We all supposedly agree that the media is going to hell in a tabloid handbasket, but the trends to the contrary can be a bit harder to spot. In his 1970s book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe had mocked the way the media instinctively acts as what he called The Victorian Gentleman. In his view, the media dutifully edits out from the public discourse what is unruly and unseemly, and ensures that the tone of public debate proceeds along lines where decency and rationality are encouraged to prevail, even when all operational evidence is to the contrary. Because it is deemed to be good for the citizenry to believe that there is nothing that cannot be resolved by a rational debate, conducted politely between parties who supposedly have the same democratic goals in mind.
That tradition appeared to be still alive and well this morning, and RNZ gave us a good example. Via an overseas feed, we were told that in his latest Cabinet appointments, Donald Trump has been “reaching out” to women and to blacks and thereby “blunting the criticism” that his Cabinet was full of old white men. A less genteel media might have pointed out that these latest appointments actually continue the process of placing ideological extremists in positions of power: in this case, a billionaire activist for charter schools has been put in charge of public education, and an eccentric guy who wants to base the tax system on Biblical tithing has been made the Secretary for Housing and Urban Development. Mainly because he’s a conservative black neurosurgeon, and blacks live in the inner city, right?
This comes on top of the naming of Michael Flynn as the top adviser to President Trump on matters of national security, in which role Flynn will serve as his bridge between the State Department and Pentagon. This is the same Flynn who has described Islam as a cancer, and who claimed that its adherents want to ‘drink Americans’ blood”. At the Republican convention Flynn called for Hillary Clinton to be ‘locked up’ for her handling of classified information, even though he appears to have done exactly the same thing himself, and on the battlefield to boot.
Such blurring of the lines seems chronic behaviour for Flynn:
Flynn’s company took tens of thousands of dollars in lobbying fees from a Turkish client and produced “all-source intelligence support” for other international clients, even as Flynn himself was receiving classified briefings as part of Trump’s national security team.
Still, this sort of thing is what the Victorian Gentleman would prefer not to dwell upon, in the wider interests of healing the nation after a ‘bruising’ election campaign. Oh, and also… lets not talk about Trump’s support for retired General James “Mad Dog” Mattis as Defence Secretary. Still, here’s a few Mattis quotes that may keep you awake at nights:
‘The first time you blow someone away is not an insignificant event. That said, there are some a–holes in the world that just need to be shot. There are hunters and there are victims. By your discipline, you will decide if you are a hunter or a victim.’
‘Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.’
‘We’ve backed off in good faith to try and give you a chance to straighten this problem out. But I am going to beg with you for a minute. I’m going to plead with you, do not cross us. Because if you do, the survivors will write about what we do here for 10,000 years.’
‘You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up there with you. I like brawling.’
Ok, yeah I know… that’s just locker room talk. Guys say that all the time. Nothing to worry about, really. Hmmm. What we’re talking about here is the process of normalising the President-elect and his bizarre minions. Sure, it would be nice to think that a demagogue who gained power by divisive, racist and misogynist means would turn over a new leaf, and never again use such tactics against his critics now that the unlimited power to do so has been placed in his hands. It is supposed to be reassuring that Trump has decided not to personally prosecute Hillary Clinton. The fact that Trump seems to treat the rule of law as subject to his own personal discretion is actually quite un-reassuring.
So also… hey, lets not worry anymore about his refusal to release his tax records. Or about his claim that there are no conflicts of interest for the President – so the question of him using the Oval Office for personal gain cannot, in his view, ever even arise, despite what the Constitution clearly says to the contrary. Don’t worry though – he’s divested his personal finances to his children. They run the businesses, he runs the Presidency. Clear separation. Yet if that’s the case, what on earth were Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner doing at that meeting with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe?
Yep, the impulse to normalise extremism and aberrant behaviour among the powerful is understandable. Some Americans – including the Asian American writer Hua Hsu – even see it as the sponge-like essence of Americanness, something that impels (some of) us to reach out beyond our ‘silos of self identification’ so that we may better understand and empathise with the people who elected Trump – even if, as Hsu says, their brand of identity politics doesn’t seem to have a matching interest in tolerance and diversity.
Normalization, Hsu suggests, makes us feel better about ourselves via “the ability to fit things into a narrative that flatters our ability to reason.” What’s being normalized with Trump though, he concludes, is a different set of assumptions about how society should operate. Trump didn’t create the bigotries in question, but he brought them into daylight and rode them into the White House. The new normal simply isn’t the one we used to inhabit, and we shouldn’t be blithely assuming that hey, beneath the surface, we all want the same thing. Yet there’s a certain inevitability to the sea change that has just occurred. Hsu again:
Who, in newsrooms and on TV, decides what is normal? Normalization isn’t just a matter of human-interest stories and a faith in checks and balances. What we think of as normal shapes our field of vision; it tells a story of the world and its possibilities. Racism, sexism, and the other hatreds and phobias lately on display didn’t become normalized this year. They’ve always been normal—for some of us. For those of us who long had to get used to these things, what is now being called normalization is merely a form of the resignation that attends life and its possibilities. How can it be otherwise? Some Americans are not born into the belief that the system is for them, and do not grow up with the promise that nothing is beyond reach, that anyone can become President. Why not reckon with this version of normal, too?
Yep, there’s a day of reckoning coming alright, in all sorts of ways.
And here at home….
Being the sedating voice of reason is merely one task of the media in its guise as the Victorian Gentleman. On other occasions, it is expected to sound the alarums that the elites wish to broadcast to the masses. In its own poker-faced way, RNZ can be quite the comedian in that respect. On one of Wednesday’s late night news bulletins for instance, RNZ reported that Donald Trump’s scrapping of the TPP trade deal had just made the world a less safe place… ( pause, punchline) for exporters! Each to their nightmare, but IMO that would have to be the least terrifying thing that Trump did this week to make the world a less safe place. And if losing the TPP is enough to send our captains of commerce scurrying under the bed, then we’re in worse shape than I thought.
May I offer my own calming words to the trade lobbyists in our midst. We already have trade deals with quite a few of our TPP pals ( Singapore, Malaysia etc) After years of liberalization, tariffs are pretty low throughout the Asia-Pacific region. We already have a trade deal with the biggest economy not in the TPP – eg China – and are positioned to clinch similar deals with India and the European Union. Multilateral trade wet dreams such as the RCEP and TISA remain on the table. Cushioning all of this are the WTO rules that govern trade and dispute resolution. Losing the TPP is not Armageddon, guys. At best, by 2030 the TPP would have delivered gains less than what our dollar losing a few points against the greenback would have produced. So lets cool it on the kind of headless chicken stuff emanating from International Business Forum executive director Stephen Jacobi:
“A huge disappointment to learn that TPP is not going to go forward as we had envisaged,” International Business Forum executive director Stephen Jacobi said. “Short of trying cryogenics I’m not sure what we can do at this point…. A world without rules and a proper framework is an unsafe and unsecure world for New Zealand.”
Ultimately, it isn’t surprising that the TPP should have become the weird little blankie that our trade lobbyists have kept clutching. But they have become the captive of their own rhetoric. Basically, the proponents of free trade have become so hung up on the necessity for this or that magic amulet deal, they now think that without them to hang onto, no trade of any sort will henceforth occur. Trade Minister Todd McClay gave a really good example of this in his third reading speech on our latest, now useless piece of TPP legislation. Keep in mind that Australia enjoyed a similar explosive increase in trade with China during the period in question, without having a bilateral trade deal with China at all. Here’s McClay:
Before the China New Zealand FTA, New Zealand goods exports to China were estimated to grow to reach about NZ$5.6 billion in 2015. In 2015 New Zealand exports to China were NZ$3 billion larger than estimated – NZ$8.6 billion.
We now trade with China in five hours what we did in one year in 1972. This is a result of a high quality free trade agreement. No other reason!
Rubbish. And the Australians? Their two way trade with China was worth $22 billion in 2003, and it hit $160 billion in 2013, before Australia signed a free trade agreement with China.
Footnote: And in the UK… The killer of MP Jo Cox was yesterday to spend the rest of his life in prison. The judge’s sentencing remarks don’t mince words:
It is clear from your internet and other researches that your inspiration is not love of country or your fellow citizens, it is an admiration for Nazism, and similar anti democratic white supremacist creeds where democracy and political persuasion are supplanted by violence towards and intimidation of opponents and those who, in whatever ways, are thought to be different and, for that reason, open to persecution.
Unlike other newspapers, the Daily Mail did not put this news on their front page. The Mail have however found space on their website for a story headlined “Did Neo-Nazi murder Jo over fear he’d lose council house he grew up in? Terrorist thought property could end up being occupied by an immigrant family – and the MP wouldn’t help him”.
As Jon Stone demonstrates on Twitter, “Amazing how the Daily Mail will sympathise with an under-occupying unemployed council tenant, as long as they are a neo-Nazi terrorist”.
And here, from Perfume Genius, is a welcome affirmation of a different sort of normal to the one that a minority of the American voting public has just propelled into office…
Hold my hand, I am afraid
Please pray for me when I am away
Comfort the girl
Help her understand
No memory, no matter how sad
No violence, no matter how bad
Can darken the heart
Or tear it apart
Take my hand when you are scared
And I will pray if you go back out there
Comfort the man, help him understand
That no floating sheet, no matter how haunting
And no secret, no matter how nasty
Can poison your voice
Or keep you from joy