Opinion - A Political Interlude...
I don't plan on making a habit of this. In fact, when I started this site, I planned to stay WAY THE HELL AWAY from anything political. But I have to admit, it's been on my mind lately and just an hour before sitting down to write this, as I was walking my dog, it occurred to me how to say what I had to say all the while tying it in to the content of this site. Ultimately, though, my reasoning was shaped by the thought "Well, everyone else is doing it, so why not me?"
The feelings behind the current political situation in America depend greatly on your location: people on the coasts are wondering how we got ourselves into this shitstorm, people in the middle and south of the country are happy about the fact that white men are back in control and ready to take out all their frustrations on anyone different from them, be it by race, religion, sexual orientation or, really, just anyone with an even slightly differing opinion, people around the world are wondering if this is finally the blemish that tarnishes the "American Dream" and allows the country's light to fade, Russia is probably thrilled that their cyber program has yielded unprecedented results (sure, that's a pun) and people in Britain are likely thinking "We may have screwed up, but at least they did it worse!". I live in Seattle and while I'm not as far left as many of the people who live here, I do tend to describe my political leanings as 'center-left'...and yeah, I'm a member of that first group: how did we get ourselves into this shitstorm? And more importantly, will we survive it? I don't know the answers, but I'm hoping to offer up some works from the genres of popular culture that this website commonly remarks on to provide some perspective that even though times will be tough, we'll make it through this okay...perhaps in spite of the current Cheeto-in-Chief.
So how did we get here? Well, we got a little lazy, didn't we? We didn't defend things we should have and then, as the old song goes, you don't know what you've got till it's gone. [Really? You're quoting 80s hair metal at a time like this? - Ed.] The easiest example is to point to the media...but I don't want to give the impression that it's their fault. Sure, they're complicit...just as the pusher of any drug is...but also complicit is the addict. But I'm getting ahead of myself. As our thirst for both information and entertainment grew, we created a two-headed beast: the 24-hour news cycle and celebrity culture. With access to news anytime, anywhere...well, you need material to fill the time, and what better way to do that than with ‘news’ about the country's rich and famous. And while it ebbs and flows, more often than not it's become a borderline obsession. Prior to the 21st century, who gave a shit about anyone named Kardashian? The name Hilton wasn't a person, it was a hotel. The only way you knew what celebrity was seeing who was by reading tabloids or entertainment magazines. But even this isn't enough...still more time to fill...so next up, the speculative journalist. It isn't enough to report on what's happening, now we get to fill up time with taking what we may or may not have facts on (I'll get to that in a bit) and extrapolating from there. Look, in my day job, examining the current patterns, comparing them to the past and determining the future is a day to day thing. We do it all the time. Sometimes we're right, sometimes...not so much. My coworkers and I all accept that's just part of the job but it's our responsibility to do our best every day to be more right than wrong. And we also accept the flaws in the process...the further and further out in time you extrapolate on the initial condition, the more and more likely you are going to be wrong. Combine all of this with the need to break the story first, to stick it to the competition...which is fierce and always has been in the news game. But to harken back to the laziness I started off with, our news agencies started to play it a little fast and loose with the rules...just get the story out first and we'll confirm or correct later. Sure, even this isn't a new practice...just look at the yellow journalism of the 1890s and into the early 20th century. [Maybe this is an every 100 years sort of thing? - Ed.] But with information technology in the palm of nearly everyone's hand (at least in the first world anyway), why is there this rush to get the story out before its facts can be confirmed?
This is where we come to the addict...us. Supply and demand...if we're always demanding, and with the 24-hour news cycle, we are indeed...then they've got to ramp up supply. And so, facts become a benefit, but not a necessity. You see where this is going, don't you? You'll also note that at no point in talking about news and news coverage am I going to use the word 'truth'...facts are what we're dealing with here and are concrete, absolute, truth is a philosophical concept that varies from person to person. Right, where this is all going...well, with less and less facts, and yet the voices keep going, well...we're just getting low-grade smack, now aren't we? If we want the facts, sure, they're out there, but when we've become so accustomed to them being spoon-fed to us, who has the motivation to go and seek them out? And seeking them out is a minefield anymore! See, that rampant spread of information technology has its pluses...and its minuses. The pluses being that the facts are right at our fingertips...the problem is that so too are the lies.
Cue up George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead. George has always used zombies to make pointed social commentary. Some you have to dig for, some are right out there in the open. Let us simply say that Diary is one of George's less subtle efforts. Within the film, he makes two very valid points. First, we've become a nation of voyeurs. Hard to argue against that one, given what I've said above, but let's look at it through George's gore-tinted glasses. One of our main characters, a film student that fancies himself a documentarian, seeks to document the zombie outbreak and as he does so, he becomes more and more detached from it, looking at his friends less and less as his friends, but instead as subjects of his documentary. As this continues, and more and more of his friends die as he opts to stay more and more behind the lens and helping them less and less, the movie begs the question, who's the real monster here, the beast that kills to sate its hunger or the person that is capable of acting, knows they should act yet remains fixated on the show in front of them that they remain inactive? To borrow a quote from one of George's more famous films to sum up my feelings on this "They're us. They're us and we're them." As a society, maybe many of us have become that documentarian, content to sit and watch and comment, but unwilling to move, unwilling to act for fear of missing what comes next and the opportunity to comment on it. Further complicating matters is George's second point, with the ability to take in other voices and other views as well as the ability to add our own voices to the cacaphony...in all that noise, how does someone find the facts? Or are we all doomed to sit adrift in the mayhem? We're already starting to see how we as a people are answering these questions, we're listening to the voices we like, ignoring or railing against the ones we don't...in essence shielding our own precious little truths and only admitting the facts, falsehoods and voices that shore up those beliefs. I'm fortunate that, having friends on both sides of the political spectrum, I find myself in thoughtful debate often...forced to consider other points of view and tidbits (facts/falsehoods/voices) that I would ordinarily shy away from. Given the tone of political discussion in the country these days, it seems that not many people are afforded this luxury or, if they are, they're not using it to balance their own beliefs and, in some instances, use these debates to change their views...which is a shame, because it really isn't hard to use this as a way to keep yourself calibrated. In the minefield of political discussion, it may be impossible to find enough facts to formulate one's own truth with a good factual basis and the conviction that comes with that, but I feel comfortable in the fact that with this balance, at least I won't hit any of the mines and lose a limb...or worse.
While that's a truncated look at how we got here (we skipped over a more in-depth look at social media and how its factored into the shortening attention span...so on and such)...well, here we are. Donald J. Trump is the 45th President of the United States. And he got here using an age old tactic: Divide and Conquer. [One of our favorite G1 Transformers episodes here, by the way. - Ed.] His divisive rhetoric, his actions and his twitter bombardments/tirades (America is going to know the same pain that my girlfriend knows all too well whenever we have an argument. Granted, I don't take it to twitter, it's by text message...first because it's private and second, I can't limit my bitching to just 140 characters.) tore a path through the country that should have torpedoed his campaign and yet...here we are. Why? Because people rallied around the fact that he said whatever came into his toupeed head...and usually, there was no filter. Whether we acknowledged it or not, he became good entertainment. And, since we've become a society with shows where we get to vote for the characters that entertain us and against those who irritate...well, should it be a surprise that we're here? So, in a sense, we created him...all of us. Vote for him or not, we all share a burden of responsibility in this man's ascendency because we all gave him attention, we gave him ratings...and as anyone that's raised a temperamental toddler can tell you, sometimes, that's the worst thing you can do.
Falling to a typical human failing, biting the hand that feeds you, his time as President-Elect and his first few days as POTUS certainly indicate that Trump has turned on the media, attacking those that created him at every chance he gets. With this attack, I feel this is a critical time not just for the American press and media, but for the press/media of the world. Do they rail against this attack and in doing so recognize their part in the creation of this Frankensteinian abomination...perhaps using this as a chance of self-reflection and righting the ship, becoming the vaunted estate envisioned by those such as Cronkite and Murrow? Or do they put up just a half-hearted defense all the while giving this temperamental man-child the attention he so desperately craves...becoming complicit in any atrocities spawned by this man and any monsters to come? Sure, I may sound a little overdramatic here, but given where the discussion is about to go, I feel like this is the way to go. Why, you ask? Because we're about to head hundreds of thousands of years into the future to a planet that may or may not exist...but it is certainly very far from ours.
Arrakis. Dune. Desert planet.
Frank Herbert's Dune saga shows us, in a fantastic way, what happens when humans become complacent: a great cataclysm is needed to shake them from this apathy to set them back on to the path of achievement and enlightenment. First, it was the thinking machines...humans became complacent and, only when it seemed too late, did they realize that what they'd had perceived as the slaves had become the masters. The Butlerian Jihad was needed...and in its wake, a new society was formed...the feudal society of the Paddishah Emperors based on the political tripod of commerce (CHOAM), religion (the Bene Gesserit) and science (the Spacing Guild)...and all that on the base that is the shifting spice-sands of Arrakis. In this too did humanity become complacent, this setting of court intrigue, family feuds, the tug-of-wars between not only each of the legs of the aforementioned tripod, but also with the Landsraad that sat atop it, all, again, against a backdrop of the shifting sands of Dune. The rise to power of Paul Atreides and his following jihad, unleashing the Fremen warriors upon an unsuspecting universe, starts to chip away at this current establishment, but even he himself was trapped within it...being the ultimate manifestation of what this particular iteration of humanity could create. To truly wipe it away...that's a duty that would fall to his son, Leto II...God Emperor of Dune. And that brings us to...
The Golden Path.
Given Trump's apparent obsession with anything gold...man, this analogy couldn't be easier. [Don’t say it. You're going to leave it at that. He's obsessed with anything gold. That's it. The end. - Ed.] But let’s look at Leto’s plan before we circle back ‘round to the Cheeto-in-Chief. In the book, God Emperor of Dune, Leto II has lived and ruled over Arrakis for 3500 years, given this unnaturally long life due to his merging with sandtrout and as such, having become a human/sandworm hybrid. In this time, he’s forced a stagnation over his empire…space travel is extremely limited, the means of spice production have been hamstrung as he is now the only living sandworm left, and technology has been suppressed to a near medieval state. While this has been going on, he’s also been nurturing the seeds of the eventual rebellion that will be his own demise and set humanity free, loosed from its perpetual cycle of self-destruction and prepared to face the monumental challenges ahead: the Honored Matres (the Sith are to the Jedi as the Honored Matres are to the Bene Gesserit) and the return of the thinking machines. And so, humanity sat within the pressure cooker under the rule of The Tyrant. Rebellions would rise, but these were not of Leto’s grand design and as such, would fall quickly. Leto’s game was a slow one…to create a breeding program where the end product would be a human that was beyond the sight of prescience, someone that had the power to escape the cycle of self-destruction that, in its most recent iteration, had begun with Paul but really goes all the way back to the very roots of the saga. Perhaps even going as far back as…well…now…but we’ll get to that point in a bit. As his scheme comes to fruition, he reveals that his own end was his final goal and as such not only reveals the Rakis Hoard…a massive storing of histories, technologies and, of course, spice that will facilitate humanity’s return to the stars, but in death he also disintegrates into baby sandtrout…allowing for the return of the great and mighty sandworms and the transition for Dune to once more become a desert.
So how does this tie in with Trump? I certainly don’t mean to say Trump has a plan as grandiose as Leto’s, oh, hell no…I’m pretty confident in saying that neither he nor anyone currently in power has the brainpower or wherewithal to do this shit intentionally…but think about it for a moment. In the lead up to and the opening days of his administration, it’s very clear that he’s definitely nurturing a hostile and suppressive attitude toward the press…from harsh words, calling certain agencies fake to proposing the concept of ‘Alternative Facts’ [Christ I wish we were making that one up. – Ed.]. And there’s the key word: suppressive. While how they choose to react is entirely up to them, a Golden Path of a sort has been placed in front of the media. Walking the Golden Path will be hard, but it will force the media to sharpen its teeth once more, leave behind this nonsense about Kardashians and celebrity couples whose names can be merged into one word, take up the mantle of the journalistic greats that came before and will be forced to show the world why we need them. As a group, we tend to look down on journalists these days, but remember…Superman chose to be one in his off hours so that he could know where he was needed and yet bring attention to matters that he couldn’t solve with his multitude of powers. There is a noble quality to the Fourth Estate…and not only have we forgotten it, but those within it seem to have forgotten it as well. Now, by intention or by chance (more likely the latter), we find ourselves faced with Trump’s Golden Path. Do we use this opportunity to simply stay as we are…stagnant with the occasional protest here or there but never really amounting to anything? Or do we walk this Golden Path? Do we reclaim our humanity, our media and the power inherent in the two? Do we use this Path to reforge ourselves and, upon coming to its end, find ourselves ready to spread out into the world…and maybe even into the stars…once more, marching forward with a renewed purpose and vigor and, to use the bastard’s own words against him, making America great again?
Like Leto’s Path, this is going to be a long and difficult challenge and not one we’re guaranteed to make it through. But if we rise up to it…while I certainly am not delusional enough to say we will have freed ourselves from humanity’s self-destructive tendencies, I will say that we’ll come out the other end better off with a renewed vigor and vigilance that has been sadly missing for quite some time now. And, hopefully, it’ll be some time before we see the likes of this mistake ever again. [Like, four…eight tops…years later. – Ed.]
God Emperor Trump Picture Credit: http://dankmeme.net/fun/c3kkCL