Thursday, January 24, 2019

Whom Do You Trust?

I listened to a report on the radio the other day that dealt with the Russian campaign of disinformation aimed at Americans through social media. As we all know by now, in an attempt to inspire chaos ahead of the 2016 elections, Russian trolls hoping to widen the already deep gulf that exists in this country, targeted Americans of all political stripes by setting up bogus social media accounts that spread false, often scurrilous information about whomever the targeted audience found offensive.

In turn, the American public on both sides of the fence ate up these blogs, tweets and Facebook posts, often re-posting them with the misunderstanding that these bogus sites were legitimate news sources.

The reporter in the story, NPR "social science correspondent" Shankar Vendantum, sited a University of California, Irvine investigation that showed that these trolls created sites that pretended to represent real groups on both sides of the political spectrum from Black Lives Matter on the Left to Gun Rights Advocacy Groups on the Right, and everything in between. Vendantum's conclusion was that "if you show someone you're on their side of an issue that is close to their heart, it becomes much easier to nudge them on other issues."

In other words, it's all about trust and tribalism, which Vendantum says is at the very heart of how we humans learn in the first place: "we first figure out whom to trust..." (starting with our parents). "...and then we learn from those people."

What makes the work of these trolls so diabolically effective is that if you're not careful, once they gain your trust, they can convince you just about anything, especially if it has to do with people you already distrust.

Sadly this nation today is dominated by folks who define themselves not by what they believe, but by what they don't. The majority of this country, consisting of both liberals and conservatives, two groups who don't agree upon much, have one thing in common, their disdain for Donald Trump. On the other side, that Trump base we hear so much about, is not united so much in their support of the current president per se, but in their disdain for the Left, and the values they associate with it such as elitism, political correctness, acceptance of alternative lifestyles, support of abortion, immigrants' rights, the list goes on and on.

These days it seems the best way to gain people's trust is to prove you hate the same groups of people they do.

Recently we had a story that perfectly illustrates the sad situation in which we find ourselves.

By now you must have seen the video or at least one of the many photo stills that have been pulled from it. In front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. A young man wearing a silly grin and a "Make America Great Again" baseball cap stands directly in front of an older man, an elder from the Omaha Nation who is singing and beating a drum only inches from the boy's face. Social media erupted with millions of posts that were quick to point out that MAGA boy, one of the tamer nicknames for him, from a Catholic high school in the greater Cincinnati area, was on a field trip with his class to attend a Pro-Life rally in the nation's capital.  For many in the anti-Trump tribe,  including myself, it was all too good to be true. When I first saw the photograph of the high school boy and the Native American man, I commented on a friend's post saying something to the effect that these so called Right-to-Lifers feel their opposition to abortion gives them carte blanche for engaging in all sorts of unbecoming behavior. Like many who saw the image, I couldn't help but think of how much I'd love to wipe that smirk from the kid's face. I even had a blog post all ready to write, it was to be titled, "The Stupid Face of MAGA" or something of that nature.

But then I took a closer look at the videos made during the incident. At one point the camera pans away from the standoff between boy and the man to show several of the boy's classmates who were performing the infamous "tomahawk chop", an insensitive sports cheer originally made famous by fans of the Florida State Seminoles college football team. This I felt was truly repulsive and only confirmed my disdain for the kids. Then the camera panned back to the boy and the man, their gazes still transfixed upon each other. It was a truly bizarre confrontation, the boy holding his ground while the man continued to beat his drum and chant, barely a foot away. I couldn't help but wonder why this man was singing and beating his drum right in the boy's face. In all honesty, despite my original feelings based in no small part on personal bias, it was a little hard to tell who was disrespecting whom. To me it was clear that the confrontation between the boy and the older man was consensual and reciprocal, both individuals were doing their own thing, neither one of them giving an inch.

In the days following the event, both the boy, Nick Sandmann, and the man, Nathan Phillips have spoken publicly about the incident. 

In interviews, Mr. Phillips said that he and his group who were attending an Indigenous Peoples March in DC that day, witnessed a confrontation between a small group of African American men and the high school students He described the anger he felt coming from the group of mostly white teenagers in MAGA hats, many of whom he claimed were chanting "Build that wall", and "Trump 2020".Despite what he describes as his group's fear of the angry young white men, Phillips and several of his companions decided to step into the fray by singing a Native American song of peace in hopes of diffusing what might have been a dangerous situation. He told CNN this:
I seen the mass of people. I had realized where I'm at and what I was doing, and I realized there was other people with me and I didn't want them to get hurt because there was 100-plus of these young men who were well-fed and healthy and strong and ready to do harm to somebody. And they just wanted that point of "This is it" and spring. If this young man thought that he was that point and what I was trying to do, I realized where I was at. I needed an out. I needed to escape. I needed to get away. I needed to retreat somehow, but the only way I could retreat at that moment, is what I see, is just to go forward, and when I started going forward and that mass of groups of people started separating and moving aside to allow me to move out of the way or to proceed, this young fellow put himself in front of me and wouldn't move. If I took another step, I would be putting my person into his presence, into his space and I would've touched him and that would've been the thing that the group of people would've needed to spring on me. Because if I would've reached out with my drum or with my hands and touched him, that would've given them -- I did that. I struck out, and that's not what I was doing. The song I was singing, the reason for it, was to bring unity and to bring love and compassion back into our minds and our beings as men and as protector of what is right. I was raised away from my family. I was put in foster care and so I didn't have a traditional indigenous upbringing. I was brought up just like these young guys were brought up. Well, maybe I wasn't Catholic school, but I was public school. And when I went back home to my reservation and I ask questions -- "Do you have an Indian name? Do you know where I could get some moccasins?" ... I wanted to know, and that cousin of mine that was sitting there, standing there and I was asking him these questions. He says, Go home, white boy." That hurt. 

Young Mr. Sandmann with the help of a public relations firm hired by his parents, released a statement that said the African American men, whom it turns out belong to a fringe group who call themselves, Black Hebrew Israelites, were hurling racially charged insults at the high school students. In response, the boys started chanting their school's sports cheers. Then Sandmann said, the group of Native Americans approached his group and one man, Mr. Phillips, singled him out, "locking eyes"and coming within inches of his face singing and playing his drum the entire time.  Sandmann goes on to say that he didn't interact with Phillips, or make any aggressive gestures. He expressed his confusion as to why he was singled out and said his stoic stance and facial expression were simply a means to in his words: "diffuse a tense situation." Sandman told the Today Show that he didn't see any need to apologize for his actions but in retrospect, he and his schoolmates should have turned away rather than confront the Native Americans.

Here you have a classic Rashoman situation where witnesses to the same event come up with completely different stories told of course from their own perspective. Whom you believe it turns out, depends upon which tribe you belong. If you belong to the anti-MAGA tribe as I do, you are much more likely to have sympathy for and trust Mr. Phillips's narrative. Conversely the MAGA tribe has weighed in considerably in favor of the young Sandmann. Unlike most Rashoman situations, there is video, lots of it, documenting the event, and unfortunately for my own tribe's preferred narrative, the inconvenient truth is that much of it backs up Sandmann's story while refuting at least part of Mr. Phillips's. 

Much of the video shot that day comes from smartphone cameras belonging to the Black Hebrew Israelites. Their video confirms Sandmann's accusation that their group was indeed taunting the students. Their video also backs up Sandmann's contention that the students responded to the taunts not with acrimony but with school spirit cheers. Of course all the video in the world cannot show what is going on inside people's heads, but from watching the video shot by the Black Israelites, which includes scenes of them taunting the Native Americans as well as the white students, it's difficult to understand Mr. Phillip's contention that all of the anger was generated by the students.

There is plenty of video evidence that shows the white students behaving badly with the aforementioned tomahawk chops, giggles and snickers clearly inspired by the Native Americans' presence at the scene. But Mr. Phillips' claim that that he heard chants to build the wall simply were not to be found in any of the videos. What is clear is that it was the group of Native Americans led by Mr. Phillips who confronted the students rather than the other way around. Mr. Phillips' contention that his only means of retreat, moving forward, was blocked by Sandmann, is simply not borne out by the video. The students did not surround the Native Americans who could have easily retreated by moving backwards, had they chosen to do so, instead of engaging the students. Mr. Phillips claimed that had he taken another step forward he would have been in Sandmann's space, possibly inciting violence from his classmates, but the fact is that he was already well within the student's personal space, and could he have taken one more step forward, he would have been behind Sandmann. And his contention that the song of peace was intended to ease the tension between the two groups is debatable as nowhere does he point out to the students that he was in fact singing a song of peace. Instead I imagine, the song had a similar impact on the students as if John Lennon and Yoko Ono would have sung Give Peace A Chance at the top of their lungs while standing one foot away from an unsuspecting non-English speaking Laplander.

What is more likely I suspect is that Mr. Phillps and his companions were triggered by the white faces underneath those red hats, just as most people in the anti-MAGA tribe, yes myself included would have been. When the videos of the incident went viral on social media, main stream media outlets like the New York Times found themselves beaten to the punch, scooped once again by social media. Making up for lost time, they weighed in on the story using no critical judgement, as if they too were triggered by the white faces under the MAGA hats. In reporting the story as they did, with little investigation of the nuances and complexities behind it, and blindly supporting the anti-MAGA narrative, these otherwise respectable news sources, lost much of their credibility.

A few days after the incident upon the release of the other videos, many of these news sources backed off at least on their criticism of Sandmann, admitting they had jumped the gun in reporting the story without checking out all the facts. Meanwhile other less mainstream sources on the Left doubled down on their attacks and went after the Times and other sources for not staying the course.

I strongly believe that it makes no sense to feel the need to take sides between Sandman and Phillips, their companions and yes even the Black Hebrew Israelites, nor does it make sense to defend or to condemn any of them. They were all in Washington to do what Americans have done for a very long time, gather in one of our nation's most sacred spaces to express their opinion. We may love or hate what they have to say, and what is in their hearts, but at the very the core of democracy lies the idea that all of us have the right to express our opinion, no matter how distasteful. What we saw last week in Washington may not have been pleasant, but it represents what is truly magnificent about our country, especially the First Amendment.

Proof of the success of that magnificent document wrtten so long ago is the fact that the confrontation between these disparate groups was truly inconsequential, people spoke their minds, and no one got hurt or arrested in the process. We as Americans, at least those of us who believe in freedom and democracy should be grateful for that.

What is irksome to me is the way the incident was manipulated by people who had the power to do so. Our president, the Great Divider, unwilling and incapable of delivering words of healing to a nation that deperately needs them, needless to say took sides by saying that Sandmann and his classmates were treated unfairly by the mainstream media. What truly pisses me off is that the MSM, by their sloppy journalism has at least this time, has proven the president right.

It is own intolerant, intransigent, unwavering viewpoints, and our preference for news stories that confirm what we believe rather than those based upon verifiable facts, that has made it painfully easy for interlopers to step in and create chaos, which is exactly what has happened in this country.

Yes it's true that many of the teenagers behaved badly and disrespectfully in Washington the other day. That behavior is an embarrasment to their community and to their school and they deserve to be reprimanded. The best puishment in my opinion would be to force them to take a two semester seminar where they have to sit face to face and talk with real live Native American kids. No drums, no MAGA hats, the kids just talking to each other as fellow human beings, not as stereotypes.

Shankar Vendantum missed an important point in his NPR piece when he spoke about how important trust is in learning. Yes we begin learning as children by trusting our parents and what they teach us. But eventually we grow up and with age comes wisdom and with wisdom comes critical judgement. With that we learn to question the things we are taught. and as we grow up we sadly learn that our parents and others we once blindly trusted don't necessarily have all the answers.

Maybe the solution to our problems will come when we just all learn to grow up.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Sensitive Skin

The latest brouhaha in our ongoing culture wars is over believe it or not, a commercial for razors. As a response to the #MeToo Movement, the Gillette Company has released a new ad putting a twist on an age-old theme, by putting the words "Is this..." in front of "...the best a man can get" followed by a question mark. The ad addresses what has been referred to in the media as "toxic masculinity" which includes bullying, hyper-aggressive behavior, and disrespect of women, among other shall we say lapses of common decency, to put it mildly.

One might think that no one in their right mind would openly support bullying, the mistreatment of women and general bad behavior. Given that, it's hard to imagine that anyone could seriously have a problem with this commercial. But opponents of this ad, and there are many, claim to be truly offended by the "man slamming" they infer from it. Not surprising is that most of the words of protest over the ad can be found in venues that can depended upon to air unquearioning support for a certain president. Borrowing vocabulary from the other side, the offended parties, including some women such as Karol Markowicz of the New York Post, claim that the commercial is filled with stereotypes which unfairly use a broad brush to paint all men as degenerate bullies and sexual predators. She goes on to compare the objections to this ad to objections of "body slamming" several women had a few years ago to a print ad for a dietary supplement showing a trim, bikini-clad woman accompanied by copy that read: "Are You Beach Body Ready?" For the life of me I don't get the connection between the supposed "man-slamming" of the Gillette ad and the very real "body-slamming" of the vitamin ad as there is a world of difference between admonishing reprehensible behavior and admonishing not having an ideal body.

Funny but as a man, after having seen the Gillette commercial, I did not get the impression that the company is implying all men including me are slime, far from it. The truth is, being a member of the male persuasion, I am not in the least bit offended as I know from personal experience that the negative portrayals in the commercial are based upon reality. Self-reflection is a good thing and while I don't particularly consider myself a bully or a sexual predator, I readily admit there are a lot of things I could do better, and I don't have a problem being told as much, yes even by a razor ad.

You hear the word emasculation used quite a lot these days. I find that word poignant whenever I hear it. To me emasculation when used sincerely, says to me that the utterer of it, if it is a male which it usually is, has an irrational fear of something, perhaps a problem being comfortable in his own skin. I can't help but believe that people who use that word without irony, must have deep down issues about their own manhood, just as those who participate in gay bashing must have issues with their own sexual identity.

One particularly offended commenter refuted the popular idea that bullies are cowards themselves. According to him, while it takes no courage to bully someone anonymously online, in his words, "it takes balls to bully someone face to face."

Well that might be true if the bully picks on someone stronger, more self-confident, or belongs to a group that outnumbers his own. But how often does that happen? In my experience, never. Bullies rely upon safety in numbers, and they never, and I mean never pick on somebody their own size.

By the very definition of the word, bullies are cowards of the worst sort, preying on people they perceive as vulnerable, pumping up their self-esteem at somebody else’s expense. acting out a pathological need to feel better than someone else. So why defend this deviant behavior? Well to quote the character Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, "I'll tell you, I don't know."

I've also heard moans that men, especially white men, are being lumped into a group that is considered unworthy by today's standards because of the sins of a small minority of us. Sounds to me like a classic case of what goes around, comes around, as historically, every demographic group with the exception of white men, has been subject to being stereotyoed in one way or another. Hey, nobody ever said life was fair. Face it companeros, it;s comeuppance time for us white guys, the only question is this: are you man enough to take it?

What seems to be apparent is that there is an outbreak of hyper-sensitivity going around among members of a group of folks of a particular political bent, which inspired a quip I heard that went this way: "It appears that Gillette is just not good for sensitive skin."

Quite right.

What’s the word they like to use for so called “politically correct” people who are easily offended? Oh yes, snowflakes.

Well if the shoe fits...

The bottom line is that Gillette, like Nike who also ran a commercial that displeased the MAGA crowd, is a very successful company not because of their egalitarianism or their passion for social justice, but because they understand their market and above all, the bottom line. Their critics like to huff and puff that by running this ad, Gillette is cutting off their nose despite their face (a truly apt metaphor given their product don't you think?) by offending a large portion of their market.

But it seems to me that by airing an ad imploring its customers to do the right thing, Gillette is telling those who might happen to be offended, as Nike did before them, that it's just too bad, they and like minded peoplein the long run are simply irrelevant.

Given the conservative nature of large corporations and the advertiaing that supports them, most likely they are right.