Nihilism was notably cited during U.S. Senate deliberations after rioting Trump supporters had been cleared from the Capitol.
“Don’t let nihilists become your drug dealers,” exhorted Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse. “There are some who want to burn it all down. … Don’t let them be your prophets.”
How else to describe the incendiary rhetoric and grievances that Donald Trump has peddled since November? What else to call the denial of the electorate’s will and his deep disdain for American institutions and traditions?
In 2016, I wrote about how Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky had, in his work, explored what happens to society when people who rise to power lack any semblance of ideological or moral convictions and view society as bereft of meaning. I saw eerie similarities with Trump’s actions and rhetoric on the campaign trail.
Fast-forward four years, and I believe the warnings of Dostoevsky – particularly in his most most political novel, “Demons,” published in 1872 – hold truer than ever.
Although set in a sleepy provincial Russian town, “Demons” serves as a broader allegory for how thirst for power in some people, combined with the indifference and disavowal of responsibility by others, amount to a devastating nihilism that consumes society, fostering chaos and costing lives.
Power for power’s sake
Before “Demons,” Dostoevsky had been writing a novel about faith, “The Life of a Great Sinner.”
But then a disturbing public trial spurred him in a more overtly political direction. A young student had been murdered by members of a revolutionary group, The Organization of the People’s Vengeance, at the behest of their leader, Sergei Nechaev.
Dostoevsky was appalled that politics could be dehumanizing to the point of murder. His focus turned not only to moral questions but also to political demagoguery, which, he argued, if left unchecked, could result in devastating loss of life.
The result was “Demons.” It featured two protagonists: Pyotr Verkhovensky, a former student with no political convictions beyond a lust for power, and Nikolai Stavrogin, a man so morally numb and emotionally detached that he is incapable of purposeful action and stands idly by as violence engulfs his society.
Through these two figures, Dostoevsky tells a broader story about the many flavors of nihilism. Pyotr infiltrates the town’s local social circles, recruits a group of disciples to a revolutionary group and spins lies to band them together so they may do his bidding. Pretending to lead a broad movement of international socialism, Pyotr manipulates those around him into committing violent acts and insurrection against the local government. As a result, one woman is crushed by a mob, a mother and her baby die from chaos and neglect and a fire breaks out that kills multiple others.
Different townspeople espouse multiple and contradictory ideologies; none translates into purposeful action. Instead, they merely leave characters whiplashed and susceptible to being instrumentalized by Pyotor, the master manipulator.
The allure of feeling something
But Pyotr would not prevail without the nihilism of Stavrogin, a local nobleman.
Many townspeople see him as a leader with a strong moral compass. Throughout the novel, Pyotr seeks to loop Stavrogin into his quest for power by either doing him favors that corrupt him or hinting that he will install him as dictator once he successfully carries out a revolution.
On some level, Stavrogin knows better: He should be protecting the town and its people. He ultimately fails to do so, out of sheer despondence and because of the emotional appeal of chaos and violence have for him; they seem to jolt him out of the ennui he often appears to feel.
When given the chance to restrain and turn in to the authorities the escaped convict who perpetrates most of the violence in town, Stavrogin captures him only to eventually let him go. “Steal more, kill more,” he says to a criminal who has already admitted to killing and stealing. Later, when the political climate gets so heated that it seems an insurrection is imminent, he flees town.
In surrendering his responsibility to serve as a moral guardian, Stavrogin becomes complicit in Pyotr’s schemes. He ultimately kills himself – perhaps, in part, out of guilt for his passivity and moral indifference.
Among the two men, Pyotr is the authoritarian figure. And he cleverly insists that members of the revolutionary group break the law together, cementing a loyal brotherhood of criminality.
By contrast, Stavrogin is the novel’s empty center, idly standing by while Pyotr incites violence.
He doesn’t help Pyotr. But he doesn’t stop him, either.
From nihilism to annihilation
A range of nihilistic justifications – each successively hollower than the rest – seems to have shaped the violence at the U.S. Capitol.
The homegrown American insurrection lacked any sort of ideological foundation. Most ideas fueling it are negations of persons or facts. The immediate rallying cry of the insurrection was the falsehood that the election was stolen. Beyond denying the will of over 80 million people who voted for Joe Biden, this lie also qualifies not as an ideology, but as an absolute denial of truth.
Other ideas fomenting the insurrection – such as “America first” or “MAGA” and even white supremacy itself – are quintessentially founded on the denial of others, whether they are immigrants, foreign nationals or persons of color.
From what we have learned since, some of Trump’s supporters were even imploring him to “cross the Rubicon,” a reference to Julius Caesar’s initiation of the civil war that eventually transformed Rome into a dictatorial empire, expressing a longing to smash American systems and eviscerate the republic.
The only real purpose that seems to have brought the group together was devotion to Donald Trump, who strikes me as the arch-nihilist in all this, the Pyotr Verkhovensky of this American tragedy. Then there are the other public figures who should have known better, who might have helped stop it all, but couldn’t and didn’t. Some, like Stavrogin, excused themselves and were silent for far too long, as the lie about the election grew bigger and bigger. And others seemed to outright encourage the lie through formalized objections in Congress last week.
Playacting at revolution at the behest of a man seeking to cling to power, the rioters ultimately only managed only to vandalize the building, though they left five people dead in their wake.
Nonetheless, to act violently on the basis of such fictions – and to transgress against the humanity of others for nothing at all – is perhaps the most nihilistic act of them all.
The link below is to an article that considers the multitude of books on the Donald Trump era and looks for the best ones.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the many books that look at Donald Trump and his presidency.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article that looks at some of the many, many, many Trump books that are out there – and I’ve read a few.
The link below is to an article that explores a number of books on Donald Trump as president of the USA.
In our series, Guide to the classics, experts explain key works of literature.
A year-and-a-half into the presidency of Donald Trump, some see this administration as the stuff of dystopian nightmares. Trump’s apparent disrespect for truth is suspiciously similar to the manipulation of history in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. The crass, three-ring-circus texture of the current crowd in Washington recalls the degraded America depicted in Mike Judge’s 2006 cinematic farce Idiocracy. However, the English writer Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic Brave New World might provide the best dystopian gloss on our contemporary predicament.
Like most good dystopian fiction, Brave New World is not a prediction but rather a diagnosis of dangerous tendencies in Huxley’s present. One of the most striking elements of Huxley’s vision of the future involves factories in which infants are designed to perform specific social functions.
These Stepford babies are later conditioned through standardised educational practices. This motif is not primarily a cautionary tale about the potential abuse of genetic engineering. Rather, it is a commentary on existing class inequalities and the use of education to reinforce social obedience. It exemplifies the fundamental tendency of capitalism to convert humans into commodities, interchangeable and bereft of genuine individualism.
Certain aspects of Huxley’s dystopian society strikingly resemble our current situation. A lack of respect for history, a population conditioned to consume goods at breakneck pace, a tendency toward globalisation, and the pacification of individuals via an entertainment culture curated to squelch any inchoate rumblings of critical thought: all of these are hallmarks of Huxley’s and our worlds.
An illustrious family
Born in Surrey, England, in 1894, Aldous Leonard Huxley was a member of one of England’s most illustrious intellectual families. He also went on to become one of the most important English writers of the 20th century, though he was also important as a social and philosophical commentator — and spent the last 26 years of his life living in the United States.
His brother, Julian, was a prominent biologist knighted by the queen. Aldous and Julian were the grandsons of well-known naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley, a leading 19th-century advocate for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Aldous himself considered a career in biology or medicine, though he eventually turned to literature instead.
By the time Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931, he was well established as a British novelist; works such as Crome Yellow (1921), Antic Hay (1923), and Point Counter Point (1928) arguably made him the most important English novelist of the 1920s, while also prefiguring Brave New World in important ways with their satirical treatment of British society.
A trip to the US shortly before the writing of Brave New World also contributed to Huxley’s formulation of his thoughts for the novel. (He moved there in 1937, where he would write more dystopian and utopian novels such as Ape and Essence (1948), Brave New World Revisited (1958) and Island (1962).)
History is bunk
In Brave New World, Huxley’s World State has arisen in the wake of a global war that nearly destroyed humanity. Its policies are officially driven by a desire to prevent a recurrence of this war at all costs. Stability and placidity in every aspect of life are of paramount concern. The public is protected from anything that might upset them and rock the social boat. However, the underlying goal is to ensure the smooth operation of the consumer capitalist economy and to remove any historical reminders that things might be other than they are.
Huxley presents us with the basic characteristics of his dystopian society through a loosely constructed narrative told largely from the point of view of Bernard Marx. An “alpha” who has been engineered and conditioned to be among the society’s intellectual elite, Bernard finds that his own individualist tendencies make him unable to function comfortably in this conformist society.
We are also introduced to Mustapha Mond, a “world controller” who attempts to explain to Bernard the rationale for the State’s policies, including its rejection of literature and history as sources of wisdom.
Also important to the narrative is “John the Savage.” Born biologically on a “Savage Reservation” and brought up reading the works of Shakespeare, John grows to adulthood outside the controls of the World State. He is eventually brought to London, where he finds himself so unable to fit in that he is driven to suicide.
The lack of respect for history in Huxley’s world is encapsulated in the slogan “history is bunk”. The phrase is but one of many slogan-like modules of prepackaged “wisdom” that pass for public discourse. This particular phrase is attributed in the novel to Henry Ford – the central cultural hero of the society – who was at the height of his influence at the time Brave New World was written. A true forerunner of Donald Trump (but a much better businessman), Ford is an honoured icon of American capitalism even today. Yet, he was also an admirer of Adolf Hitler and a philistine with no respect for culture.
It should thus come as no surprise that the devaluation of genuine understanding in Huxley’s imagined world includes the suppression of most of the great works of world literature. This is ostensibly done because they might trigger strong emotions. The true reason is that such works are not easily reduced to consumer commodities.
The World State is the ultimate consumer society, even if it cannot match the marketing sophistication of today’s global capitalism. Designed along “Fordist” lines, this society is devoted to economic efficiency, but only in the narrow consumerist sense of boosting sales.
Not only are individuals treated like commodities, but they live in a world that is saturated with the ethos of marketing. They are constantly bombarded by jingle-like slogans that encourage as much consumption as possible. Individuals are urged to replace rather than repair, because “ending is better than mending”.
Huxley’s vision of a World State underestimates the staying power of nationalist rhetoric, of which Trump’s “America First” agenda is but one example. Yet, amid the mad scramble to exploit all potential sources of cheap labour, we have established trade networks that extend into all the nooks and crannies of the global market.
These networks involve individuals and institutions from a wide variety of cultures. When combined with the current trend toward the globalisation of world culture, these networks are so effective that a World State seems redundant, if only in terms of capitalist business practices.
Culture is key to the functioning of Huxley’s entertainment-oriented society. The populace is numbed by happy-making drugs that have “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects”.
Huxley’s future humans are fed a nonstop dose of popular culture. Designed to amuse and stupefy, this breed of pop culture neither challenges nor inspires. Content is delivered via high-tech mechanisms which foreshadow our own world wide web. Artefacts such as virtual reality “feelies” (echoing the then-new “talkies”) seem highly familiar to a modern audience. As does their effect on the general population.
In Huxley’s world, even human relationships have been made an arm of pop culture. Sexual promiscuity is encouraged and emotional attachments forbidden. Relations between the sexes are just another form of entertainment. Sexual reproduction has become obsolete. Motherhood is an unthinkable obscenity and the parent-child bond has been eliminated. These details differ from Donald Trump’s recent proposed changes to abortion regulations, but they are equally misogynistic.
Frighteningly, although the characteristics of Trump’s America differ from the World State, the differences almost all make 21st-century America seem worse than Huxley’s nightmare consumerist world, from racial hatred to a looming climate crisis.
We are not just in danger of achieving a Huxleyesque dystopia. We are in danger of blowing past it to something Huxley couldn’t possibly have imagined.
This is an edited extract of the 2016 A. N. Smith Lecture in Journalism, delivered by Emily Bell, the founding director of Columbia University’s Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, at the University of Melbourne on March 15, 2017.
The 2016 US presidential election tells us a great deal about the current state of the news media and, more importantly, about the information environment we are operating within. Some of it is shocking, some is deeply worrying, and some of it is hopeful.
There are four key things Donald Trump’s election tells us about the state of journalism today.
The new fusion of media, power and technology
It is the early morning of Sunday, March 5. All over the east coast of America, journalists’ phones vibrate with alerts. So it begins: the president is awake, and he is angry.
It is as well, with the terrible decline in the popularity of The Apprentice, that we have another mesmerising show to keep us on our toes.
Imagine being an American political journalist. Every Saturday and Sunday at 6AM or 7AM, your phone buzzes with a message from the president.
Barack Obama “had my wires tapped in Trump Tower”. Quite a serious allegation. Presidents have been impeached for less. Press Secretary Sean Spicer was at pains to point out the next week that this is not literally what Trump had meant – it was a broader referral to the activities of agencies and surveillance during the campaign.
Welcome to 2017 in the United States of America, where we can experience government in real time, sometimes even before the people in power find out about it themselves.
As journalists who cover Trump have told me, the president, like his audience, reads newspapers and watches cable news. This is why he tweets early in the morning, often about stories that broke on social media the previous day. He opens the “failing” New York Times and, provoked by their “fake news”, he is off.
Trump might not spend much time on social media but he has an acute understanding of how virality in media works, and what the dynamics are that are needed to activate an online following to amplify your message.
How to cover the president is an abiding press topic, because he is unlike any president most have ever seen. Invitations to press conferences where journalists were ignored or insulted. Press huddles that suddenly elevated outlets like OANN or Breitbart above the “failing” New York Times and the “fake news” Washington Post.
In elevating Breitbart’s Steve Bannon to be his chief strategist, Trump has consolidated the idea of putting media presence at the heart of his administration.
There were many media commentaries suggesting that journalists should boycott the press room at the White House. Another extended hand-wringing session took place around whether or not to cover Trump’s tweets at all – again, were the media being played? Was access journalism getting in the way of real stories? And there were questions on how to deal with Trump’s apparent lack of interest in whether something was true or not.
What has happened is that Trump’s Twitter feed and the White House press room have become the live rails of this administration. If you start to think about Trump and Bannon as a media organisation run from the Oval Office, it makes sense that the PR channels of the press room and a Twitter feed with 25 million followers are actually now live policy theatre.
The tweeting, the press conferences and the rallies are confusing for us because they feel like smokescreens. Even more unsettling is the notion that they are not smokescreens at all, but they are the actual presidency.
Political messaging on social media has come of age in a powerful way. In the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, we saw similar patterns of deployment as we did in the Trump campaign: tight circles of hyperactive fans and bots on social media that co-ordinate to tweet hashtags signalling the campaign’s most important messages in a repetitious cycle: #TrumpWon, #CrookedHillary, #HillarysHealth.
These are commonly used tactics, and they are bipartisan. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was just as active in similar ways.
But, for Trump, the use of real-time communication was not simply an election tactic: it is his modus operandi. Effectively, the substance of the US government is being shaped by a social media app.
Online media reinforce homogeneity of view
According to the Pew Research Centre in the US, more than 70% of the population now has a smartphone. Of that universe, more than 60% get news through social media. Around 45% of US adults say they get news from Facebook. This is an enormous amount of power concentrated in one newsfeed algorithm.
For more than a decade, 1,000 flowers bloomed on the open web, and 1,000 tabs opened on each desktop.
This diversity is threatened with the commercialised, mobile social web. Smartphones and social media, which work in lock-step to focus our attention on the smaller screen, have been a great rebundling of news services – and a great rebundling of all services.
Facebook, I once observed, was swallowing journalism. But it is also swallowing everything else too.
As the user base has grown from millions to hundreds of millions to billions, the sorting algorithms target us not to show us everything – that would be unmanageable and absurd – but to show us each our own heavily personalised version of the world.
The ubiquity of social media and the way its business model works, targeting us with more of what we like, is an open invitation to stay in our lane – in our interests, our geographies, our views, our media and our lives.
The really efficient thing about social media is we don’t have to even try to do that ourselves anymore. The mysterious algorithmic underpinnings of Google and Facebook do it for us, and we don’t even notice. Until we miss something that happened in someone else’s lane. For liberal America, Trump happened in someone else’s lane.
Breitbart, more than any other news site, represents the noisy voice of the far right. Two weeks ago, the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard released a paper that looked at how a large, fast-growing, right-wing news ecosystem had grown rapidly within Facebook in a relatively short time. Breitbart is the epicentre of that particular echo chamber.
The researchers mapped how that particular ecosystem works. They noted that most of the new hyper-partisan right-wing websites saw few links with the mainstream media, that the readership on the right was more isolated, and that the sites were very efficient in recycling the same themes – Trump’s anti-immigration stance, and Clinton’s emails.
As the campaign wore on the Harvard study notes the attacks were routinely targeted at both Clinton and the “mainstream media”. These messages were also repeated often by Trump. The campaign for him was arguably never about policy development: it was about a ratings-driven approach to winning.
The study’s authors say:
Use of disinformation by partisan media sources is neither new nor limited to the right wing, but the insulation of the partisan right-wing media from traditional journalistic media sources, and the vehemence of its attacks on journalism in common cause with a similarly outspoken president, is new and distinctive.
One of the remarkable things about the 2016 election was how the two worlds of polarised opinion could co-exist without any central arbitration by more moderate “connectors”.
The independent press should have a role here to moderate and foster argument from the point of view of trying to reach a broad consensus. But there is only a small incentive left to do that.
Watching a Trump press conference on Facebook Live video streamed from the Washington Post’s page showed only glowering angry emoji faces. The same stream, viewed from Fox News’ page, had only smiles.
I have wondered more than once during this election cycle whether the American media landscape is particularly badly affected by the encroachment and rise of newer, less-well-known and more-partisan forces because it lacks an equivalent of the ABC or BBC.
Obsession with ‘fake news’ obscures the real problems
There is something mesmerising about watching what happens when people are able to continually lie without facing the consequences.
After his initial Obama wiretapping accusations, Trump officials adjusted their body language about the reasons to believe, or not believe, that this “wiretap” had happened.
The story seems to have originated on right-wing talk radio and was picked up by other right-wing media, and then repeated by Trump on Twitter. If this is not true, though, what are the consequences?
Does a lack of truth matter? The tweet is not about the truth: it is about enriching a distracting narrative.
As a profession and a field we have to acknowledge the role we have played over many years in creating a commercial media environment that places higher priority on readership, ratings and reach than on the absolute integrity of information.
The open web was meant to make this better. It was initially a great big engine for correcting and contesting what is published. Instead, on balance, the form of the web we have at the moment enables bad journalism as much as, or maybe even more than, it helps good journalism.
The key to this is in the workings of the advertising market. It is increasingly automated, and decreasingly regulated.
In a digital microtargeted environment, ads are sold not against the integrity of the publication hosting them, but on the value of the person seeing them. Why pay the Wall Street Journal’s ad rates when you can buy one of their desirable readers a couple of sites or pages away?
And how to engage those readers? Well, good jokes and sensational content works better than nuance and complexity.
A combination of human nature, commercial marketplaces and sophisticated large-scale technology has combined to produce almost-perfect conditions for the proliferation of lowest-common-denominator material. The “fake news” epidemic is not new either, but the electrifying possibility it might have contributed to upending democracy has pushed it to the forefront of the debate.
I am not a fan of the phrase “fake news”. The term in Trump’s hands can mean “news you don’t need to pay attention to” or “news I don’t like”. We ought to be calling propaganda what it is, and calling misinformation and lies what they are too.
Buzzfeed media editor Craig Silverman has been into this issue for years. In 2015 he wrote a white paper for the Tow Centre entitled Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content. It looked at the growth of precisely this epidemic in rumours that circulate through social media at lightning speed and are proliferated and amplified by mainstream news outlets at a much higher rate than they are ever corrected.
It was in the course of doing this work that Silverman started to notice the same patterns confirmed by the Harvard research – notably that the hyper-partisan websites, particularly of the right, were the powerhouses for a particular type of disinformation.
The incentives for feeding made-up stories or maybe even sentiments and stories into this cycle are twofold. First, they are political. Second, they are financial.
In the election these fabricated stories soared in popularity, outperforming the real news stories on Facebook in the closing stages of the campaign.
These were both propagandistic and opportunistic.
“Fake news” was undoubtedly put out by both sides during the election to benefit their preferred candidate. But another type of fakery was manufactured, quite legally, by people who can exploit the attention market for great profit. Someone who actually makes fake news (or, rather, used to) told me he could make US$10,000 from a single post.
In the future, we will see both the automation and more authentic fabrication of material. It is not clear that the platform companies are winning the war with faked propagandistic messages. But it is clear that they have been too relaxed about the type of material that circulates, whether for political or economic advantage.
If the advertising model rewards popularity and shareability – regardless of originality, value and quality – then it is little wonder that it provides a living for a Macedonian teenager but not enough to support core reporting functions in local newsrooms.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said he does not want to be the “arbiter of truth” – which is lucky, because at the moment that is a distant aspiration. Perhaps a more achievable aspiration is not to be the enemy of truth either.
There is a cultural confusion within technology companies about how they execute both their ideological and market positions to encourage the maximum participation – but not to edit their platforms.
The major platforms, and Facebook in particular, were unsettled by the result of the 2016 election and the role they might or might not have played in Trump’s surprising rise. Why else would Zuckerberg write a 6,000-word manifesto about the issues facing global citizens and what Facebook could do to fix them?
The social web is visual; it rewards jokes and comments and easily digestible commentary. It rewards feelings and emotions. It rewards intensity of usage and engagement. It does not really care about veracity or verifiability.
Some of this is not new at all. Tabloid newspapers have always had more readership than broadsheets; cartoonists are more famous than op-ed writers. But the uneven distribution of attention on the web, and the algorithmic response to that – broadly promoting more of the same – shows again that the breaking of the distribution monopoly of old media has been replaced by another kind of monopoly, a monopoly of time, or attention.
Fake news has become a meaningless and rather dangerous phrase. But the problem of feeling unsure of what to believe and what not to believe, the obliteration of credible brands and the squeezing of all types of content into the same undelineated window, is very real.
In Western democracies we have become used to the luxury of being sceptical and dismissive of the importance of a free press. Now in the White House Press Room, on Twitter and Facebook, in the feed of the president of the United States of America, that dismissiveness has turned to an open hostility.
I know why phrases like “post-truth societies” or “alternative facts” or “fake news” have taken hold as a result of the election. It is important, though, to be able to separate media theory from reality. We are not in fact living in a world where facts and truth don’t exist anymore.
People who care about democracy recognise this, and the US has seen what is known as the “Trump bump” for news organisations with subscription or membership models. The “failing” New York Times has seen almost 300,000 new subscribers join in the last quarter of 2016 – more additional subscribers than the organisation managed in the previous year.
The head of digital at another national subscription-based news organisation noted that:
Every time Trump tweets about how terrible we are, another 10,000 people give us money. It’s incredible.
Non-profit investigative unit ProPublica has seen enough voluntary contributions coming in to enable it to open another office. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a great organisation that does the hardest work in defending and protecting journalists around the world, was invoked by Meryl Streep, that “over-rated actress”, on stage at the Golden Globes.
I was recently at a marketing conference full of marketing executives talking on stage to two Washington Post executives who were given a spontaneous ovation – by advertisers.
Despite the rocky professional outlook, there is no decline in the number of people applying to Columbia Journalism School – quite the opposite.
And, underneath this, we have seen some really remarkable reporting and analysis from the campaign trail and now from inside the administration. Leakers are posting material through Secure Drop to newsrooms at unprecendented rates.
The advent of a president who calls the press “the enemy of the people” has galvanised news organisations and handed them a mandate.
And the light the election campaign has shone on what an information environment can become, without regulation and without a hierarchy that reflects civic values, I think has rejuvenated the case for a strong and independent press.
Even Zuckerberg recognises the importance of journalism. On President’s Day weekend, he posed outside the offices of the Selma Times-Journal with his wife, Priscilla Chan, and thanked journalists for their work. Via a Facebook post, of course.
In his 6,000 word manifesto he wrote about what Facebook might do to support journalism more:
There is more we must do to support the news industry to make sure this vital social function is sustainable – from growing local news, to developing formats best suited to mobile devices, to improving the range of business models news organisations rely on.
He did not mention a significant transfer of wealth – but maybe that is coming.
What we have seen in the 2016 election cycle though is very clarifying for journalism. We have seen that the information ecosystem has grown in ways that work against the interests of civic society and good journalism.
The functions of journalism – from the packaging and distribution, to the audiences and branding, to the data collection, and crucially the monetisation – have all been subsumed by much larger systems of power and wealth.
Until very recently, technology platforms were ambivalent or even hostile to the idea that they might bear some responsibility for creating a better public sphere. The election cycle of 2016 has shone a light on that too. There is no such thing as algorithmic neutrality. Platforms and technologies have values, and if they carry consequences, intended and accidental.
Recently, a smart, local start-up in upstate New York, the Watershed Post, announced it could not do what it was doing anymore. A very technically literate two-person team had set up the Watershed Post as a new model for local journalism. Founder Lissa Harris wrote about why they could no longer carry on:
The titans of the web have huge and increasing reach, even in our rural communities. They have sophisticated tools for targeting likely customers by geography and demographics. They have products that a business owner can buy for $5 with a few clicks of a mouse, products that require no human time investment on the other end for design or sales or customer support.
What they don’t have is reporters.
Journalism matters, but the institutions that support and contain reporting are only healthy if they have subscribers, or vast scale, or another source of revenue. In the US, this increasingly means philanthropy, or a return to the wealthy individual sinking hundreds of millions into an uncertain future.
And the promise of the open web – that it would support all type of new journalistic institutions – is unfulfilled.
Reporting, unlike memes and jokes and native advertising, does not scale well on the privatised social mobile web. This is not the fault of one set of people; I don’t believe that the founders of platforms and search companies wanted to destabilise functions that are civically important but financially insecure. And I don’t believe the generation of creative, technically gifted journalists who are struggling with this necessarily did anything wrong either.
The problem is more that the speed of the emerging landscape for media has been so quick, and largely illegible, so free of regulation in nearly all aspects, that rather like financial deregulation before it, we haven’t been able to really grasp the problem until it is almost too late.
I say “almost” because, as an eternal optimist, I think we have an opportunity to make the right interventions to press for systems that favour sustainable journalism. But we have to be organised, and we have to do it now.
We need better collective action in understanding the complexity of the problems, and we need institutions that will not be buffeted by the markets to help work these problems out in the long term.
We also need the attention, wealth and influence of technology companies.
I have been dismayed as a bystander to see how institutions like the BBC in the UK and the ABC to some extent in Australia are not apparently part of the central conversation for this resettlement for journalism. Their own issues are too often framed in terms of the market and not often enough in terms of civic need and what we might require independent media institutions to do to protect democracy.
Too often we have given into the Silicon Valley narrative that old institutions are inevitably going to perish.
The “free market of information” on the web erases the necessity for old-fashioned public interventions, doesn’t it? The market will fix everything, won’t it? I could not disagree more.
Leadership in public-service journalism institutions is at a critical moment where it can redefine its role in relationship to this new landscape; where it can make a strong case for the support of reporting and innovation that can endure separately from the alternate systems of tech power.
Public media is not the only solution, but it is an important element in figuring out how we manage our way through a complicated and rapidly changing commercial converged marketplace.
I was recently at a rather curious gathering in the UK countryside – between NGOs, government, technology companies and journalists – to talk about the crisis in news and information. I can’t do better than repeat the words of one of the attendees:
We should be thanking Donald Trump, because without him we would not be having the long overdue conversation we need about what kind of news environment we want.
Thanks to the criticisms they’ve leveled in articles, interviews, tweets and letters to the editor, we know that many contemporary authors, from Philip Roth to J.K. Rowling, have a dim view of Donald J. Trump.
But what would leading writers of the past have made of him?
We can only speculate (well, until someone invents a Rowling-like potion capable of bringing long dead writers back to life). But if I could ask one dead writer what he thinks of Trump, it would be Mark Twain, my favorite American author and someone whose travel articles I’ve written about in the past. While Twain is best-known for his novels, he was also an opinionated, prolific commentator on the personalities and political issues of his day.
I suspect Twain would have found Trump the showman – the pre-2016 version – a fascinating figure. He would have been appalled, however, by much about Trump the president.
A champion of irreverence
I have no doubt about two things that Twain would find objectionable: the way that Trump has lashed out at TV sketches that mock him and his use of the phrase “enemy of the American people” to describe news organizations that criticize him.
Twain felt that no one was too grand to be satirized.
“Irreverence,” he wrote, “is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense.”
In America’s press, he admired its tendency to be “irreverent toward pretty much everything.” Even if this led to the newspapers laughing “one good king to death,” it was a small price to pay if they also “laugh a thousand cruel and infamous shams and superstitions into the grave.”
But pondering what, beyond this, Twain would make of Trump is an apt, tricky and timely exercise.
It’s apt because one of Twain’s novels, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” features a man who travels through time.
It’s tricky because Twain’s views on many issues, including race, changed during his lifetime. Hence there are different Twains – as well as different Trumps – to consider.
Finally, imagining how Twain would view Trump is timely because when some have tried to look to history for an equivalent political moment, they’ll sometimes point to two decades – the 1880s and the 1900s – that happened to also be important in Twain’s life and career.
One of these Trumps is not like the other
The Twain of the 1880s would have probably found the Trump of a decade ago – a brash, self-promoting businessman known for his candid comments and penchant for media attention – fascinating. He may have even befriended him.
But the staunchly anti-imperialist Twain of two decades later would have been as disdainful of Trump now as he was of the man he once called “far and away the worst president we have ever had” – the muscular nationalist Teddy Roosevelt.
My basis for the first claim comes from Twain’s friendship with a flashy, boastful Trump-like showman: Buffalo Bill Cody. Among the most successful entertainment impresarios of his day, Cody founded and starred in a traveling Wild West Show, which drew large crowds in America and Europe and was famous for its reenactments of legendary battles.
In 1884, Twain sent a letter to Cody praising his Wild West Show as a realistic, “distinctly American” form of entertainment. In Cody’s spectacle – as in “The Apprentice” – the emcee was a famous man who played up a version of himself, capitalizing on the audience’s awareness that he had done things in real life that he did in the show: firing guns, in one case; firing people, in the other.
During this period, Twain wrote four of his best-known books. It was also a time of intense nativism in the United States. Many white laborers, especially in western states, became convinced that Chinese laborers, who had crossed the Pacific in large numbers during the Gold Rush, were unfairly depriving them of jobs that rightfully belonged to them.
This prejudice triggered several violent outbursts – such as the 1871 Los Angeles riot, which cost 18 Chinese men their lives – and led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade the entry of Chinese workers to the United States.
Twain mocked the hypocrisy of the Exclusion Act: Just as the U.S. government was preventing Chinese from coming here, American traders and missionaries in China were denouncing the Chinese government for hindering their pursuit of profits and converts in the Middle Kingdom.
Some critics of Trump’s executive order on immigration say it “eerily recalls” the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. In both cases, we see fear, stereotypes and prejudice fomenting an environment in which some groups are deemed less worthy of rights and protections – indeed, less human – than others.
In one of his early works, 1872’s “Roughing It,” Twain was already castigating those who bullied and abused Chinese immigrants as the “scum of the population.” His disdain for xenophobia and prejudice only grew later in life.
He would be a fierce critic of Trump’s nativist rhetoric even if – perhaps especially if – he had previously praised Trump the entertainer.
Twain targets Teddy
By the early 1900s, Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House. Trump – whom some have compared with Roosevelt – has said that when he speaks of trying to “Make America Great Again,” one period he has in mind is around the turn of the 20th century.
Around this time, Twain was not just a celebrated author but a leading figure on the lecture circuit. As both a speaker and an essayist, he was known for his satirical jabs. A key target of his became American expansionists, whom he skewered in, among other works, the 1901 essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” which lambasts Americans for committing violence across the Pacific under the guise of “civilizing” backward peoples.
In 1900, there were two U.S. military campaigns underway in China and the Philippines. In China, U.S. soldiers joined forces with a host of other countries to fight the anti-Christian Boxer militants and the Qing dynasty. In the Philippines, American troops brutally suppressed Filipinos who sought independence.
Twain disagreed. In his caustic “Salutation Speech from the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth,” Twain dismissed the military campaigns as “pirate raids” that “besmirched” Christianity’s reputation.
Where Roosevelt saw the Boxers as just the latest wave of savages to be suppressed, Twain viewed them as patriots defending their threatened homeland, spelling out his position in essays, personal letters and public lectures.
Sticking to his guns
The anti-imperialist Twain would likely have criticized other recent presidents. He wouldn’t have approved of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, nor of the way Barack Obama employed drones.
Nonetheless, the writer would find Trump’s disparaging of Muslims and various other groups on the campaign trail – in addition to the immigration ban – particularly distasteful.
He wasn’t afraid to change his mind, and to admit that he had been wrong (as Trump is loath to do). He briefly supported the Spanish-American War, for example, but then spoke openly about how jingoism had blinded his moral concerns. And as American studies professor John Haddad has detailed, Twain’s previous praise for Cody didn’t stop him from walking out of a Wild West Show performance in early 1901. Cody had performed a reenactment of a 1900 Chinese battle, uniformly depicting the foreign invaders as heroes and the Boxers as barbaric villains. Twain thought his old friend was deeply misguided – and he let him know.
In 1901, Twain wasn’t alone in holding and expressing fervently anti-imperialist views. But he was in a minority. Most Americans felt that allied actions in China and U.S. ones in the Philippines were completely justified. So did many famous writers of the time, from Rudyard Kipling to “Battle Hymn of the Republic” lyricist Julia Ward Howe.
That’s one difference from today: Twain would find himself firmly in the literary mainstream – and would be far from alone in saying that a president who wanted to govern a truly “great” America should not look to the country at the turn of the 20th century for inspiration.