Thursday, March 16, 2017

Vivisecting, uh ... I mean, Dissecting … Mr. Trump

I have a very smart friend (VSF) who appears to be buying into the right-wing talking point that the “mainstream media” is the enemy of the people — or at a minimum, simultaneously incompetent but somehow manipulative and with a powerful axe to grind against the administration — but that some other publications — for example, ones that might called the failed Somali state a “Jihadist Government” when no functioning government even exists — can then be trusted enough to site as sources when providing evidence of the NYT’s “treasonous” actions (in the word of the Parmesan Putin). Recently, VSF & I had a mini-debate about the “last night in Sweden” call-out during a very high-profile speech by the prez (i.e. one where he knows his words will be carefully reviewed), with my VSF buying (what I’m pretty sure is) the alt-media’s “alt-truth” claim that this was a simple mis-step, and me (with no doubts in my mind) seeing the fnord for what it (quite clearly to me) was: a multi-tiered attempt by Trump to shift the focus and the argument onto an unlevel playing field, in a now all-too-common fashion, in pursuit of a specious and dangerous agenda.

The problem with fighting dirty, as the Republicants and this administration are all-too-willing to do, is that it usually gives an unfair advantage, one that can only be offset by also doing something reprehensible. And Trump’s rhetoric — and to a lesser but still severe degree the rhetorical strategies of the right in recent years — is decidedly dirty. Manufacturing BS is so much easier (and entertaining) than unpacking it that even if you could give a full accounting, in an irrefutable manner, to convincing divulge the inner workings of a manipulative (other-deluding) and narcissistic (self-deluding) mind, it would take more words than anyone would read, and by the time you unpack the whole bolus, there’s so much new malarkey to unpack that you could never keep up. In this respect, I consider Il Douchy a savant: I’m not even sure he knows how well he packs his phrases (I’m guessing he does), given how ham-fisted many of his day-to-day conversational gambits are (“all the best words”), and but like any good Rorschach test, how his words are taken tell us more about the individual hearing them than the person saying them, and he paints BS on a canvas with that in mind.

would you hire this man to be your proctologist? or your president?
What follows is an attempt to dissect why he said the Swedish thing and what it really means, proving my point that any convincing explanation is going to be too wordy and tedious for anyone to keep up with, assuming I even have the chops to unpack this (my failure to convince not being proof of my error). I’m not saying an alternative interpretation of Trump’s words is stupid or evil, I’m saying that cognitive bias is so invisible that if you’re being manipulated in the “right way” (as most of the confederate- and don’t-tread-on-me-flag-wavers are), then it’s almost impossible to spot that in yourself. I’m also not saying that anything that aligns with your interest is necessarily false, but I’m highly suspicious of any belief system that benefits the group doing the believing. Being a white, straight, wealthy, non-immigrant, gentile male with corporate-provide insurance and buying into a “religious freedom”, “tax reform”, “there’s too much PC”, anti-immigrant, pussy-grabbing, privatize-everything administrative platform/lifestyle/reading list in any way should make one at least pause for a self-interest check. I know that people who read my blog are bright, beautiful and billionaires (and if they aren’t, it’s ‘cause they’re being held down by the ‘opposition’ press and whomever you didn’t vote for) … but you shouldn’t just take my word for it.

Anyway. The exact quote (which you should ideally watch a video of, in order to get tone as well as verbatim context) was “You look at what's happening last night in Sweden! Sweden! Who would believe this, Sweden!” One possible (and to me the pretty-much-only) interpretation of this at face value is that something occurred in Sweden the previous night, but I admit these words are ambiguous … which is one of their strengths, from a manipulation standpoint.

My VSF said “Swedish disbelief is still front page NYTime's fake news. Where has their integrity gone and do they think we're stupid?”  This is itself is a pretty typical (and powerful) alt-media paragraph: it discredits the source (permanently, long after the current debate subsides), implies that possibly the most editorially conservative (in terms of when/what to publish — not from a political standpoint — although if I left this appositive out, using “editorially conservative” to describe the NYT would be a great manipulative ploy along the lines of what we’re discussing) paper in the country may be mis-reporting on Swedish disbelief (implying the Swedes would agree with President Turnip), that the media have an axe to grind by not reporting on other “more important” stories (and I would agree there’s a whole lot of news not being beaten to death that ought to be, but probably different news than what VSF would want to see), that even if you once considered the NYT the “great grey lady” of American press that you just haven’t been paying attention to where their integrity went, and that anyone who buys into the “narrative” of reporting on what people said, instead of what they later claimed they meant, is stupid. That’s a lot of messaging packed into 20 words, and I’m starting to suspect that, like all language, the rhetorical techniques used in right-leaning media and internet comment threads are rewiring some brains, creating an inherent (and not always conscious) ability to make and win arguments at the expense of other cognitive skills.

Here is just some of what “look what happened last night in Sweden” tells us about the story, the story teller, and the audience:

1. Ambiguous language: allowing both plausible deniability and interpretation after the fact (or after the polls, if you prefer), Trump mixes tenses, say “… is happening last night.” Either (and this infinite branching is where we can start heading down rabbit holes we might never pull out of) you believe DJ DT has “all the best words” and that this is intentional — in which case it appears he is trying to get across a (false) sense of immediacy, urgency and ‘nowness’ to this scourge, scaring us into acting against our best interests — or you believe he just isn’t that clear, precise or goodly with words, in which case you need to take the scalpel to his retraction as well, and then we’re back down the ever-branching rabbit hole.

2. Confabulating anecdote and data: if you take his words at face value, which you are likely to do while he’s talking and more words keep coming and you don’t have time to sit down and deconstruct every twist of language and jeezum christ this whole problem of churning out words while writing about the problem of keeping up with a churn of words and all their ramifications is recursively naval gazing and makes one realize how hopeless the problem really is, you would believe that “even Sweden has (a) problem(s)”. If the whitest, safest, least objectionable country on earth is being overrun with dangerous immigrants, imagine what could happen here.  Plus, Purity of Essence … even Sweden (Sweden?!) isn’t white anymore … can you imagine what our country will look like if we don’t start massive deportation, denial of transit visas, rejection of orphaned children and widowed women, religious tests at the borders, racial profiling, maybe an internment camp or two … just until this war on terrorism is over … well, the slippery slope leads to a literal ethnic melting pot, with cauldrons provided by Trump-Haliburton Industries.

3. Point scored - accepting refugees is bad:
Orange You Glad I Didn’t Say Pussy also said:
They took in large numbers — they're having problems like they never thought possible….We have to keep our country safe
In other words, tiny Sweden does this once-morally-necessary thing far more than us, and they’re paying the colored-rabble price for it … part and parcel of this argument is blurring the distinction between immigrant (voluntary, and generally with an option to safely stay at home) and refugee (involuntary, often in life-threatening need, held in camps for years during heavy vetting, with no say in which country they get placed). In short, we should take what used to be a source of our moral authority in the world — that we care for the downtrodden, and will provide life, liberty and opportunity to people denied that elsewhere — and turn it into a public health hazard to be avoided at all costs. It’s dizzying when you think about it: the Republicants have taken a group of voters that believe jihadists hate us because they hate our freedoms, and convinced them that repealing freedom is the way to fight jihad.

4. Assume that “his people” will look exactly as far as they need to in order to get the confirmation bias they are looking for.
VSF: “When i heard trumps words, in light of the fact that nothing had happened in sweden, i reasonably concluded the words were botched talking off the top of the butthead speech, and that he was referring to issues around immigration in Sweden. Is it unreasonable of me to expect the press to make that same reasonable leap?

The presumption is that you’d bother to learn that nothing happened. That requires fact-checking everything Trump says, which isn’t temporally possible, and isn’t even of interest to those with a cognitive bias in favor of their team, or them that really never had interest in facts, science, education, research … all the traits that get lumped into the now-derogatory term “elitist”. You have to discover that nothing happened in Sweden. And if you’re one of the just-large-enough plurality (given a combination of the Southern Strategy and organized disenfranchisement coupled with unlimited political power to corporations) to elect Republicants, you’ll stop when you get to a publication that’s willing to say what it has to to maintain access to the administration, rather than one of those “liberal” rags that has seen enough of this mendacity to know you need to do some digging, maybe over a period of days, to unpack what the Chorizo-in-Chief was getting at, and then the reader has to do some impartial reading and consider nuance and contingency, which just isn’t happening in those states with poor public education (i.e. largely red states).

5. Make sure you have an “out”, preferably one in your favor.

If/when the press challenges the statement, for those who are still paying attention, you can then point them to a news story on Fox (aka Pravda West). Having already convinced a large swath of the country that Fox & Friends is real journalism, while any established news organization is fake, you can then use this controversy to get people to read a story (full of further errors and falsehoods) that reinforces your point, one that they otherwise would have overlooked. Heck, even just getting people to talk about a non-thing makes it a thing.

Making any citation also sounds like the kind of thing that smart people who care about references would do — it’s like adding footnotes to your off-the-cuff white supremacist rant — reinforcing the fear with “facts” and “sources” (even, or especially, if people don’t check those references, which is largely a given, unless those people are the Press, which is why you must vilify anyone who calls you on your shite).

Trump also uses the “people are saying” defense, once he gets people saying things, to make it sound like (a) he can’t be responsible for being wrong because he only knows what he reads (ignoring that he doesn’t really read) and (b) this must be a thing, or so many people wouldn’t talk about it (even if it’s just one person talking plus a whole lot of echoes).

Here is a classic Mr. Trump tactic: discrediting (in advance) any source that has/might accuse, and accusing others of doing exactly what he’s trying to get away with (i.e. misrepresent). Now you can also make the press look bad for pressing a president on their words, which is pretty much all a president is, no matter how unpresidential he (always “he”) may act. That Trump managed to shift this whole discussion from analyzing his words to berating the press is evidence of his (one?) genius.

And this was no mistake, either:
The decision by Trump’s administration to restrict access to the press for Spicer’s briefing prompted at least some seasoned reporters to observe that the White House had successfully changed the topic:
"And now, the topic of the evening is the media outlets excluded, not the Priebus interactions w FBI + question of open investigation."
- Maggie Haberman, New York Times

Ironically, all these techniques are well-known (i.e. we shouldn’t be so susceptible to them) and are commonly used by the Russians (coincidence, I’m sure). This is really helpful reading if you want to learn about how manipulation works … it should sound eerily familiar by now:

6. Attack truthiness itself.

From creating web pages for a living, I know your average web reader has the attention span of an ADD ferret on meth. So they will never get as far as discovering that there in fact is no problem with accepting refugees as far as danger is concerned
(not even my VSF, who implied that he’d do the digging to discover nothing happened in Sweden, but probably stop there):

Data (see also below) shows immigrants to the US are LESS likely on average to commit crimes than existing US citizens. Although I can’t find data, I assume refugees are even less likely than your average immigrant to bite the hand that literally feeds them. In the same way you’re more likely to get killed by a citizen in Baltimore than a terrorist in Beirut, or a home-grown (likely white & Christian) terrorist than an immigrant/refugee terrorist domestically, the people you should worry about are the people who are already here and bitter (and heavily armed), rather than a grateful newcomer. Given a choice between a white, male, semi-educated, 9th-generation American who is Trump’s biggest supporter and believes the 2nd amendment is inviolable but the document that contains it is shreddable and that white Christian males are intrinsically more valuable (and aggrieved) than other humans, and a random Muslim refugee from Syria: if you have to invite one into your home and you’re worried about getting shot or raped, and Trump’s Sweden rant doesn’t immediately raise your hackles, you’re probably worrying about the wrong individual.

7. Fear and Anger, Fear and Anger, Fear and Anger, Fear and Anger, Fear and Anger

Anything that primes the limbic system gets a response. Fear creates obedience (“please save us”). Anger creates many of the same chemicals as more positive emotions … our reward system is triggered by anger, even if there’s a price to pay down the road. Clinton discusses policy, showing she’s able to do the job. Trump riles people up and plays on their emotions, showing he’s able to get the job.

8. Collateral cognitive damage

Even after I’ve upped my bullshit detector to max, and convinced myself that this is a manipulation designed to steer us towards an ultra-nationalist society with too many powers handed to the executive branch (see also Russia), a country where populists will keep the current party in power even if it’s not in their best financial interest (the very interest that appears to be pandered to) … if I hear these phrases enough, they start to add up. The Republicants are very good at a few things, and one of them is consistency and redundancy of talking points. Repetition is learning, no matter how wrong the repeated phrase is (and if you don’t believe that, have an otherwise bright Scientologist explain Xenu to you, or a well-schooled Mormon explain the magic underwear). The mere fact that we are no longer outraged by what the president says or does, or that Tweeting is a form of policy making, or that the bar to being presidential is now set at “don’t grab your crotch during the State of the Union” tells us you can normalize anything through repetition. Keep it up long enough, and even the sanest of people will have some doubts about global warming, WMDs, the benefits of regulation, the dangers of immigration, yada yada yada. And the less sane or dubious will start to take these claims as gospel. Then once the gospel says “well, people have doubts about evolution as well as creationism, so why don’t we teach both, that’s only fair?” or “those libtards doubt both of these things, and won’t let us teach both, violating your rights of religion, so let’s elect a demagogue” (to name just one of dozens of topics subject to similar manipulations) … well, Sweden looks like a pretty safe and sane alternative to the Greatest Country on Earth Again(tm).

So, repeating a mis-truth often enough carries weight (Hillary must be guilty of something, since she’s been the subject of so many investigations, never mind that they never reached any conclusions of nefariousness), but even more significant, telling a lie and then retracting it STILL changes the minds of the most rational of humans (because we aren’t the most rational of creatures). Example (from the link above about propaganda/methods of mass manipulation):

Participants in a study within this paradigm are told that there was a fire in a warehouse and that there were flammable chemicals in the warehouse that were improperly stored. When hearing these pieces of information in succession, people typically make a causal link between the two facts and infer that the fire was caused in some way by the flammable chemicals. Some subjects are then told that there were no flammable chemicals in the warehouse. Subjects who have received this corrective information may correctly answer that there were no flammable chemicals in the warehouse and separately incorrectly answer that flammable chemicals caused the fire. This seeming contradiction can be explained by the fact that people update the factual information about the presence of flammable chemicals without also updating the causal inferences that followed from the incorrect information they initially received.

So, what’s the problem? 

Aside from the real damage to the country that will be caused by pushing through these policies, even for those who independently desired these policies, e.g.:
and the fact that this just really isn’t American (or a land-of-the-brave or home-of-the-free kind of) policy, I can’t believe that the president of the US is both well informed and making these “mistakes” by accident … I just can’t tell which deficiency is demonstrating itself at any given time. It’s sort of like the George W years, when you couldn’t tell if any decision was Bush’s (stupid) or Cheney’s (evil), and so couldn’t pin down why it was wrong while still knowing it was wrong. I personally believe the Prez knows exactly what he’s saying, for the most part, and is intentionally using the oldest political tactic in the book (scare the populace into compliance) in order to get what he wants. 

I believe he knows that the story he is referencing about Sweden is FALSE:

and that here in the US, immigrants commit LESS crime than 2nd-generation (or longer) citizens:

and there aren’t really too many ways to spin this:
  during the period 1990-2013, the number of unauthorized immigrants grew from 3.5 million to 11.2 million. Over that same period, FBI data shows that violent crime rates fell by 48% and property crimes declined by 41%.

[This is, incidentally, the group that Trump most derides, more than the vetted and visa’d people we’re actually discussing denying entry to, who, presumably, aren’t as dangerous as those who’d break the law to come here.]

So Trump has intentionally made an assertion that is false but that advances his agenda, that sticks in spite of its falsehood (how many people have seen the data in this post, in spite of the NYT keeping this story on the front page for “too long”), and that somehow became a referendum on the legitimacy of reportage (aka his detractors, if you consider quoting someone a detraction) rather than his truthiness.

And that leads to this:
On page one of any political science textbook it will say that democracy relies on people being informed about the issues so they can have a debate and make a decision,” says Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of Bristol in the UK, who studies the persistence and spread of misinformation. “Having a large number of people in a society who are misinformed and have their own set of facts is absolutely devastating and extremely difficult to cope with.

The alternative theory (and we can branch these arguments until hell freezes over, but we can never keep up with the rate of BS manufacture, which is why this rhetorical technique has worked so well for Trump) is that he is so self-unaware and self-interested that he believes what he wants to believe over the truth … in which case he is unqualified for the job, instead of too much of an ass-hat to hold the job.

So, what do I do about all this?

Ignoring everything else in here (which we will, sadly, do), we have no moral basis for denying refugee (different than immigrant) status to widows & orphans from parts of the world we’ve destabilized through military adventurism (Isis/Al Qaeda), shadow-cold-wars (Taliban), and funding and befriending our frenemies (Pakistan, Iraq, etc. etc.). Why refugees have a longer ban (120 days) than immigrants and tourists (90 days) would seem to be worth discussing, but again, if you can keep the churn rate high enough on your misspeaks, many important conversations have to get skipped or glossed over. But if you take away just one point, remember: immigrants and refugees are two different groups of people, as are legal and illegal immigrants, and if you can’t make and keep those distinctions, you have no business discussing (never mind setting) policy on this subject.

You can also start insulating yourself from these rhetorical techniques by being dubious by default … and don’t just apply your skepticism to “the other side.” The link I mentioned above:
talks extensively about the techniques you could use to persuade-beyond-reason. Becoming aware of those techniques will partially immunize against those techniques. Knowing that you can only have partial immunity should increase your skepticism even further.

There’s a whole internet full of info on bad logic, propaganda, manipulation, etc. (as well as actual bad logic, propaganda, manipulation, etc.) Here’s another possible starting point:

While a bit awkward in places, this entire series:
presents methodologies for immunizing yourself against bias and doing your own fact checking … the amount of work involved is exactly why the president can get away with this crap, but it’s also why we’ve farmed this job out to the press (which is falling down on the job quite a bit, but not in the direction that the alt-right thinks, but rather by erring in the direction of click-bait and sensationalism and cat stories over content ... we are largely at fault for being a cheap-ass and not very discerning audience). Similarly, the job of governing is so complex that our democracy (which is ALSO a Republic, before any of you alt-right ultra-nationalist shite-heads decide to chime in), that we’ve farmed it out to politicians. It’s important that someone keep an eye on that job, and discrediting the ACLU and the NYT puts that final check on power in jeopardy. You do so at your own peril, but also mine, so please stop supporting this behavior.

Watch the “Obama wiretapped my house” discussion unfold in the manner described above, as a sanity-check on my claims. Safe prediction: nowhere in that discussion will Trump say “clearly, a president should not have these capabilities because the risk of abuse is both obvious and proven.”

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