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.