Saturday, October 8, 2016

Donald Trump and the semiotics of sexual objectification and harassment

In the immediate aftermath of the revelation of a tape showing Donald Trump expressing a demeaning, misogynistic and ultimately controlling view of women, many pundits noted that what he said was not “locker room talk,” stating that Trump’s disgusting ramble was far worse, and perhaps, too, that “locker room” talk was okay. 

Let’s consider “locker room” talk as a gray area of male (and) female human behavior. Most of it tends to be aspirational—a discussion of things one would like to do or plan on doing. “Locker room” talk does involve a certain amount of objectification of women (of men when women do it), but it’s fairly harmless as long as it is not spoken to the individual being objectified and does not play out in sexist behaviors in which one person treats another as a mere object.  And some talk is always off limits—as with racism, anything outwardly misogynistic belongs nowhere, not in the locker room, not in the tavern, not in man cave in front of a widescreen TV. For example, discussing the use of a rape drug.  That’s no longer “locker room talk.” It’s different and it’s disgusting. 

And the overwhelming number of Americans—from radical feminists to conservative Christians who feel a woman’s place is in the home—knew immediately that what Trump said was and is different from jockish banter—and is completely disgusting. 

It is nevertheless instructive to take a look at the various parts of what Trump said, beginning with context. We aren’t talking about a few buds downing suds in a bar at which single men and women gather. Trump was on the job.  

Secondly, the audience was not Trump’s best bro, but a business acquaintance, a television and radio host, which means he is part of the media.  This tape marks the first known instance of a public figure crudely discussing the unsolicited groping of female parts with the news media. 

Now we come to the implications of what Trumpty-Dumpty actually said.  It was despicable, a manifestation that he views women as objects he uses as he wants, for his sexual pleasure or to demonstrate his high status. 

The comments reek with abuse and revel in the lack of consent they flaunt. Morality aside, if he had said he slept with a woman and she was married, it would have been okay from the legal standpoint because we assume consent. No one knows what goes on in a marriage—is it open?, was she an abused wife?—so most people will not pass judgment a priori on a man sleeping with a married woman, even while thinking the guy indiscrete to a fault to break the confidence and tell someone else. But what Trump said was that he kept pestering her, bothering her, cornering her. That’s always creepy, always wrong, and pretty much always illegal. 

Same thing goes for his statements about groping the genitals of women without receiving prior permission to do so because he was a star. If he had said that stars get to sleep with a lot of women or a lot of women like to sleep with stars, some of us might be offended by the loose sexual mores involved, but again, there was nothing illegal because the women consented. It is the groping of a woman’s genitals without prior permission that revolts us and convinces us that Trump is a vile woman-hater. 

Interestingly enough, the language is fairly mild, if revealing of Trump’s attitudes. Trump never uses the “c” word. Of course, “screwing,” “sleeping with,” “going to bed with,” “making love with” (or in Trump’s case “to”), “getting it on with”—there are numerous less offensive ways to express sexual union than “fuck.” But Trump is talking about something he—the all-powerful Donald—did to someone else—some good-looking bimbo—and what he did or wanted to do was simple brutal, one-way “fucking.”  But in the casual listen without analysis, we hear “fuck” so much now in so many different contexts that it ceases to shock. After all how many people got fucked in Trump’s many bankruptcies? 

And what about the guy, the mediocre Billy Bush? He seems to be going along with the flow of the conversation. Believe me, if someone said to me that stars get to grope women’s private parts, I would have said, “No they don’t, and why would they want to? A lot of women will willingly let a star touch them anywhere. All he has to do is ask nicely. So only a sick person would grope.” Bush lost his moral compass by not acknowledging what everyone instantly recognized: Trumpty-Dumpty went over the line. 

The apology was unacceptable. The tone was grudging, almost defiant, which lent a hollow ring to the words. He said the statements he was caught making on tape were “not what I am,” but did not apologize for the many other misogynistic statements he has made about Megan Kelly, Carly Fiorina, Rosie O’Donnell, Alicia Machado, Hillary Clinton and other women in only the past few months.  He also limited his apologies to the comments, and said nothing about the actions that the comments indicated he had committed. He implied without stating it is that all he did was talk about it, that he didn’t really harass the married woman or slide his hand up some young lady’s skirt uninvited. Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt, which I don’t, what kind of a blow-hard is proud of sexually assaulting women? 

He made this very limited, very stiff apology worse by what he said next. Turning the subject from the apology to the election issues was in extremely poor taste, and then to go after Bill Clinton for his affairs negated any positive intent or outcome from his contrition.  

Trump essentially said, “I’m bad, but Bill’s worse and Hillary’s as bad as Bill.”  

But that’s not what people want to hear in an apology. They want to hear, “I’m bad and I’m sorry about it. Here is what I’m going to do to fix it.” They don’t want you talk about the other person’s transgressions, just to deal with your own. 

Trump mentioned no plan of rehabilitation. He is not enlisting in a sensitivity training course. He is not contributing a few million to fund public education programs that train men and women not to condone rape and domestic violence. He has not agreed to become a spokesperson or speak at events about what a reformed sinner looks like. 

No, Trump thinks that a simple “I’m sorry” will suffice to be forgiven and get the votes of American women and men.
But it won’t work. There was too much offensive about the comments and too much offensive about the apology.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Why was Al Gore a dork when he grimaced in 2000, but not Pence in 2016? Call it the Trump double standard

By Marc Jampole

The CNN poll immediately following the debate between vice presidential candidates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence revealed how the news media’s insistence on covering personalities has distorted the electorate, or at least those who watched the debate.  Viewers rated Kaine ahead on knowledge of the issues and helpfulness to his running mate, but rated Pence ahead on likeability. And who did the viewers say won the overall debate? Pence.

I agree that Pence was more likeable than Kaine that evening, who has too much of a Teddy bear face to be a credible attack dog. But what wasn’t likeable were Pence’s views or his tendency to duck tough questions about his running mate. Pence frequently denied that Trumpty-Dumpty had said things that all the journalists and much of the country have seen or heard him say. When asked about other aspects of the Trump program, Pence refused to answer the question. Regarding Russia, he essentially threw the Donald under the bus. It was a YUGE bus. 

The viewers saw Pence’s prevarications and then relived them when journalists and pundits described Pence’s treatment of his running mate. That’s one reason that it wasn’t a landslide for Pence, or even a clear victory. The results were close on all questions in the CNN poll. The dominant narrative in the mainstream media was that Pence won the VP debate, but that he won it for himself, not for the top of his ticket.  But it was close. Almost as many non-surrogate journalists and pundits preferred Kaine as proclaimed Pence the winner.  In short, Pence eked out a narrow victory over Kaine.

Likeability matters, especially for Republicans. Eisenhower, Reagan and Bush II were all elected because of their likeability, and Bush I won because he made his opponent so dislikeable.  Note that outside of the military, Eisenhower didn’t know much, and both Reagan and Bush II knew very little, but that didn’t stop them because they were so darn nice and friendly.

Which brings us to the matter of facial grimaces, an affect that often mars one’s appearance or makes one’s demeanor less appealing. Pence reacted frequently to Kaine’s statements with a grimace or a smirk or sometimes a smirky grimace. No one seems to have noticed it the way they did Trump’s whimpers of a whipped bully in the first debate between the presidential candidates. No pundit discussed Pence’s facial distortions as a negative characteristic.

Yet if you watch tapes of the 2000 presidential debate, you see Al Gore make virtually the same facial expressions. Virtually all commenters said that Gore’s sighs and smirks were off-putting. The polls and pundits agreed that George W. Bush won that debate, even though he had trouble mouthing his basic messages and Gore displayed a scope of knowledge that was truly extraordinary. The journalists, led by Maureen Dowd, called Gore supercilious and smug, whereas Bush came off as a cool dude with whom it would be great to down a few. Gore’s facial expressions became part of the broader narrative of the election. The cool guy versus the awkward wonk.

When I compare old videos of Gore to Pence’s performance against Kaine, I can see little difference between the facial expressions. The same mild exasperation. The same demeaning half smile. The only difference I see is the context: Gore was scoffing at the whoppers and misinformation that Georgie was spouting, whereas Pence was scoffing at Kaine’s truthful statements. Are we to conclude that it’s all right to smirk at comments in a debate, as long as you are smirking at the truth? Can facial expressions only undercut the truth and not be used when someone is lying or portraying obvious ignorance?  

Here is where the interplay of the mass media and the public becomes complicated. Both the media and the viewers thought Bush and Pence won their respective debates. Statistically valid surveys both times suggested viewers preferred the Republicans even before they experienced the onslaught of hyperventilated media nonsense.

Remember, though, that virtually every viewer has undergone indoctrination by the news media from their first moments of consciousness. The mainstream news media always has a bias to support Republicans, and has tended to skew right on many social issues and most economic and foreign policy issues except during the later stages of the Vietnam War.  More significantly, the mainstream news media pushes celebrity culture to the forefront and has gradually infected election coverage with celebrity issues: personalities, insults, personal animuses, who said what to whom, lifestyles, personal scandals, verbal or physical faux pas and, front and center, likeability. The media tells us time and time again to value likeability above substance. Think of the pejorative nature of the language used to describe issues-oriented candidates: wonks, nerds.

Likeability or the lack thereof has become one of the major issues of the campaign. The news media has created one of the greatest false comparisons in the history of human rhetoric: the likeability levels of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. All the polls show both candidates at historically low levels of likeability for presidential candidates. Substantial numbers of voters for both candidates say they are holding their noses and voting against the other candidate.

So where’s the false comparison? It has to do with the reasons for Hillary’s lack of likeability: they are all false. When she was Secretary of State, she was perhaps the most well-liked person in the country, and certainly in the world. She was well-liked as a Senator. What changed the perceptions of many Americans was the constant barrage in the mass media of phony and trumped-up scandals like Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation and her emails, and the constant harping of Republicans depicting her as a she-devil of deception and corruption. Maureen Dowd and other pundits who prefer personality profiles to issues analysis fed a false description of Hillary as cold, distant, vindictive and uncaring. Pundits would say these things and write them, but like the so-called scandals in her emails and the foundation, no one could ever give an example. In many cases, Hillary was blamed for things that her peers also did, even after she admitted a mistake and others did not. Sexism entered into the equation, too, as society tends to find fault in women for traits such as aggressiveness and tenaciousness that they find admirable in men.      

Thus, as far as likeability goes, the race is between someone who is truly despicable and someone who the media has depicted as unlikeable.

The 2000 election shows the negative ramifications of voting on likeability, and some, including this writer, would say the 1980 election demonstrated it as well.  The country would be on safer ground if we forget about likeability and judged the candidates on some real criteria, such as stand on issues, details in programs, knowledge of the facts, past experience, honesty of statements and vision for the future.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A day in the life of the 2016 campaign: I read the news today, Oy Veh!

By Marc Jampole

Contemplating a day in the life of the current American presidential campaign is enough to make a sane person want to blow “his mind out in a car.” You know, the race between a “lucky man who [never] made the grade” and an experienced, intelligent woman with enough great ideas to fill all the “holes in Blackburn, Lancashire.”

All references to the Beatles aside, the most recent 24 hour slice of insanity is a reminder that we all should refrain from using the expression “a new low” until after November 8th.

Let’s start with Donald Trump who after he “dragged a comb across” his head, made the completely unsubstantiated accusation that Hillary Clinton has fooled around on President Bill. First of all, there is absolutely no proof, not a shred of evidence, not a soupcon of rumor that Hillary has ever been anything but a completely faithful wife to her husband. Beyond that is the deeper question of why it should matter. And why should it? We know that Presidents F. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, G.W. Bush and Clinton all had affairs, and that Trump himself had affairs during both his first two marriages. Why is it anyone’s business? How does it make a candidate less fit for office?

Perhaps the answer came from Rudy Guiliani, who on the very same day that Trumpty-Dumpty tried to paint an A on Hillary’s forehead stated explicitly that being a woman was a flaw for a president. His exact words: Don't you think a man who has this kind of economic genius is a lot better for the United States than a woman, and the only thing she's ever produced is a lot of work for the FBI checking out her emails.” Note that Rudy, another man who cavorted publicly with a woman other than his wife, did not say “a woman who did such and such.” No, he stopped the complete thought expressed in an independent clause with the word “woman.” His statement, when parsed of its grammatical excrescences, reduces to “Don’t you think a man is a lot better for the United States than a woman.” It was so shocking an example of the misogyny animating much of the Trump campaign and the GOP agenda that, “Well, I just had to laugh.” 

But wait, it gets worse. I thought “I went into a dream” because Donald Trump could not have possibly have said to a group of veterans that soldiers and vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder are themselves to blame for a lack of character.  But it wasn’t a dream. Humpty-Dumpty’s exact words: “When you talk about the mental health problems, when people come back from war and combat — and they see things that maybe a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over and you’re strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can’t handle it,” Most commentators have focused on his heartless statement that “a lot of people can’t handle it.”  Perhaps what’s worse is his clueless patronizing of his audience by assuming that all of them can “handle it.” Statistically speaking, the only way to make sure that a room full of vets contain no one suffering from PSTD is to set that as the criteria for entry. And even then, I’m certain that a sufferer would slip in because so many veterans find it hard to admit they need help for the nightmares, rage, depression and behavior disorders plaguing them. It was another instance of Trump talking to one group of people about “those other people” not like us. He paints an insulting and overly dire picture of the current status of African-Americans and claims a nonexistent threat of terrorism posed by immigrants in front of lily white groups. But this time it backfired. At a gathering of veterans, he almost assuredly insulted and shamed many of those present and made that “crowd of people turn away.”

Finally was the news that the New York State attorney general issued an order preventing the Trump Foundation from soliciting funds in the state, the latest shoe to drop in the continuing scandal of a foundation that has done little but illegally use OPM (other people’s money) to solve Trump’s legal problems or buy him expensive geegaws.

Another major Trump scandal—his taking a tax write-off of nearly a billion dollars in 1995—continued to play out, with Trump surrogates claiming that the fact he lost all that money and then used it against future earnings was sheer genius. None point out that Trump’s high living on the corporate nickel contributed to the great losses declared not only by him, but by the many vendors and investors who took a bath in his major bankruptcies. At least Hillary has the savvy to know, and point out, that Trump’s losses came primarily in an industry—gambling—which at the time was minting money for everyone else. 

The most absurd moment of this decidedly looking-glass day was when Neil Cavuto, a Fox News business guru and anchor needed an expert to help him discuss the significance of Trump’s tax losses. Unable to find a reputable economist or tax expert willing to praise Trump for his genius, Neil engaged in batting Trump messages back and forth with a has-been, never-was actor with no business or academic creds named Scott Baio.

As a left-winger and ardent Hillary supporter, I should be overjoyed that the Trump campaign has perfected the knack of digging itself into a hole about four thousand times larger than Albert Hall.

But then….

I read the news today.

Oy Veh.

The mainstream news media continue to try to shore up Trump’s campaign in many subtle ways. Take National Public Radio, which first interviewed an ardent Trump supporter and then interviewed a reluctant Clinton supporter. In other words, NPR chose to highlight the false narrative about the two campaigns that the mainstream news media created months ago out of pure phlogiston. There is plenty of enthusiasm about Hillary out there—about her programs, about her experience, and most certainly about the fact that she is the first woman major party nominee. Her party’s leaders are unified as virtually never before. Money is pouring in from small and large donors. Her rallies are as boisterous as Trump’s, although far from as rowdy.  But the news media ignores all the evidence of Hillary-mania in favor of a false narrative that because it has been repeated so often has become the central story of her campaign.

Meanwhile, the New York Times, whose editorials claim to deplore the deplorable Trumpty-Dumpty, continue to provide subtle support to him in the news pages. Once again, Trump stories dominated: Five stories about the Donald and only one about Hillary. While it’s true that several of the stories were negative, the Times still managed to help him in three ways:
1.      It dedicated an entire story to Trump’s vow to bolster U.S. cybersecurity defenses, mostly his typical bloviating about the problem and he will solve it, without going into many details, unless you consider creating a task force and asking for recommendations a plan. This article says nothing about Hillary’s plans, but it does mention Trump’s painful comments about PTSD sufferers deep into the story where almost no one would see it.  Why didn’t the comments get the headline or their own story?
2.      The headline of the one Hillary story focuses on her reaction to the release of three pages from Trump’s 1995 tax returns.  This one Hillary story could have just as easily featured her renewed call yesterday to foster greater economic equality by raising the minimum wage, bolstering labor unions and offering tax incentives to companies that share profits with employees. The headline could also have touted Hillary’s most recent endorser, LeBron James. But instead of presenting a candidate with views and plans, the Times turned Hillary into another bit player commenting on the foibles of the tragically comic white male protagonist, Donald Trump.
3.      The Times front page story analyzing how detrimental to the economy it would be to unravel the North American Free Trade Agreement references Trump’s opinions on the issue and not Hillary’s. Anyone paying attention already knows that Hillary knows everything there is to know about NAFTA and its impact and Trump is badly misinformed except when he’s telling pants-on-fire lies. President Obama’s views are also noted in the article, so in a real sense, the Times is equating Trump with Obama. It couldn’t be because they are both presidential, because Trump’s not. Nor is Donald the leader of his party. That’s Paul Ryan. Maybe it’s because both Trump and our President are men?  Subtle sexism or conflation of Trump with Obama?—whatever the reason, the result raises Trumpty-Dumpty’s prestige and lowers Hillary’s.

I wish I could say it was a dream or “I saw a film today,” but it’s the reality of the 2016 election campaign.

No wonder that, like more and more people, I find myself staring wide-eyed at the television, radio, newspaper, tablet or monitor and screaming “I’d love to turn you off.”

Monday, October 3, 2016

David Brooks ignores Dem platform & the making of history to declare 2016 campaign to be void of ideals

By Marc Jampole

David Brooks, who frequently combines bad sociology with his yearning for a fantasy past that never existed, is the latest to play the conflation game to describe the political election, declaring that both the Clinton and Trump campaigns suffer from a lack of vision.

Brooks sees a corrupted campaign on both sides, steered by materialist concerns and far from the idealism of either the 1960s, represented by Hillary, or the 1980s, represented by the Donald. His first mistake is to consider the 1980s politics of selfishness as an expression of idealism, when in fact it was a base gambit to transfer massive amounts of wealth from the middle class, the upper middle class and the poor to the wealthy masquerading as a set of conservative ideas and (non-existent) economic laws.

In his article titled “The Death of Idealism,” Brooks says that both races display a lack of a “poetic, aspirational quality.” Here is his extended peroration against both the Trumpty-Dumpty and Clinton campaigns:
“There is no uplift in this race. There is an entire absence, in both campaigns, of any effort to appeal to the higher angels of our nature. There is an assumption, in both campaigns, that we are self-seeking creatures, rather than also loving, serving, hoping, dreaming, cooperating creatures. There is a presumption in both candidates that the lowest motivations are the most real.”

What a load of week-old fish guts.

To be sure, the Trump campaign is based on the politics of selfishness in its most extreme form, animated by an anger that is not directed at social ills, but at the loss of a special status.

But to say the same about the Clinton campaign is not just a conflation, but an out-and-out distortion.

Brooks presents as his proof that Hillary and her campaign lack idealism the fact that when asked “why she wants to be president or for any positive vision,” she responds by listing the programs she supports.

What Brooks doesn’t say is that behind each and every one of her programs—I should say the programs of a united Democratic party—is a shining vision of true equality of opportunity and an equitable distribution of wealth that enables all people to have adequate education, healthcare, access to higher education and retirement. Keep in mind that the Clintons are rich, the Obamas are rich, the Warrens are rich, the Bidens are rich, the Sanders are very well off. And yet these leaders and many others in the Democratic Party have produced the most left-wing (I hate using the word “progressive” since the historical Progressives were such racists!) political platform in history. These rich people want to raise taxes on themselves and their big donors—How is that not idealism? The Democrats could have moved much further right and still been far to the left of the current Republican Party. But unlike a large number of people who escaped their middle class backgrounds and became rich over the past three decades, or became richer than they were before as in the case of Trumpty-Dumpty, these Democratic leaders have a vision of a better world, not just for the lucky and those who have already made it, but for everyone.

What was it, if not idealism, that animated the uplifting and emotional Democratic convention? Speaker after speaker appealed to our better nature, our responsibility to our community, and a higher mission than naked self-interest.

In every speech I have heard Hillary give during the campaign, she focuses on her longtime mission to help women, children and families. If her consistent and persistent actions and statements advocating the rights, safety, future and health of women and children don’t constitute idealism, I don’t know what does.

Then there’s the not insignificant matter of nominating and potentially electing our first woman president. All the women and many of the men I know are psyched. The gradual and sometimes bloody granting of economic and political freedoms to more and more people is a cornerstone of traditional American idealism.  To many, electing a woman president will fulfill a dream that goes back to the original Suffragettes. But to many others, the dream goes back even further, because they connect the long hard struggle of women to achieve equality with that of African-Americans and other minorities. 

In other words, by its very nature, the Clinton campaign can’t help but be idealistic and uplifting to all real Americans, even those who don’t agree with her policies.

I’m not sure what bothers Brooks about the Clinton campaign, but I suspect he doesn’t like its progressive principles and has therefore tried to tar it with the false accusation of being materialistic and lacking vision. It probably bothers Brooks that there is very little about a deity or traditional religion in the Clinton/Democratic program, since Brooks is always invoking a higher spirituality. Maybe Brooks wants to keep his taxes low. And we can’t discount the possibility that Brooks just isn’t ready for a woman president.

Brooks ends his piece with “At some point there will have to be a new vocabulary and a restored anthropology, emphasizing love, friendship, faithfulness, solidarity and neighborliness that pushes people toward connection rather than distrust.” Earth to Brooks: your dream of a politics of connection exists already. It’s the central force behind Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.