Jottings from revisiting A Distant Mirror, which shows history repeating itself in inchoate populist rage fed by miraculous new channels for communicating

barbara tuchman RETRO 2 cover

 

In 1978, the historian Barbara Tuchman published a book that had begun as an investigation into the question of how the Great Plague in medieval Europe had affected the course of history. Though she admits at the start that she never found a satisfactory answer, her book became a bestseller — partly a matter of luck; partly because of her brilliance as a writer; and mostly because of the impression of perfect timing she created through the parallels she drew between the particular era she chose for her focus, and contemporary travails in the world around her.

Four decades later, it is impossible to disagree that our own era would make an even better fit for A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century. The subtitle is misleading: her history does not colour strictly between the lines of the 1400s. It is — more broadly — about the Dark Ages becoming the prologue to the glorious Renaissance. The internet had yet to be born in the 1970s, which had no technological equivalent of the Gutenberg printing press. Here is a partial list of the parallels for the second decade of our century that we have been scribbling at random, as we read — of transformative forces acting synergistically in what Tuchman called ‘a violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering and disintegrating age, a time, as many thought, of Satan triumphant’. … But, do note the silver lining on the horizon at the end of the final extract:

  • Ÿmedia: the beginning of hugely expanded access to information
  • Ÿloss of faith in authority
  • Ÿthe trampled-on classes begin to rebel without really knowing how to improve their position – and are mocked and squashed
  • Ÿthe globe seems to grow, as people’s sphere of awareness begins to enlargen explosively
  • Ÿlanguage itself alters (switching to demotic forms, in literature)

Extracts from A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century:

Multiple copying of manuscripts was no longer the monopoly of lonely monks in their cells but the occupation of professional scribes who had their own guilds. Licensed by the University of Paris, supposedly to ensure accurate texts, the scribes were the agony of living authors, who complained bitterly of the copyists’ delays and errors …

The rise of a bourgeois audience in the 14th century, and the increased manufacture of paper created a reading public wider than the nobles who had known literature from recitation or reading aloud in their castle halls. The mercantile class, familiar by reason of its occupation with reading and writing, was ready to read books of all sorts: verse, history, romance, travel, bawdy tales, allegories, and religious works. Possession of books had become the mark of a cultivated man.

The times were not static. Loss of confidence in the guarantors of order opened the way to demands for change …The oppressed were no longer enduring but rebelling, although, like the bourgeois who tried to compel reform, they were inadequate, unready, and unequipped for the task … [E]very working-class insurrection was crushed.

Yet change, as always, was taking place. […] Seaborne enterprise, liberated by the compass, was reaching toward the voyages of discovery that were to burst the confines of Europe and find the New World. Literature from Dante to Chaucer was expressing itself in natural languages, ready for the great leap forward into print.

[…] Johan Gutenberg was born … The ills and disorders of the 14th century could not be without consequences. Times were to grow worse over the next fifty-odd years until at some imperceptible moment, by some mysterious chemistry, energies were refreshed, ideas broke out of the mould of the Middle Ages into new realms, and humanity found itself rediscovered.

[I]n 1453-4 the first document printed from movable type was produced by Gutenberg at Mainz, followed in 1456 by the first printed book, the Vulgate Bible. ‘The Gothic sun,’ as Victor Hugo put it with fitting grandiloquence, ‘set behind the gigantic printing press of Mainz.’ The new means of disseminating knowledge and exchange of ideas spread with unmedieval rapidity. Printing presses appeared in Rome, Milan, Florence and Naples within the next decade, and in Paris, Lyons, Bruges and Valencia in the 1470s … The energies of Europe that had once found vent in the crusades were now to find it in voyages, discoveries, and settlements in the New World.

Nuda Veritas: politicians in the UK and US, including the lying Brexit architects, fail to understand — or harness — internet culture’s radical transparency and reach

This story in the Washington Post the day after Brexit revealed the scale of media and governmental lapses in engagement and education

This story in the Washington Post the day after Brexit revealed the scale of media and governmental lapses in engagement and education

 

Cartoons as wish fulfilment? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wish_fulfillment {{{LINK TO SIGMUND}}} Drawing by Cluff in Private Eye, Issue No. 1421, 24 June-7 July 2016 {{{http://www.private-eye.co.uk/current-issue}}}}}}

Cartoons as wish fulfilment? Drawing by Cluff in Private Eye, Issue No. 1421, 24 June-7 July 2016

Who — other than diligent inspectors of comments on internet news-analysis sites — could have guessed that the don’t-trust-anyone-over-30 Baby Boomers would one day trivialise their offspring’s opinions savagely enough to bring to mind kittens carted off to have their necks broken on the way to drowning? That older cannot automatically be equated with wiser was obvious from the meeting of minds between Britain’s overwhelmingly pro-Europe, anti-Brexit, younger people (under 50) and a huge spectrum of brainy Establishment figures in science and the arts at home and abroad, including Stephen Hawking, Amartya Sen, George Soros, Henry Kissinger, John le Carré, Joanne Rowling, Pedro Almodovar, Renzo Piano, Kristin Scott Thomas, Benedict Cumberbatch, Elfriede Jelinek, Alfred Brendel and Peter Higgs.

Yes, Britain’s oldies won the referendum, but the headline that made our blood run cold on the day after Brexit belonged to the Washington Post’s most-emailed story, a report that UK Google search trends showed that too many Leavers had no glimmer of the meaning or consequences of their vote.

Digital communication tools let anyone communicate information to multitudes virtually for free. Yet David Cameron’s government and the media failed to implant in people’s heads the fundamental facts they required to make a rational choice. A transmission failure in the reverse direction was partly to blame. The leaders apparently had no inkling of how little Britons knew about the EU; or any visceral grasp of the dimensions of the resentment — by millions of Brexiters — of what the Union signified to them, in their enraged incomprehension. Or, that some people at the top who led the Brexit campaign, notably Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, did have the understanding Cameron lacked, and in the hope of using what they knew to replace him, spread lies about unattainable fantasies for a go-it-alone Britain. ( See ‘There are liars and then there’s Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’ by the Guardian’s Nick Cohen. )

We tried to envisage what most upsets Brexiters, from their perspective. An image of an overcrowded people-carrier floated onto a mental screen. The hot, sweaty passengers are miserable about being jabbed by each other’s elbows and knees, yet the driver — who has made it clear that he cannot drive if he has to share his seat or lap — keeps stopping to invite pedestrians to hop aboard and squeeze in. His answer to the groans of protest is lectures about the importance of compassion for the less fortunate. He, of course, stands for Britain’s government, and the passengers for those Britons forced to depend on and compete for underfunded and underperforming public services, overwhelmed by the steady influx of newcomers from other EU countries and elsewhere. Only the mass-circulation papers like The Daily Mail — and Private Eye — have been regularly reporting on the struggles of the National Health Service, the country’s most beloved institution: the hair-raising details of ambulances arriving too late; lives lost because diagnostic test appointments could not be scheduled for months or even years; seemingly every known shortcoming in the care of people trapped in hospital beds — and desperately overstretched medical staff. Many of the horror stories about old-age care homes are unbearable to read.

All this — in addition to instinctive tribalism, primitive xenophobia and racism — makes it possible to see why, to many Brexiters, the EU stands for nothing but immigrants, more immigrants and overcrowding. Many of them are unwilling dependents on public services. They are unemployed — their manufacturing jobs lost to someone in, probably, China. They lack the education or re-education they need to compete for white-collar jobs. These voters overlap heavily with the rank-and-file in the populist movements on which Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have ridden into view in the U.S., and Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage at their own opposing political poles in the U.K..

Only Sanders has had the charisma and intellectual muscle to engage that class of voters, as well as the U.S. equivalent of the younger people who voted to remain in the EU, yet also command the respect of leading thinkers — in spite of his many detractors in the Establishment. In a BBC interview, the Indian economist Amartya Sen, who won the 1998 Nobel prize in his field, praised Sanders’ ‘commendable effect on Democratic politics’ in broadening ‘the Democratic discussion’ about economic inequality and remedies for it — although he wished he would adopt a less divisive, super-rich-bashing tone.

No political candidate in the U.S. can match his following among millennials — who used the post-Gutenberg media in which they are so perfectly at home to magnetise other supporters. A superb analysis of his appeal to this group by one of them, Dasha Burns, on the CNN site, lacked only a recognition of how well he plays in digital media — his often wild, flyaway, dye-free hair and rumpled and unsmiling — crotchety — WYSIWYG appearance underlining the authenticity that is essential in this realm. Though seemingly a matter of mere exteriors, it is part of both his and Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal to young voters.

A new prime minister with a look that suits the zeitgeiest: no dyed hair or Botox. The glint of humour in her eye, and her colours and clothes, hint that there will be more to Theresa May than Thatcherite steeliness

A new prime minister with a look that suits the zeitgeist: no dyed hair or Botox. The glint of humour in her eye, and her colours and clothes, hint that there will be more to Theresa May than Thatcherite steeliness

Although the young are mocked by their elders for their love of selfies, those critics forget that the rage for self-portraiture has also spawned a fashion for publishing deliberately unflattering photographs of themselves, and no-makeup selfies, and actresses who compete to appear apparently cosmetics-free on tabloid sites, ideally with fetching dark circles under their eyes. Perhaps this demographic segment is tired of delusional Boomer parents whose most expert hair-colouring, surgical re-shaping, and fanatical dieting only yields a creepy simulacrum of their own gleaming, taut-skinned, vital bodies, and such depressing conversational staples as, ‘Have you noticed that she’s got duck lips, now?’ Among successful women politicians, only Theresa May seems to have grasped this shift in the zeitgeist. Unlike Sanders, she always looks tidy, but does nothing to appear any younger; it seems as if the only sense of style she consults is her own, which is impressively apt; vibrant but natural.

The new digital tools do not merely allow radical transparency — the ability to let us see exactly what is going on upstairs, and how critical decisions are made. They demand it of authorities — in politics and government; medicine; law and the courts; academia and scholarship … even the secret services. James Comey, the head of the FBI, read this trend perfectly in the way he chose to announce the conclusion of his agency’s investigation into the Hillary Clinton email scandal. He was lambasted for delineating her transgressions and publicly upbraiding her for them — going beyond the convention of a simple announcement that there would be no criminal charges brought against her or her staff for their carelessness with classified emails, and her lies about their handling. But the mood and special needs of these times were encapsulated by one commentator quoted by Politico, referring to the disgusted reactions to Bill Clinton’s unscheduled meeting last week with the attorney-general, Loretta Lynch, with every appearance of seeking to charm her on his wife’s behalf:

“Given the public outcry over the events of the last week, transparency was clearly needed,” said Kathleen Rice, a former assistant general counsel at the FBI …”… especially given the FBI’s interest in being seen as an objective and apolitical law enforcement and intelligence agency.”

The FBI announcement finally emboldened the unimpeachable Maureen Dowd — seemingly the only New York Times columnist refusing to fall in line with her newspaper’s alarmingly biased coverage of this presidential election until a few weeks ago — to speak her mind about the Clinton candidacy.

In Britain, the brand new prime minister was just as responsive as Comey to the internet-mediated reversal of top-down politics-and-government-as usual. Some excerpts from the Daily Mail‘s report of the unbelievable speech, for a Conservative leader, that she delivered an hour before the news that she would be replacing David Cameron on Wednesday – an address anyone would have sworn was written by Bernie Sanders:

Theresa May pledges to block fat cat pay and bonuses and force multinational firms to pay more tax in crackdown on ‘corporate irresponsibility’

Theresa May pledged new laws to block fat cat pay and bonuses as she promised to stand up for ordinary workers in an passionate speech just an hour before her leadership rival pulled out of the contest.

The new Tory leader, 59, will also give consumers and staff a seat on company boards in a bid to crack down on ‘corporate irresponsibility’.

The changes are intended to show Mrs May can ‘completely, absolutely, unequivocally’ reach out to the blue-collar workers who were the bedrock of Mrs Thatcher’s electoral success.

In a speech in Birmingham on Monday morning … Mrs May also pledged to build a Britain ‘that works for everyone, not just the privileged few’.

[…]

‘The people who run big businesses are supposed to be accountable to outsiders, to non-executive directors, who are supposed to ask the difficult questions, think about the long-term and defend the interests of shareholders.

‘In practice, they are drawn from the same, narrow social and professional circles as the executive team and – as we have seen time and time again – the scrutiny they provide is just not good enough.

… Outlining her commitment to getting tough on ‘corporate irresponsibility’, she added: ‘We’re the Conservative Party, and yes we’re the party of enterprise, but that does not mean we should be prepared to accept that “anything goes”.

‘I want to make shareholder votes on corporate pay not just advisory but binding.’

Should she fail to keep these promises — as we hope she will not — painful reminders of them will be written large on websites all over the world. For as long as she lives, and at least as long as the net lasts.

Why has The New York Times abandoned its commitment to journalism ‘without fear or favour,’ covering this presidential election?

 

Noticing the to-hell-with-objectivity coverage of the presidential race by some old media organs would be lonely without new media sites like deathandtaxesmag.com

Noticing the to-hell-with-objectivity U.S. election coverage by some old media organs would be lonely without new media sites like deathandtaxesmag.com

 

Why is Donald Trump’s non-existent following in Silicon Valley worth a story near the top of the home page of The New York Timesa report in which readers had to scroll down to its 11th paragraph to read the infinitely more remarkable news that Bernie Sanders has collected more than twice as much gold in donations from technology workers across the U.S. than Trump and Hillary Clinton put together?

According to estimates taken from Crowdpac, Trump campaign contributions from a grand total of 52 donors in this segment do not appear to have scraped even $20,000, compared with $2.7 million for Clinton and $6 million for Sanders. The headline for the bizarre NYT piece was just below the masthead when we popped in at the site last Wednesday night.

There was worse to come. Anyone who revisited the online NYT on Friday afternoon would have found no mention at all of the extraordinary backing for Sanders among the techie intelligentsia in an opinion piece by the veteran NYT reporter, Timothy Egan, illustrated with a picture of a supporter carrying a gigantic, clownish, papier-mâché model of Bernie’s head. The dateline for this screed titled ‘Bernie’s Last Stand’? Disneyland. And how did it characterise Sanders supporters? As virtual clowns:

Rumbling and roaring his way across California, Senator Bernie Sanders brought his political revolution to the neighborhood of Goofy and Mickey. […] Sanders … made his point about the great economic disparity in American life. His rallies in California — nearly two dozen in all — have drawn the expected crowds: young white Bernie bros in man buns, aging lefties in mildly subversive T-shirts — but also a fair amount of Hispanics and curious political neophytes. […] The Bern has been felt, the establishment rattled. Voters are decrying a “rigged economy” run by 1-percenters. Time to go back to Vermont, resuming the virtual anonymity that has characterized his quarter-century in Congress.

That is not merely partisan. It verges on vicious, not to mention contemptuous.

Call us naïve, but we confess to being shocked to the marrow by this newspaper smashing any illusion of a continuation of the grand old ideal for the practice of journalism ‘without fear or favour’ famously espoused by one of its own proprietors, in 1896. In hunting for the original declaration by that proprietor, we found the NYT all but disowning any connection to it last August — in a teasing attack on a reporter for the rabidly partisan Fox news network. Any idealist would read as a depressing exercise in revisionism what the story supplied — a sort of explanation for the elimination of an inscription of that quotation beside a statue of the newspaper baron in the lobby of the paper’s offices. It began:

Political madness has surely gripped the nation when a Fox News journalist publicly embraces a 119-year-old guiding principle of The New York Times, as Megyn Kelly did this week by vowing — Donald Trump’s taunts notwithstanding — to “continue doing my job without fear or favor.”

The piece concluded with this sentence: ‘But we still try to abide by Mr. Ochs’s principles.’ Only a Witless Wonder following the big New York paper’s coverage of this year’s presidential election could possibly believe that. Something has changed profoundly at the so-called ‘Gray Lady,’ long viewed by many as America’s sober, irreproachable journal of record — and not for the better.

Googling ‘Bernie Sanders Silicon Valley’ in the small hours of Friday morning yielded a string of headlines like the right-wing Wall Street Journal’s ‘Bernie Sanders Out-Raises Hillary Clinton in Silicon Valley’ and Newsweek’s ‘Who’s Silicon Valley Backing for President?’ with a lot of similar titles on all-digital media sites across the political spectrum. But certainly on Google’s first page of search results, on which any NYT story tends to rank high, there was nothing comparable from that paper. Nothing at all, in fact.

Most dismaying about the NYT’s decision to focus on Trump, not Sanders, in reporting on technology workers’ affiliations, is that the actual story is a good reporter’s or columnist’s dream. It is a paradox of marvellous depth, an as-yet unsolved mystery. Silicon Valley has been singled out for near-universal condemnation — not least, on this blink-and-you-miss-it post-Gutenberg blog — for its seeming callousness and unconcern about extreme, live illustrations of the growing social inequality crisis on its own doorstep. As Gawker.com has also noticed, the techies’ support of Sanders contradicts the Valley’s reputation as a stronghold of libertarian don’t-know-don’t care-about-the-less-fortunate and don’t-you-dare-tax-my-millions-for-government politics. We drew attention last August to the contradiction between this pegging and a statement by Sundar Pichai, the new head of Google, in an interview with a German journalist a few months before his appointment:

The thing that attracted me to Google and to [the] internet in general is that it’s a great equalizer. I’ve always been struck by the fact that Google search worked the same as long as you had access to a computer with connectivity, [whether] you were a rural kid anywhere or a professor at Stanford or Harvard.

Referring to the signs of clear approval, at the northern limit of the region, for the Vermont senator’s focus on income inequality — in spite of the growing tension, for years, between filthy rich techies and the poorer residents of San Francisco — Gawker’s Brendan O’Connor threw up his hands in obvious bafflement:

This is a little bit of an odd thing to say, however, as it is those very Silicon Valley workers who have contributed to said tensions. But! The world is a complicated place.

Over to you, New York Times: how about a spin-free analysis of this question from your army of Silicon Valley reporters and analysts? Seize the chance to prove your claims this very week that old print media capable of thorough, old-fashioned reporting deserve special privileges and protection?