Lost

The Bloomberg Businessweek cover was on point last week

The Bloomberg Businessweek cover was on point last week

Since the America election several weeks ago, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what’s happening with the world politically and what this moment in history will mean. Like most people on the left, I was crestfallen from the election. The right has almost complete control of American government now, and it has as its leader the most erratic and unskilled individual ever to hold the office of the presidency. Xenophobia has become the central motivating impulse for a vast swath of the American electorate. I’ve found it difficult to give our political situation thorough and rigorous consideration because find the conditions that need thinking about so dispiriting. And yet I find too that it is impossible to avoid thinking about them. I spent this past weekend in the Rocky Mountains, in relative isolation, trying to cleanse myself of this election, but in the course of my long walks in the woods, as I let my mind wander, time and again I would be visited by thoughts of the impending Trump presidency. I wonder when will be the first day in which I don’t think about politics. I’ve scarcely had any since the summer of 2015.

In the week following the election, my aunt and I shared a number of articles and ideas. I found some solace in the interaction and some good ideas too. I’d like to share some of it here:

Nov. 12, 2016 – (In response to several articles my aunt sent me about feminist defiance) Thanks for the articles.  I haven’t been able to bring myself to look at anything news-related for several days.  I’m even reluctant to seek distraction in entertainment things like tv shows and movies, I’m just so disgusted with America.  I didn’t even want to be reminded of its culture or its people.  My intellectual curiosity got the better of me though. I’ve begun making some tentative steps toward trying to figure out what’s going on.  I started reading the internet again this morning: lots of things, both in the conservative and liberal press.  Most of what I read is unhelpful.  I feel like everyone is a little off-the-mark.  But here are a few of the more useful things I think I’ve come across:

Thomas Frank’s Opinion piece in the Guardian – Frank is the guy who wrote What’s the Matter with Kansas?, about why the white working class votes against its own self-interests by electing conservative Republicans.  He has this old labor activists’ mentality and his big thing is that he’s against the liberal technocratic elite for abandoning the cause of the working man.  I usually disagree with him on most things, since, as a liberal technocrat, I find his attachment to labor to be backward-looking and unprogressive.  But I think after this election, he’s dead-on.  Old labor had a bone to pick with the Clintons for opening up foreign trade.  The Clinton trade agreements made the country on the whole much richer and gave us a new, brighter economic future, but it killed labor and and made a lot of people irrelevant to the new reality.  I think in this election we saw labor take its revenge.

David French’s commentaries in the National Review – It may be an act of self-flagellation to read the National Review after this election.  French is probably the least measured of the commentators they have on staff.  It’s hard to get past the name-calling and the gloating—at one point he refers to birth control as “abortifacients.”  But he brings to light some very salient facts about the election and how voters have lost faith with the progressive cause.

Michael Moore on Salon.com – Add Michael Moore to the list of writers whom I never agreed with in the past but am now loathfully listening to.  This plea to Democrats to anoint new leaders and hold the line against resurgent Republican power is clear and true.

In addition to that, I have a few conclusions I was hoping to share with you.  I’m curious to know what you think:

  1. Democrats are failing, at almost every level of government, to sell the mission and purpose of social liberalism to the public.  Also, I think it’s questionable as to whether true progressivism in the age of the global economy and social liberalism are even comparable.  This proposition requires a fairly lengthy discursus to explain.  I’m going to try to write a blog post about it.
  2. Censure of cultural insensitivity and mysogeny is a rhetorical dead-end.  This is probably the most dispiriting outcome from the election.  It is mystifying that someone so overtly and brutally sexist could still curry the favor of over 60 million Americans and somehow escape public condemnation. But that is the apparently the nation in which we live.  We’ve devoted ourselves on the left to a politics of identity as a means of endorsing social equality where economic equity is denied us, but in many ways this election repudiated that.  For a disturbing number of Americans, the oppression of others is unimportant.  I’m not sure how we are to combat this tendency in our neighbors.  This election showed us that even when you call bigotry what it is, you’re still ultimately failing to persuade anyone new.  We have to figure out a new way of dressing these wounds.  A politics of empathy maybe.  Or a politics of transgression, of rage.  I saw a dance show last night where two black men did this piece that was just true art.  It was all meticulously choreographed and yet it conveyed pure and unbridled fury.  As an audience member I found it disturbing and off-outing.  I felt implicated.  I felt anxious.  Maybe we need more of this sort of thing in American politics: forcing the other side to confront us in our rage.  And us them.
  3. More jobs promises from the Right and a public that just won’t learn.  People voted for Trump because he says he’s going to bring back the jobs.  Pretty much everything hinged on that, even the xenophobia connects back to job-creation.  The jobs are going to come, he says, from imposing tariffs on foreign imports and keeping immigrants out of the labor market… Of course this is asinine.  If manufacturing comes back to the United States it will all automated work, and the only result will be higher prices for consumer goods.  Immigrant labor is not depressing wages for the vast majority of Americans and is instead contributing to increased vitality in the consumer market.  The Right has been making this promise about creating jobs since Reagan, but those promises have never added up economically and never will.  I don’t see how Democrats will every be able to make an equally appealing value proposition, since to do so you would have to offer the impossible.
  4. The Midwest revolted.  Trump swept the rustbelt outside of Chicago and the Twin Cities.  And maybe for good reason.  At no point in the entire two century history of the Middle West has the region’s future looked so bleak.  Every time I come home I find the place more and more ragged and diminished.  The Midwest sucks, and the people who live there will readily admit that it does.  What they won’t admit is that they are the cause.  They won’t admit that they have rent the social fabric of their own communities by defunding schools and social services, that they have pillaged their natural environment through careless land use policy and unregulated industry.  They won’t admit that they have allowed themselves to become irrelevant to the broader economy by neglecting to respond to the demands of the changing labor market.  The Midwest is frustrated, but it doesn’t know to be frustrated with itself. So it takes it out on the rest of the country.  But the sad truth is that what ails the Midwest, no government can fix.

——

In response to my little rant about the Midwest, my aunt, who has lived in Michigan her entire life, sent me this article from Salon that suggests that Trump’s race-baiting tactics might have pushed the scales in the great lakes region, where racism though never explicit, is evident everywhere you go just by looking at where people live and where wealth is concentrated. To this Salon article I gave the following response:

This article about the Midwest is interesting.  I actually hope that Midwesterners voted for Trump for his economic policies, because when he fails to deliver on them they’ll quit him without a second thought.  It will be the ultimate invalidation of conservative ideology and the Left will come back stronger than ever. If, however, people in the Rust Belt went for Trump because of the demagoguery rather than in spite of it, I don’t know how we resist that.  How do you disabuse a people of their racial animosity?  Maybe this is why the Midwest is faltering and has become so unlivable for some many people.  I see it in Toledo whenever I have to go there.  Everything about that town is broken, because everyone is out for themselves.  If you can afford it you send your kids to private school because the public school system is chaos.  People don’t drink the water because the don’t trust it.  The home values are all depressed.  There aren’t even decent places for people to gather and share culture.  And the root cause of all of these failings is that the people there just have this mutual suspicion of their neighbors.  They think that everyone’s taking and no one is giving back, and so they see no reason to give themselves.  As a kid I used to sense a desolation about the place, like nothing was connected to anything.  I remember the image I associated the feeling with was of a distant train whistle in the night.  It was like a haunting sensation.  Now as an adult I can rationalize it and discern the cause: Toledo is a city where no one belongs.  Everyone thinks the city is for someone else besides them.  And they’re angry because they don’t feel like they belong in the place that’s their home.

You know, everyone is so angry with elected officials and with government right now.  And we bemoan the decline of liberal democracy and see the government as a distortion of the collective will.  I think we’re actually becoming more democratic than we were in the past, and that our politicians are really very reflective of who we are as a people.  And that’s why we hate them.  Because we hate each other.

The Life and Death of Memes

feels

As regular readers of the blog know, I like to unwind by watching lonely people play video games on twitch.tv. Twitch has a chat feature that allows viewers to communicate with the streamer and with other viewers in text comments and small, 40×40 pixel images called emots. One of the most widely used emot image in twitch chat was FeelsBadMan, which depicted a forlorn frog with downcast sad eyes. Because the frog’s eyes are so large and prominent they sort of exaggerate the emotional effect of the image. It’s a funny little picture but it really does play on your empathy nerve. I always liked the emot but I never paid much attention to it. I don’t participate that much in the twitch chats anyway, mostly just lurk.

At some point last spring, I stopped seeing the frog emot in chat. People still spammed the FeelBadMan command, but you would just see the word. It wouldn’t execute the emot like it did in the past. Again, I wasn’t following the Twitch discourse closely enough to know what was going on. Then I read this New York Times article a couple days ago about how The Anti-Defamation League has listed this frog, known in most corners of the internet as Pepe, as a hate symbol.

When culture stories show up in the New York Times, it usually means that whatever trend is being reported on is already played out. People had been talking about the fall of Pepe for quite a while. Olivia Nuzzi’s article in The Daily Beast is generally cited as the most informative and best reported story on the subject. But isolated as I was in my little corner of the internet, I had no idea what was going on. I had only ever seen Pepe the Frog used to express subdued emotional nuance or humor about emotionality. But there was a broader story that was building. Small, out-of-the-way internet communities like the ones in which I circulate were certainly a part of that story, but there were bigger, more influential, more culturally-relevant forums out there which played a much greater role in propelling a saga of Pepe. Here’s a brief primer:

feels_good_man_boys_club-comic

The Pepe the Frog image was created by a cartoonist named Matt Furie back in 2005. Pepe was a character in Furie’s online comic strip, “Boy’s Club.” An illustration of Pepe saying “feels good man” was shared throughout the more benign sectors of 4chan as a kind of silly inside joke about feeling fine with being a little weird. Eventually it found its way to Reddit, where memes are born, and it kind of took off from there. People started drawing Pepe with different emotions, like the Feels Bad Pepe that I first became familiar with. Before long the Pepe face was being used as a shorthand emoji. This made Pepe useful in Twitter discourse, and Twitter brought Pepe to the masses.

4chaners were resentful that their symbol had been taken over by the greater internet and began taking measures to preserve Pepe’s authenticity. From here I’ll quote this fairly lucid history I found on Reddit’s OutOfTheLoop thread to get us to where were are now:

From Wiizel1337:

My home-board on 4chan is /r9k/, and I actually saw the Rare Pepe phenomenon rise. (Traded, and even made some OC.) But that’s my discrepancy with your post. It’s not all of 4chan involved in Rare Pepe’s/Pep-e-Oh/joke crypto-currencies. It’s really only /r9k/. But you’re basically right on mostly everything else. My timeline goes something like this:
1 /r9k/ gets fed up with normies stealing their meme’s. Pop-star and BPT alike.
2 Tiers of Pepe are made. (normie, common, uncommon, rare)
3 We start having “Rare Pepe” threads, and begin to trade, make, and appraise Rare Pepe’s. We trade for GBP, USD, and ZWL. (Not actually, we just say we do.)
4 Soon leads to joke transactions ($1 or $2) through websites like Paypal, just for kek’s.
5 The watermarking of Pepe’s begin.
6 The “PIS” system is made.
7 People start getting fed up with the meme, and begin to become “Pepe Pirates”, stealing Rare Pepe’s and devaluing them.
8 Soon, Pepe Pirates collect enough Rare Pepe’s where they begin to release massive folders of Pepe to devalue the entire market. Things like giving them away for free and demanding rares.
9 Pep-e-oh starts. (It’s an offshoot of the main “rare Pepe” meme.)
10 We start selling them on e-Bay
11 Currencies are made.
12 People start making OC, trying to re-vitalize the market;
13 FREAKING NORMIES FIND OUT ABOUT ALL THIS AND START TALKING ABOUT IT. REEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

The motivation about all this varies from robot to robot, no real answer. And after event 13, it’s died down. Like really quickly.

Some terms you might have missed:
OC = Original Content
PIS = Pepe Index Score. “Determined by the rarity of the Pepe posted multiplied by its quality (determined by humor and art form). Both rarity and quality are represented as values between 1 and 10” http://i.imgur.com/I0c5yaL.png

I love that their response to Pepe’s perceived appropriation and commodification was to create a faux market for Pepe art where they pretended that Pepes were like fungible goods. It’s clever and funny, and it’s also a super-incisive critique of what’s not great about the internet, namely that it is in most cases nothing more than a loud, stupid bazaar for hocking worthless merchandise. I think they’re also saying something about how language exchanged through online communication can function like a consumer market where symbols are adopted and used at varying frequencies based on their social value.

One really positive thing about the the Pepe trade and the PIS rating system is how it seemed to inspire people to get creative with the Pepe meme. Thousands of rare Pepes were produced during this time. Not surprisingly, this generative enthusiasm actually had an opposite result from its original intended effect in that it made Pepe even more popular and loved. Maybe that’s why things changed. Remember, we haven’t even gotten to how Pepe became a “hate symbol.”

hitler_pepe

Most of the Rare Pepes that came out of 4chan were silly and referenced various inside jokes, but some were positively revolting. In typical 4chan fashion, members would try to get a rise out of each other by depicting Pepe doing unspeakable things. There were lots of incest jokes, references to sexual violence, that sort of thing. Some noted that these gross Pepes were particularly effective at warding off normies, and unlike other rare Pepes, were completely inured to meme-ification. You would not see deviant Pepes showing up on Buzzfeed, or even Reddit or Imgur where content can be flagged by users. Gross and vile Pepes thus became the rarest of all Pepes, and of course that just provided further incentive for 4chaners to devise ever more repellent and offensive Pepe depictions. Since there are no sorer subjects than racist, things naturally got pretty racist pretty quick. People made Nazi Pepes and anti-semitic Pepes. It’s difficult to say how sincere this racism was; if Pepe really was used as a vehicle for racist discourse, or if it was as 4chaners say, that racism was simply a convenient stink to skunk their symbol in so as to keep the normies off. Suffice it to say that in this one seedy back alley of the internet Pepe did became associated with bad racist jokes, but by design, that had nothing to do with the normative use of the Pepe meme. Normies didn’t use racist Pepe. That was the whole point of making racist Pepes. So how did the broader Pepe meme become identified with white supremacy and hate speech? What social force could possibly have enough reach and allure and grasp on the minds of so many people that it could catapult the worst parts internet into the cultural mainstream.

Answer: the American presidential election

trump_pepe_tweet

Many of the same people who were exchanging racist Pepes on 4chan also came out as early supporters of the Trump campaign in the summer and fall of 2015. Shortly after Donald Trump officially announced his candidacy, someone created a OC Pepe with Donald Trump hair and signature red tie, standing behind a podium and POTUS seal. The image quickly found its way to Twitter where it was found and tweeted again by Donald Trump himself at 2:53 AM on October 13, 2015, seemingly to share the image with different alt-right news organizations where it could be further disseminated. Perhaps because of Trump’s acknowledgement of the symbol and implicit approval, elements of the alt-right that interface via the internet began using Pepe as a rallying point. #frogtwitter became a major forum for young Trump supporters to meet, exchange politically-themed Pepes, and share mean-spirited sarcasm. As Pepe art from #frogtwitter began to emanate throughout the Twittersphere, journalists started taking notice and the first associations with white nationalism were drawn. Over the spring and summer of the past year, Pepe more and more began to be identified with the #frogtwitter discourse and with the histrionic rhetoric of the election. Then, in September, the Clinton campaign published a definitive “out-ing” of the Pepe meme as a symbol of white supremacy. The subheading for the piece read, “That cartoon frog is more sinister than you might realize.” The article, which is nothing more than campaign literature masquerading as a news story, goes on to explain in very simple terms how “…in recent months, Pepe’s been almost entirely co-opted by the white supremacists who call themselves the “alt-right.” To drive the point even further home and perhaps add a bit more bite to the attack, the Anti-Defamation League followed suit and came out with the hate-speech designation just a few weeks later.

This perhaps might be the nail in the coffin for the Pepe meme. It has been politicized to such a point that its use by the broader internet will from hereafter be, at the very least, fraught. Pepe has now become a tool of rhetoric, and as such its application shall be narrow and circumscribed. It can either be deployed as a symbol of anti-PC defiance by those on the right or as justifications for accusations of racism by those on the left. I don’t see how it could every be extricated from these very specific connotations. Pepe, who was once an object for mutual recognition and common understanding, a force that brought people together and cemented community, a true meme in every sense of the word, is now a signifier of division. He’s an engine for splitting people apart and fanning antipathy. He is no longer a meme, he’s an insult.

Memes die for many reasons. Usually they simply exhaust themselves in our minds and we move on. Pepe was different. Because of his protean nature he could be constantly re-invented and seen afresh. But this malleability also spelled his undoing. He now has the dubious distinction of being the meme that transformed into a monster.

The Art of the Art of the Deal

trumpholdsdeal

I read the first half of Donald Trump’s 1987 business-advice book cum memoir Art of the Dealer last weekend. A fun read, actually. The prose are simple and concise. The stories are amusing and replete with dropped names and power plays. The book spent 51 weeks on the best seller list in the late 80’s and I can see why. It gives the common person a window into the life of a very rich and powerful man. The first chapter is just an hour by hour recounting of a week in Donald Trump’s life. We hear about the phone calls he makes, the deals he’s considering, the charity benefits he goes to, the “work” he does at his office in Trump Tower in Manhattan. I think for a long time people appreciated it for the narrative voice. The book is written in the first person, presumably by Trump, though the book’s co-author Tony Schwartz has come out in the last year as saying that he wrote the entire thing himself with little to no input from Trump. If this is the case—and it probably is, in all honesty—then Schwartz does a magnificent job of matching Trump’s signature cadence and diction. I think it’s in line too with how people would expect an impatient and aggressive businessman to speak: short sentences with few subordinate clauses, uncomplicated ideas left largely unsupported, unfailing confidence in the truth of what’s expressed, a complete absence of anxiety. The Donald Trump of Art of the Deal, whether contrived or genuine, is very much a “don’t sweat the small stuff” kind of guy. He is shown to have an innate ability to reduce complicated matters to their most basic and essential components. He rejects doubt and counter-argument as mere distraction. A true pragmatist, Trump seems to care only about what that which prompts him to act, or the alternative, to wait it out and “keep your options open.”

One imagines the initial intent of the author and the publisher was for Art of the Deal to be an advice book brimming with useful negotiating tactics and investment tips and only a chapter or two of Donal Trump aggrandizement, just enough to establish his authority on the subject matter. Instead that formula was reversed: just one chapter of Art of the Deal is devoted to actual dealmaking; the rest is shallow memoir with a few insights thrown in about the lessons Trump learns from different episodes in his life. Reading the advice chapter, one discovers quite quickly that there just isn’t that much to the report when it comes to the Trump philosophy for doing business. The chapter even begins, “My style of deal-making is quite simple and straight forward.” Trump uses no theories of negotiation or of rhetorical persuasion. He has no special sense of how markets behave or where to find undervalued assets. He simply “aims high” and keeps “pushing” until he gets what he wants. And if you’re already playing from a position of advantage, that apparently is all you need.

Trump does have a handful of strategies for leading and dealmaking, which are referred to in the book as “Trump Cards.” Perhaps it could be worthwhile to consider a few of these individually:

 

Think Big

“If you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.”
I can imagine Tony Schwartz writing that line with some relish. The thinking big mentality here means simply placing larger bets to reap larger rewards. Of course, to bet high you have to have some money to begin with, and you have to be far enough ahead that you can absorb the loss and live to bet again. One has to wonder for whom this advice is intended. It assumes the actor commands some degree of advantage already and that that advantage can be leveraged for still greater opportunities. I think the point of including it here has less to do with effective business strategy and more with motivational encouragement to seek—and expect—better returns. It tracks with a lot of prosperity gospel nonsense that tells people what they want to hear and not what they can come to expect. It also conveys a lot of what makes Trump appealing to people, that being the swagger and bravado of a winner.

 

Protect the Downside and the Upside Will Take Care of Itself

“It’s a very good business being the house.”

This one seems to have been thrown in to balance out the bullishness of the Think Big section. Here Trump tells us to minimize our exposure and take the easy money when you find it. I actually think the two ideas taken together constitute something that might approximate a coherent business strategy. When you are able to raise the kind of capital that Trump can, your business dealings start to transcend basic commerce. You come into the ownership of things that are so big that they are not simply properties and assets; they are things that compose the greater apparatus of society and the economy. Such investments are sure to pay, so long as society—or the part of the society that’s being laid claim to—remains solvent. Skyscrapers in Manhattan remain profitable if people keep doing business in New York. Casinos generate revenue so long as people go on vacation. The likelihood of any of these capital goods diminishing in value is comparable to the likelihood of there being some kind of social revolution that changes the way people on earth go about their daily lives. It goes without saying that the risk of losing under such conditions is quite low.

 

Maximize Your Options

“I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first.”

All he’s doing here is telling us to hedge our bets. It’s such a banal insight that I hesitate to even lend it any thought. Though I do think it could strike an average person with average finances as novel that the more money you have to invest in things, the more options one is given for investment. Again, this advice is really only practicable if you literally have more money than you know what to do with.

 

Know the Market

“…I don’t hire a lot of number-crunchers, and I don’t trust fancy marketing surveys. I do my own surveys and draw my own conclusions.”

It has taken us all a very long to time to admit it, but Trump does know his customer. He has an instinct for seeing what people want most and a willingness to deliver. He doesn’t say it anywhere in the book, but if you look at the sort of businesses Trump runs and the message he reflects back to the consumer, you can unmistakably see what he thinks people want—and he isn’t wrong. People want to feel like they’re winners. They want to feel like they’re prospering and doing well in life. They want to think that they’ve been blessed with intelligence, prowess, and good luck. In the beginning of his career Trump sold newer, slightly nicer apartments to middle income people, and these apartments gave them the feeling of upward mobility. Then he moved on to Manhattan and began selling to a nouveau riche, people who actually were winning at capitalism and wanted material affirmation of their success. He bought casinos knowing that that brief and fleeting sense of victory the gambler gets from the occasional win will always keep the people coming back. Seeing professional sports as yet another delivery mechanism for getting the consumer his fix of vicariously experienced victory, he bought a football team. And of course now he is running for President of the United States on a one plank platform of making people feel as though America is winning again.

Understand, I see nothing wrong with people wanting to feel like they are doing well in life. It makes perfect sense that we should want to succeed as individuals in a world dominated and defined by market competition. There is no shame in demanding one’s dignity and wanting to be acknowledged and admired. I take issue with the man who presumes to sell our dignity to us to us as a fungible commodity. The scam here is that Trump is not offering a means for obtaining victory in life. He’s only offering the feeling of having won. There’s no guarantee that the feeling will signify real accomplishment, or that it will persist, or that there will be any truth to it at all.

trumpandphones

There are about a half dozen other Trump Cards in the “Elements of the Deal” chapter, all of them having to do with consumer manipulation, managing exposure, and exerting leverage from a position of power. None of these lessons are actionable for normal person, and I don’t think they were ever intended to be. Art of the Deal does not teach you how to get rich. It teaches you what it’s like to be rich. It lets you sniff the bankroll without giving you any of the bills. And sadly, for a lot of people, having tickets to the show of someone else’s life is good enough. I suppose luxuriating in fantasies of another’s luxury rather than putting something on the line to realize your own is a way of minimizing exposure.