Tag Archives: politics

Flight 1095


Coming home from Phoenix on Friday, I found myself sharing the plane with Aidy Bryant, Vanessa Bayer, and Bret Stephens. Bryant and Bayer are SNL players. Stephens (below) is Foreign Affairs columnist at the Wall Street Journal.


I am guessing Bryant, Bayer, and Stephens have different views of the world. (This is a guess, but I am comfortable working by the “available light” of SNL and WSJ.)

I am guessing one difference of opinion turns on their ideas of America.

Bryant and Bayer taunt us for the sexism that diminishes men and women. Both of them excel at the performance of  a certain “sweet-faced” agreeableness, occupying stereotypes the better to destroy them.

Stephens, on the other hand, is a student of the American presence abroad, and especially alert to how it serves the cause of reasonableness in a world where fundamentalism now routinely makes reason almost impossible to obtain. (See his excellent book: America in Retreat.)

Not such different projects, after all. We could say these three Americans stand for different versions of liberty, that most American idea. Bryant and Bayer champion personal liberty and the notion that it is the right of individuals to choose personal identity, (and not have it forced upon them). Stephens champions political liberty and the notion that it is the right of individuals to choose collective identity, (and not have it forced upon them).Both oppose the enemies of liberty.

And they work together. Stephens insists on America as a “city on a hill” that promises liberty to those held captive by other polities, even as Bryant and Bayer keep the “city” true to its mission and investigate what happens to identity once gender stereotypes are thrown off. (First political liberty, then cultural liberty.)

To this extent, these three are all “on the same plane.”

But things, I think it’s fair to assume, end there.

When it comes to the presidential race, Bryant, Bayer and Stephens have much less in common. I guess that Bryant and Bayer favor Hilary, if not Sanders, while Stephens favors Cruz, but not Trump. (A man who cares this much about foreign affairs could not vote for a Donald Trump who, as the joke has it, doesn’t know who the prime minister of Canada is. We don’t need “available light” for this one, first principles will do.)

This difference makes a difference. Now these three, with so much in common, begin to press in opposite directions. Eventually, what they share, like the rest of American politics, begins to tear and perhaps eventually to vanish. I expect the political science of this problem is well charted. I want to comment on the anthropology.

Consider what might have happened had Bryant, Bayer and Stephens struck up a conversation on flight 1095. (As far as I know, they didn’t. They weren’t seated together. And, to my great regret, they weren’t seated with me.)

What would have happened to this conversation? Once they got beyond the pleasantries, was there common ground? Or are we now living with pockets of difference so different that mutuality is now in peril. This is what scares the anthropologist.

We could use comedy to construct a continuum. In a fully mutual culture, every one “gets” the joke as a joke. In a culture of failing mutuality, there are some people who don’t get they joke but they do at least understand that a joke was intended.

We have a linguistic convention here. The person who loves the joke looks at the person who has a puzzled expression, and asks, “You get the joke, right?” And the puzzled person says, “Oh, I get it. I just don’t think it’s that funny.”  At this point, we know there is some noise in the cultural system, but only some. Not all jokes are fungible. But all jokes are visible.

Then there is the third stage, the one we may be approaching now, and that’s when the puzzled person can’t tell that a joke was intended. (Some of Sarah Silverman’s jokes strike me that way. I am of course joking.) The puzzled person (me) is as if from another culture,. They do not share an idea of what “funny” (at least in this case) is. Somebody does something. Other people begin to laugh. Now when asked, “You get the joke, right?” the puzzled person replies “Um, no, I don’t. It’s funny? What’s funny?”

Sometimes when we storm at one another on the political stage, I wonder if this is not a theater made out of the narcissism of small differences. Really, we are just seizing on our differences as an opportunity for a jolly good shouting match. And who doesn’t like a shouting match.

But sometimes you have to wonder whether we are approaching a stage in which we are no longer (or less) mutually intelligible. You could argue that it is the unacknowledged task of SNL and the WSJ to craft a commonality, to help build a shared language, shared values, as we go. And sometimes this appears to work quite well.  But other times we are looking at the emergences, driven in part by the creative efforts of SNL and the WSJ, where small quantitative differences add up to big paradigmatic jumps. We start to separate.

There is no narcissism of big differences. The “jolly” and the “good” disappear. Then it’s strangers on a plane. Mutuality is now fugitive. (Having taken another flight.)

Here’s one possibility, that there is something about our present political process that is really perilous in the present moment. It’s an old system, designed to make it possible to capture the political will when people are scattered across a continent. This politics is a Mississippi where tiny differences in the hinter land are driven to aggregate until at the end of the day we have two parties and a few ideas. This aggregating process was valuable when the country was so geographically disaggregated. But now that we are so cultural disaggregated, it may force some contests and oppositions that are unnecessary.

Force us to make simple choices, and we rush to opposite sides of the ship of state. Find some way to capture the political will(s) in a more nuanced way, and we might escape we some of the enmity and some of the shouting match. (But now we are back in the realm of political scientist, and the anthropologist must defer to her better judgment.)


Donald Trump is a fireship (pub. Sept. 15, 2015, 1 year before Trump’s presidential victory)


The question in yesterday’s post was:

Why has Donald Trump survived our discovery of his flaws and deficiencies?

Normally, a new candidate has his or her moment in the sun, until we discover who they really are. Then they’re done.

But this doesn’t ever happen in Trump’s case, however damning the revelations.

The answer, I think, is that his supporters don’t want a president. They want a fireship.

Fireships were instruments of destruction when the world was ruled by wooden ships. The idea was to pack a ship with flammables, set it ablaze, and send it in the direction of enemy ships in the hope that it would set these enemy ships ablaze. Fireships helped defeat the Spanish armada gathered in the English Channel.

Donald Trump promises to make a very good fireship. He lacks the subtlety, intelligence, breadth, and leadership we look for in a candidate. And that’s precisely what makes him such an effective instrument of political disruption.

Reckless, boorish, self centered? Perfect. Trump’s flaws make him a unassimilable. Washington is its own empire with formidable powers of hegemony. Many reformers go to Washington. Virtually all are claimed, colonized, incorporated. The Trumpians believes they have found a candidate so full of himself not even the Borg can absorb him. (If you can’t have incorruptible, unassimilable will have to do.)

But that’s just Step 1 of the Trump disruption, the passive play. Step 2, the active play, is a candidate who thinks he’s smarter than the system. Most Trumpians know that Trump isn’t smarter than the system. They just want him to act as if he is. That guarantees the destructive chaos they’re hoping for. I don’t think anyone doubts that Trump is a bully and a blow hard. They just want him to knock lots of things down when he throws his weight around. (If you can’t have cunning, clumsy will have to do.)

Trumpians don’t want a candidate. They want an agent of chaos. They don’t want to reform Washington. They want to burn it down.

Donald Trump defies the Dorian Gray effect. Why?

I found this wonderful image at the train station in my hometown in Connecticut.

Scratched into an ad on the platform, someone left us a “Dorian Gray” treatment of Donald Trump.

Behold the man behind the mask.

But that’s the thing about Trump. No one seems to care about his deficiencies or his flaws.

This departs from the normal practice of American politics. Normally, it goes like this.

An outsider appears in American politics. He or she expresses some deeply felt issue. There’s a brief period of enthusiasm.

Then the reporters go to work. Debates happen. Interviews are given.

And eventually we get a Dorian Gray revelation of the real man or woman.

And hey presto, that’s the end of their candidacy. (And, like a booster rocket, the candidate falls away even as the issue continues. The candidate has served his or her purpose.)

But it’s not happening this time.

Why isn’t happening this time?

Less public knowledge, more private meaning (lessons for politicians and brands)

This is a part of a map of London drawn by Fuller (aka Gareth Wood).

Wood says that he created a map to show his relationship with the city over several years.

“It’s about documenting a particular time and experience.”

Wood’s map of London ends up being a personal document.

Of course personal is the last thing that maps are supposed to be. They are supposed to come from official sources and authoritative parties. In an almost magical act of abstraction, they remove everything that has anything to do with anyone. There are millions of people in London interacting with the city in many millions of moments. Mapmaking is meant to make all that disappear. We give you London, all place, no time, all place, no people, all place, no particulars. At all.

Something in us now recoils from this abstraction. Authoritative meanings are on the run. But of course we will continue to need maps of the old fashion, abstract kind. Chances are we will never use Wood’s map actually to find our way around London. (Though that’s a pretty charming idea and it’s easy to imagine a guest who is very late for a dinner party giving as her plaintive explanation that her Fuller map is “really not all that helpful when you get right down to it.”)

But more and more we like a world that vibrates with particularities. Public knowledge seems a little thin. Authoritative versions of the world seem a little unforthcoming if not positively stingy. Surely, we think, the world, and especially London, is more interesting than this.

This shift in expectation runs through us with big consequences. Political figures must learn from it. Romney seemed very “official map.” Obama seemed somehow more particular.  (Though he never did get all that personal.) Hillary is very official map. It’s as if so much of what makes her personal plays to her disadvantage that she wants to get abstract and stay that way. Every politician needs to solve this problem. How to show the real person, the authentic individual, even when everything in them screams to keep the image airbrushed. In his strange, deeply stupid manner, Trump has addressed this problem.

Things are easier in the world of the brand.  Every brand has been struggling to make itself less official and more particular for some time. This means letting in the consumer and the world in ways that were once unforgivable. American brands used to be very abstract indeed. But they are (marginally) less alarmed about making the transition away from abstraction. Out of the USP into life. I always thought Subaru has done a nice job of this.

It’s a good exercise for a politician or a brand. If your present self is a formal map of who you are, what would Gareth Wood’s version look like? Creatives, planners, brand managers, campaign managers, please let me know if you try this and it works.


For more on Wood and his map, see the excellent coverage by Greg Miller here.

Gridlock or Progress: Washington in the interim

Seeing the big picture in baseball is not always easy. There are a lot of games. And teams are streaky, winning 5, then losing 3. How are we doing?  Sometimes, it’s hard to say.

In a great act of pattern recognition, George Will says something like this.

All teams lose a third of their games. All teams win a third of their games. Whether a team does well or badly on the season depends on whether they win or lose that remaining third.

Ah. Clarity.

I thought of Mr. Will’s great act of clarification on Sunday when I was listening to the pundits (including Mr. Will himself) debate what will happen in Washington in the short term. There’s an argument to be made for gridlock and one to be made for cooperation. It’s a vexingly complex issue.

Then I wondered if we could say simply this. Each party will keep it’s faithful. Whether they win or lose in the next election depends on whether they win or lose the independents. And if we know anything about the current mood, we know that the independents want action. They want to see things get done. They want accomplishment, not grid lock.


Will, George F. 2010. Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball. Reprint. Harper Paperbacks.

Tony Blair? Dark fantasy? Really?

Last month, Tony Blair’s memoirs hit the book store.

Almost immediately some copies got reshelved.

A Journey got moved out of "Politics" into "Fantasy."

Into "Fairy Tales."

Into "Horror."

Into "Dark Fantasy."

Into "Crime."

As political protests go, this is something for nothing.

A lively and effective point is made at no cost.

Someone need only pick up the book in one section and move it to another.

Those who dislike Blair have made a point.  In a public place.  At no real expense.  And at no risk.  (Moving books between sections isn’t actionable.  Not even in Britain.)

And of course, none of this is possible without the new media.  Someone created a Facebook group called "Subversively move Tony Blair’s memoirs to the crime section in book shops" and in almost no time it had 13,000 members.

"A Journey" cost Blair months and months of difficulty to write.  It cost agents, editors, and publishers fair sums to bring to market.  And all the protester needs to do is to walk the book from here to there.  The gesture is easy.  The coordination effortless.  The point quite damaging.

But of course in a democracy we don’t want to police debate by costs of entry.  We don’t want opinion confined by the obscurity of speaker or the expense of the media at his/her disposal.  But it is not always pleasant to see what surfaces in public discourse now that there is virtual no barrier to entry.  (Me, I think, Blair is probably an honorable man who served the British body politic at some personal expense.  We vilify or mock him at our peril. Unless of course we don’t mind driving honorable people out of the political pool.  We may not like Blair, but there’s a good chance we will hate the alternatives even more.)  

But there is a cost here that’s not obvious.  It is the intelligence with which the gesture is conceived and the skill with which it’s executed.  And in this case, no complaints.  The idea of reclassifying Blair’s book was fun, interesting, witty.  It found a way to use the structure of the bookstore, and to the extent it mirrors the categories in our head, the structure of thought, to make a point.  Well done.

Of course, the bookstore and those categories were just sitting there waiting for someone to seize the opportunity.  And I don’t remember this happening before.  So the anti-Blair campaigners get credit for the act of intelligence with which they saw what they could do.

Wit gives message a certain credibility.  To be sure, it’s not exquisitely clever, but it is much better and more winning than graffiti scrawled on posters.  And this gives it a place in discourse.  People note it.  The Times writes about it.  I blog about it.

Even in the "wild west" of the new media, we earn our way in. And in this case, we earn our way in by grasping the structure of our culture and the opportunities it opens up.  

Look, there’s a bookstore. 

Look, they shelf books by category.  

Look, some of these categories capture what I think is true about this book.  

Something for nothing.  But not something out of nothing.  We have to know our culture to make it speak.


Enrich, David, and Paul Sonne. 2010. “Bicycle Mischief Targets Barclays.” wsj.com, September 18 http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704858304575498031387359768.html?KEYWORDS=barclays (Accessed September 19, 2010).

You just don’t get it!

John Stuart Mill says this

…the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.  No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this mode; nor is it in the nature of human intellectual to become wise in any other manner.  (On Liberty)

"Oh, that’s no fun," I thought.  

Isn’t it more fun to go with our first inclination?  And stick to it.  Especially when people disagree.  When people don’t like our ideas, I have a suggestion.  Shout:

You just don’t get it!

And then shout at them until they do…get it.  Easy peazy, as the English say.

And that’s why I am thinking about this, I guess. I was in England for a week.  (The Boot camp in London, thanks to Mark Earls and an enthusiastic group attending, was a smash hit I am happy to say.)  I can’t help feeling there is a clear split between points of view.  

I was watching the Sky coverage of Israeli boarding of the flotilla. An interview of protesters in the street in London and some guy grabbed the camera to announce, "Sky has real problems and if you are watching this, you are probably a wanker."  There was something about the finality with which he said it that struck me.  He knew that Sky viewers "just didn’t get it."

A couple of years ago I was doing research with a guy in Germany.  He lived modestly but his sister was a big sneeze.  When she came to visit, she left her Mercedes park near his apartment, he was utterly surprised when it got well and thoroughly keyed.  There was something about his utter lack of surprise that struck me.  He knew his sister just didn’t get it.

Class warfare.  It’s a real deal here.  Part of me wants to go with my most natural ideological and emotional reactions.  But that’s not what we do.  Our job, and what a tedious job it is, is to see both sides of the picture.  We need to exhibit the mobility, the lability, of a Russian novelist.  

Like I need European inspiration.  American politics descended into "you just don’t get it" some time ago.  I can’t remember the last time I saw someone rub their chin and say, "hmm, I hadn’t thought of that.  That’s interesting."  God knows, I never say it.  I’m too busy shouting, "You just don’t get it."  

There are two possibilities here, anthropologically speaking.  

First, we have lost our Millian gift for a thoughtful examination of the issues.  We are in love with the theater of being totally right all the time.  We are addicted to emotional outrage.  We don’t care there are deeper issues.  When it comes to politics, we are all now divas.  Give us the big gesture.  Give us the sweeping condemnation.  Or leave us out of it.  Politics might once have been a game for sober souls.  Now its for emotional show offs.

Second, the cultural world has widened.  If we were to do a geographic mapping of the ideological space, we would discover that it has expanded.  So much so that it is now vastly larger than it was in the Mill’s England.  In this case, the outrage is entirely justified.  We live in a larger world, where the differences really are more different.  When the world of politics expanded, its tensility would not hold.  Ground opened up.  The consensus tore.  

Probably both are true.  And if they are both true, what then?  How do we put Humpty Dumpty back together again?


To Katherine Bell for listening to an incoherent early statement of this argument.