The Artist’s Job in the Age of Trump

Today NBC reported how a religious kind of Netflix–known as Pure Flix–is on the rise among Trumpers. This is a “wholesome” programming alternative that produces–or at least distributes–everything from Bible-story specials to mainstream cinema releases such as The Case for Christ. Pure Flix isn’t new; it’s a decade old, but over the past few years, it’s swelled its subscribers to 125,000 folks.  I have no problem with a network that seeks to provide PG-level programming as an alternative to the HBOs of the world. That sort of channel can even provide a service. But all this so-called wholesomeness becomes far less so when Pure Flix distributes films that claim how intellectualism is synonymous with atheism (as in 2014’s God’s Not Dead), or that Trump is another Lincoln (as in D’Souza’s current Death of a Nation). That sort of shlock heads into FOX territory–which is to say it becomes propaganda.

One could argue, of course, that much of Pure Flix’s programming does not intend to function as news. (D’Souza claims to produce nonfiction, but I’m not sure about God’s Not Dead.) And yet by my lights, the demographic most likely to embrace Pure Flix is the white evangelical. And the white evangelical gives Trump a 75 percent approval rating. And when it comes to Trumpers, the difference between fact and story is both muddy and increasingly negligible. Come to think of it, they are the people of the alternative fact. Or at the very least, they are the ones who dismiss the mainstream media’s critically-vetted facts. All of this is to say that the Pure Flix audience is particularly receptive to the self-serving story (as their FOX allegiance suggests). And this means that the Pure Flix propaganda can become just as influential as FOX itself. In fact, we could make the case that Pure Flix could become even more insidious than FOX, insofar as it presents itself as (particularly!) harmless entertainment while it reinforces the (particularly!) harmful idea that, say, religion (and other disciplines) should not be skeptical.

And that rejection of skepticism has been the point for a very, very long time. “Reject what they tell you,” says the despot. “Listen to me.” With facts increasingly suspect, narrative is nearly all that’s left*. So the narrative programming arrives, with conservative politicians (such as Carson and Cruz) attending its movie premiers and with its production budgets sometimes turning 30-1 profits (excluding marketing expenses). Whether it means to or not, the Pure Flix movement provides the next step in people control. It is the best ratification of that most hateful claim about how religion is the opiate of the masses.

If there’s any good news here, it’s that the Pure Flix propaganda provides the rest of us an opportunity. And it goes like this: If Pure Flix’s audience has truly shed the facts, this audience’s subscription to a “wholesome” entertainment channel suggests that the audience is still receptive to narrative. And narrative affords artists a very large opening. We storytellers–we novelists, filmmakers, painters, and photographers–we too operate through chronicle. We startle, we captivate, we give all the feels–and if we’re good enough, we also move. That is, we use empathy to transport our audience from one stance to another.

Right now, we have to tell our stories to those who cling almost exclusively to narrative. We must. And we have to tell them in such ways that are not egregious with the f-bombs, or gratuitous with the sex and the violence. Do we have to keep them PG? No. The truth is seldom PG. But the truth isn’t salacious either. It has so much power that it doesn’t have to be.

If you are an artist, your job is to fight the Trumper propaganda with your work. Your job is to be accurate, efficient, clear, and authentic. And then your job is to publish your work. Put it on shelves, and in galleries, and in blogs, or even on Facebook. Put it out there in such a way that it says what you mean, and not just what’s catchy. Say what’s true. You are one of our last bastions of truth. And in that way you are vital to the cause.

Listen. We are past the point where we can fight for the Trumpers’ minds. We lost that war. Now the battleground is the soul.

* The other remainder is encounter–the homophobe, say, who re-examines his stance after his son comes out of the closet. Narrative artifice strives for the realness of encounter.

 

The Cost of Doing Business

After reflecting on the financial good news of last week, I can’t figure how much of the US economic recovery is on account of Obama’s old work, or from Trump’s new policies. I suspect it’s a little of both. I also suspect the removal of regulations has played a major part in our energy production, at least. In this case, it’s ironic that the administration is calling such production “sustainable.”

I have no problem with a booming economy. (And as my mother pointed out, we Democrats better be very careful about how we react to the boom—because we do not want to sound as if we’re rooting against the economy.) That said, I’ve got everything against my country getting rich to the tune of environmental and humanitarian degradation. Just today, I got an e-mail from the NRDC about how the Trump administrations’ drilling plans will threaten such areas as the Bears Ears National Monument. Last week, as the court-ordered border reunification deadline passed, CNN reported that 33 percent of detained children still remain separated from their parents. (How this detention ever affected the economy is beyond me—but the Trumpers claim that undocumented immigrants take their jobs, so…)

And here’s more behavior I reject: I reject Trump’s implication that America is a victim and that we’re just now reclaiming respect around the world. According to Gallup (from last January), the median approval of US leadership dropped 30 percent, among 134 countries, during 2017. Last month, tens of thousands of British protestors dogged Trump with—among other things—the Trump-baby blimp. Later in that same month, world leaders were still condemning Trump’s lap-dog routine with Vladimir Putin. And last May, while I was in Iceland, our tour-guide, who depended on tips, joked about Trump to a busload of high-end, excursion-booking, Americans. All of this is a far cry from President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize.

And let’s not forget that this victim talk is actually despot talk. Victimhood, such as it is, has been used to justify atrocity and tit-for-tattery from Carthage to Dachau to the border detention centers. Stalin used at least the threat of victimhood to liquidate tens of millions of his own people while his Soviet Union transformed itself into an industrial super power. (Hmm.)

And speaking of Russia… In his annual foreign policy speech, last October, Vladimir Putin said this: “The biggest mistake our country made was that we put too much trust in you [the west]; and your mistake was that you saw this trust as weakness and abused it.” Sound familiar? Putin says that the US humiliated Russia. (Just this week, Trump said that other countries have humiliated us.) Putin says that NATO has betrayed Russia. (Earlier this month, Trump called NATO delinquent.)

The script changes, somewhat. Obviously now, Trump and Putin are such good buddies that they have secret conversations. But the voice is the same—and the stance is the same. Trump sounds like Putin’s protege. And our economic growth, though welcome, is far too small a compensation for us embrace the same tradition of totalitarianism that we’ve resisted since the pilgrims fled it 300 years ago.

When a Stranger Brings a Duffle-Bag to Church

Yesterday, at church, a stranger in military fatigues sat in the front pew with a zipped duffle-bag beside him. He was enthusiastic in his participation. He might have been homeless. And God help me, I kept an eye on that bag. Just as we finished the hymn before the sermon, the man grabbed his bag and walked toward the back of the church. Was he headed out, maybe? Or into the balcony that overlooks the congregation? It turns out that he wandered downstairs, to what I call the mingle bin, where he waited to visit with us over coffee and donut holes.

I didn’t talk to him, but he seemed to be a lovely man—a Vietnam vet. I hope he enjoyed our music, and our quiet, or at least our air conditioning. I hope he didn’t notice that at least some of us imagined scenarios of our diving under the pews, or shielding the children, or even jumping on top of the guy from our vantage in the choir loft. It’s all laughable—we altos of vengeance—until it’s not.

Now a church must be a welcoming place. By definition, it’s a sanctuary. It must especially welcome the stranger. It should certainly welcome the homeless. But according to Business Insider, we’ve had 158 mass shootings* in 2018 alone, where (as of June 28) we have gone 177 days into the year.  According to MassShootingTracker.org, 338 US mass shootings had occurred in 2017, by the start of October. There are, of course, only 365 days in a year.  On top of that, we can all remember the church shooting in Texas, and the one in South Carolina, and the one that killed members of a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. So, yeah, I kept an eye on the guy’s duffle-bag.

We liberal churchy types are in an odd spot. Now, more than ever, we want to keep our doors open to those whom society has sought to remove. A few years ago, my own denomination featured a national television ad where we showed conservative churches ejecting undesirables from their pews—the way Trumpers now seek to eject certain people from our border and our military. The liberal church, now more than ever, must declare that because all people enjoy extreme human dignity, all people** enjoy a place before God.

But in the meantime, we say, please don’t shoot us. In the meantime, my church has devised a crisis plan that involves calling police when most necessary, and not calling them at any other point, so that people in our church who are afraid of police can feel that much safer. In the meantime, my church has to stand publicly for the causes we believe in, while we know our stance is at cross purposes with the demographic that has the most guns (and committed the most shootings).

We have to think about all of this—how to become both wise as serpents and gentle as doves. And as I confronted these things in the time it takes to go from prelude to postlude, I decided on a few points:

1.We can make a plan, but it has to stay defensive. Church safety does not involve ushers who are packing heat. I don’ have space to get into this argument, other than to urge you to look into reasons why few (if any) armed civilians have been able to stop a mass shooting, even in a state where guns are plentiful. A man with a pistol and a MAGA hat tried to help at the Texas high school shooting. Police tackled him, and called him a “slap in the face.”

2. A defensive plan is reactive, but not reactionary. The worst thing that could happen with a stranger in church is a mass shooting. That’s probably true. But the second worse thing is a false alarm. A false alarm is also far more likely to occur—and it can damage Christianity almost as badly as a massacre.  Can you imagine a church calling the police on a homeless veteran, or on a couple of Latinos, or on an unfamiliar black man? That one move would ratify every prejudice our opponents say we have. And as for us liberals who work hard—but not hard enough—to differentiate ourselves from the Bible thumper, one mistake like that will throw us right back onto the pile of BS whose stink we have tried for years to remove.

3. This is all to say that we can have a defensive plan, sure–but it can’t displace our cause. As I sat in the sanctuary with the man with the duffle-bag, our minister preached against worry. He was talking about the lilies and their toiling and spinning; it had nothing to do with who had come to church that day. But as these things do, the scripture settled on me until it got under my skin. These days, much of the country’s most appalling behavior comes from fear. We fear the Muslim; we fear the “illegal;” we fear the black man as he reaches for his cellphone. We fear that our enemies take advantage of us; we fear that they plot a war on “American values” (whatever those are). We tremble ourselves toward committing atrocity. And once we become party to that cruelty—to that sin—I believe we’ll have suffered a fate worse than death. It’s a fate that damages our entire line. It’s a fate that damages our souls.

Really. That’s what I thought about while I watched Mr. Duffle-Bag wave at the kids during the children sermon.  There are fates worse than death. Am I going to be foolish about my safety? No. Of course not. But I’m also not going to be predatory about yours. If the Trump era has taught me anything it’s that there exists a group of people who would love for the US to become its own shooting match. In fact there exists other people who would love to see it all break out in a church.

So be still—be still. That’s what faith is. Do what you’re told and love your neighbor. A nation panicked is a national mob. But discipline is what makes it an army, or a team–or a resistance. Be still. And as we stay calm, we can show that every person is made for things greater than fear.

*While still up for debate, the average definition of a mass shooting involves four or more victims, other than the shooter.

**And it’s easy to say, “Wait! The disenfranchised aren’t the people doing the shooting.” And any statistic would show that you’re right. But welcome, if genuine, also must involve the white guy in the army fatigues. And that’s the crux of my problem.

I Think Something Similar Happened with Ivan the Terrible

I’ve lately heard some friends talk about how low the Trumpers will go in their tolerance for their president. And I’m afraid it doesn’t matter how morally repugnant Trump is as long as he can stock the courts and give hell to the “illegals.” To his supporters, the ends justify the means. Dearies. Have you ever been in an argument with somebody like that? You realize, at some point, that they seek to win at any cost—even if it means sacrificing any mutual respect, trust, or goodwill that has ever grown between you. And this suggests that although, in the end, they may win their fight, they’ll have lost the relationship. In this case, of course, it will be a relationship with half the country (and possibly a large portion of the world). And if I were a Trumper, I would think very carefully before accepting a sacrifice like that.

A friend once said she wondered what would happen to the arch right if they finally succeeded in mangling the courts to the point where they toppled Roe v. Wade and marriage equality. What would the conservatives have left to rally around? Who would be their grand enemy then?

I’m guessing it would be immigrants, seeing that Trump is already promising to “save ICE.” That will be his battlecry for the midterm elections. We liberals need to be very cautious about how much we let him frame that contest.

And as for the Republicans, I suggest (again) that they reconsider who they’ve let into their bed. Trump rallies people behind him by pointing to enemy after enemy. That’s what bullies do. The trouble is that there always has to be an enemy. And this means that if you let Trump do everything he wants to quash women’s rights, gay rights, and immigrant rights, you better have some other scapegoats to feed him after he’s done. If you don’t, his enemy might well become you. And then, because you’ll have driven off everyone else in the meantime, there will be no one left to spare you from the very country you saved.

How to Organize an Effective March

The Fourth festivities have left me thinking of protest. And this leads me to think of last week’s Keep Families Together march—and this, dearies, leaves me thinking of things we activists have started to do well. I don’t know about you, but in my (admittedly narrow) neck of the woods, our protest marches started off a bit… limpy. We had tons of folks for the Women’s March and the Science March; critical mass was never a problem. But the programs themselves were somewhat lacking. I think this was because, in part, if we had a sound system at all, it functioned about as well as the Barbie karaoke machine that someone could fish from their tweenage daughter’s closet. Beyond that, the speakers themselves—while erudite—didn’t always know how to fire up a crowd, in terms of either immediate call and response or post-march action. Don’t get me wrong; I thank the activists who have gone out of their way to stage a march. You’ll notice that I’m not up there with the Barbie Bullhorn. But I’m especially grateful for the people who led last week’s march, because honestly, they organized a great one. Here’s how:

1. THEY DIRECTED THE CROWD. We started at Iowa City’s Old Capital building, and we walked about half a mile, through the downtown, to College Green Park, where we gathered for a rally. As we assembled for the march, one of the organizers told us where we would go. Then, as we walked, we met organizers who had posted themselves at specific corners to feed us chants that we could holler until we got to the next waypoint. Our queue of demonstrators was almost as long as the route itself; there was no way that we could hear ourselves well enough to maintain a homogenous chorus. The waypoints kept us shouting, while also plugging what we would chant into a kind of iMarch playlist.

2. THEY SET UP CROSSING GUARDS. It surprised me to see one of our pre-eminent computer scientists wearing an orange vest, while he commanded us to stop at a streetlight. I thought a march was supposed to disrupt traffic. But this arrangement was actually a shrewd move. First of all, we marched through a town that was friendly to our cause. We had nothing to gain by keeping like-minded folks from, say, their dentist appointments. Secondly, while we stopped, passing cars honked their support. I don’t know if they’d have done such a thing if we’d gotten in their way. But I do know that by letting them pass, more of them got to see us than if we’d just cut off the head of the line. Now I do believe that some causes—and some locations—require marchers to disrupt traffic, say, outside the ICE building’s parking lot. But let’s be discerning here. Choose the tactic that fits the audience.

3. THEY PREPARED THE POST-MARCH, DEMONSTRATION VENUE. God love them, the organizers chose a park with a gazebo. Better yet, they chose a park with lots of trees. Both features granted the courtesy of shade. Better yet, they positioned us next to a playground, so that the children had something to do. Better still, they chose a park with an electrical service that supported a concert-grade sound system. While we leaned against the oak trees, we could hear the rally’s every word.

4. THEY FOUND GOOD SPEAKERS. Not only could we hear the speakers, but we wanted to listen. This wasn’t open-mic day. This demonstration featured a program lineup that consisted of: preachers who could use rhythm and litany to engage the crowd; experts who could use statistics and other details to inform the crowd; and volunteer coordinators who could present engagement opportunities to direct the crowd. The gazebo posted a community-action sign-up sheet. It also had a table that accepted financial donations. In short, the demonstration generated energy and then released it toward the good. The march, that is, became a dynamo.

5. THEY GAVE US POPSICLES. I know I sound as if I’m just a little too happy to be unfettered from my diet—but really. Have you endured a midwestern summer? The heat index was over a hundred. The shade helped, but after a walk in that kind of heat, we also needed hydration. Churches (I think) brought the popsicles. And they set out pallets of water. And this not only made us very well disposed toward the organizations that set up the march, but it also allowed us to stay at the demonstration. If people get too hot (or too cold) they’ll go home. Regardless of what kind of weather you’ve got, it might be worth the few hundred bucks to give refreshment to a few hundred folks.

These are my observations, at any rate. Feel free to add what you’ve gathered yourself. One thing that heartens me is that, in his own horrible way, Trump is teaching us how to become better activists. I watch the news, and I can despair over how his agenda is making progress. But when I consider our work—our education, our efforts, and our expertise—I think we’re evolving too.

My Reaction to The Americans Finale

I just watched the series finale of The Americans. I won’t spoil it. What I will acknowledge is that despite its historical setting, the brutality in the series is apparently fictional–at least in terms of what happens to the spies. In fact, the series creator even trained in real-life intelligence work, until he decided it was just too boring a gig. That said, The Americans does point to the expense, the worry, and the constant calculation that went into managing information for both sides of the Cold War. The anxiety, as we know, was real. Both The Americans and the history it draws from are deeply sad. Even if we make the huge concession of putting the many US/Soviet proxy wars aside, people did die–or they spent their lives in prison, or they lost their careers. And all this is to say that although the espionage side of the conflict might have been more peaceful than what The Americans portrays, the cost of the whole war may be higher than we will ever know. 

The saddest part of The Americans is that regardless of what happens to its principal characters onscreen, you and I know that the Soviet Union falls to disarray. From a western viewpoint, that could be a good thing–but only to an extent. New wars will emerge from the fall. Nuclear material will scatter to mini-despots and highest bidders. And despite how The Americans’ spy story ends in 1987, we have since realized that the espionage still goes on. This, in fact, is the most poignant part of the series finale. It’s not articulated, per se; it’s not a point of plot as much as it is a point of history–or even the present. The peace that all the spies fought for–the reforms from Gorbachev, the demise of a super power–all of that work has since lead either to a failure or a trick. After the rise of Gorbachev, the Soviet Union ended (failure), but the Cold War did not (trick). We did not win. We did not. Instead, as with The Americans’ parting image of a young spy in a safehouse, our adversary just started to wait. Russia is apparently good at waiting. They waited for years. Russia, after all, abided long enough to make 2016 part of the the same damn war. And one of the reasons why its patience has gone so undetected is exactly because the work behind it is not flashy. It is just too boring a gig. In fact, it moves merely through study, and query, and incremental control of what they choose to make into scintillating information.

(Originally posted June 14, 2018)

If the Shoe Fits…

Dr. Sam Green is the head of King’s College London’s Russia Institute. On Point interviewed him this morning about Putin, where they discussed, among other things, why he’s so, uh, Putey. Green acknowledge the fact that Putin has been out to revitalize the fallen Soviet Union, but he also said that Putin keeps power by conflict and surprise. He likes to push everybody off-balance, and then keep them there. The problem is that to keep up his act, he has to constantly escalate. In my assessment he’s like a TV drama that’s gone on too long. Pretty soon you have helicopters falling on surgeons–or passenger airliners falling out of the sky. The pattern is as addictive as it is lethal–and it could go on for years. 

At that point, my schedule was such that I couldn’t finish the interview. But I left wondering whether, if I had come in during the middle of what I heard, I’d think we were talking about somebody else.

(Originally posted March 15, 2018)