Trump. I was focused on school. I had no idea that a few days later I would be dismissed as a “Trump supporter” and a person of “privilege” who “reflected an us versus them mind-set” in an essay by my college roommate in this publication — an essay that would go viral and change my life.

I did not feel that I should lie to my new college friends, especially at N.Y.U., where we are supposed to be open to hearing opposing views, able to discuss them and put any bias aside. I never tried to persuade my roommate to accept my side, my choice or my views. I even agreed with some of her opinions about Mr. Trump, who has said divisive things about Muslims and other minority groups. As an independent, my feelings toward the campaign were very mixed. I felt strongly that as a country we needed to focus on domestic issues, and for me, the Republicans were more prepared to do that.

My roommate has since apologized to me, but in the meantime I have felt the glare of her friends and been heckled on campus by other students. I have been labeled “racist,” “sexist” and “xenophobic” on Facebook. I have been called a “white without a conscious,” a “misogynist,” a “bigot” and a “barbarian” online by people all over the country.

This tale should make the allied anti-Trump forces stop and think firstly about how they are treating their own friends and neighbours, but more importantly about the image they are projecting to the wider country, and thus feeding into America’s future political discourse.

Presumably those most upset about Donald Trump’s election victory would quite like many of his supporters to vote for somebody else, maybe somebody from the Democratic Party, in four year’s time. They should stop and ask themselves whether this goal is more likely to be achieved by seeking genuine dialogue and understanding with people who voted differently, or by loudly and repeatedly accusing them of complicity in bringing fascism to America.

The enhanced cold-shoulder received by K.N. Pineda is also depressing given her own family background:

Here’s my story. My father is Hispanic. My extended family lives in Southern California and New Mexico. Many of my family members are not native English speakers. My maternal grandmother is an Italian immigrant who holds a green card. Her husband died after struggling with drug addiction and alcoholism; she had to work two jobs to make ends meet. My mother was raised by her stepfather, who is African-American and the only maternal grandfather I have known. He is a kind, devout man whom I love dearly. My family and friends come from all ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations.

Attending New York University was my dream. My dad grew up in a trailer home, and my mom was homeless for a period of time. My parents were the first in their families to graduate from college. They have struggled to provide the best for me and my brother. They have sacrificed financially and worked hard to give us a good life. I came to N.Y.U. partly on scholarship and am accruing debt to pay my tuition.

As minorities, my mother, father, grandparents and I have experienced racial hate. My skin may be light, but I understand discrimination. I may not know each person’s individual experience, but am able to empathize with others.

So not a dumb, ignorant redneck then (incidentally, one of the last groups of people that it is okay to openly mock and denigrate in polite society). Rather, Pineda has Hispanic heritage and so is expected to toe the line and adopt all of the political opinions now expected of that racial demographic by the Identity Politics Left, voting one’s own conscience is seen almost as a “betrayal” of one’s ethnic heritage. This is what the identity politics embraced by the American Left hath wrought, at a time when it otherwise ought to be subsiding – electoral segregation.

Pineda’s conclusion makes one wonder why it has fallen to a freshman college student to express these sentiments so eloquently, and exactly what the American media and commentariat think they are playing at with their own coverage:

I know the fear that the election has inflicted. I comprehend the hurt that people feel. We all have reasons for casting our votes. What I do not understand is hatred toward one another. Supporters of both parties have misunderstood and fueled hate out of reckless emotion and ignorance.

The answer is not to further the divide by labeling and dehumanizing one another. We should fight the “us versus them” mind-set. We have spent too much time in our own bubbles, and we need to begin a dialogue that will allow us to understand one another.

Blind fear and hatred are far more powerful than any candidate. How can we assume we know someone based on the color of their skin, their religion, or their political choices? Why should we be afraid to express our opinions? If we see one another not as a Clinton supporter or a Trump supporter, but as human, perhaps we can discover empathy in the troubled nation in which we exist.

The narrative should be one of inclusiveness, openness, respect and love. It is not only about making “America Great Again,” it is about making America home again.

I think it is fair to say that the New York Times could have found far more unpleasant and even harrowing tales of political persecution on campus had they searched, or possessed the political will to do so. Young conservatives were well used to public opprobrium and seeing their free speech rights constrained while left-wing identity politics activists were given the run of campus by craven university administrators long before the election. And Donald Trump’s surprise election victory has only enraged and emboldened these tormentors all the more.

The American Left, (sometimes justifiably) outraged on behalf of the various minority groups for whom they claim to speak, should bear in mind that in the rarefied surroundings of the college campus, they are very much in the majority – an oppressive majority, one might even say, to use the current social justice parlance.

And there is a notable, shameful irony in the way that many anti-Trump activists on the Left are so ostentatiously welcoming of every kind of difference and diversity, save diversity of political opinion.

 

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