Lincoln: Pretense to States Rights

Lincoln: Pretense to States Rights

This is the second of two blog entries on Abraham Lincoln’s Message to Congress in Special Session on July 4,1861. The first, Lincoln’s American People, appeared in this blog two weeks ago. This entry examines Lincoln’s choice and use of the word “pretense” in an important paragraph framing the central concerns of his speech. Both essays were inspired by reading Adam Goodheart’s insightful book, 1861: The Civil War Awakening (2011), which includes ramifications for the 2016 election and beyond.

Here is the paragraph in which the word “pretense” appears front and center:

“And this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man the question whether a constitutional republic, or democracy–a government of the people by the same people–can or can not maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes. It presents the question whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration according to organic law in any case, can always, upon the pretenses made in this case, or on any other pretenses, or arbitrarily without any pretense, break up their government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth. It forces us to ask, Is there in all republics this inherent and fatal weakness? Must a government of necessity be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?”

Abraham Lincoln, Message to Congress, July 4, 1861.

Lincoln is concerned about more than winning the war and restoring the union. His larger concern is recurrent civil war, further rebellion, secession happening again. If these eleven states can so easily break up the union, why won’t other discontented minorities abscond using the same pretenses? Our democracy may be fatally flawed.

It was noted in the first essay on Lincoln’s speech that the Civil War that ended at Appomattox Court House in April, 1865 appears to be still going on today at a low-grade, symbolic, yet fervent level. Slavery is gone; racism is not. The people are not a “We” in many important matters. The nation is split into two spirited camps. Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina,Tennessee, and Texas remain a red state voting block; a majority of their citizens will vote for the dictator-strongman style candidate, Donald J.Trump, poor testimony for democracy indeed.

Another way to state the issue: Lincoln’s concept of popular democracy and of a restored, optimally-functioning union lost the war. The Union won, but “We” lost. He should have been able through the work of his compatriots to win by now. Why? Because he is right. We praise his service, worship his image, and revere his words, but we won’t debate and learn from him. If we would do so, he would win and “We the People” could move ahead thoughtfully and wholeheartedly.

That’s my idea for this piece. Recap Lincoln’s argument on “pretense,” and invite citizens to complete the debate for themselves. If we all did that, and the Senate and House did too, perhaps on CSPAN, the nation could finally end and move beyond the Civil War. Here is the essence of the case stated in his words on July 4, 1861.

“It might seem at first thought to be of little difference whether the present movement at the South be called “secession” or “rebellion.” The movers, however, well understand the difference.”

“Accordingly, they commenced by an insidious debauching of the public mind. They invented an ingenious sophism, which, if conceded, was followed by perfectly logical steps through all the incidents to the complete destruction of the Union. The sophism itself is that any State of the Union may consistently with the National Constitution, and therefore lawfully and peacefully, withdraw from the Union without the consent of the Union or of any other State.”

“With rebellion thus sugar coated they have been drugging the public mind of their section for more than thirty years, and until at length they have brought many good men to a willingness to take up arms against the Government the day after some assemblage of men have enacted the farcical pretense of taking their State out of the Union who could have been brought to no such thing the day before.”

“This sophism derives much—perhaps the whole—of its currency, from the assumption, that there is some omnipotent, and sacred supremacy, pertaining to a State—to each State of our Federal Union. Our States have neither more, nor less power, than that reserved to them, in the Union, by the Constitution—no one of them ever having been a State out of the Union. The original ones passed into the Union even before they cast off their British colonial dependence; and the new ones each came into the Union directly from a condition of dependence, excepting Texas. And even Texas, in its temporary independence, was never designated a State. The new ones only took the designation of States, on coming into the Union, while that name was first adopted for the old ones, in, and by, the Declaration of Independence. Therein the “United Colonies’’ were declared to be “Free and Independent States’’; but, even then, the object plainly was not to declare their independence of one another, or of the Union; but directly the contrary, as their mutual pledge, and their mutual action, before, at the time, and afterwards, abundantly show. The express plighting of faith, by each and all of the original thirteen, in the Articles of Confederation, two years later, that the Union shall be perpetual, is most conclusive. Having never been States, either in substance, or in name, outside of the Union, whence this magical omnipotence of “State rights,’’ asserting a claim of power to lawfully destroy the Union itself? Much is said about the “sovereignty’’ of the States; but the word, even, is not in the national Constitution; nor, as is believed, in any of the State constitutions. What is a “sovereignty,’’ in the political sense of the term? Would it be far wrong to define it “A political community, without a political superior’’? Tested by this, no one of our States, except Texas, ever was a sovereignty. And even Texas gave up the character on coming into the Union; by which act, she acknowledged the Constitution of the United States, and the laws and treaties of the United States made in pursuance of the Constitution, to be, for her, the supreme law of the land. The States have their status IN the Union, and they have no other legal status. If they break from this, they can only do so against law, and by revolution. The Union, and not themselves separately, procured their independence, and their liberty. By conquest, or purchase, the Union gave each of them, whatever of independence, and liberty, it has. The Union is older than any of the States; and, in fact, it created them as States. Originally, some dependent colonies made the Union; and, in turn, the Union threw off their old dependence, for them, and made them States, such as they are. Not one of them ever had a State constitution, independent of the Union. Of course, it is not forgotten that all the new States framed their constitutions, before they entered the Union; nevertheless, dependent upon, and preparatory to, coming into the Union.”

“Unquestionably the States have the powers and rights reserved to them in and by the National Constitution; but among these surely are not included all conceivable powers, however mischievous or destructive, but at most such only as were known in the world at the time as governmental powers; and certainly a power to destroy the Government itself had never been known as a governmental–as a merely administrative power. This relative matter of national power and State rights, as a principle, is no other than the principle of generality and locality. Whatever concerns the whole should be confided to the whole–to the General Government–while whatever concerns only the State should be left exclusively to the State. This is all there is of original principle about it. Whether the National Constitution in defining boundaries between the two has applied the principle with exact accuracy is not to be questioned. We are all bound by that defining without question.”

The pretense that concerns Lincoln is unlawful claim to “states rights.” In Lincoln’s words: “what is … combated is the position that secession is consistent with the Constitution–is lawful and peaceful.” It’s not. Lincoln says much more on the subject in the speech, so a fair understanding requires the reader to read the whole speech, which is easily done by googling, downloading, and printing it. What I’ve quoted is sufficient to understand the contour and key arguments of his position. There is much of importance in the speech on a variety of subjects; it is we’ll worth the effort to read it.

A Concluding Thought

The right of a state to secede is still an animated issue in Texas, with a number of efforts aimed in that direction over recent decades, and it is alive  elsewhere as well. Racism is very much alive too.

The inability to finish The Civil War is the dominant political fact limiting democratic government in our country. We are not a whole “People,” because we won’t admit that all Americans are actually Americans. Some of us are always “other” in the minds of the rest of us. We are not yet a country where “artificial weights” have been lifted;” where individuals are “unfettered;” where “a fair chance” exists for all; and “paths of laudable pursuit” have opened wide. We do not share Lincoln’s view of “a government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men.” Economic, corporate, and security interests dominate over and diminish Lincoln’s understanding of American exceptionalism.

Consequentially we find ourselves in an election campaign ridden with fear, pretense, pseudo-events, sophistry, glitter, guile, conspiracy theories, and racism.

We need to prove to ourselves that “We” as citizens and a “People” actually exist. We need to invite our eyes to read, our minds to think, and our mouths to converse respectfully and intelligently. We need to value our government, and work to insure that it works for all of us and for the good of humankind. Debating with Lincoln’s arguments in his Independence Day message of 1861 is a useful and enjoyable educational exercise, and as such can be of value to all of us in these ongoing pursuits and troubled times.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

September 19, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

Lincoln’s American People

Lincoln’s American People

“ . . .there are many single regiments whose members, one and another, possess full practical knowledge of all the arts, sciences, professions, and whatever else, whether useful or elegant, is known in the world; and there is scarcely one from which there could not be selected a President, a Cabinet, a Congress, and perhaps a court, abundantly competent to administer the Government itself.”

       Abraham Lincoln, Message to Congress in Special Session, July 4, 1861.

Introduction

Adam Goodheart’s insightful book, 1861: The Civil War Awakening (2011), makes particularly good reading this Fall as we wallow through the swamp of an interminable, pitiless presidential campaign. As it happens, the 1860 election holds lessons for 2016 and beyond. One section that caught my eye on pages 357-364 discusses President Lincoln’s laborious writing and dogged rewriting of his Independence Day message to Congress. People the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson wondered why it was taking the President so long and what the fuss was about.

I’ll leave it to the reader to get the book and read Goodheart’s excellent analysis and answer. While not a Lincoln scholar or competent historian, I can at least speculate on Lincoln’s concerns and suggest some applications of his ”solution” for us today.

Lincoln’s Concern

Here is a key paragraph in the message Lincoln presented to Congress on July 4, 1861.

“And this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man the question whether a constitutional republic, or democracy–a government of the people by the same people–can or can not maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes. It presents the question whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration according to organic law in any case, can always, upon the pretenses made in this case, or on any other pretenses, or arbitrarily without any pretense, break up their government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth. It forces us to ask, Is there in all republics this inherent and fatal weakness? Must a government of necessity be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?”

This is an amazing paragraph in a message to a Special Session of Congress that the President called to report on events since his Inauguration and to request the mobilization of 400,000 more men and the appropriation of $400, 000, 000 for the war effort. The paragraph comes relatively early in the speech, after a report on developments over the past four months, including the fall of Fort Sumter, and frames the issue for the President’s decision to invoke the war power, which he cites in the very next paragraph.

Thereafter, the paragraph frames the long, detailed middle of the speech, dealing mostly with the situation in Virginia and the rights of citizens and states under the Constitution, to which is coupled like a bookend or capstone, this second astounding paragraph found near the end of his message.

“This is essentially a people’s contest. On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life. Yielding to partial and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the Government for whose existence we contend.”

What is most remarkable about the frame paragraph is its ethereal, posterior viewpoint—as if glimpsed from the vantage point of an eagle looking back from a far-off future while flying retrospectively over the ruins of popular democracies. All democracies are threatened, he suggests, and democracy as a political form is in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth. Lincoln is worrying about and working through an answer to one of the heaviest of issues in all Political Science! But what’s going on? Isn’t the war about slavery?

Slavery is never mentioned in the speech, a fact abolitionist critics, in Goodheart’s reporting, immediately chastise him for following its deliverance. Yet, take a look at the second frame paragraph, the capstone paragraph, and notice the language “unfettered chance and a fair chance,” an obvious allusion to slavery overcome and ended. We contend, the President asserts, for our government in order to “elevate the condition of men!” The President’s eye is on the future of the nation after a successful completion of the war, slavery’s end, and restoration of the union. He wants to know how to prevent future rebellions on the same or other pretenses! He seems to fear civil wars of the future.

Lincoln’s Constitutional Problem

While neither the words “slave” or “slavery” appear in the Constitution, slavery’s existence is recognized in Article 2, Section 3, Paragraph 3, where, for the purposes of apportioning of representation and taxes to the several states, the number of “free persons” is to be increased by “three fifths of all other Persons.” The 3/5th “other person” is a slave.

By the time Lincoln took office, seven states had already seceded from the Union, and four more would soon follow. These states considered slavery a constitutional right; the 3/5ths reference established its legitimacy. Moreover, they considered themselves the aggrieved party whose rights and freedoms were threatened. In their own minds, they were the victims and guardians of freedom and the Union was the aggressor. Even today the war is called by some southerners “The War of Northern Aggression.” Outside of the abolitionist movement, more than a few northerners agreed. The confederates even claimed they were carrying on constitutional democracy!

The claims were illogical and the opposite of the truth. That was obvious to Lincoln. Slavery may be embedded in the Constitution, but it is the antithesis of freedom, and treason was the act around which the seceding states conspired and confederated. They gave up democracy when they abandoned the union. But Lincoln and the Union had a large legal and philosophical problem: where could they turn in the Constitution to find the high ground from which to flip the argument in the Union’s favor? No place is the answer. There would surely be an ongoing constitutional problem even after the war was won. It would take the 13th and 14th Amendments to finally resolve the constitutional crisis.

In response to his dilemma, Lincoln makes a brilliant intellectual and ethical decision. He builds his concept of a people’s government on the Declaration of Independence rather than on the Constitution, and thereby rewrites the story of American governance. He depends for his case on Section 2. of the Preamble to the Declaration. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In turning to the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln transverses the mental landscape from 1790 to 1776 and returns to the humanism of the Enlightenment. He thereby acquires a toolkit of inspiring and powerful concepts:

  • A free person beholden solely to a Creator God in nature acting beyond the authoritative reach of monarch and church, of King, Queen, and priest.
  • An inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • A union of such individuals acting by free choice to constitute a people, a polity, popular democracy, a republic—a government “for,” “by,” and “of” the people.
  • A faith in human betterment (which becomes for Lincoln “the substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men.”)

Lincoln saw clearly that the Declaration of Independence anticipated and foretold a world and nation where slavery had been abolished, where “artificial weights had been lifted;” where individuals were “unfettered;” where “a fair chance” existed for all; and “paths of laudable pursuit” had opened wide!

The rebels in seccession were no freedom fighters, lovers of liberty, patriots, or oppressed victims of their government. Slavery was evil, wrong; it was the monstrous antithesis of everything valued by the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln conveyed this in his message without ever raising the subject or asking a question about slavery.

Most important, Lincoln provided his fellow citizens with a clear, inspiring explanation of why they were fighting the war and what they were fighting for. As Goodheart points out, Lincoln never wavered after the speech on the question of whether the war was worth fighting. Goodheart also notes that the core ideas in the Independence Day message return to human ears as beautifully-crafted, eloquent poetry twenty-eight months later over the battlefield at Gettysburg. The earlier speech incubated the language for the latter. The language used at Gettysburg, it is important to note, included a reference to a nation that “shall have a new birth of freedom.” The sacrifice of the fallen soldiers hallowed their deeds, sanctified the battlefield, and immortalized Lincoln’s speech. The resolve of citizens to complete the unfinished work of winning the war was called upon and given.

While Lincoln’s language, phrases, and concepts of People’s government are familiar music to every American ear today, it is important to recognize that the President had reinvented the purpose of government in his Independence Day message to Congress in 1861, changed and improved upon the logic provided in the Preamble to the Constitution, committed the nation to an almost hopelessly idealistic vision of national destiny, told the rest of the world its future depended on the success of our crucial experiment, and that “We the People,” by alchemic formula, translated into government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” While the Constitution’s Preamble appealed to its signatories with the benefits of “a more perfect union,””justice,” “domestic tranquility,” “common defence,” “general welfare,” and the “blessings of liberty,” Lincoln gives his “People” a government whose “leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” He further asserted “this is the leading object of the government for whose existence we contend.”

We the American People

Who are we, I wonder when we talk about ourselves as “The American People?” This is a question that has long intrigued me, as exemplified by the blog essay I published in these pages four years entitled “The American People.” I don’t think we know the answer, I don’t, although we’re addicted to talking about it and making angry claims and assertions under its banner. We would like to be “We the People.” In some sense, perhaps many, we surely are, but the identity remains murky and undefined.

The dominant fact today—we’re authoritatively told—is that we’re split in half, with a full 47% of us contending for dominance over the other 47% of us, both sides appealing for help from the remaining 6% of us, whoever they might be.

We remain engaged, as Lincoln apparently foresaw, in some kind of ongoing civil war. In regard to the current low grade “war,” it is terrifying that even in the case of a landslide victory for the Democratic Party candidate in the 2016 Presidential election, near 40% of the eligible voters will end up having voted for a dictator-strongman style candidate whose democratic bona fides whiff of Stalin and Mussolini, and Berlusconi and Putin.

By the time Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had checked out of the union. Is it accidental that Donald Trump, the dictator-strongman style candidate, is expected to win six of these seven states in the 2016 election for President? Is the civil war Lincoln confronted in 1861 still running through our veins within the current civil war?

Has that nation and people rejoined in 1865 at war’s end, ever bought in to Lincoln’s concept of a government whose “leading object is to elevate the condition of men?”  Is that the nation for which we contend today?

Do we Americans even desire to become worthy owners and citizen exemplars of the “of” and “by” and “for” the “people” inheritance that President Lincoln and the Civil War combatants bequeathed us?

I fervently believe that fair readers of President Lincoln’s Address to Congress in Special Session on July 4, 1861 will decide that our wholesale problems as a people today are due not so much to supposed losses of Constitutional freedoms we hear complained of so often and shrilly, but rather are due to growing defections from the vision of the nation enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

We could, if we want, become “We the People” as called for by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and President Lincoln. Intent, care, empathy, humility, and courage would surely be required. Reconciliation would probably also require apology, forgiveness, respect, and reparations.

A good start would be agreement that every American is American, is “my” and “our”countrymen and countrywomen, that government, particularly our constitutional government, is an inestimably great and good thing, and that such a government is not only worth fighting and dying for, but worth paying taxes to so that the great purposes preambled in its Constitution can be accomplished, including, along with “justice,” “common defense,” “domestic tranquility,” “general welfare,” and  “blessings of liberty,” President Lincoln’s resolves to “lift artificial weights from all shoulders,” “clear the paths of laudable pursuits for all,” and “afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” We would thereby and by other means be contending for a government to “elevate the condition of men.” indeed, we would be contending to elevate the condition of people on Planet Earth.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

September 6, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

Gotcha Emails: Give Her a Break

Gotcha Emails: Give Her a Break

How many reasons do you need to give Hillary Clinton a break on the hacked email dumps that regularly befall her? The second dump happened last week; it showed questionable connections between State Department staff and The Clinton Foundation when Hillary Clinton was SOSOTUS. The first release at the start of the Democratic National Convention cost Debbie Wassermann Shultz her job as head of the DNC because she was caught colluding against Bernie Sanders and favoring Hillary’s candidacy for POTUS. More dumps are promised.

I’ve compiled a list of ten reasons to give Hillary the benefit of the doubt on past and future email droppings:

  1. The emails were collected by felonious means and it isn’t known yet who the criminals are. The consensus among cracker-jack hackers is that Russians did the job, likely involving the state intelligence gathering apparatus, with authorization from that old KGB hand, President Vladimir Putin himself.
  2. If it were money, jewelry, or art masterpieces that had been stolen, the booty would be stored under lock and key until the criminals are arrested and brought to trial. Release of the documents to the public doesn’t absolve the criminals of the crime. Their release is neither an act of altruism nor of good citizenship.
  3. Conspiracy theories should be avoided like the plague. As a person who aims to be guided by sense experience, reason, data, and logic, my moral character could be damaged by engaging in wild surmises about Donald Trump’s admiration for Putin, his call for the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s computers, the consultant work of Paul Manafort, Trump’s Campaign Manager, for Viktor Yanukovych, President of Ukraine, who later absconded to Russia in disgrace, and Trump’s delegitimizing comments on NATO. No, I refuse to go there! I advise you to avoid conspiracy mongering too.  Hillary Clinton’s life shouldn’t be conspiracy mongered either.
  4. Bill Clinton served as President of the United States for eight years and has made The Clinton Foundation his life’s work since leaving office. His wife Hillary has served as Senator from New York and Secretary of State during his days at The Clinton Foundation. One would expect regular email traffic between husband and wife in their separate offices, and communications between members of their staff would be expected too. Email linkages between the two organizations are in no way discredited by the frequency of mail.
  5. Emails, in gross batch, are inevitably and inherently discrediting! Try collecting yours for a couple of years, give the swarm to me, allow me to damage my moral character by letting my far fetching imagination run wild, and I’ll get you in trouble with someone. A relative recently told me she had been receiving unsolicited partner recommendations from Match dot com. She didn’t have an account, but got the match notices anyway. Was someone jesting her? Imagine what the Hillary critics could make of that if it had happened to her. The store of daily emails, let’s face it, is a virtual swirling cesspool. Most of my email, and probably yours, is unsolicited and eclectic.
  6. Powerlessness to prevent odd, unsolicited mail is just one problem. Emails are inherently discrediting in another way. They have a backstage, behind-the-scene, character. Emails are ways of getting work done in organizations. In the same way that the Wizard’s credibility in Oz is lost once Dorothy and the little group of tourists get behind the curtain, emails take us into the bowels of the organization where the machinery is running and the grubby work is done.The organization’s public face— idealized in slogans, logos, architecture, decor, mission statements and luminous advertisements—is discreditable by goings-on in the interstices of the interior. Emails reveal the inwards of an organization. Note that no one is doing anything really wrong. It’s only that events in offices and on work floors contradict expectations, are deviations from the virtues breezily claimed in advertisements! Claims to idealization and perfection cause the problem
  7. Employees everywhere routinely create scenes of potential embarrassment and shame, by coming late, leaving early, calling friends, putting down colleagues, playing favorites, nepotism, dipping into supplies, playing games, scheming, hoaxing and joking, telling untruths, and cutting corners. People at work are embarrassment time bombs! Workers are supposed to be virtuous as a corporate family in terms of fairness, hard work, honesty, loyalty, teamwork and compliance with policies and procedures. But then, who among us doesn’t recognize the hilarious happenings in workplace comedies such as Parks and Recreation, The Office, and 30 Rock? Emails reveal people when they are off-stage, out of sight. and being direct and honest. They may be doing nothing wrong, nothing that you or I wouldn’t do, but workaday events can diminish them, create the wrong impression, and embarrass the company.
  8. Since writing letters is personal and undertaken alone, emails feel personal and private. We forget that employers and sponsors own the system and have the right to look at their content. The emails are corporate property. You may think you’re writing in private, but you’re actually writing for all eternity. This is true on both private and public computer servers, and on smart phones too. Also, we now know, emails are spectacularly hacker friendly. Until the public character of emails becomes clarified, as it surely has become for Hillary Clinton, let’s give her and other people the benefit of the doubt.
  9. Batches of emails inspected, one by one, by unnamed, faceless government officials, and redacted for national security reasons, tend to be accompanied by a peculiar scent familiar to readers of the files kept by the STASI in soviet East Germany. To have such a file kept about you is damning in and of itself. Where there is smoke, there must be fire.
  10. Issues of morality and self-understanding make the personal privacy argument particularly cogent. I, in all fairness, must ask myself: Who am I being when I read someone else’s emails? I sense that I’m being inappropriate, some kind of sneak! The emails are hers, not mine. I see it clearly now. If the emails are personal and private, and come from the hidden bowels of an organization, and that organization spends big bucks and posts police and guard dogs to prevent entry to the offices from which these letters originate, then I am acting like a criminal intruder at worst, and a voyeur, peeping Tom at best! I don’t want to be either of those types. Shouldn’t legislator voyeurs feel a little doubt and shame too?

Well then, who are those legislators being who have dwelled for so long on Hillary Clinton’s email cache through multiple, unending investigations by Congress, and who salivate even today over James Comey’s notes from a completed FBI investigation in which Hillary was exonerated of criminal intent and actions. They surely, at the very least, are conspiracy minded, voyeuristic, home-invading, privacy destroying, peeping toms, allies of criminals, and unforgiving violators of The Golden Rule. Oh, they are surely something else too, politicians trying to destroy the reputation of a candidate and win a dirty election.

That’s what they do. Don’t be like them. Prize your integrity.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

August 17, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

Vote to Break Political Gridlock

Vote to Break Political Gridlock

As I write this morning, August 1, 2016, Donald J. Trump, the Republican Party Nominee for President of the United States, is mired in a demeaning spat with both parents of a Gold Star family, and is accused of unknowingly advancing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interests in the Ukraine and the Baltic states through ignorance and by questioning our NATO obligations. A week earlier, Wikileaks had released 19,000 emails and attachments hacked from the computer networks of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) just before that party’s national convention. Apparently the aim was to embarrass the party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton. Russian Intelligence agencies had turned out to be involved in the hack. At midweek, Trump called upon Russia (in sarcasm he now says) to hack into his opponent’s computers to find a batch of supposedly missing emails.

I’m dumbstruck by these happenings. The movie, The Manchurian Candidate comes unwittingly to mind. What’s going on? There are still 100 days until the election. For my own sanity I need to take stock of the campaign and note a few important things. I need to orient myself for the days ahead. Maybe you do too.

* * * * *

I like to write, but have not attempted history. Think about the problems that brave historians will have in writing the history of this labyrinthian election. How can they do it? For instance, read the paragraph I just wrote about happenings in one week, last week, and notice all the important events I didn’t mention. I didn’t describe the convention at all. I didn’t report the firing of DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. I didn’t describe the great speeches, some of which, like Michele Obama’s, will warrant books of their own. I didn’t mention that Senator Tim Kaine, of Virginia, was selected as the Vice-Presidential candidate, or that his son, a US Marine is on his way for service in the Baltics. I didn’t mention that his Republican counterpart in the Republican Party, Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, is also the father of a Marine on active duty. I didn’t even describe the consequential speech in which Khizr Khan, with his wife Ghazala at his side, the parents of US Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who gave his life for his country in Iraq in 2004, called out Mr. Trump at the convention for his lack of knowledge of the Constitution and his lack of personal sacrifice. This event alone will inspire hundreds of books and may turn out to be the determining event in the election.

* * * * *

Answer quickly. When did Rand Paul run for President? When I asked this of a relative, she answered 2008, possibly confusing Rand, the Senator from Kentucky, with his father Ron, the Representative from Texas who ran twice for the office.

The answer is 2015-2016. Rand ran for President in this election! Doesn’t it seem eons ago since he and the other sixteen Republican candidates dropped out? Doesn’t this campaign feel interminable?

Here’s the thing: modern media technology and the pseudo-event of the ”twenty-four hour news cycle” causes the sense of longevity and interminability. Significant campaign events occur daily, and hourly, thus requiring that the “day” be used as the primary category for data collection. Not only is news happening hourly within the daily news cycle, but so are the responses to those events, which are “news” too. Daily news is increasing exponentially. News is now approaching a virtual limit of Twitter speed.

* * * * *

Due to the warp speed character of politics, participants run a risk of being turned unwittingly into fools and objects of ridicule. It’s a trend. Here is one small example:

  • On November 8, 2015, Joseph McQuaid, Publisher of the The Union Leader in Manchester, New Hampshire announces the paper’s endorsement of Chris Christie, the Governor of New Jersey.
  • On December 15, 2015 McQuaid publishes an editorial entitled Trump Campaign Insults NH Voters’ Intelligence. He calls Trump a “bully” and compares him to Biff in the movie Back to the Future.
  • On December 28, Donald Trump retorts by calling newspaper Publisher McQuaid a ‘lowlife’ and assails Chris Christie.
  • On February 26, 2016 Governor Christie drops his campaign and endorses Donald Trump, his “great friend.”

McQuaid is left holding the bag, and looks like a fool, and so does Christie. Note that the historian can do the same analysis with Ben Carson, who we thought was an evangelical Christian and a hard right conservative until he endorsed Trump.

By July 2016, at the Republican convention, Christie is holding a witchcraft trial of Hillary Clinton, calling her a liar and evoking “Lock her up” retorts from the feverish audience!

* * * * *

Who knows what will happen next in this campaign? Nobody does. Anything could. As of today, August 2, the pundits are reporting Clinton’s poll numbers are such (5 points over Trump) that Trump will have to carry Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida in order to have any chance to win. On this same day, the Trump campaign is floating the rumor that the election is “rigged” against him, thus appearing to delegitimate the election should he lose. He sounds like he’s expecting to lose.

* * * * *

I’m a Hillary Clinton supporter, and am hopeful she will win. She should if only because her opponent, Donald Trump, has turned himself into such a grotesque figure and national security risk. It’s going to be a torturous 99 days.

Males will be a problem for Clinton. Wary males will be able to employ every variety of clever sexist trick to diminish the candidate. My wife Beverly and I sent the following email complaint to the PBS Newshour on July 30 protesting the Brooks and Shields critique of the Clinton acceptance speech:

Dear Newshour,

We strongly disagree with Shields and Brooks’ assessment of Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech, and in particular their disappointment and even blame (“She had the chance”) of failing to emotionally connect with the audience. The two of them have been pointing to this  presumed failing over and over throughout the campaign, (along with her supposed lack of vision and problems with truth-telling), and they set up the audience for disappointment in advance by saying how vital self disclosure is going to be in the speech.

Four points:

1. We don’t feel any such need for deeper knowledge of Clinton’s soul and being.  We are 79 years of age and know her as well as we need to. She is obviously trustworthy in every way that counts, and super competent.

2. It was a great speech, especially because she spoke earnestly, forcefully, and directly, and laid out an inspiring vision of a confident, purposeful, caring America, without deceiving herself that poetical flourishes were required.

3. The commentators failed to note the powerful central claim and metaphor of the speech—that she will bring a mother’s love, commitment, care, and diligence to the presidency. She showed plenty of self-disclosure and passion about that.

4. Women and mothers got that message, but your guys did not.

We love David and Mark’s commentary. We listen to them every Friday. Their remarks are almost always helpful and informative. But when it comes to Hillary, they are not wise fatherly gurus, but rather, to paraphrase the Tammy Wynette classic, (Stand by your Man), “because, after all, they are just men.”

Male attitudes are going to be the largest problem of this campaign. Male attitudes are likely to lead to everything from schoolyard bullying, teasing, name calling, and witchcraft trials to unfavorable comparisons to Pericles, Napoleon, Lincoln, and the Founding Fathers. We hope the Newshour can avoid participating in the worst scenes of the coming Inquisition.

Warm regards,

* * * * *

Here is the big thing to bring front and center, the really “huge” fact, to borrow an adjective, nobody knows yet whether the state of gridlock in Congress will be broken by this election. That’s the remaining question to be answered by this election, and the issue we all should be asking our Representatives and Senators.

Here are five interesting facts:

  • The conservative movement that started with Barry Goldwater, peaked with President Reagan, and led to gridlock in the Obama presidency lost big to Donald Trump in this election. His followers didn’t care about the Conservative agenda. Trump defeated every conservative candidate.
  • Trumps dark, angry, fearmongering campaign allowed the Democratic Party at its convention to grab seven or eight of the traditional themes of the Republican party: patriotism, pride in the military, simple virtues, religious belief, self-reliance, voluntarism, cooperation, a can do attitude, and hope for the future.
  • The Republican Party has been gutted of its values by Trump and faces the excruciating question of deciding whether to repudiate its own nominee.
  • Both parties have already changed hugely in this election.
  • Yet, when the election is over, the Republican legislators, under the leadership of Paul Ryan in the House and Mitch McConnell in the Senate, are prepared‚ as of right now, to resume all of the practices that have held the nation in gridlock for eight years. Notice that Judge Garland has received no hearing. Look at Speaker Ryan’s announced agenda for next year.

No matter what happens in the election, the nation is in big trouble if political gridlock continues.

* * * * *

Must Donald Trump be defeated? Absolutely. He wants to be a dictator. If the Republicans dislike President Obama’s executive orders, just imagine what Donald Trump’s dictates would be like.

But with Trump beaten and Hillary Clinton in the White House, the question Americans need to get answered is whether her proposed jobs bill can be negotiated, moved through Congress, and signed into law so that the nation’s infrastructure can be rebuilt and the work and workers involved can give a needed boost to the economy. Has the country had enough of gridlock, sequestrations, budget blackmail, and government shutdowns? That’s the key question for the future.

Make your vote count. Make your vote contingent on a new spirit of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. Ask candidates about that possibility and their willingness to cooperate. Both parties have failed us and yet both are changing fast. This is an excellent chance to renew ourselves and to work together as Americans again.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

August 2, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

Boom Bust Boom – The Documentary

Boom Bust Boom – The Documentary

If in your seniority you hanker to acquaint your grandchildren with the eternal truths of economics and Monty Python, and with the clever arts of animation, puppetry, music scoring, storyboarding, illustration, and documentary filmmaking, round up the little kinfolk of middle school age and older for a viewing of Boom Bust Boom co-written by Python luminary Terry Jones and economics professor Theo Kocken. Jones co-directs the film with his son Bill and  Ben Timlett. The film is produced by Bill and Ben Productions. Terry Jones also directed The Holy Grail and The Life of Brian. He is a very funny man, and clever and street smart too.

The film deals with the recurrent busts that have followed booms in the history of capitalism, as illustrated within modern memory by the crash and “Great Depression” of 1929 and the bursting of the subprime housing mortgage “bubble” in 2008. At the very least your viewers will understand what happened in 1929 and 2008 after seeing the film. Check out the trailer.

Neoclassical Economics, the approach to economics whose acolytes dominate the graduate schools and universities, teaches that busts need not happen; they are aberrations. Rational actors, each pursuing their own interests in self-regulating markets, as described by Adam Smith, steered by the policies of John Maynard Keynes, and advocated by the likes of Milton Friedman and Allen Greenspan, prevent busts from happening, unless government managers are stupid enough to screw things up. States of the market are in this view portraits of collective rationality.

The alternative view, represented in the film by the insights of the neglected, but prescient, economist Hyman Minsky, says that the tranquility of economic stability leads to undue exuberance, unwise speculation, and debt-fueled booms, followed by inevitable busts. That’s part of capitalism. This is human nature. We are irrational as well as rational economic actors. The unfettered market is not guided by divine authority or by amalgamated rationality. (In one striking scene, a group of graduate students in economics at the University of Manchester is petitioning the faculty to teach economics as a human science applicable to what actually happens in the real world, such as the debacle of 2008. They say their faculty of neoclassical economists has given them little understanding of such events.)

I love the fast pace of the documentary. Lots of interesting and relevant information is efficiently and cleverly presented. Here are examples:

  • Animated reconstructions of Tulip Mania in Amsterdam of the 1630s and the South Sea stock bubble in London of 1720 are used to show that economic follies repeat themselves. The sub-prime housing bubble of 2008 had the same dynamics as these disasters, nothing new there.
  • Reenactments of the State of the Union addresses of Calvin Coolidge and George W. Bush in 1928 and 2006, respectively, confidently assuring the public of the health and stability of the economy; the two Presidents obviously had no idea of what was about to happen.
  • A puppet conveys Hyman Minsky’s hard won wisdom on economic bubbles and human nature to his son Alan, who helpfully appears in person (as an actor in the film) to prove to his puppet Dad that, yes, he gets the message.
  • Terry Jones regularly jumps in front of, or even into animations, illustrations, television blips and other scenes to helpfully maître d’ the action.
  • Laurie Santos, a Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale, on site at her monkey observation lair off Guadaloupe explains her finding that monkeys share with us a couple of irrational economic habits from 35 million years ago that get us into big trouble, including booms and bubbles!
  • Several animated bank scenes show mortgage lenders and customer reps making deals with customers and relieving them of their money.
  • Scads of scholars, mostly economists, including three Nobel Prize recipients, interject cogent facts and pithy truths into the discussion. The luminaries include Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England, George Magnus, Zvi Bodie, Paul Mason, John Cassidy, Steven Kinsella, Daniel Kahneman, Robert J. Shiller and Paul Krugman.
  • The wisdom of the influential mid-twentieth century economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, (author of The Affluent Society (1958), and The New Industrial State (1967), Harvard Professor and Kennedy administration Ambassador to India, is intoned by a puppet who sounds even more pompous than was the man himself. That is hard to achieve.
  • Important professional secrets are shared. Allen Greenspan, the highly regarded Chairman of the Federal Reserve between 1987 and 2006 is shown confessing to a congressional committee that his neoclassical model of the economy was wrong.
  • Even the actor John Cusack, who, I guess, is something of a scholar on the subject, offers occasional insights and insults.
  • Clever songs are written, adapted, and fashioned for the documentary, much in the spirit of the familiar Monty Python classics. You should be able to reconstruct in your head the finale: an animated chorus of exuberant characters singing “I’m forever blowing bubbles!”

The only thing missing in the film is a cameo by John Cleese and the other Pythons. But it’s not necessary. It’s an excellent piece of art in its own right and your grandchildren will thereafter to be skeptical consumers of the profession of economics. That’s a benefit of which grandparents can be proud. So choose the night, extend the invitation, and buy the popcorn.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

July 12, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

Selfie and Self

Selfie and Self

Introduction

This is the second of two essays on Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, first published over a half-century ago, in 1962. The first piece, published last month, explained the pseudo-event concept and pointed to its ongoing relevance in a world where Boorstin’s observations have proved prescient. This second article addresses issues of personal-identity associated with the advent of the smart phone. The smart phone, one of the most powerful tools in history, arrived and was adopted at warp speed. Nothing I will say here about pseudo-events recommends its disuse. At the same time, the implications for person and society are significant.

There is nothing inherent in pseudo-events that make them good or bad, destructive or constructive, realistic or unrealistic, apt or useless. Some are, some aren’t, and there are continuums. Americans want, like, and enjoy pseudo-events. I like my iPhone and depend on my computer; I couldn’t last the morning without them. I take selfies too. In general, we’re talking about the psychological and social consequences of technological progress.

What then is Boorstin concerned about in highlighting the emergence of pseudo-events? His eye is focused on how pseudo-events mislead, how they befog, how they control, how they delude, and the consequences for people and nations. We deceive ourselves by them. Culture consists mainly of pseudo-events that stick as habits and govern consciousness. Boorstin is giving us eyeglasses to mark and measure the distance we’ve moved away from the ordinary, from nature, and from the basic facts of life. In short, his book, and essays such as this one, can help people see more clearly and think better, thus enabling better personal decisions. They help in undeceiving ourselves.

The iPhone has been around only since the summer of 2007, less than nine years. It and other smart phones allow users to speedily jump into innumerable pseudo-events. These include a phone call, a voice mail, an exchange of text messages, an exchange of emails, a taking and sharing of images and videos, a shopping excursion, an information search, a fact check, a loan calculation, a bill payment, a ticket purchase, reupping a library book, an imaginary trip to Barbados, a war game, a virtual visit with friends on social media, and of course, the mother of all pseudo-events, the “selfie.” And that’s just the start of the event generation possibilities. Virtual events through smart phones are infinite. The whole world is in our hands.

The Selfie

The ‘selfie’ represents a cultural shift in the history of selfhood and personal identity. To be specific, the ownership of the photographer role changes. Where previously another person took your picture, now you take your own. The implications are dramatic:

  • The “I”-“me” dialogue by which we silently talk to our “selves” requires the “I” to externalize itself into the place of the photographer, and undertake his decision-making process from that point of view.
  • Who is this photographer? What are his allegiances? That won’t rouble everyone, but it could trouble some, the sensitive conflicted few..
  • The “I” has to scan extant and probable social situations, evaluating prospects for honor and shame. Likewise, images of oneself have to be assessed for risks and rewards. Are these acceptable representations of “me?” Consequences can be anticipated. Payoffs can be imagined.
  • Because a multitude of possible scenarios could be photographed, and a throng of media friends are ready to view the posted image, and because I may not be looking my best today, and I’m unlikely to get the bad flicks returned later, the situation can be intense, bothersome, and anxiety provoking.
  • Once out there in the world of social media, the selfie image, like any published product, may survive for eternity, and, as we all know, today’s leisure suit can transform its wearer overnight into tomorrow’s prototype of the fashion dork.
  • Selfies, given the passage of time over years and decades are likely to be consequential in unforeseeable ways, and are potentially regrettable.
  • In the immediate future, after “sharing” a selfie, who knows what comments about the image will return to the sender, and worse, who knows what mean comments will be made about you? Or, from what monsters they will come from the creepy depths of the swamp? Who even knows who will see it?
  • We can be hard on ourselves—unfriendly, angry, accusatory, judgmental. The “I” can get depressed about what it sees as the inadequate “me.” Suicide shows that in the bleakest cases the “I” can turn into the worst enemy the “me” ever had.
  • Much of the threat to selfhood and personal identity stems back to the computer, Internet, and point and shoot camera eras. The smart phone pushes the peril closer to the top, to the verge of danger. Time expended on line—in gaming, electronic chats, videos, and the like—can take up scads of solitude previously available for inward experience and social development.
  • Incessant picture taking can lead to an unhealthy concern for and fear of others, and a devaluing of one’s opinions in relation to the opinions of peers. A paranoia may develop of being watched, surveilled, and filmed. Depression may ensue.
  • Anxiety can go off the chart. A recent Supercuts commercial is instructive. A young woman, in her twenties or early thirties—who knows for sure; faking exact age is a demand and art form of consumer culture— is going to Supercuts, because, the voice over artist assures us, “she wants to be ready.” This is followed by a quick panorama of her in a plethora of feature haircuts, as seen in a variety of desired situations— dances, dates, work scenes,etc., including a selfie. Wow, is that the same person?. We are assured at the end that she’ll “jump back” into Supercuts, as may we, whenever she’s feeling or we’re feeling “not ready.” The image of the person “ready” for action with a new haircut masks the anxiety that the commercial presumes and brilliantly reveals.

Our world seems less capable of developing confident, integrated selves than it once was. Divided, split. fractured, dueling selves are more likely. Schizophrenia and attention deficit disorder are ascendent.

Conclusion

The selfie, and other pseudo-events considered normal in today’s electronic culture, threaten personal identity and selfhood in multiple ways.

  • It transforms private identity into a series of external public images.
  • It transforms a lively person into a static image.
  • It convinces the person that the number of images that can be taken are limitless—thousands after thousands. It’s routine to take selfies. Go ahead, take as many as you want. Everybody does.
  • It is addictive. One can get hooked on it.
  • It teaches narcissism.
  • The person may find later that her real self—the unique self she knows herself to be—is missing in all of the images taken of her.even the ones taken by herself. Great pictures. You may think I look great, but that’s not me. Appearance is not reality.
  • It downplays the value of internal experience and a private sense of self.
  • It introduces an obligation to share images with people you don’t really know and who don’t know you. This is done under the bizarre claim that acquaintances held at alms length on the streets make swell bosom friends on a computer. They don’t. They are pixels on a screen, pseudo-event friends.
  • It collapses geologic space into nonexistence. The viewer is anywhere, say in China, and the selfie taker is in New York. They are nowhere together in the same virtual space.
  • It collapses actual time into simultaneity. The picture shows up in China within seconds of it’s shooting in New York. It’s virtually timeless.
  • it creates a passive, pseudo world where  participants spin weavings and webs endlessly on line while each is home alone at the computer.

The smart phone and “selfie” are great, we tell ourselves, and they really are, but when we highlight their virtues the obvious is overlooked: they are unfriendly to personal identity. A person would be wise to look for an integrated and positive sense of self though other methods and means.

Afternote

For those looking for additional reading, I recommend Jacob Weinberg’s We Are Hopelessly Hooked, in the New York Review of Books, (February 25, 2016): 6-9. In it Weinberg reviews four books whose titles clearly convey their authors’s concerns. Two are by Sherry Turkle: Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penquin); and, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (Basic Books). The others are Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web, by Joseph M. Reagle, Jr. (MIT Press), and Hooked: How to Build Habit Building Products, by Nir Eval with Ryan Hoover (Portfolio).

Will Callender, Jr. ©

April 12, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

The Reality of Pseudo-Events

The Reality of Pseudo-Events

Introduction

Daniel J. Boorstin, American historian and twelfth Librarian of the Congress of the United States, authored a book in 1961 entitled The Image: Or, What Happened to the American Dream. I read the book in 1992 when the 25th year anniversary edition came out, with the addition of an Afterword by George F. Will, the conservative columnist for the Washington Post. That version carried a new sub-title, continued in the 50th year edition and editions thereafter. The official title is now The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.

The change of sub-title suggests two things: 1.) that the pseudo-event concept had proven so powerful as to deserve highlighting, and, 2.) that Boorstin might have been ever so slightly confused about the thrust and import of his book. The implications of the work are bedazzling, with consequences beyond those he or any reader could have foreseen. There is almost too much light, and too much truth. By its end a conflicted reader isn’t quite sure whether “The American Dream” has been saved or lost, or whether the country or the citizen should change. It’s quite a charm, and this from a book whose examples are drawn from the Eisenhower years and earlier. The book has never been more prescient and useful than now. I urge readers to get a copy, and also to gift the book to their kin. You’ll be giving them a good set of eyeglasses, a language translator, mapping tools, a travel guide, and a valuable history lesson. George Will’s enthusiasm suggests that liberals, conservatives, and freethinkers all will benefit. Boorstin, who gave us The Landmark History of the American People, The Discoverers, and The Creators has obvious sympathy and deep concern for his fellow Americans, shown by his frequent invocation of “we” and other collective pronouns.

Here is how Boorstin introduces the book:

In this book I describe the world of our making, how we have used our wealth, our literacy, our technology, and our progress, to create the thicket of unreality that stands between us and the facts of life. I recount historical forces which have given us this unprecedented opportunity to deceive ourselves and to befog our experience. (3.)

He follows up with:

We want and we believe these illusions because we suffer from extravagant expectations. We expect too much of the world. (3.)

That’s his thesis in a nutshell. We’re victimized by our own excessive expectations, powered by our wealth, technology, and dynamism, and thereby inclined to convert daily living into ‘pseudo-events,’ replacing nature and ordinary life with befogging illusions.

l offer two entries on the book. The second, to be published in three weeks, takes up the issue of personal identity, and whether pseudo-events are changing the way we think of ourselves. The aim of this one is to explicate Boorstin’s notion of the pseudo event as a tool in tracking the news, particularly in following the scintillating events of the presidential election. The book is primarily, but not exclusively, a story about news making, how news became, step by step, the amazing phenomena we know today. He takes us back before the invention of the telegraph when a sleepy consensus existed that “nothing much happens around here,” and that the unexpected, were it to happen, would likely be an “act of God.” Living in rural America was ordinary, natural, and slow, boring to the many who would want more excitement. That would be most Americans. News would happen, of course, but not so often as to build a life or a day around it.

It is important to understand that the word ‘pseudo’ in pseudo-event means ‘contrived’ in contrast to ‘natural,’ not ‘false’ in contrast to ‘real.’ Pseudo-events are real enough; they actually happen, literally all the time. But they are contrivances. Such events have several properties:

  1. They are contrived (or planned or arranged or designed or drawn up or schemed) for some personal or group purpose.
  2.  They are timed (or placed or planted or staged) so as to
    become news, i.e. to be observed, recorded, written about,
    shot, filmed, videotaped, reported, and shown to the public.
  3.  Their meaning is ambiguous rather than clear. Meaning is open
    to interpretation, analysis, interest, and ongoing comment; the story will likely lead to more news.
  4. They tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies, bringing forth in reality the purpose and result they presumed, hid, sought, and forecast.
  5. In today’s photographic world, pseudo-events, when reported as news—embellished with photographs and videos—tend to acquire or cohere into an iconic visual image, a take-away picture of how the event is to be envisioned, recalled, and remembered.

Boorstin cites as an example a case reported by Edward Bernays, a founder of the new field of ‘Public Relations,’ in his 1923 classic Crystallizing Public Opinion. In this case, which I have embellished for effect, a public relations advisor is hired by a hotel to advise management on how to increase hotel stays, sales, and profit. They had been losing money. After study, the consultant advises them to stage a celebration of the hotel’s 30th anniversary in business. A committee is formed, dates are chosen, events are held, with the blessings of city officials and with dignitaries in attendance, all gloriously covered by the press before, during, and after the occasion. The hotel thrives as a result. Reservations and sales skyrocket. The hotel achieves a new image. The ‘celebration,’ as you can see, is contrived, newsworthy, ambiguous (no reference to money and future sales), and self-fulfilling. Today we would say that the pseudo-event successfully marketed the Hotel’s ‘brand,’ and new ‘image.’

With this background, examples can be given of inventions of pseudo-events that transformed news-making into the dynamic endeavor we know today. These are just a start;  the historical list of inventions on which news depends would be interminably long.

  • Ways of fashioning news: ’news flash,’ ‘news release,’ ‘news blurb,’ ’news briefing,’ ‘news digest,’ ‘news conference,’ ‘news blog,’ ‘news recap,’ ‘news retraction,’ etc.
  • Ways of organizing news: ‘news organization,’ ’newspaper,’ ‘news magazine,’ ‘news journal,’ ‘television news,’ ‘The Newshour,’ ‘cable news network,’ etc.
  •  Roles and professions for gathering and distributing news: ‘paperboy,’ ‘copy-editor,’ ‘pressman,’ ’newsman,’ ‘reporter,’ ‘journalist,’ ‘embedded reporter,’ ’photographer,’ ‘publisher,’ ’commentator,’ ‘news anchor,’ ‘communications advisor,’ public relations consultant,’ ‘graphic designer,’ ‘press secretary,’ ’travel editor,’ etc.
  • Practices and techniques for gaining news: ‘the tip,’ ‘the informer,’ ‘the hunch,’ ’the interview,’ ‘the credible source,’ ‘the expert comment,’ ‘the opinion poll,’ ‘the investigation,’ ‘the research project,’ ’the photo shoot,’ ‘the photo-op,’ ‘the assignment,’ ‘the field trip,’ ‘the special edition,’ ’the debate,’ etc.

Practice Exercise

You might ask what isn’t a pseudo-event? Good question. They are everywhere and they multiply exponentially. We’re swimming in them! As a quickie practice exercise, spin out the pseudo-events associated with the event known as winning a national football championship. If the assignment is restricted to the professional level, we have, just to get you started, the ‘AFC,’ the ‘NFC,’ the ‘NFL,’ the ‘division championships,’ the ‘conference championships,’ the NFL championship as ‘Super Bowl,’ ‘Super Sunday,’ ‘trophy presentation ceremony,’ ‘MVP presentation,’’Super Bowl wrap-up,’ etc. The football fan (a pseudo-event persona) could go from here to list pages of spin-off pseudo events connected to this single topic. The same can be done for business, employment, travel, entertainment, shopping, education, and politics.

2016 Pseudo Events in Campaign

Now that you’ve got the idea, and realize that you’re an expert on this subject already, here are a few notes on pseudo-events in the current campaign season.

The behemoth that has evolved as the ‘modern’ news industry is an electric network of interconnected newspapers, journals, publishing houses, television studios, radio stations, wire services, internet websites, blogs, filmmakers, and photo-libraries, all topped and dominated by the 24 hour cable networks, and combined into a few monopolistic, international conglomerates. News is very much a manufactured product. “Stay tuned, breaking news,” along with “this just in” are recently invented pseudo-event framings with staying power. The spinning wheel dumps out the news of tomorrow very efficiently. The one in the news rarely makes the news by oneself. More often the electric behemoth makes the newsmaker and the newsmaker’s news. The demand exists for gross quantities of pre-packaged news, and the supply delivered is beyond abundant.
.
Boorstin tells us—you won’t be surprised—that the ‘celebrity,’ a person “known for being known,” is a pseudo-event type persona invented to replace the ‘hero,’ the guiding light of principled citizens in earlier times. When the hero is still recognized, albeit with declining frequency, he or she will have the solace of promotion to ongoing ‘celebrity’ status shortly thereafter. Think of it this way. ‘Celebrity’ is the pseudo-event persona that the ‘consumer,’ another pseudo-event persona, requires as a honeybee to pollinate products with an image attractive enough to groove traffic their way for purchase and consumption.

As I write today, March 15, 2016, I am aware that a new national political pseudo-event has been invented just this week for this very day. Today’s scheduled voting in the five states of Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio, is now known as “Super Tuesday 3.” Only a week ago, “Super Tuesday 2,” was invented because it followed so smoothly upon the pseudo-event invented years ago for the preceding Tuesday, known as “Super Tuesday.” Super Tuesday will henceforth be Super Tuesday 1. Are we Americans inventive or what?

Another week has past and I see that Super Tuesday 4. has not been invented, even though the states of Arizona, Idaho, and Utah are to vote today. Do we have design sense, or what? ST4 would be a bit too much!

I surmise that the cable news networks, who now dominate the field of pseudo event production—showing themselves to be the master magicians and circus ringleaders of our electric pseudo age—achieved a new milestone a few weeks ago with the invention of the ‘candidate town hall interview.’ They recognized early in 2015 that they could host as many ‘debates’ as they wanted, and started to offer them weekly when the interest held up. The television audiences proved to be huge and so, no doubt, were the profits. But three or four months ago, despite all past experience, the networks were mostly just going to and covering town halls in towns around New Hampshire, while staying in Manchester and showing us images of downtown streets and the Merrimack River. But then, in 2016, we find Chuck Todd, voila, conducting a one-on-one interview with Marco Rubio at a ‘town hall’ in Miami, Chris Matthews doing the same with Hillary Clinton, and another with Senator Sanders. The networks in 2016 have been bringing the election events right into their nightly programs when possible, and using their anchors as town hall interviewers.

Illusion is what we seek in pseudo-events, and illusion is what we get, with attendant numbness, titillation, ambiguity, and befogging. We’re deciding how our elections are going to be run by the way the cable news networks find it most economic to cover them. Political pseudo-events tend to collapse and flatten space and time. In Todd’s ‘Rubio town meeting,’ Miami serves as every place, all the places we viewers sit; it’s a ‘town’ and a ‘hall’ only for the night, it can return to being a city tomorrow. The town comes replete with a crafted audience, simulating citizens who just walked in off the street. The candidate is to be interviewed by the host of Meet the Press, not a local party leader, and the candidate will be asked questions that opinion research shows will attract viewer interest. And yes, the ‘viewer’ is a pseudo-event persona in this scenario, along with the ‘interviewer’ and ‘candidate!’

Conclusion

This introduces a disturbing personal realization. ‘Celebrity,’ ‘consumer’, and ‘viewer’ are linked pseudo-event personas undergirding economic growth. I’ve contorted myself into a regular ’viewer’ and ‘consumer’ of daily political pseudo-events in which a ‘celebrity’  known for hammering reality into the heads of management apprentices in entertaining pseudo-events is the leading Republican candidate for President of the United States. In an irony Boorstin would have appreciated, Trump, a ubiquitous fabricator, is considered totally credible by his acolytes. Boorstin shows in the book how believability came to threaten truth and gain preference over truth for Americans.

But how has celebrity become so real to me? How did I get to make regurgitated news such a big part of my day and life? Boredom, I suppose. Super pseudo-events conquer boredom. Who anymore sits on the porch and enjoys the transit of the sun? Excessive expectations, Boorstin would say; that’s our problem. We want more than we have; reality is never good enough for us.

This trend toward pseudo-events is overwhelming. The analysis could go on and on. It’s comparable to the task of trying to track a bacteria or a virus. Pseudo-events will likely submerge us well before we catch up with them. We’re each on our own out there dancing with the electric beast.

But then, in the end, when all is said and done, nature dictates necessity. Nature determines what is real. Reality is not illusion. Melting glaciers, submerged coastlines, disappearing species, and global warming are real; they are not pseudo-events. The decline in sustainability of life on the planet is, therefore, a direct, cruel, and natural measure of what our pseudo-event culture and illusionary lives are costing us. We won’t be able to pseudo-event ourselves out of that realization forever.

Afterword

Here is a summary of The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America written by George F. Will in his Afterword to the book in 1992.

There are books, and this is one, that change the way we think because they change the way we see and listen. Today we see that we are living in a society that increasingly resembles an echo chamber lined with mirrors. Amid the sensory blitzkrieg contemporary life, much that is spoken is merely auditory wallpaper. It is there but not noticed. We do not even listen, really listen, to what we ourselves are saying. If we did we would find that our intelligence is being bewitched by alarming clues to what we are, willy-nilly, becoming. (317.)

Will Callender, Jr. ©

March 24, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good