Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Can’t be Bothered with Democratic Norms? Why Not Undermine Someone Else’s?

                 Russian Facebook ad

Barack Obama was right.  Russia is a pariah for good reasons, and all the worse for ‘having nothing that other countries want.’

Recent news of extensive Russian infiltration of American social media sites is hardly a surprise. We have known for some time that a country that has retreated from its once-blossoming democracy has been interested in sowing discord in ours. Authoritarian regimes tend to be lazy.  It seems to have been easy to ‘play’ American social media to confuse and divide Americans.  On the available evidence recently released in two Senate Intelligence Committee reports, the Putin government decided it would do its best to use hostile and divisive information to undermine the Clinton campaign in favor of Donald Trump’s. As is increasingly apparent, the President has an indecent soft spot for Russian money and power.  By contrast, the former Secretary of State was always far more critical of Russian ambitions generally, and the annexation of Crimea in particular.

To be sure, it requires a selective memory for any American to criticize others for meddling in the politics of a foreign nation.  We used to make it a habit in Latin America and sometimes the old Soviet Union.  Even so, it’s a stunning act of hubris when the leader of a government that can’t even decide if they will tolerate rap music decides American elections are fair game. Russians exploited our personal and media freedoms to disperse bogus opinions that were ostensibly from Americans, many apparently aimed at alienating African American voters.

It’s an understatement to note that Russia looks desperate and weak to enforce authoritarianism values at home while exploiting the freedoms of other nations.  Barack Obama was right.  Russia is a pariah for good reasons and, to paraphrase him: all the worse for ‘having nothing that other countries want.’

The tech sector has always been slow to see the effects of their technologies on the lives of their users.

Aside from possible complicity for our own President, what makes all of this news of Russian interference worse is compelling evidence that major social media giants suppressed awareness of these planted ads, opinions and news stories. According to the Senate reports, a Kremlin-backed group uploaded over ten million tweets to Americans, 1100 videos and over 30 million Facebook posts.  All appeared to be coming from Americans.

Facebook is an especially egregious case.  Born as the plaything of privileged  kids luxuriating in their own narcissism, the fast-growing company expanded under the thrall of being another tech money machine. It’s leaders failed to notice or did not care that Facebook was fast becoming a new kind of agora: a digital version of the town square cherished long ago by early Greek democracies.  Along with Google, Youtube, Twitter and Instagram, it prospered on the illusion that it was functioning as just a “personal” form of media.  It was meant to make it possible to observe others’ best versions of themselves. Yet the problem with this orientation was that their leaders were slow to notice that their house was on fire. They were abetting a colossal fraud on the American public. Apparently the self-presentation mirror is too alluring to be bothered by bigger ideas like fairness and democracy.

Social media executives tend to see themselves as being in the ‘common carrier’ business, providing channels but not content. Instead, we must begin to insist that they view themselves using the higher standards that apply to content providers.  Perhaps they merit less regulation than broadcasters.  But the days of making connections without noticing the social havoc they can create need to be over.

The tech sector has always been slow to see how the aggregation of people over time and space would have important consequences for the soundness of our Republic. Too many have been neither interested or motivated to function as corporate citizens, in the full sense of that phrase.  As hapless tools of Russian disinformation, they have become a drag on the nation, doing too little too late to protect America’s fragile open society.

Sticking the Landing

Because any modern language is functionally an open-ended system–there are nearly infinite ways to mix words to convey meaning–it’s remarkable that we can (mostly) express what we mean.

We’ve all seen videos of planes landing on a windy runway:  Seemingly down. . . then not quite down. . . veering to the right and then the left. . . and finally down. The phrase “sticking the landing” is common to both pilots and gymnasts.  Both want to land in the right spot. Verbalizing thoughts on the fly is a cognitive version of the kind of precarious act.  Successfully explaining ourselves in the space of mere seconds is a marvel of mind-body coordination.  Every word reflects a choice.  Do we go for a literal description, or one that is metaphoric?  Should our words be a first person report, an act of truth telling? How much detail is enough?  And will a colorful word quickly plucked out of the air give the wrong impression?

Especially in front of others we are conscious that the laydown of language that is still to come needs a attention. We pre-verbalize. And most of us are remarkably good at what then follows most of the time.

To sense this fluency-on-the-fly watch a four or five year old explain themselves.  We can almost see their little brains putting it all together.  Eyes get wide and their focus becomes intense as they search for the right combinations of words, grammar and syntax.  It’s always a treat to see grandkids find pathways for their ideas.

Kids acquire this capacity at the speed of a SpaceX rocket. Language is a culture’s gift to it’s young.  But fluency itself is a life-long quest, mixing memory and experience with synergies that grow with larger vocabularies and refined understandings of how to use them.

Some of this prowess  begins to ebb in old age.  And some among us never fully master the task of linking impulses to coherent expressions. Consider, for example, the rhetoric of a few presidents.  George W. Bush was known for coming close to what he wanted to express, sometimes settling on phrasing or dependent clauses that trailed some loose ends.  As he knew, the results could be funny.  Here’s a few Bushisms from their official custodian, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg:

1. "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."—Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2004

2. "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family."—Greater Nashua, N.H., Chamber of Commerce, Jan. 27, 2000

3. "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?"—Florence, S.C., Jan. 11, 20004. 

4."Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB/GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across the country."—Poplar Bluff, Mo., Sept. 6, 2004

“Sticking the landing” can be hard for all of us.  Using the wrong acronym, I once explained to students that “unexploded IUD’s” were a particular problem in places like Afghanistan. They humored me by not bursting out in laughter.

What is interesting about presidents is that they leave a clearer record of their rhetorical misdeeds.  Listen to a collection of Trump teleprompter gaffes that he tries to correct by doing what amounts to some freelance riffing after the wrong word has been said.  He usually works sideways to get back up to the term he intended to use, like a jazz musician trying to turn a wrong note into a useful improvisation.

Donald Trumps teleprompter trick or is it a tic MSNBC

Donald Trumps teleprompter trick or is it a tic

President Obama was more conscious of word choice. He often spoke like an academic, sometimes using tedious pauses while he searched his brain for the phrase or word. To achieve this kind of fluency, Obama had to speak more slowly than the human norm of about 200 words a minute.  He gave up a certain glibness for the advantages of more precision.  It’s now apparent that some of us miss the rhetoric of such a laser mind.  Others relish the circus of visceral responses that now issue from the West Wing.

Even so, let’s not let the impurity of political rhetoric taint what remains a miraculous capability spread far and wide across the species.