Arlie Russell Hochschild, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Facebook, Hillary Clinton, Journalism, Mark Zuckerberg, Media Bias, Michael Savage, National Institutes of Health, Opinion, Politics, Saturday Night Live, Stem Cell Research, Technology, Twitter, US Election 2016
What proportion of the United States’ federal budget does Donald Trump, President-elect, think should be devoted to scientific research? In 2015 the National Institutes of Health received over $29 billion; the National Science Foundation got $5.56 billion. Across the whole of government, total research and development expenditure came to $135 billion. Since the USA is a leading financier of fields such as stem cell research, you might assume that somebody – anybody! – would have asked tomorrow’s man about his intentions regarding R&D. Especially since Trump had launched his campaign almost fifteen months ago!
Panic-stricken scientists are now combing through Trump’s rambling speeches in search of any reliable route into his brain. The Washington Post has just located a remark which Trump made last year on a right-wing radio show: “I hear so much about the National Institutes of Health, and it’s terrible.” Following such a traumatic election night, the Post is evidently apprehensive about its palpitating readers’ blood pressure, and perhaps this is why it has spared them the full history behind this utterance. Michael Savage, the radio show host, had said to Trump, “When you become president, I want you to consider appointing me to head of the NIH.” Trump had responded, “I think that’s great… you know you’d get common sense if that were the case.”
Snopes, the urban myth debunker, is confident that “there’s no indication either man took the exchange seriously.” It would be nice to have something rather more solid than that. The magazine Mother Jones has noted that Savage’s “qualifications” for presiding over the NIH’s $29 billion research budget include believing that AIDS can be treated with vitamins and that there is no “definitive medical diagnosis” for autism. At least the latter theory puts Savage at loggerheads with his future boss, who has previously claimed that autism is caused by childhood vaccinations.
The scientific world is waking up long after the alarm clock went off. This weekend MIT Technology Review published “Six Big Technology Questions for President Trump,” including queries about his policy positions on net neutrality and encryption. “We know very few specifics about our next leader’s stance on many technology policies,” the article confesses. You might think that one of the reasons why the USA has a year and a half long Presidential contest is so that politicians and journalists can fully quiz the candidates on their policies. Yes, opinion polls had assured the media that they could be relaxed about a Trump victory, but even in this context the failure to report the most basic information about the candidate is inexcusable.
An admirer of Trump might espy cunning in the chaos. As Marie Claire has put it, “Ah, Donald Trump quotes. You can always rely on Trump for providing us with the most ridiculous and outrageous statements that often result in a distinctly unique feeling of combined and immense anger/frustration/disbelief.” Throughout the Presidential campaign, Trump has time after time generated insult after insult, with each one being sure to prompt an oceanic condemnation of racist! misogynist! xenophobe! He can see that news cycles and Twitter cycles are fed by scandalous incidents – morning coffee outrages – literal two-minute hates! – and he knows what to shovel into the system and how to make its wheels turn. This insult generator is naturally helpful for everyone. It clarifies who Trump is for and who he is against; it makes you decide whether you are laughing with him or being laughed at. It is in the very least unfortunate, however, that Trump’s unerring focus on trivia has coincided with the almost total absence of media scrutiny of how he is going to wield power.
If Trump’s political opponents were determined to pursue a sustained questioning of his policies, then they would probably need to use a completely different media. But this still does not explain why his opponents have been quite so passive. One of the ways in which activists can themselves wield power over a candidate is indirectly: by asking questions; challenging assumptions; forcing intelligible explanations; and shaping the consequent narrative. With Trump, the time when this was possible has already passed.
Nonetheless, the increasing fragmentation of the “mainstream” media has left many journalists without any rationale to objectively cover the election. During this campaign only 9 daily newspapers across the whole of the US backed Trump (229 backed Clinton) and 62% of voters got their news from social media. For 44% of voters, the premier news outlet was Facebook. The result has been an unprecedented watering down of the news, until in some dilutions no trace of any authentic reality remains. Many users are brainless enough to trust Facebook with a KGB-style file which contains massive quantities of their personal information. Do they remain characteristically gormless when it comes to the “news” which appears in their feeds?
The circulation figures are unsettling. An investigation by Buzzfeed has found that a significant number of the pro-Trump stories on Facebook were invented by teenagers in Macedonia, purely for advertising revenue. Some fabulous creative writing with the title “FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide” has been since shared on Facebook over 560,000 times. As Nieman‘s Joshua Benton observes, “The pope’s “endorsement” [of Donald Trump] has over 868,000 Facebook shares. The Snopes piece noting the story is fake has but 33,000.” There are, of course, 231 million eligible voters in the USA, and Facebook’s misinformation will travel only so far, but the acute subjectivity of this media might have far wider implications.
Facebook is a ludicrous solution to generic complaints about the bias of the mainstream media. It is essentially a news service which is edited by algorithm to provide its users with personalised news which will not offend them. If you look to the news for entertainment, Facebook will ensure that your newsfeed is a tissue of urban legends. If you are a wealthy politicised young woman, Facebook will prioritise feminist controversies over the latest valuation of factory wages. If you have made up your mind, Facebook will reassure you that you are right, infinitely. Whether you are a liberal or a conservative, Facebook will jail you with your implicit consent within your own prejudices.
The only person in Edinburgh who, to my knowledge, has celebrated Trump’s victory is a Hungarian immigrant and a fascist sympathiser. His own news is, in its own way, glorious. In one link that he sent me, the users of the 4chan forum had claimed to have discovered evidence that Mrs Clinton and her closest advisers were a paedophile ring. This was their use in certain emails, released by WikiLeaks, of such tell-tale words as “pizza,” “pasta,” “cheese” and “ice cream.” When the billion-dollar banker Herbert Sandler recounts in one email that, “Lo and behold, instead of pasta and wonderful sauces, it was a lovely, tempting assortment of cheeses,” a paedophile would know exactly what he was writing about. For “pasta” is code for “little boy,” “sauces” for “orgies,” and “cheeses” for “little girls.” I just hope that a copy of Delia Smith’s How To Cook never darkens 4chan’s doorstep – its poor operatives will end up being regaled with visions of unparalleled depravity.
I also hope that my fascist friend is not disappointed when there is no monumental FBI investigation into Mrs Clinton’s paedophile ring. I suspect though that the news which he consumes will respond with its normal rapid proliferation of excuses and reflex conspiracies. Observers of contemporary politics will know how apparently flimsy bubbles can remain obstinately un-popped for years. Those who live in the 9/11 Truther bubble are never discouraged by how not a single one of their thousands of differently configured interpretations of what happened on that day seems to stick. Those who inhabit the Scottish nationalist bubble still believe that they are somehow merrily on the road to independence, despite daunting polls and derisive economics. Those within the campus feminism bubble are forever impervious to the fact that the majority of working women view them as being simply a nuisance.
Clinton’s gracious concession speech and Obama’s welcome of Trump to the White House provide some happy imagery of a healing nation. Meanwhile, millions of people remain housebound within their chosen suburbs of the media, when they might benefit from getting out a bit more. Let us turn to the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land, which was published this October. On BBC Radio 4 yesterday, Hochschild described how she had travelled from her “progressive enclave” of Berkeley, California to meet people in “an enclave as far right as Berkeley was left… to cross what I came to think of as an empathy wall…” Although Hochschild is a liberal, she is actually in search of an equivalent to Disraeli’s One Nation, a general toning down of class warfare. The idea that the working class is a foreign country is as old as the working class itself, but it is framed with a new starkness in Hochschild’s analysis that, “we do live in separate enclaves, geographic enclaves, media enclaves, electronic enclaves: that’s prevented us from turning our attention to what’s been going on for quite some time…”
Another revelation of enclaves occurs in a beautiful sketch for Saturday Night Live called “Black Jeopardy.” SNL has run with the sketch before and it features a surreal gameshow which only black contestants can win, by buzzing in with ghetto comebacks. This time, Tom Hanks plays Doug, a stock Trump supporter, who, to the surprise of the black contestants, storms the game. In one category, “Skinny Women Can Do This for You,” he wins with the response, “What is, not a damn thing.” Like Hochschild, Doug has crossed an empathy wall and discovered how much he has in common with another demographic… up, that is, until they reveal the final category “Lives That Matter.” Now Doug is frowning and we have suddenly banged into the invisible bars of his cage. Unfortunately, they have been there for the entire time. The satire veers deftly around expressing snobbery or contempt for Doug and patronisingly allowing him his inadequacies. It is pretty unique in doing so.
Are we witnessing a retreat from the ideal of a common culture, into a feudal mayhem of warring internet tribes? It might seem like I am yearning to go back to the days when everybody read newspapers which were filled with proper news and the internet was merely an amusing toy. This would be as foolishly nostalgic as wanting to return to a time when steel mills were major employers. I do not even think that Facebook should take action, as its CEO Mark Zuckerberg has promised, in pursuit of “accurate news.” A democratic media trusts its users with the responsibility to inform and educate themselves. Nobody is being tyrannised with stupid news by algorithms – these programmes, when they ramble into bigotry, are merely reflecting the lack of curiosity and imagination of their users.
Instead, the plea should be for omnivorous reading, for more imaginative reading, for better reading. The internet once came with the promise of “citizen journalism” and of a valuable corrective to the mainstream media. Today the blogosphere is a ruinous landscape of comfort zones, safe spaces, and echo chambers, where people rot in their own prejudices and wallow in like-mindedness. The authentic intellectual needs to consume both the Guardian and the Daily Mail; the New Statesman and the Spectator; Snopes and Alex Jones; the website with a million readers and the one with thirty; the online publication which maintains that “humanity is underrated” and the one which thinks that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” The road to wisdom runs high and low, through the sunshine and the mire. A common culture might be impossible but we should still try to cultivate a common open-mindedness, a shared devotion to new ideas.