Continuing his effort to keep his twitter feed wild and crazy and important, President Trump recently issued a series of broadsides against members of the media. He seems to spend a lot of time tweeting, and significantly less time doing everything else. Though amusing, these mini-communiques are coarsening our national conversation.
Republican leaders who are uncomfortable with Donald Trump as their presidential nominee keep urging Trump to act more mature and respectable on the campaign trail. It probably won’t happen. But even if it does, how can they forget the outrageous things he already said and proposed? How can we voters? Not that Hillary Clinton is any better.
Hillary Clinton seems poised to become the first woman to be the presidential nominee of a major American political party. It’s supposed to be a major symbolic moment, at least in terms of identity politics. But it feels hollow, largely because of something most commentators hesitate to say in public: if she hadn’t married Bill Clinton, she wouldn’t be where she is now. Why can’t a nation of 319 million people find a woman president who didn’t marry her way into the job? Because the system still won’t allow it.
It began with the global economic crisis.
All around the world, millions of people who had nothing to do with the stock market crash — who didn’t earn enough money to save, much less invest, that much less speculate — lost everything nevertheless. They lost their jobs, then, in short order, their homes. They were scared.
The failure of democratic governance transformed their completely understandable fear into savage, uncontrolled anger.
Presidents and parliaments dithered. Part of the blame lie with the Constitution. It provided for a strong executive branch. Rather than grease the skids of government, it prompted members of the congress to dig in their heels, blocking every initiative they could because it was the only way to stay relevant.
The politicians knew they had a terminal systemic crisis on their hands, but they couldn’t agree how to respond. So they didn’t. The misery deepened.
The economy recovered. A little. Not much. But almost all the gains fell into the pockets of the wealthy and well-connected. Almost everyone else felt left out. They seethed.
Seeing opportunity amid the armies of the alienated and dispossessed, the perennial almost-candidate of the nationalist, nativist far-right began campaigning in earnest. Breaking all the rules of conventional campaigning, he drew huge crowds with a simple message:
Trust me, he assured his audiences, and I will make the country great again.
He was short on specifics and liberal with insults. Idiots, he called the incumbent politicians. They were losers — losers whose stupidity had betrayed a once-great country.
“People from this country can’t find a job. They can’t earn a decent living,” he ranted. “Foreigners must be expelled so our people can work!”
Forward-looking leaders within the establishment parties worried about the growing popularity of this strongman in the making. His intentions, after all, were dangerously radical — and they’d been published years before in a bestselling book. He was, he said himself, a “militarist.” Wars, fragmentation, scapegoating were all in the cards if he were allowed to come to power. But the parties weren’t motivated to respond. The system couldn’t save itself.
Some establishment analysts thought he was a flash in the pan, a buffoon whose appeal would fade in good time of its own accord. “The ranting clown who bangs the drum outside the…circus,” The Guardian called him.
The future tyrant’s natural ideological opposition couldn’t get it together. During key elections, they split their votes between the socialist Left and moderate liberals. Ultimately, however, historians blamed the Right most of all, for failing to rein in one of their own.
Traditional conservatives had played a dangerous game for years, using political “dog whistles” to appeal to citizens’ bigoted views of foreigners and ethnic minorities. As the economy worsened, this approach became more effective. Conservatives doubled down, setting the stage for what came next.
What the old guard didn’t understand was, that given a choice between half-hearted racism and the genuine article, the electorate would choose the authentic candidate. “He tells it like it is, and we need that now in a president,” 44% of voters told a major newspaper.
The conservative establishment faced a choice too: support a candidate of the left, or forsake true conservatism in favor of a fascist. To a man, they went with the fascist.
A tone of increasing violence accompanied the demagogue’s rise in the polls. Not only did he personally condone violence against his movement’s political opponents, his party offered its lawyers to defend partisans arrested for beatings in its name. Even his close associates were implicated in violent assaults; when they were, the Leader stood by them. “I think it’s a very very sad day in this country when a man could be destroyed over something like that,” he said.
The aging president was reluctant to issue an outright condemnation. “Troubling,” he called the gathering storm clouds.
The Leader’s authoritarian movement attracted a plurality of the vote — yet he wasn’t popular enough to consolidate a simple majority. Had his opponents set aside their personal ambitions and ideological biases, and united in favor of the national good, he could have been denied the chancellorship.
Alas, twelve years later, all would be ruins.
(Ted Rall is the author of “Bernie,” a biography written with the cooperation of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “Bernie” is now on sale online and at all good bookstores.)
A declining American military empire relies on increasingly flimsy legal justifications to attack foreign countries without provocation. Last year, Obama asserted that the 2001 Congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force authorized him to launch airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, even though the AUMF related to Al Qaeda, an enemy of ISIS. Now Obama wants Congress to give him retroactive authorization, even while claiming he was right last year. Why not go even further to stretch logic?
Everyone has a strong opinion about education. But the controversies are always about the same topic: testing, teachers unions, funding, merit pay, vouchers/school choice, charter schools. Is college a smart investment? Is affirmative action fair? Has political correctness supplanted the basics?
I keep waiting for someone to bring up Now. As in the study of now — what’s currently going on in the fields of politics, history, literature, mathematics, science — everything.
Can we call it Nowology?
From K through 12 through senior year of college, American education focuses obsessively on the past. No matter what you study, the topics either relate to the past or the knowledge is dated.
Since I was a history major in college, I’ll focus on that.
I’ve never understood why history is taught chronologically. A book’s opening is crucial; either you get hooked straight away, or you get bored and turn blasé. So how is it that textbook publishers think it makes sense to start a fourth-grade history textbook with prehistoric humans who lived 10,000 years ago? It’s tough enough for me, at age 50, to relate to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. How can a typical American 9-year-old, who lives in the suburbs, connect intellectually to people who foraged for food (not in the fridge)?
Another problem with teaching history chronologically is that teachers rarely make it to the relevant, interesting history students might actually care about — what’s going on now. From junior through senior high, my high school teachers got bogged down in the battlefields of the Civil War. We never once made it as far as Reconstruction (which is actually fascinating), much less to the controversies of my childhood (Vietnam, Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis).
TV, radio and newspapers — that’s where what mattered was discussed. My classmates and I had fathers who served in Vietnam. We had neighbors who’d dodged the draft, whose faces stared at us from wanted posters at the post office. We argued over Nixon and Ford and Carter, but all that stuff — the controversy, the drama, the Now — took place outside school.
The not-so-subliminal message soon sunk in: school is where you learn about old stuff. Now stuff is everywhere else.
This is, of course, exactly the opposite of how we choose to teach ourselves.
Example: pop culture, like movies and music. No one’s musical education begins with recordings of recreations of primitive music, simple claps or banging objects together. Most children start out listening to contemporary music — whatever they hear on Pandora, Spotify, the radio, TV, etc. Those who decide to dig further usually work backward. They listen to older works by their favorite artists. They hear a musician talk about the bands that influenced them, and they check them out.
(When I was a kid, friends were surprised that Paul McCartney had been in some other band before Wings.) They might wind up getting into ragtime or Bach. Last. Not first.
Ditto for movies. No one starts out watching silent films.
There is some discussion of teaching history in reverse chronological order in other countries. Writing in the UK Prospect last year, Christopher Fear of the University of Exeter argues: “We should begin by showing children how to scratch the surface to find the recent pasts of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations — pasts which they can talk about together.” But the British too continue to teach history the boring/chronological way.
We’re constantly worrying about whether our schools are preparing children to compete in the global marketplace. To support their calls for reform, activists (mostly, but not exclusively, on the political right) point to surveys that show that Americans are woefully ignorant about basic facts such as evolution, essential geographic knowledge as the location of the country where U.S. troops have been fighting, killing and dying for a decade and a half, and even heliocentricity.
Sure, it would be nice if more Americans cracked open a newspaper (or its online edition) now and then. On the other hand, a lot of this material ought to be taught in schools — and it isn’t. Day one of American history class should begin with Obama, Congressional paralysis, the early jockeying for the 2016 presidential campaign, America’s clash with Russia over Ukraine, and the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. All of these subjects naturally require digging deeper, back in time, to explain why and how what’s going on now is happening.
And it’s not just history. Studying physics at Columbia in the 1980s, no one taught us about the latest advances in cosmology and quantum mechanics — some of which, ironically, were being discovered in labs in the same buildings by the same professors who were filling our heads with obsolete material.
Nowology: better late than never.
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COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM
Why E-Books Need Print to Thrive
Borders and Barnes & Noble killed independent bookstores. Amazon killed Borders. Now Barnes & Noble, which sells more than 20 percent of pulp-and-ink books in the U.S., is under siege.
If B&N collapses: the death of books.
You may remember such classics as “How the Internet Slaughtered Newspapers” and “How Napster Decimated the Music Business.” It’s always the same story: Digitalization destroys profits.
Whether it’s newspapers, magazines, CDs or books (“pBooks,” they call them now), the electronic assault on tangible media follows a familiar pattern.
First: Pricing is set too low; margins get squeezed.
I pay $43 a month to get The New York Times delivered; new digital-only subscribers get the app for $5. In the book biz per-unit net to publishers is actually a few cents higher for e-books. But that margin is deceptive. “If e-book sales start to replace some hardcover sales, the publishers say, they will still have many of the fixed costs associated with print editions, like warehouse space, but they will be spread among fewer print copies,” notes the Times. E-books also eliminate paperback editions, a big second chance for publishers to break into the black.
Second: Piracy runs rampant.
Piracy of print media was virtually unheard of. But digitalization makes piracy tough for even the most honest consumer to resist. It’s easy and it’s fast. E-book knock-offs look and feel exactly the same as the real thing. As of the end of 2011 an estimated 20 percent of all e-books downloaded onto Kindles, Nooks and iPads were pirated. That’s a 20 percent pay cut to authors, agents and publishers—a number that will only go up.
And “legal piratization” is on the horizon. On February 6th a federal court in New York City ruled that ReDigi, an online marketplace for “pre-owned” MP3 files, can continue to operate pending the outcome of a lawsuit by Capitol Records. And public libraries are already “lending” e-books to multiple “borrowers” with the click of a mouse—the same process as buying them. But free.
Third: à la carte sales whittle down revenues.
Twenty years ago if you liked a song you heard on the radio you paid $14 for a CD that had 14 songs on it—13 of which might be filler. iTunes’ 99-cent songs brought back the single—but cheaper. (45s used to cost $3.) The result: the collapse of the music biz. According to Forrester Research, total U.S. music sales and licensing revenues fell from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $6.3 billion in 2009—a decline of 57 percent in a decade. People still liked music. They just didn’t have to pay for it anymore.
There are already apps that sell e-books by the chapter. Some publishers give away free chapters as samples. Why should a college student assigned to read chapter two pay $40 for the whole thing? À la carte book sales will further depress profits.
Why should you care if traditional publishers go under? What about the democratizing effect of the Internet, which allows anyone—not just big-name authors hooked-up with fancy well-connected agents—to publish a book?
Granted, digitalization opens doors for writers who might never have been able to break through the “no unsolicited manuscripts” wall that surrounded old-media gatekeepers. Elitism was and remains a problem.
But there’s a bigger problem: removing the profit incentive from books means more titles about vampires and werewolves and fewer in the fields of history and sociology. Because lower profits make it tougher for publishers to invest in big time-intensive projects, it deprofessionalizes our highest form of popular culture. The historian Robert Caro began working on his brilliant five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson in 1982. He expects to finish in 2015. Tiny digital royalties eaten away by piracy couldn’t have sustained Caro’s research for three years—much less 32.
“Inside [the Kindle’s] plastic case, other things lurk,” Sarah Lee writes in the UK Guardian. “Sci-fi and self-help. Even paranormal romance, where vampires seduce virgins and elves bonk trolls. The e-book world is driven by so-called genre fiction, categories such as horror or romance. It’s not future classics that push digital sales, but more downmarket fare. No cliché is left unturned, no adjective underplayed.”
Goodbye, Mr. Caro. Hello, 99-cent fan fiction.
You might not care. But you should.
Fourth but not last: the loss of a product’s brick-and-mortar distribution outlets reduces consumer consciousness of a product. In New York, where I live, all the music megastores—Tower, HMV and Virgin—are gone. So are most small record stores.
I used to spend at least one day a week hopping from one CD store to the next. I probably spent $50 to $100 a week on music. Now I spend the same amount in three months. I still love music. I just don’t think about it as often. iTunes is just a list of names and titles.
Now Barnes & Noble and what’s left of the independents are all that’s standing between an uncertain present and a disastrous—music-like—future.
“Sure, you can buy bestsellers at Walmart and potboilers at the supermarket. But in many locales, Barnes & Noble is the only retailer offering a wide selection of books,” notes The New York Times. A broad, deep book industry requires retailers willing to sell midlist titles and books that don’t do well—i.e., most of them.
Publishers say they want to save B&N, which is locked in an existential fight against Amazon. Things turned ugly after Amazon urged bookbuyers to visit stores in order to use their smartphones to scan barcodes of titles so they could buy them elsewhere—online, from Amazon, at a discount. B&N retaliated by banning books directly published by Amazon from its stores.
Amazon says it doesn’t want to drive B&N and other brick-and-mortar stores out of business. Their actions belie that. But if Amazon management were smart, they would subsidize stores like B&N. Remember what happened to the music biz when record stores disappeared—the overall music business cratered. All music sales, including those of iTunes, would be higher today if Tower et al. were still around.
Sadly, Amazon doesn’t seem smart. Like most American companies, it’s looting its own future in favor of short-term, quarterly lucre.
“Shopping on Amazon is a directed experience—it works best when you know what you’re looking for,” says Charlie Winton, CEO of Counterpoint Press. “But how does that help with, for instance, a first novel? When independent bookstores were in a healthier state, staff picks and hand selling could bring attention to great books people didn’t know they wanted. Now that’s much harder.”
And many of those bookstore “customers” would have eventually bought that book from Amazon.
E-books are here to stay. But there’s a way to save the overall book business for both print and electronic editions. The solution requires three parts.
Congress should join the other countries that have major book industries in passing a Fixed Book Price Agreement, in which booksellers and publishers agree on what price books may be sold nationally—i.e., no $25 books selling for $10 at Costco. In France and other nations studies have shown that FBPAs protect independent stores, increase the diversity and quality of titles sold, and support more authors.
Recognizing the unique cultural contribution of books as well as the threat to our national heritage posed by digitalization, Congress should exempt publishers from antitrust laws. This would allow publishers to collude to set prices and hold the line against predatory discounting.
Finally, publishers should flip the current arrangement, in which Amazon enjoys steeper discounts than brick-and-mortar stores. Even if Amazon gets charged a higher wholesale price they still have big advantages; many people don’t live near a store or are simply too lazy to visit one. And they carry everything.
It’s more than a question of preserving print as a fetish commodity. E-books won’t thrive if their print forebears vanish.
COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL