Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Reflections on Jon Meacham's "head vs. gut" portrayal of the presidential election

Binary choices, in so many situations, defy reality. And yet we are confronted with them on every turn, including the two-person presidential race.

This morning, Jon Meacham, no slouch as a presidential scholar and biographer, appearing on Morning Joe on MSNBC, dubbed the current race one between “the head and the gut”.

And while that makes for good “water cooler television” (something most political analysis has been reduced to) it does not effectively integrate the many nuanced differences between the two candidates.

Hillary, while intellectually superior, and while unable to concentrate on any serious and complex issue for less than all the time required, compares quite favourably to her opponent who has the attention span of a gnat. But does she also have the “gut” stuff on which the machismo rabble are more likely to base their decision?

And here is where she might run into some rough waters. “Gut” is different from “guts” the kind of thing that demonstrates military and intelligence might. “Gut” suggests a kind of emotive response to everything: a tweet of venom on the heels of every offense, or a “headline-grabbing” vomit that stuns the reporters who simply cannot believe what they have heard: “I’m open to Japan’s acquiring nuclear weapons!” or “The Israeli’s profile Muslims, but we’re too politically correct to do that!” or “Maybe those countries that are not paying their fair share might not be defended (abrogating Article Five of NATO)!” or “Hillary is against guns- I think the Secret Service guarding her should have their guns removed and let’s see what happens then!” Emotional turbulence for the purpose of garnering attention, in a media climate governed at its core by the pursuit of ratings and profits, is not “guts” in the normal, conventional, historical sense of “courage” and “stamina,” and depth of understanding, and principled and steadfast and trustworthy.

And therein lies one of the fundamental ironies, and potential tragedies of the race, and of the coverage by the media. Concentrating on Hillary Clinton’s emails, like the Republican fixation on Benghazi for the purpose of bringing her down, is a trap that seriously detracts, if not obliterates, the much larger issue of Trump’s life of scams. Bluster defined as “gut” is ipso facto a lie, a deception, a dissembling, a ruse and a misnomer. Bluster, bombast, sensationalism, telling them to “go f---themselves,” breaking the rules, colouring outside the lines, while entertaining must not be confused, by the media or more importantly by the electorate, as “gut. And the failure of the millions of voters who demand a superhero, or whatever comes closest to their cardboard cut-out of a “strong man,” to discern their cartoon character from real courage, real fortitude, real strength in the face of almost imponderable odds and a seemingly endless parade of insoluble equations, while being aided and abetted by a corps of media deeply enmeshed in their career and reputational aspirations with their corporate overlords is and could be monumentally tragic.

“Head vs gut,” is an over-simplistic rendering of the presidential election’s complexity, something to which Meacham would undoubtedly agree. And I am confident that, if given the opportunity to elaborate, he could and would do so. And yet, given the current ethos pervading the airwaves, in which nuanced expressions of the complex realities, both inside the campaign, and outside in the geopolitical environment, are almost without exception begging for air time, (one obvious exception being Bloomberg’s and PBS’s Charlie Rose).

And with the proliferation of violent video games, (now a billion-dollar industry, designed and built and sold as machismo of the highest grade of testosterone available), and digital bullying becoming the abnormal “norm”….we are living in a time when violence, including the violence of black-and-white charges and counter-charges, even among and between former family and friends and the concomitant reductionisms, abounds.

And with that dynamic, the meanings of words, the deployment of words, and the comprehension of the detailed and fine-print meaning of those words is so loose and so wide open that Trump and his tribe are given a pass of epic proportions.
And, for her part, Hillary Clinton, ever the studious legal-beagle, dots every “i” and crosses every “t” and loses most people in the fog of her policy options. It is not that those options do not offer a roadmap on how she would serve as president; it is just that such a road map is providing “light” to a different “road” from the road the large cadre of malcontents think the country needs to travel. And unless and until her selling job on how she will make the lives of Americans improve over the next four hears catches fire, the “gut” argument, with all of its chicanery, seems poised for victory.
Flagrant “brainiacs” (and everyone from the president on down, including her college classmates, testifies to her brilliant mind) are so scary to those without a college education that even Trump has previously questioned Obama’s Harvard transcript, while one his professors at the vaunted law school called Obama one of the best minds he had even encountered in his long career. Furthermore, to stereotype the “egg-head” as ephemeral, pious, out-of-touch with the working class  and thereby unfit to serve as president is certainly a critique too nasty by half. But then, everything Trump does and says is “too nasty by half” and that “pose” has helped to carry him through a farce of a primary season in which he simply name-called and bullied his way over the withdrawn or wounded political corpses of his opponents.

“Too nasty by half” also is not a definition or a depiction of “gut”. It is merely a picture of a bully who will say and do anything to get “attention” and then use that attention to control the “news story” for the minute, the hour, and the day…..and then reverse course the next day, or hour, to garner some more free airtime.

And that is another of the many “rubs” of this election cycle, the scheming, deceiving, seduction by Trump of the media and far too many potential voters. Some political pundits, especially of the Republican stripe, call his behaviour ‘brilliant,” another misnomer, given that “brilliant” cannot be legitimately ascribed to such nefarious and narcissistic purposes, when the national heath and reputation are on the line. Al Capone, in that light, might have been considered “smart” as would Putin in some quarters for having sliced Crimea off from Ukraine, without retaliation other than a few economic sanctions. Today, Putin and Assad are both denying the attack on the Syrian aid convoy yesterday near Aleppo, while the whole world, including the Secretary General of the United Nations is convinced they are both implicated, if not exclusively responsible. And that is the kind of chicanery with language, with promises, with racist, homophobic, xenophobic and outright deceptive aims and methods that characterizes Trump’s whole campaign.

And to call that campaign “gut” (as compared with the “brain” of Hillary) only adds to the obfuscation of language and perception. Then on top of that obfuscation there is the obvious morphing into ‘conviction’ that Trump is “my candidate” by those who “swear” by his candidacy.

We do not need” gut(s)” of that kind running both the Kremlin and the White House; in fact such a prospect only serves to frighten the most seasoned veterans of geopolitical tensions and conflicts.

It is a change in the direction of Hillary’s brilliance from denouncing Trump to portraying herself, not merely inferentially (far too subtle!) but overtly as a captain of the ship of state in a direction that offers hope, without overpromising, and something akin to the contract announced today between General Motors and Unifor, their major union, that will see jobs and auto manufacturing brought back from Mexico to North America, even though the power to make such an announcement is outside the purview of the presidential candidates.

On the way to making a binary choice, the road is fraught with many twists, turns, potholes, fog, ice storms, blizzards and even optical illusions. And sorting out a safe, honourable and sustainable path to a decision one can not only live with but take pride in having made is not analogous to a World Wrestling Match or a UFC bet on a winner especially in the current blizzard of distortions, deceptions and lies. And, should the American public reduce their democratic right to vote to such a choice by voting for Trump, how could they then have any legitimacy in slamming Putin’s recent vote in which not a single opposition member was elected?

Control of the media, by threat, or by deception, duplicity and seduction and by manipulating the essential definitions of words aided and abetted by the Trump “tramps” (those talking heads who will say anything anywhere to get the attention on their candidate, to underline his “strong leadership (gut)” really another mask to “tyranny”.

Let’ call a spade a shovel, not a silver spoon. Let’s call Trump’s candidacy by its real name: a travesty and a tragedy. And let’s resist the temptation to buy into his “gut” knowing full well that another international and national dose of testosterone is the last thing the world’s many tumors and epidemics and slaughters need. 

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