Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Trump: The Bullshit Candidate

I have decided the perfect emblem for Donald Trump's presidential campaign is a plastic bottle.

A bottle of Trump Ice Natural Spring Water.

The one small object captures the lies that characterize his general behavior and his campaign in particular.

According to a website for the Trump Organization, Trump Natural Spring Water "is one of the purest natural spring waters bottled in the world." The water is monitored constantly for purity, the site states.

That sounds good. Except if anyone is doing the monitoring, it isn't the Trump Organization. You see, the water is bottled by Village Springs Spring Water in Willington, Conn. Like so much of the Trump Empire, things that bear his name are made by others. The Trump promise of exclusive access to quality and status is merely a matter of branding rather than authentic quality or the product of his own efforts.

Perhaps the water from Village Springs is good, but this is nothing Trump was involved with, and it is nothing that is exclusive to him. In fact, anyone can have the same water bottled for their birthday party, bar mitzvah, or doggie wedding. Also, according to the Village Springs website, the company bottles water for private labels at convenience stores and grocery stores. Tres chic!

I have no reason to doubt that Village Springs water tastes fine and is healthy to drink. But the company's website offers no mention of their water being one of the purest in the world, and Trump offers no evidence for how this judgement was made.

Trump Ice Natural Spring Water, like so much in his presidential campaign, requires his audience to connect their vague associations of his name with quality and competence with the product being sold to them. It requires them to hear but not test the rhetoric. It requires them to forget that Trump is a marketer and not a maker; he will say whatever is required to sell something, regardless of the truth. And many times the promises have little relation to what is actually delivered (such as the "hand-picked" faculty members at Trump University).

Trump recently paraded his water bottles in a press conference. The presentation was an attempt to counter Mitt Romney's attempt to portray Trump as a business failure rather than a business success (transcript here). Romney cited his failed endeavors, such as Trump Magazine, Trump Airlines, Trump Vodka, Trump Mortgage, Trump Steaks, and Trump "University." (I was disappointed in Romney's takedown because it mostly rehashed points made better by John Oliver's Last Week Tonight on HBO.)

In order to refute Romney's claims, Trump brought out an array of merchandise, as if to suggest that the failures Romney cited were instead successes. But like so many of the claims in his campaign, his remarks consisted mostly of lies and misrepresentations (see Mashable's story). The steaks, it turned out, were not Trump Steaks at all, but were made by Bush Brothers. There was no Trump Vodka for him to show, so he showed Trump Wine -- which he doesn't bottle; his son does. The Trump Magazine he held up was an issue of a quarterly publication distributed at his resorts, not the monthly lifestyle magazine that failed in the 1990s. Romney did not mention bottled water, but he brought that, even though, as I have said, he does not make it and it is not in any way an exclusive product.

His display of "successful" products are like the promises he has made on the campaign. The wall he promises to build, the tariffs he promises to impose on products made in China (which would include his own line of clothing), the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants he promises... Trump cannot be trusted to deliver on anything that he says, because everything he is says consists, more rather than less, of bullshit.

This is why I am so perplexed by people who say they support him because of his honesty. For example, in a Salon article describing her turnaround on Trump's candidacy, Camille Paglia praised his "fearless candor."

Candor is another word for honesty, integrity, and truthfulness. How can someone whose every statement is steeped in lies, misrepresentations, and fabrications be praised for "candor"?

If he is being honest, then he must be stupid, since so many of his "facts" are wrong. So perhaps he does have "candor," just little common sense and less knowledge. For a list of recent lies and misrepresentations, check out this article from Politico, "Trump's Week of Errors, Exaggerations, and Flat-out Falsehoods."

I prefer to think of him as more dishonest than uninformed, though he may be both. A list such as Politico's is why I find the word that best applies to Trump is "bullshit."

In his slim volume On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt associates bullshit with an absence of knowledge on a subject. He writes, "Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person's obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic" (63). Review Trump's many errors of fact in the Politco article, and you can see Frankfurt's point illustrated. All numbers are exaggerated according to Trump's biases and his immediate rhetorical needs -- his poll numbers, the size of the trade deficit with China, etc.

In his book, Frankfurt tries to distinguish between regular lying and bullshitting. One distinction, he writes, is craft. The liar can be careful and nuanced; they practice sophistry with more skill and attention, so that the lies or misrepresentations are hard to discover (most presidential candidates are practiced at this). Meanwhile, bullshit is "produced in a careless or self-indulgent manner" (21). Carefully crafted lies and misrepresentations require discipline. "It entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim" (22). Trump's remarks at his political rallies are famous for their rambling, unscripted nature, he seems unconcerned when he contradicts earlier statements, and he is reluctant to be held accountable for what he has said at any particular moment in the past.

Perhaps the most relevant quality of bullshit for my discussion is the attitude of the speaker. In many ways the bullshitter is more brazen than the liar, because the bullshitter is less concerned about the truth in the first place. The liar is concerned about being caught; hence the careful effort to disguise the lie as the truth. The bullshitter does not seem to care.

According to Frankfurt, the bullshitter "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are"(61).

This seems to describe Trump's press conference about his many successful products. The Bush Brothers label on the steaks he displayed was in clear view. He did not attempt to hide it. The liar would have. The bullshitter does not care. The magazine he held up was clearly NOT the Trump Magazine that had been ridiculed by Romney and Oliver. Trump Wine is not only not Trump Vodka, it isn't made by the same Trump. But he didn't care.

The bottle of Trump Ice Natural Spring Water? The liar would have failed to list the actual bottler. Instead, the truth behind Trump's bullshit is brazenly listed on the bottle itself. There is no attempt to hide the falsehood. Trump's presidential campaign is proving that the truth is irrelevant. The seductive quality of the bullshit is all that matters.

Friday, January 29, 2016

A Memorial to Forgetting

Recently, I saw this statue in the courtyard of the Van Nuys Civic Center. The native man depicted is named Fernando, and he reminded me of Ogden Nash.

Ogden who?

Ogden Nash had one of the best jobs in the world. He was famous for writing silly poems (although he also co-wrote a couple of Broadway musicals). He was born in 1902 and died in 1971. The Nash poem most likely for you to have heard before is this:

I think I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, 
I'll never see a tree at all.

However, the Nash poem that I thought of when I saw Fernando was a much-less famous poem, "The Unselfish Husband." In it, the husband tries to prove his love to his wife by climbing the highest mountain in the world and naming it after her. The lines that came to mind were these:

But she didn't give him a look of love, she gave him a
Ogden Nash
look of laughter,
And not only a look of laughter but a look of menace,
Because he named it after his wife by naming it Mt.
Mrs. Orlando Tregennis.

He supposedly intends to honor his wife, but instead he erases her, in a sense. Her name, her individuality, disappears, and she is memorialized only by her relationship to him.

Something similar happened to Fernando. Although the plaque at his feet says "Fernando is a symbol of the first inhabitants of the San Fernando Valley," the statue is an honor that erases more than it illuminates (a little history of it is here). You see, not only does the plaque fail to name the original inhabitants of the Valley -- the native people in this region never disappeared; they still call themselves the Tataviam, the Chumash, and the Tongva -- it also fails to call its lone figure by a native name. That is, an actual original inhabitant of the Valley would not have had a Spanish name. He would have had a name in his own language.

Fernando would have been assigned this name by a priest from the nearby Catholic mission of San Fernando after the Spanish invaded California. Just as Mr. Orlando Tregennis erases his wife's name by overwriting hers with his, the Americans memorialize an original inhabitant of the Valley by erasing signs of his language and naming him only in relationship to the Catholic Church and the Spanish government who dispossessed him.

Such are the dynamics of what we call settler colonialism.

Most people may be familiar with colonialism. That is the process by which one country takes over another and transforms it into an extension of the dominant country. The conquered population may even become citizens of a kind in the dominant country -- though probably never citizens of status equal to residents of the dominant country.

However, most people are less familiar with settler colonialism, which functions differently. In it, the dominant country seeks to replace the citizens of the conquered country. That is where the "settler" part comes in. When we think of settlers, we think of families building farms and communities in a landscape that has no other people in it; we think of settlers being the first people in a location. And that is the way members of a settler colonial society like to imagine themselves or their ancestors. They prefer to forget that the land had inhabitants before them, and they prefer to forget the violence that was required to get those people out of their way. The United States is a settler colonial nation.

Henry Van Wolf
This willful forgetting tends to be ubiquitous in a settler colonial society. It happens in ways members of that society do not realize -- it wouldn't be successful forgetting if it was obvious to them. So the irony of giving a symbol of the Valley's "first inhabitants" a name from the people who violently dispossessed them was probably lost on sculptor Henry Van Wolf and the people who commissioned the statue. After all, many elementary school students in California still learn about the Spanish mission as if they were playgrounds for happy Indians and Spaniards -- and not the instruments of genocide; I can only imagine how that subject was taught in 1968 when the statue was erected.

P.S. -- The statue at the Van Nuys Civic Center is a bigger version of the Fernando Awards, an honor given to a San Fernando Valley resident for his/her volunteerism and philanthropy. Their work for others is a fine thing, and my thoughts here are not meant to suggest they or the people who select the winners are not wonderful people.

Friday, March 6, 2015

This Is A Story About The Plains

Fall 2014 Issue
I call this piece a "prose lyric," and it appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Yellow Medicine Review. Its editor, Judy Wilson, generously selected it as one of her nominations for the Pushcart Prizes.  (I have made minor tweaks in a couple of sentences, so it differs very slightly from the printed version.)

This is a story about the Plains, so there must be a pick-up truck in it. So let us say I am driving a pick-up. Let us say it is an older pick-up. Its bed is a little out of kilter. Perhaps I drove through a ditch in the truck, and that vehicular adventure bent the bed a little to the side, so that if you are driving behind me you can see all four of my tires. Or perhaps the bed was bent when the truck got hit from the side by someone pulling out of a parking space in front of Dillon’s Feed Store. Or maybe it already was bent when I bought the truck secondhand from Mr. Tollefesen or maybe Leonard Two Bulls. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that this is a story about the Plains, and therefore it needs to have a pick-up truck in it. And the bent truck bed just communicates that the truck is indigenous to the Plains.

This is a story about the Plains, so there must be a stretch of road in it. It could be the road I am driving on now. Let us say that it is a two-lane highway that runs flat and straight, with the mountains in the distance and a strong wind blowing all the time. It is a road so straight and undecorated that it becomes a metaphor for truth and honesty. Or maybe it serves as a metaphor for life, for the life of some person driving down this stretch of road, a life that stretches out from this point to the horizon. And that horizon itself can be a metaphor, for a future that never arrives but is always arriving. Or perhaps this highway can be a metaphor for anticipation, that time and space that stands between us and something we look forward to. Or perhaps this long, straight highway is a symbol of some inevitability, some unavoidable doom or calamity. Perhaps it is all of these things at once. Perhaps it just depends upon which driver is looking at it. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that this is a story about the Plains, and so we need a long stretch of road that runs straight and true across the land.

This is a story about the Plains, so there must be Indian people and white people in it, for the Plains are a place where they met to work out their differences, one could say. And they are still working them out. Or you could say the Plains are where the white people came to work out something they had within themselves. They had been so unhappy in their first home that they moved away and never went back. But, as some say, you cannot run away from your problems, so they brought those with them. And they attempted to work out some of those problems on the Indians. Regardless. The white folks and the Indians met here. At one time on horseback, in ambushes, in massacres, in circled wagons, in burning cabins, in acres of dead buffalo. And now they work it out in alleys, in jail cells, in dark parking lots, outside liquor stores, in casinos. But in marriages, too. In churches and in schools. In friendships and yearbooks. At the feedstore and in the Wal-Mart. There was a time when Indian and white was all we needed to tell a story about the Plains. That is not true anymore. Now we need more actors for our play. We need Mexicans and African Americans. We need people from India to run the motel and the gas station, so now we have Indians and other Indians. We need Salvadorans. We need some Russians. The Plains are different now. This is a story of the Plains, so there must be constant change in it.

This is a story about the Plains, so there must be a lonely house in it. Let us say it sits off the road a ways, down an unused driveway. Let us say I drive by it every day and think about it. So do you. The driveway could be made of dirt or gravel. Let us say the driveway has been unused so long that a tree has taken root in the middle of it. The tree stands there, in the driveway, in front of the house, like some child waiting on a Mother or a Father to come home. There is no glass in the house’s windows and the paint is nearly gone from the wooden sides, peeled away by seasons of snow and rain and sun and wind and wind and wind and always the wind. The wind is slowly, patiently taking the house back, carrying it off one molecule at a time, like the careful, ancient erosion of the hills themselves. This is a story about the Plains, which are flat because the ocean was here to press them down. And now the wind is the ocean’s cousin, doing its work of keeping the land wide and smooth. This is a story about the Plains, and so the hand of time is seen everywhere.

This is a story about the Plains, and so there must be another lonely house in it. A house with people, but still it is lonely. But not really a house. A trailer home. It could even be a double-wide. But it will be at the end of a driveway, either dirt or gravel. Its lights are on at all hours of the night and people come go at strange intervals. This is a story about the Plains, and so some people feel that no one can see them, even though everyone can. And some people feel that no one cares, because no one asks. But everyone watches. And the sun and the moon see everything. The wind learns it all and carries the news up to the mountains and down to the rivers. In the house meth is cooked. And a corrosive dream eats the skin and teeth of its lovers. Then one night the trailer will burn down and the ghosts that had lived there will blow away. This is a story about the Plains, so there must be heartache and folly in it. 

This is a story about the Plains, so there must be happy houses in it. Yours and mine, we will say. I am headed to one now, on this straight road, in this crooked pick-up truck. And when the houses are not yours nor mine, we will beep the truck’s horn or wave our hand once, just once, off the steering wheel, when we drive past and see folks on the porches of those houses fat with children and grandparents and dogs and cats. Yes, let us say that. Yards covered with cars and trucks, some that run and some that don’t. Each one has a story to tell. This is a story about the Plains, so there must be basketball hoops in it. Let us say the hoop stands beneath a powerful lamp, like a streetlight from town. And children bounce a ball on the rough gravel (or dirt) of the driveway, until the ball is smooth and the same color as the gravel (or dirt). The children laugh and chase the ball, and the dogs bark, and the cats curl themselves around the legs of parents and grandparents. Yes, let us say that. Those are good things. Let us tell stories of good things. The children dream of high school championships and the parents dream of college for them. This is a story about the Plains, and so there must be laughter and dreams in it. The wind carries those too, up to the mountains and down to the rivers.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Brotherhood of the Traveling Cargo Pants

Why do all jeans have this pocket...
Pockets can be a pain in the ass.

I mean, the things carried in them can be.

Mostly wallets and cell phones.

But fashionistas can be a pain there, too.

You see, I am staging a personal pants pocket rebellion.  My goal is to undo the damage done by whoever decided to put pockets on the backside of men's pants.  I believe that pockets make much more sense on the thigh than on the butt, so I have recently purchased cargo pants (from Land's End) that do not look like they came from the Army Surplus Store, and I am hoping clothing companies will make the pockets less like rucksacks for your legs.  In the meantime, I must brave the ridicule of the fashion industry, which seems to hate cargo pants -- although hints of change are in the air.
... but not this pocket?

Many people have seen the episode of Seinfeld that depicts George Costanza's exploding wallet.  (You can see the wallet scenes of the episode here.) He keeps everything in it, including old receipts, customer loyalty cards, Sweet-N-Low packets, and loose change. Finally it is as large as a deli sandwich and is causing him severe back pain from sitting on it -- as Jerry tells him, "You've got a filing cabinet under half of your ass."

Some people would say his problem is his wallet, not his pants, and they would be right. While many men complain about the amount of things women carry in their purses (and the frequent chaos found in there), they can be guilty of carrying too many unnecessary items in their wallets. I have thinned out my wallet recently, but even a thin wallet is an uncomfortable seat cushion.

Moments before the explosion
Besides, men now have growing cell phones to contend with. Phones are like George's wallet: they have grown tremendously in what they contain -- phone, camera, contact information, game console, television programs, music libraries, all of the Internet, etc. As we have interacted with them more frequently and for more purposes, their screens have grown.

Gentlemen, look at the right pocket of your jeans. Do your jeans have a small pocket at the mouth of the standard pocket? When was the last time you kept your watch there? When was the last time you saw anyone with a pocket watch? Yet, probably every man in the country has a cell phone -- and no special pocket for holding it.

Until now, men have had two options: carry their cell phones in a holster on their belt (despite the scorn of the fashion mavens) or in their front pockets.  Until recently, I have carried my phone in a holster. But I am past 50 years old, and I am a college professor, so no one expects me to be very sensitive to fashion trends. However, phones are outgrowing holsters.

(One year, my students plotted to nominate me for an episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.  I said I would prefer to be on Wipeout.  Not like I was saying, "I would rather be catapulted into a lake of foamy bubbles than have my wardrobe criticized by those guys."  No, I just think it would be really fun to be catapulted into a lake of foamy bubbles.)

And as phones have gotten bigger, the front pocket has become less of an option. (Besides, shouldn't men be concerned about the proximity of cell phones to their privates?)  The back pocket is not much of an option, comfortwise, and some cell phones are too big for front or back pockets.

Some companies are working on the problem. Pants from Osmium have a cell phone pocket on the right pant leg (the image above is from their website). This does not solve the wallet-storage problem, but at least the pockets are not giant flaps of fabric. I have found another company, Red Kap, that has this feature. Dockers has something similar, but their side pocket has a zipper, which would slow down access and can get fouled.  And Dickies has pants with a "back thigh pocket."

Some folks in the fashion industry are even warming to the idea of cargo pants.  But I cannot say the cell-phone pocket has gone mainstream yet, when actually it needs to be a standard.

Wall Street Journal
In fact, The Wall Street Journal recently featured an article titled "Men's Cargo Pants Turn Refined for Spring." I welcome the attention, but the pants featured in the article are not what I would consider mainstream. In fact, I WOULD rather be catapulted into a lake of foamy bubbles than wear them. And they do not solve the problem of making cargo pants less cargo-ish.

So, if you are listening, Fashion Industry, please make more pants with side pockets. And design them to hold a wallet and a cell phone, not provisions for a two-day hike. They do not need to be giant, accordian-style pockets that are unattractive and which require the owner to fish around blindly for the desired object.

Also, please place the pockets closer to the hip than to the knee. Not only must the wearer swirl his hand around the giant pocket in search of his wallet, keys, phone, or Sonic Screwdriver, he must lean over to reach the bottom of the pocket. Retrieving something from the pocket of cargo pants can resemble calisthenics.