Trump is Exactly What We Wanted

Photo credit: Tony Webster via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
I was not a Trump skeptic when he entered the race. I didn’t know how far he’d get, but I knew he’d be a big factor, and as he plowed ahead and stayed on top, I was also not one of those who thought he’d implode. His support, I believed, was rock solid, with a floor that other candidates couldn’t match. But I don’t think I could ever really articulate why he would do, and has done, so well.

Then I read this interview with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin at Huffington Post by Howard Fineman, and it all made sense. Fineman writes:

Trump deploys fame for fame’s sake; taps into populist expressions of fear, hatred and resentment and shows a knack for picking fights and a braggart’s focus on the horse race. All of which allow him to play into — and exploit — every media weakness and bad habit in a chase for audience and numbers.

And Goodwin tells him:

Do we know, at this point, about his modus operandi in business? Do we know how he treated his staff? Do we know what kind of leader he was when he was building his business? I mean, I don’t know the answers to these things.

All I know is that, when I see him now, it’s like his past is not being used by the media to tell us who the guy really is.

This all rings more truthfully to me than the idea that Trump is some kind of political savant. I do think he’s probably smarter than his competition in a number of meaningful ways, but a better and broader explanation of his success is that his shtick happens to align perfectly with the way the news media produces content today.

The media and Trump are equally obsessed with horse race poll numbers. The current news paradigm is to churn out content with every tiny, potentially interesting development, and Trump practically gives off spores of content fodder. The news media delights in conflict, especially personal conflict, and the potential for controversy or the possibility of offenses given. Again, Trump provides and provides. And I assume that this is half because he’s playing all of us, and half because it’s just what he is. We the audience demand vapid, garbage content, and Trump gives us exactly what we want.

Here’s a subject that Fineman and Kearns don’t cover: the electorate to which Trump is appealing. It’s hard to imagine a Democrat-Trump, some leftward counterpart that has Trump’s bravado but fights for social and economic justice. No, Political Trump is a product custom made for an electorate stoked into rage and fear and happy ignorance by the very party that now fears the Trump takeover. The GOP primary electorate has been primed for a candidate like Trump, whether the party knew it or not. They’ve been fomenting paranoia about Obama, minorities, women, “religious freedom,” Iran, Muslims, and whatever else you can think of, and they’re shocked that perhaps some chest-thumping candidate might swoop in and, confidently and joyously, embody those paranoias.

Trump is a man of our times. Goodwin in the interview with Fineman says that deeply researched print journalism is what could have better exposed and explained someone like Trump, “because [of] the way sentences work.” There’s something kind of perfect for that. In an age of clumsy tweets and Facebook memes, the antithesis of whatever it is Trump is, might be “the sentence.”

Thinkery Episode 4: Murdered By Pretty Much Everything

the-day-the-earth-stood-stillEpisode 4 of my ridiculous podcast with Brian Hogg, Thinkery, is up! Here’s Brian’s writeup:

In this episode, Paul’s computer broke, forcing him to use something non-magical! Brian had an actual reasonable conversation in YouTube comments! CS Lewis is an unconvincing hack and Christian Apologetics are embarrassingly bad! We’re somewhere on the atheist scale! What IS knowledge, anyway? When we meet aliens for the first time, will they want to murder us, or sell us Amway? What’s the culture of heaven, and will you eventually be able to have sex with everyone?

Come get it at the website or on iTunes, or your podcatcher of choice.

Introducing Thinkery, My New Podcast with Brian Hogg

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Oh, the teeth-gnashing I have indulged in over not being able to come up with The Perfect Podcast Project™ for myself! Then, out of the blue, a very silly person who I have long respected emerges and ropes me into his own podcast jiggery-pokery.

That man is Brian Hogg, of whom I’ve been a great fan since discovering the painfully hilarious Walt Mosspuppet. One day, Brian’s all, hey, let’s do a podcast together, talking about stuff. And I was like, okay!

And thus, more or less, was born Thinkery, where Brian and I think out loud to each other, and put those thoughts into your ear holes. We do religion, culture, politics, and almost never talk about what one of us is eating at any given time. Almost!

We’ve got two episodes up now, a website, a Twitter handle, a Facebook page, and a long Google doc (which I’m not showing you) full of topics we may or may not cover. Two more episodes have been recorded, and I’m in the process of editing them. We’re still figuring things out, from format, topic balance, to which of us does what back-end work. But I’m feeling very good about it, if for no other reason than I’m not doing all the work, as was the case with the iMortal Show and the Obcast.

So check it out at the website, on iTunes, or your podcatcher of choice.

Episode 1: “Nearer My Bugs to Thee”

Episode 2: “Sociopaths Get Things Done”

I’m Special to CNN

Last week, a contact of mine at CNN asked me to write an op-ed for the website on the recent Gallup poll showing an uptick in the number of Americans who would be okay with voting for an atheist for president (now at 58%). I was delighted to be asked, and not a little bit surprised. It had to be somewhat hastily written, but the response to the piece has been great, so here’s a chunk of it:

The conventional wisdom has long held that despite the constitutional guarantee of “no religious test” for public office, there could be no greater albatross for a would-be officeholder than to be identified as an atheist. …

[But] nonbelievers have finally moved up a rung. Now claiming the space at the bottom of this particular barrel are socialists, with half of all voters ruling them out entirely. Sen. Bernie Sanders will have his work cut out for him. …

When asked why Americans were so reluctant to back an atheist presidential candidate, the late Christopher Hitchens would say that there was a time before Ronald Reagan when no one thought a divorced, B-movie actor could be elected president, but such a candidate had to run to test the question.

So, before we can allow these poll numbers to fill the nonreligious with either hope or dread for our political prospects, we have to run the experiment.

We’ve seen a tiny smattering of atheist candidates and elected officials in the past handful of years, but we need to see more, and at a much higher and more visible level. The more atheist candidates run for office, whether they win or not, the more their atheism stops seeming to voters like an oddity or a novelty.

You can of course read the whole thing here. My favorite bit? The byline, of course, where it says I’m “special to CNN.” Aw, CNN, you’re special to me, too. Regardless of Don Lemon.

And a small bit of Paul-trivia: When I was an intern at ABC News’ Political Unit, David Chalian, Teddy Davis, and Ed O’Keefe were my supervisors and colleagues (each of whom I like and respect very much). Today, they’re all at CNN. Maybe I should intern for them again!

Dr. Oz, Disinfected by Sunshine

I was a guest on HuffPost Live this afternoon, joining a panel to discuss the whole Dr. Oz imbroglio, and something struck me that I wound up mentioning at the end of the segment. I pointed out that we’ve suddenly found ourselves at a point in media and culture in which crap pseudoscience and the denial of reality are starting to get called out.
Think about it. Dr. Oz, a TV doctor whose influence and popularity are probably unmatched by any similar figure in modern history, is being taken to task for promoting “miracle” weight loss “cures,” garbage “natural” remedies meant to do everything from improve your sleep to stopping cancer, and other, even more brazen examples of pseudoscience like homeopathy and psychics. He’s “America’s doctor,” sporting the Oprah Seal of Infallibility™, and millions of Americans swear by his every utterance. Nonetheless, not only are major news outlets tracking and exposing his nonsense, but he was even hauled before a Senate committee and given the business by Claire McCaskill. (I got a little media hit for that one, too.) That’s a huge deal.

Earlier this week, the FDA held public hearings on the marketing and regulation of homeopathy, a branch of pseudoscience that is so blatantly fantastical that even calling it “pseudoscience” gives it way, way too much credit. And yet billions of dollars are spent on homeopathic products, and its adherents insist on its medicinal properties, despite its complete disconnection from, like, physics. It took some doing, but now by holding these hearings, whatever their result, the FDA is implying to the public that “there’s something fishy here,” something worth holding hearings about. My colleague Michael De Dora was even invited to give testimony near the beginning of the hearings (here’s video in some weird Adobe format), and articles are popping up left and right that quote what he said. (He also did two great public radio interviews.) More and more Americans are hearing the message that homeopathy, that branch of medicine that you heard was “natural” and “alternative” is actually a bunch of junk.

And of course this year we saw the fall of the anti-vaxxer, as a series of measles outbreaks, particularly in Disneyland, led to a serious backlash against the celebrity-championed war on immune systems. Even the pandering GOP politicians trying to make common cause with the anti-vax movement are finding themselves looking ridiculous, as the political press corps does a collective facepalm.

All of this has been taking place in just the last few months, and the seeds of it have been germinating for a few years now. Part of the reason, I think, is that more reality-accepting young journalists are on the ascent, and the current trend for reporting is the “wonkblog” or “data-driven news site,” where raw facts make more good, clickable web copy. I’m seeing it not just at Ezra Klein’s and Nate Silver’s sites, but sites as diverse as Boing Boing (quirky culture), The Verge (tech lifestyle), io9 (science fiction and fantasy), Raw Story (left-wing outrage-posts) and many others. My friend Ed Beck suggested that it really all began with Phil Plait’s move to Slate from Discovery in 2012, and he might well be on to something there.

Organizations like mine, the Center for Inquiry, have been a key part of this shift, I believe, as every day we chip away at bad assumptions, lazy thinking, and credulousness. Bit by bit, we make the case for the acceptance of science – science the process, as well as its products – and the critical examination of extraordinary claims. The ideas that vaccines cause autism, that water retains a “memory” of a substance it no longer contains, or that magic beans can burn your fat or kill your cancer, are all claims that require that kind of critical, skeptical eye.

Only today have I allowed myself the luxury to step back and think, holy shit, I think we might be getting somewhere. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve moved that sisyphean boulder only a couple milimeters, but even just having gotten that far, I’m telling you, the view is better.

Here’s my HuffPost appearance, with a bunch of smart people.

http://embed.live.huffingtonpost.com/HPLEmbedPlayer/?segmentId=5536ae8f78c90ab06900012a&autoPlay=false

(Note: On the Dr. Oz thing in particular, you have to read the work of Michael Specter and Julia Belluz.)

Mars One is Amway-Meets-Heaven’s Gate

In November I wrote about an investigative piece by Elmo Keep on the Mars One initiative, which is supposed to be screening candidates for a one-way mission to Mars in the next decade. Go read that post to get caught up. (And read all of Keep’s original article, which is amazing.)
In my post, I compared Mars One to the Underpants Gnomes of South Park:

So to sum that up in Underpants Gnome terms:

  1. Hold meetings.
  2. Get feedback from meetings.
  3. ???
  4. Send humans to Mars.

In other words, Keep’s reporting showed that at best, Mars One is a well-intentioned idea, as I put it, built like a house of cards. At worst, it’s a weird and cynical scam, the goal of which is unclear.

Alas, I think the needle may be tilting strongly toward the latter.

Keep is back with a follow-up piece, in which she profiles Mars One candidate (and top-100 “finalist”) Dr. Joseph Roche. What he reveals is that Mars One is less of an Underpants Gnome project, and more of a for-profit cult. From Keep’s piece:

“When you join the ‘Mars One Community,’ which happens automatically if you applied as a candidate, they start giving you points,” Roche explained to me in an email. “You get points for getting through each round of the selection process (but just an arbitrary number of points, not anything to do with ranking), and then the only way to get more points is to buy merchandise from Mars One or to donate money to them.”

“Community members” can redeem points by purchasing merchandise like T-shirts, hoodies, and posters, as well as through gifts and donations: The group also solicits larger investment from its supporters. Others have been encouraged to help the group make financial gains on flurries of media interest. In February, finalists received a list of “tips and tricks” for dealing with press requests, which included this: “If you are offered payment for an interview then feel free to accept it. We do kindly ask for you to donate 75% of your profit to Mars One.”

It’s disgusting, isn’t it? Get people to sign up to be “chosen” for a mythology-worthy (and mythical) voyage to martyr themselves for science and the human race and whatnot, and thereby pressure them to pay into draping themselves in the brand, and funneling their own money back to the project. The candidates, one presumes, really want to be chosen for the mission, to be seen as enthusiastic, committed, and worthy, so they buy into the “points” system as a way to show their devotion. It sounds like Amway meets Heaven’s Gate, or a short-term Scientology. It’s a snake oil rapture story dressed up as noble science.

And as Keep points out, the mainstream media coverage of Mars One has been almost entirely uncritical. How can it be that there’s been only one journalist who’s bothered to do more than be awestruck by the project’s audacity?

Religion often promises immortality and, at its worst, preys upon people’s need to feel a part of something greater than themselves, all for the enrichment and empowerment of those pulling the strings. Mars One thinks it found a way to do that without the need for a deity, without an invisible heaven. Instead, it just pinpointed Paradise as the dusty red planet 140,000,000 miles away, and held out its collection plate.

Comics on Tablets: A High Bar Easily Cleared (Addendum to “The Tablet Reconsidered”)

20150104_125122_HDRIt occurred to me that after my 3400-word opus on how the tablet is being squeezed out of its reason-for-being by big phones and sleeker laptops, that I owed it to myself and my tens of readers to give a serious look at one use-case for large tablets that I suspect no other device can match, and one that Steve Jobs never mentioned when he first introduced the iPad: comic books and graphic novels.
The Google Play Store was having a sale on some interesting titles, and keeping in mind that I know next to nothing about comics and I’m fairly intimidated to dip in, I rounded a few titles up (including a collection of the new Ms. Marvel, which looks pretty cool). But what I began reading last night on my iPad Air, just before bed, was Watchmen. I’ve read a little more today, too, and also took a little spin around a couple of titles on my beloved LG G3, which has a 5.5-inch screen.

There’s no two ways around it. Reading comics and graphic novels on the iPad Air is fantastic. I can only imagine what a revelatory boon it must be to comics enthusiasts to have an iPad, plus services like Marvel Unlimited. The art, the story, and the bird’s-eye view of an entire page’s layout come through beautifully on that big, colorful screen. If you’re a comics fan, you really must own a large-ish, high-resolution tablet of some sort.

IMG_0012It looks like comics are doable on a phablet. If the resolution is high enough (and on the LG G3 it’s crazy-high), even zoomed all the way out, most text is still legible, but you really do need to zoom in on individual panels to get the full effect. That’s a busy, fiddly process, and not as much of a “lean-back” experience as one would want comic reading to be. You have to repeatedly poke at the screen on each page.

So there’s a big justification for tablet existence. If you dig comics, there’s no other way to go. It’s not enough to keep an entire mass market product category afloat, but it’s a reason for someone like me, who’s interested in getting into comics, to keep it around.