Sunday, January 31, 2021

Monk in Monk [Thelonious]

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Georgia O'Keeffee: Digitized and online

Mark Blyth: 29 seconds on Brexit [and everything else, including Trump] –"The Hamptons is not a defensible position."

Here's the complete text (from June 24, 2016):

If you want to understand Brexit and what happened last night, Britain's relationship with the EU, the whole thing, Stop. Don't think about that stuff. It's not really about that. This is global phenomenon. 
This is a revolt against technocracy and elites telling everybody else what to do. At the end of the day, for the past 20 years, 80% of the people have been told 80% of the time by the top 20% what to do, what to think, and what's good for them. Guess what – they figured it out. 
The 20% needs to listen, 'cause if they don't they're gonna find something out. 
The Hamptons is not a defensible position.

Cactus [don't sit on me]

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Did the Beatles know music theory?

That’s the subject of this video by David Bennett, who has done a number of posts analyzing music by the Beatles:

What’s music theory and why does this question matter? Let’s start with the second question.

The Beatles created a substantial body of original and compelling music, easily one of the most significant bodies of popular music in the 20th century. But they did not have much formal training in music, and didn’t even know how to read and write music notation. Much of music theory implies knowledge of music notation, which the vehicle for expressing much of music theory. Does one have to know music theory in order to write (good and interesting) music? Perhaps not.

As for music theory itself, Marvin Minsky (the AI pioneer, who was also quite interested in music), has remarked that there is nothing particularly theoretical about so-called music theory; rather, it is mostly a bunch of recipes one uses to to achieve music effects. Walter Piston, a 20th century composer whose books Harmony and Counterpoint are classic texts in music theory, observed the music theory is a post-facto systemization of prior music practice. That implies, for example, that someone who knows music theory very well could tell you things about a Beethoven symphony that Beethoven himself could not have done. Or, to move to a different tradition, that someone versed in music theory can tell you things about a Louis Armstrong improvisation that Armstrong himself could not have told you. Moreover, one can know quite a bit about music theory without being a particularly good composer or improviser.

There is a “gap” between musical practice and music theory. Bennett is exploring this gap in this video. He has looked at lots of written and recorded material by and about the Beatles to get a sense of how they articulated what they were doing. The discussion of key changes (c. 8:39 to c. 12:31) is particularly illuminating. Yes, they knew what they were doing, but, no, they couldn’t explicate it in standard terms. He suggests that McCartney had the most sophisticated capacity to explicate and talk about their practice. Bennett also talks about the role their producer, George Martin, who had standard conservatory training, played in their process. He helped them translate their intuitive ideas into specific practice – I’m reminded of Plato’s metaphor of the philosopher as midwife.

This gap between practice and “theory” is hardly unique to music. It exists across a wide range of human activity. One doesn’t have to know linguistics in order speak and write coherently nor do you have to know literary criticism in order to appreciate literature or to create it. I suspect that the same is true for chess, to take a somewhat different example. Though I don’t play the game myself, I do know that there is a large literature about the game, a literature discussing openings, endgames, the middlegame, various moves and tactics and, of course, analyzing game after game after game, just as texts in music theory analyze specific compositions. I can’t imagine anyone becoming an expert player without knowledge of at least some of that literature, but that knowledge would be useless without having played hundreds or thousands of games. That literature gives you a way of thinking about and talking about what happens in those games, but the mechanisms one uses to play the games are not fully captured and explicated in the concepts in that literature. The concepts of chess-itself are different and the relationship between them and the concepts explicit in the chess literature is obscure, as is the relationship between music practice and music theory.

Geese and goslings

James Flynn obituary [the Flynn Effect]

The New York Times has an obituary for James Flynn, known for the so-called "Flynn effect." What's that? Roughly, over time, IQs in a society rise? But since intelligence, which is measured by IQ tests, is regarded as part of a person's biological endowment, how can that be? Flynn was prodded to do this research after having read a paper in which Arthur Jensen argued that IQ differences between Black and white Americans reflected genetic differences between the races.

These three paragraphs set out Flynn's work: 

Like most researchers in his field, Dr. Jensen had assumed that intelligence was constant across generations, pointing to the relative stability of I.Q. tests over time as evidence. But Dr. Flynn noticed something that no one else had: Those tests were recalibrated every decade or so. When he looked at the raw, uncalibrated data over nearly 100 years, he found that I.Q. scores had gone up, dramatically.

“If you scored people 100 years ago against our norms, they would score a 70,” or borderline mentally disabled, he said later. “If you scored us against their norms, we would score 130” — borderline gifted.

Just as groundbreaking was his explanation for why. The rise was too fast to be genetic, nor could it be that our recent ancestors were less intelligent than we are. Rather, he argued, the last century has seen a revolution in abstract thinking, what he called “scientific spectacles,” brought on by the demands of a technologically robust industrial society. This new order, he maintained, required greater educational attainment and an ability to think in terms of symbols, analogies and complex logic — exactly what many I.Q. tests measure.

H/t Tyler Cowen.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Reading The Human Swarm 8: What about the USA? [and in view of 1/6]

This is the 8th post in my extended consideration of Mark Moffett's The Human Swarm (2019). In it I consider the current polarized political situation in the USA. The events in Washington, D.C., of 1/6 make Moffett's thoughts on group identity and coherence more urgent.
Having finished chapter 24, “The Rise of Ethnicities”, I am within two chapters and a conclusion (which I’ve already read) of finishing Mark Moffett’s The Human Swarm and am feeling the need to step back and reflect a bit. My primary reason for reading the book is, of course, that I’m interested in the material. But I’m also interested in what’s happening in the world around me, in particular, in American politics, which has become highly polarized over the last decade or two. What might The Human Swarm have to say about that?

Consider the following pair of tweets:

There’s a lot of that going around and it seems to be getting worse.

Identity is one theme in the book, one I’ve not addressed directly in these notes. Moffett notes that in even the simplest small-scale social bands, identity is an issue; individuals have to balance their need for a unique identity within the group with the group’s need for overall cultural coherence among its members. In larger societies different groups work to maintain their identities in the context of the overall identity of the group. And when a group’s need to maintain its own identity begins to infringe on the requirements of society-wide coherence pressures may bring about a split within the group.

Moffett discusses that dynamic within various animal societies and in human society. The question I’ve been thinking about is this: Is that where America is now, at the brink of dissolution? I don’t know.

Here’s a quick and crude look at the American state. It’s short, but nonetheless I think it’s at the right scale to outline the process. We’re talking about a long-term society-wide historical process. At this scale all the complexities of events fall away or, perhaps a better formulation, are absorbed in the global dynamics of the process.
Let’s call the nation’s founding set of circumstances the Originating Dispensation (OD). The OD consists, on the one hand, of a set of documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution chief among them, but they’re surrounded by various supporting documents, for example, the Federalist Papers. On the other hand, the OD also consists of a multiplicity of facts on the ground, chief among which are the specific groups of people who participated in the process. While the founding documents may have aspired to universal principles, the facts on the ground privileged males of means among all others, males over females, and whites over everyone else.

The OD was mightily stressed by the Civil War, but managed to pull things together and lasted for another century, reaching its high point in the 1950s. By that time a bunch of amendments had been made to the constitution, among others: slavery was eliminated and discriminated outlawed, incomes were taxed, and women were granted the right to vote. Through it all white men, mostly Protestant, ran the country, more or less. They formed the dominant culture. Then things began to unravel in the 60s, the Civil Rights Movement, anti-war movement, feminism, hippies and so forth.

The OD is still unraveling and I don't see how it can be put back together. Humpty Dumpty has fallen. Everyone genuflects to the Constitution, but the will to make it hold seems terribly weak.
Now let’s add just a bit of detail, just a bit.

During the fifties the country was still coasting on the national unity that had formed during World War II, the most extensive war that world had seen, one fought across all the continents of the Old World. That solidarity was, in effect, the founding crucible of the Civil Rights Movement, as though the nation was at last strong enough and secure enough to grant, in fact, the rights which had been extended to African American in law almost a century ago.

Let’s look at the last paragraph of chapter 25, “Divided We Stand” (yes, I’ve glanced ahead, p. 343):
Societies contain ethnicities and races that stick together despite the members’ prejudices about each other. The usual view, voiced by William Sumner more than a century ago, is that friction with outsiders draws a society together. Clearly that’s not always true. The external forces that promote civil peace primarily galvanize the dominant people while often straining their ties to a society’s other ethnicities when those groups are regarded as part of the problem. This tension among the members can cause a kind of social autoimmune disease, turning a society against itself.
In passing civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s did the dominant group overreach? Of course its dominance was weakened as well by pursuing war in Vietnam and thereby alienating the young, the sons and daughters of the men and women who’d waged the Second World War. I note in passing, as Moffett did, that Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps at the beginning of The Second World War (p. 338). The heirs of the OD weren’t fully confidence of their dominance.

The turmoil of the 60s and 70s gave way to the so-called culture wars of the 80s and 90s. The force of the nation’s founding documents, symbols, and myths was no longer strong enough to define a superordinate identity with which all citizens could identify. And so forth and so on through a parade of events, the Clinton impeachment, the Supreme Court decision that allowed George Bush to become President, the attack of 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror, fought to no end by an all volunteer military, Obama’s quixotic victory, and then the astonishing victory of Donald Trump, social media virtuoso and friend to Russian oligarchs. What would the 50s think of that? After all, the political atmosphere of the 50s was dominated by the Cold War against the predecessors of those oligarchs. But, in the world of identities and nations, is that really any stranger that the country’s ‘special relationship’ – to borrow a phrase from a different geopolitical context – with Japan?

I have no idea how that story will work out. The forces of cultural identity and economic interest are far more involved than those involved in the climate. At least we have half an idea about how to model the climate, we understand the underlying physical principles even if we can’t get enough data or computing power to run a really high quality simulation.

What are the basic principles underlying the international geopolitics of cultural identity? Moffet is telling us where to look.

Addendum 12.16.19: From Today's NYTimes,  Max Fisher, In Era of Hardening Identities, Trump Order on Jews Kindles Questions Old and New:
President Trump’s executive order targeting anti-Semitic and anti-Israel speech on campuses might be framed as a narrow legal matter, but it has touched on a defining issue of our time: Who belongs, and who decides?

The order is ambiguous as to whether it sees Jews as a distinct nationality or a minority race, but either interpretation aligns with Mr. Trump’s preoccupation with defining, and policing, the boundaries of identity.

And the order’s creation of special status for Jews, but not other religious minorities, follows Mr. Trump’s habit of welcoming some demographic groups into the rights and protections of American identity and excluding others. Tellingly, the singling out of Jews for special protection in the order left some feeling still more exposed.

Such preoccupations with identity have animated not just the Trump administration but much of the global populist backlash. Leaders and movements across the democratic world are increasingly focused on enforcing narrow national identities of the sort that defined the late 19th and early 20th centuries. [...]

What is National Identity?

The concept, scarcely 200 years old, holds that humanity is divided among fixed communities, each defined by a common language, ethnicity and homeland. Those communities are nations; membership is one’s national identity. The core tenet of nationalism so pervades today’s world that it feels almost self-evident: Any nation of people should have a country, and any country should consist of a nation.

The concept of an overarching identity tied to one’s country was invented not by ancient poets or warriors but by 19th-century European governments. As monarchies teetered and the church declined, governments saw engineering common languages and ethnic heritages as a way to justify their rule over polyglot empires, as well as an opportunity to marshal their populations for collective pursuits like industry or war. [...]

The world, unable to unwind a global order built on national identity, sought to manage its worst tendencies by promoting cultural pluralism, international integration and protections for minorities and migrants. These values did not so much replace national identity as sit uneasily alongside it, eventually leading to a backlash.

Friday, January 22, 2021

1/6 is an unmistakable sign that the tectonic plates of American society are shifting beneath our feet

00:00 Glenn Show 2.0 and reactions to the storming of the Capitol
06:42 What if it was BLM protesters that stormed the Capitol?
19:57 Glenn: I was wrong about the threat Trump posed to democracy
30:07 The tectonic plates shifting beneath American society and politics
46:12 Glenn and John debate the merits of impeachment

I've set the video to start with the "tectonic plates" segment, but feel free to view it from the beginning. 

Trump's personality is a second order issue...All of this ad hominem about Trump misses the point that large forces are at play in American democracy. The tectonic plates are shifting.
– Glenn Loury

Friday Fotos: Five Pieces (7), Five Walls [under the thruway]

Ghost Dancing in the USA [Magical thinking, Trump,, and now 1/6]

Or, Why the Old Myths and Magic Don’t Work Anymore
I published this in Buffalo Report fifteen years ago on 1 March 2005 (the URL now belongs to someone else and the old Buffalo Report is defunct). It’s about the collapse of the symbol systems that made the nation a coherent political body. As such, it remains relevant. Consider it as both precursor to and follower of The King's Phallus: Gold or Lead? and War and America's National Psyche. I've published an updated version at 3 Quarks Daily.
In 1889 a young Paiute Indian named Wovoka fell ill with a fever and, in his delirium, visited heaven. While there he talked with God and saw that all the Indians who had died were now young and happy doing the things they had done before the White Man had come upon them. News of the new messiah spread rapidly among the remnants of the Indian tribes. If they danced the right dances, sang the right songs, and wore their consecrated Ghost Shirts, not only would they be immune to the White Man’s bullets, but their loved ones would return to them, the White Man would vanish from the face of the earth, and the buffalo would once again be plentiful. Their fervor and belief were not rewarded and the Ghost Dance, as this last wave of revivals came to be known, soon passed into history.

That, however, is not the Ghost Dancing that concerns me. I mention it only to provide some comparative perspective. Anthropologists and historians have told that story hundreds if not thousands of times. It is the story of a people’s last desperate attempt to retain symbolic control over their world. Such revivals occur when a way of life has become impossible, for whatever reason, but the people themselves continue to live. In desperation they resort to magic to remake the world in terms they understand.

The Ghost Dancing that concerns me is not that of Stone Age people displaced and conquered by iron-mongering and coal-burning industrialists. My concern is the Ghost Dancing that has become a major force in contemporary American cultural and political life. Widespread belief in the impending Rapture – when all good Christians will be taken to heaven and all unbelievers consigned to hell – is the most obvious manifestation of the contemporary Ghost Dance. But it is hardly the only manifestation. Refusal to accept evidence of global warning is another symptom, as is refusal to attend to ground intelligence in conducting the war and reconstruction in Iraq.

For that matter, belief that the so-called Singularity is at hand – when computers will surpass humans in intelligence – is Ghost Dancing as well. This type of Ghost Dancing may seem rather geekish and harmless, for there aren’t all that many of these particular believers. Belief in the Singularity, however, is close kin to continued belief in the feasibility of the Star Wars anti-missile defense systems, in the Pentagon’s desire to develop a highly robotized military where the machines do the riskiest jobs, and in a more general belief that technology will fix everything.

Contemporary American Ghost Dancing has not, of course, been occasioned by colonialism or conquest. The modern American way of life has not been destroyed by external enemies. America has become and remains the mightiest nation on earth. Our vulnerability has subtler sources.

The American way of life has indeed suffered grievously in the past half-century. Perhaps the most substantial assault has been to our economy, with industrial and manufacturing jobs going overseas to be replaced by service jobs and high tech jobs. That has set off rolling economic displacement that will continue for the foreseeable future as many service and high tech jobs follow the steel industry to Asia and elsewhere.

The civil rights movement also forced major change. The struggle between liberty and racism is deep in the American soul, deeper than we can as yet comprehend. The civil rights movement changed America’s political culture in ways both good and unfortunate, and helped catalyze a wide range of social and cultural transformations that we too easily summarize as “the sixties.”

Finally, there is the collapse of the Soviet empire. During the Cold War Americans were encouraged to lavish animosity and hatred on the Soviets, their allies, and their clients. When that enemy dissolved, the animosity had to be redirected. I suspect that some of it was channeled into the War on Drugs, and, more generally, into the so-called Culture Wars. That is to say, we devoted more time and effort to fearing our immediate neighbors rather our distant enemies.

The upshot of these events is injury to the beliefs and attitudes of many Americans as deep as that forced on many of the world’s peoples through conquest and colonialism. The world is changing in ways most Americans cannot control, for reasons they cannot grasp, and there seems little hope for a future filled with the familiar comforts of home. It is thus not surprising that we are retreating behind revivalisms of various kinds. That is what societies do when their lifeways collapse.

It is not at all clear that America has the economic, political, social and cultural reserves needed to stop the retreat and once again to face the future with imagination and a realistic optimism. Our response to the bombing of the World Trade Center does not auger well. We have set out to fight a vaguely defined enemy – terrorism – of unbounded scope and magnitude while doing little of substance to address the vulnerability of our airlines, our borders, and our ports. These actions and inactions – and a host more – are those of an administration that is Ghost Dancing into the future with its eyes fixed firmly on the past, and a largely imaginary past at that. It is possible that, in the manner of an alcoholic who must “hit bottom” before he can cure himself, this administration, and perhaps its anointed successors, will simply continue on this path until even the most vigorous Ghost Dancing looses all plausibility.

When that happens, what form will “hitting bottom” take? Is that what happened on January 6 of this 2021 with the storming of the Capitol? Is the so-called QAnon Shaman a 21st century Wovoka, or is that role being played by Agent Orange? Who will remain to pick up the pieces? Will the Europeans and the Chinese formulate a twenty-first century Marshall Plan for the rehabilitation of the United States? Is it possible that, the sooner we admit to hitting bottom, the sooner we can join the rest of the world and move forward together?

Thursday, January 21, 2021

David Bruce on rhythm in music: language, micro-rhythm

The nature of language rhythm affects rhythmic pratice in speakers of a language

Have you ever wondered whether the way you speak, the language and the particular accent you use, affect the kind of music you write? In this video I look at the fascinating research into this area that has indeed found people with different languages and even accents do end up writing different kinds of music.


Micro-rhythm is a term used to describe the "wonky" rhythms found in musical traditions like Samba da Roda, Morrocan Gnawa, the Viennese Waltz, as well as in neo-soul like D'Angelo and jazz musicians like Errol Garner and Malcolm Braff and Jacob Collier. I take you through some examples.

Monday, January 11, 2021

“Spontaneous combustion” at the Capitol Building on Jan 6

Sociologist Keiran Healy has a fascinating conjectural account of what happened at the Capitol Building on January 6, 2020:

From the moment he knew he’d lost the presidential election, Trump absolutely wanted to get the result overturned. Some large proportion of his own staff and Congressional Republicans thought there was no harm in humoring him. Many surely knew him well enough to realize he was quite serious about it. But most, falling into a way of thinking that Trump has repeatedly benefited from over his entire career, and especially during his Presidency, figured that he could not possibly overcome the weight of institutional and conventional pressure behind the transition of power. Still, by the first week of January he had not relented in his efforts to find some way to do it, whether through bullying local election officials, chasing wild geese through the courts, or directly intimidating state officials. That all failed, or looked like failing. The next thing on the horizon was Electoral College certification.

So, Team Trump organized a big day of protest to coincide with the certification. The MAGA hats and Q people got all excited. Initially, Pence was going to be the guy who’d sort things out by using his made-up authority to reject the votes. But then he said he wouldn’t do this, which complicated things considerably. By this stage they were running out of rope, but Trump’s whole m.o. is just to keep pushing and pushing until those charged with stopping him just get tired, give in, or give up.

The plan for Wednesday was to have Trump go down and rile up the MAGA crowd, have them march up to the Capitol steps, and look like a big mass of people demanding something be done.

And, to put a short gloss on the rest of the post, they pushed and they pushed until the whole thing blew up in their faces. They were hoping something would happen that would overturn the election, or at least throw another monkey wrench into the works, though they didn't have any clear idea of what that might be, but they had no intention that the Capitol Building would be entered and trashed. But things got out of control.

...the White House very quickly found itself in a supercharged version of the situation that Cruz and Hawley are also in. They presumed they could cynically ride this movement for their own ends. They gleefully lit match after match, and eventually to their horror they managed to set themselves on fire along with everyone else. They clearly incited these events. They saw them spin rapidly out of control. They ended Wednesday afternoon with five people dead, the Capitol defiled, and the country stunned. They definitely wanted to overturn the election, which by itself is a subversion of representative government. Their efforts produced a messy putsch into the bargain, and got people killed. They should be punished for it as severely as the law permits, and they should never be allowed to live down their responsibility for what happened.

H/t Tyler Cowen.

Anger sprite

Software mediation of everything is one of the MAJOR challenges facing human progress

The rest of the tweet stream:

What follows is not literally @doctorow's words, but rather the ideas as they appear refracted through my memory and further reflection.

He reminded us of what was by then becoming Silicon Valley conventional wisdom, almost certainly correct, that software is eating the world.

That is, over time, more & more of the objects & systems in our world are having a software layer added. We no longer directly control them; rather their behaviour is mediated. This gives us extra capabilities, but also means a loss of control, ceding it to the software layer

You know the story: books are becoming mediated by a software layer. Cars are being mediated by a software layer. Home appliances. Even our bodies.

So too at a higher level, the systems that run our world: housing, transit, conversation (hi @jack! ), democracy, and almost every other human system.

Eventually it seems likely that everything from the tiniest objects to the largest systems will be mediated by a complex ecology of software.

What @doctorow pointed out is that that mediation layer is an absolute, full-on battleground.

It's a battleground of all the governments of the world. Companies. Not-for-profits. Activists. Black-hat hackers. White-hat hackers. Etcetera etcetera etcetera.

Over time, invisible to most users, that battle is becoming fiercer & fiercer & fiercer, as the stakes rise & rise.

And because this mediation layer increasingly runs our lives, it has many of the characteristics of both law and infrastructure. But it's law and infrastructure subject to an increasingly fierce, ongoing, invisible battle by a multitude of interests.

We'll all be subject to the outcomes of that battle in unexpected ways, ways that will be profound, sometimes big and obvious, sometimes very hard to detect until after the fact

Anyways, I think often of that mediation layer now, and the battle for control, and wonder how it will turn out, and how the outcome can be influenced.

It seems likely that figuring out the principles & protocols of governance for this mediation layer will be one of the great challenges of the 21st century, a challenge much like figuring out the principles underlying, say, the US constitution.

Encouragingly, it seems like wisdom & deep thought can make a big difference. Ideas like freedom of speech, separation of powers, & religious freedom aren't obvious; they were invented by brilliant, humane people. I wonder what similar depth of thought can help achieve today?

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Trump's cybernetic circle: Twitter and television

Maggie Haberman, Stripped of Twitter, Trump Faces a New Challenge: How to Command Attention, NYTimes, Jan. 10, 2021:

In some way, television became the medium through which he could watch the effects of his tweets.

The television in his alcove dining room off the Oval Office was usually on in the background, catnip for his short attention span. He consumed much of his information through it and watched the coverage of his tweets.

Mr. Trump’s White House aides said he loved tweeting and then watching the chyrons on cable news channels quickly change in response. For a septuagenarian whose closest allies and aides say often exhibits the emotional development of a preteen, and for whom attention has been a narcotic, the instant gratification of his tweets was hard to match.

I analyzed the relationship between Trump's tweeting and his television viewing in a blog post from 2018: Trumposaurus Rex @ 3QD – Toward a cybernetic interpretation, which is part of a working paper on Trump, Trump Works the Presidency: Imperial Boss and Cyborg Operator.

Arnold Schwarzenegger on the stroming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, comparing it to Kristallnacht

Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, November 9-10 in Germany. From Wikipedia:

... a pogrom against Jews carried out by SA paramilitary forces and civilians throughout Nazi Germany on 9–10 November 1938. The German authorities looked on without intervening. The name Kristallnacht ("Crystal Night") comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed. The pretext for the attacks was the assassination of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old German-born Polish Jew living in Paris.

Things hidden

Gamers, breakers, and lies [about the violence of Jan 6]

From Timothy Snyder, "The American Abyss", NYTimes, Jan 9, 2021:

In this sense, the responsibility for Trump’s push to overturn an election must be shared by a very large number of Republican members of Congress. Rather than contradict Trump from the beginning, they allowed his electoral fiction to flourish. They had different reasons for doing so. One group of Republicans is concerned above all with gaming the system to maintain power, taking full advantage of constitutional obscurities, gerrymandering and dark money to win elections with a minority of motivated voters. They have no interest in the collapse of the peculiar form of representation that allows their minority party disproportionate control of government. The most important among them, Mitch McConnell, indulged Trump’s lie while making no comment on its consequences.

Yet other Republicans saw the situation differently: They might actually break the system and have power without democracy. The split between these two groups, the gamers and the breakers, became sharply visible on Dec. 30, when Senator Josh Hawley announced that he would support Trump’s challenge by questioning the validity of the electoral votes on Jan. 6. Ted Cruz then promised his own support, joined by about 10 other senators. More than a hundred Republican representatives took the same position. For many, this seemed like nothing more than a show: challenges to states’ electoral votes would force delays and floor votes but would not affect the outcome.

Yet for Congress to traduce its basic functions had a price. An elected institution that opposes elections is inviting its own overthrow. Members of Congress who sustained the president’s lie, despite the available and unambiguous evidence, betrayed their constitutional mission. Making his fictions the basis of congressional action gave them flesh. Now Trump could demand that senators and congressmen bow to his will. He could place personal responsibility upon Mike Pence, in charge of the formal proceedings, to pervert them. And on Jan. 6, he directed his followers to exert pressure on these elected representatives, which they proceeded to do: storming the Capitol building, searching for people to punish, ransacking the place.

Of course this did make a kind of sense: If the election really had been stolen, as senators and congressmen were themselves suggesting, then how could Congress be allowed to move forward? For some Republicans, the invasion of the Capitol must have been a shock, or even a lesson. For the breakers, however, it may have been a taste of the future. Afterward, eight senators and more than 100 representatives voted for the lie that had forced them to flee their chambers.


Thanks to technological capacity and personal talent, Donald Trump lied at a pace perhaps unmatched by any other leader in history. For the most part these were small lies, and their main effect was cumulative. To believe in all of them was to accept the authority of a single man, because to believe in all of them was to disbelieve everything else. Once such personal authority was established, the president could treat everyone else as the liars; he even had the power to turn someone from a trusted adviser into a dishonest scoundrel with a single tweet. Yet so long as he was unable to enforce some truly big lie, some fantasy that created an alternative reality where people could live and die, his pre-fascism fell short of the thing itself.

Some of his lies were, admittedly, medium-size: that he was a successful businessman; that Russia did not support him in 2016; that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Such medium-size lies were the standard fare of aspiring authoritarians in the 21st century. In Poland the right-wing party built a martyrdom cult around assigning blame to political rivals for an airplane crash that killed the nation’s president. Hungary’s Viktor Orban blames a vanishingly small number of Muslim refugees for his country’s problems. But such claims were not quite big lies; they stretched but did not rend what Hannah Arendt called “the fabric of factuality.” ...

In November 2020, reaching millions of lonely minds through social media, Trump told a lie that was dangerously ambitious: that he had won an election that in fact he had lost. This lie was big in every pertinent respect: not as big as “Jews run the world,” but big enough. The significance of the matter at hand was great: the right to rule the most powerful country in the world and the efficacy and trustworthiness of its succession procedures. The level of mendacity was profound. The claim was not only wrong, but it was also made in bad faith, amid unreliable sources. It challenged not just evidence but logic: Just how could (and why would) an election have been rigged against a Republican president but not against Republican senators and representatives? Trump had to speak, absurdly, of a “Rigged (for President) Election.”

A precarious balance:

In the four decades since the election of Ronald Reagan, Republicans have overcome the tension between the gamers and the breakers by governing in opposition to government, or by calling elections a revolution (the Tea Party), or by claiming to oppose elites. The breakers, in this arrangement, provide cover for the gamers, putting forth an ideology that distracts from the basic reality that government under Republicans is not made smaller but simply diverted to serve a handful of interests.

At first, Trump seemed like a threat to this balance. His lack of experience in politics and his open racism made him a very uncomfortable figure for the party; his habit of continually telling lies was initially found by prominent Republicans to be uncouth. Yet after he won the presidency, his particular skills as a breaker seemed to create a tremendous opportunity for the gamers. Led by the gamer in chief, McConnell, they secured hundreds of federal judges and tax cuts for the rich.

Trump was unlike other breakers in that he seemed to have no ideology. His objection to institutions was that they might constrain him personally. He intended to break the system to serve himself — and this is partly why he has failed. ...

Yet Trump never prepared a decisive blow. He lacked the support of the military, some of whose leaders he had alienated. (No true fascist would have made the mistake he did there, which was to openly love foreign dictators; supporters convinced that the enemy was at home might not mind, but those sworn to protect from enemies abroad did.)...Trump could make some voters believe that he had won the 2020 election, but he was unable to bring institutions along with his big lie. And he could bring his supporters to Washington and send them on a rampage in the Capitol, but none appeared to have any very clear idea of how this was to work or what their presence would accomplish. ...

Trump is, for now, the martyr in chief, the high priest of the big lie. He is the leader of the breakers, at least in the minds of his supporters. By now, the gamers do not want Trump around. Discredited in his last weeks, he is useless; shorn of the obligations of the presidency, he will become embarrassing again, much as he was in 2015. Unable to provide cover for their gamesmanship, he will be irrelevant to their daily purposes. But the breakers have an even stronger reason to see Trump disappear: It is impossible to inherit from someone who is still around. Seizing Trump’s big lie might appear to be a gesture of support. In fact it expresses a wish for his political death. Transforming the myth from one about Trump to one about the nation will be easier when he is out of the way....

The big lie requires commitment. When Republican gamers do not exhibit enough of that, Republican breakers call them “RINOs”: Republicans in name only. This term once suggested a lack of ideological commitment. It now means an unwillingness to throw away an election. The gamers, in response, close ranks around the Constitution and speak of principles and traditions. The breakers must all know (with the possible exception of the Alabama senator Tommy Tuberville) that they are participating in a sham, but they will have an audience of tens of millions who do not.

Will the big lie be amplified over the next four years?

Trump’s coup attempt of 2020-21, like other failed coup attempts, is a warning for those who care about the rule of law and a lesson for those who do not. His pre-fascism revealed a possibility for American politics. For a coup to work in 2024, the breakers will require something that Trump never quite had: an angry minority, organized for nationwide violence, ready to add intimidation to an election. Four years of amplifying a big lie just might get them this. To claim that the other side stole an election is to promise to steal one yourself. It is also to claim that the other side deserves to be punished....

America will not survive the big lie just because a liar is separated from power. It will need a thoughtful repluralization of media and a commitment to facts as a public good. The racism structured into every aspect of the coup attempt is a call to heed our own history. Serious attention to the past helps us to see risks but also suggests future possibility. We cannot be a democratic republic if we tell lies about race, big or small. Democracy is not about minimizing the vote nor ignoring it, neither a matter of gaming nor of breaking a system, but of accepting the equality of others, heeding their voices and counting their votes.

There is much more at the link.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Hey kids! Let's put on a show! [The day the Capitol was captured by must-see TV]