Tuesday, April 18, 2017

WHAT MADISON AVENUE CAN TEACH YOU ABOUT WRITING BETTER DIALOGUE by Chris Knopf

I’d already spent about thirty years in ad agencies writing copy before my first novel was published. I’m often asked if copywriting benefited my fiction, and I always say yes, in every way possible. This is particularly true as it relates to dialogue.  

And even more true for writing mysteries and thrillers, inhabited as they usually are by tough guys, crack pots and regular joes. It’s hard to convince your reader of gritty realism when your characters talk like 19th century elocutionists.  

Writing to a fixed increment of time is another important discipline copywriters have to master. A TV commercial (we call them spots) is usually thirty seconds. Radio usually sixty. Of the two forms, I think radio is the best exercise for fiction writers. TV spots are little movies, fictions for sure, but as in the big movie business, the visual elements often dominate. In radio, words matter, and like a book, there’re usually no visual aids. Radio, like fiction, relies on manipulating the theatre of the mind, using language to engage and seduce the audience into buying an artificial reality. Unlike fiction, however, you need to tell your whole message in sixty seconds, or less. This teaches you how to prune, condense and telegraph your story, which almost always makes for a more energetic mystery or thriller.  

We’re taught in advertising to keep our copy conversational, to write the way people speak. Which is usually in sentence fragments. Sometimes only one word. Honestly.  

Grammatically iffy. But highly readable.  

Speech is far more economical than written exposition. Even the most voluble blowhard will tend to drop unnecessary verbiage, frequently skipping things like pronouns to get right to the action verbs.

“Watcha’ doing there, Joe?”
“Catchin’ fish. You?”

This example also points to another reality of spoken English. We often drop the ‘g’s’ off gerunds and other ‘ing’ words. Even the well-educated and erudite will do this, only more sparingly (e.g. Barack Obama). Also, we nearly always use contractions whenever available. Few things will mess up conversational speech more than using “do not” or “cannot” when “don’t” or “can’t” will do.  

(Just don’t overdo it. Informality can’t sound ignorant.)

There’s a place for monologue in advertising and fiction, but when two or more people are speaking, there’s little in the way of long dissertation. Rather, they tend to pass phrases back and forth like a pair of tennis players. Especially in great crime fiction (e.g. Elmore Leonard).

When writing radio and TV commercials, you’re not only drafting copy, you’re casting potential talent, framing out the type of people you’ll need to fulfill the spot’s objectives. So you need to literally hear your characters’ voices in your head. Which leads to seeing them in your mind’s eye. And placing them in a context – eating breakfast, driving a car, leaping off a cliff into a pool of water.  

And before you know it, you have a novel on your hands.

Published by permission of  Now Write! Mysteries.  

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Chris Knopf’s 14th thriller, Back Lash, came out last year, and his 15th , Tango Down will be published in November. This is the second in a series of bi-weekly posts concerning the art of writing that should appeal to both published and unpublished writers alike. We welcome your comments on this site, and we hope you share this post everywhere and with everyone you can. You can also reach us by email at shepard@thepermanentpress.com or at ChrisK@mintz-hoke.com.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

WRITER WRITES ABOUT PEOPLE WRITING By Chris Knopf

Somebody once said — I used to think it was Ernest Hemingway, but now I'm not sure — "Writers are people who write."

This was the sort of seemingly moronic minimalism that got the big guy in a lot of trouble. The political climate within the arts and academia in recent decades has been hostile to Hemingway's legacy, especially since he's rightly perceived to be a tad misogynistic.

 
That Ezra Pound was an out-and-out Nazi sympathizer —  as were Charles Lindberg and Joseph Kennedy, father of Jack — and F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot and James Joyce all had wives who were actually committed to mental hospitals, with barely a whiff of censure, I guess is beside the point.  Though it does raise questions of intellectual honesty.  But I think no writer of the modern period was more able to summarize gigantic truths, especially when writing or talking about the writer's life.

Part of the problem with the quote above is it usually leaves out the next sentence, which was, paraphrased, "People who aren't writers are those who only talk about writing." This gets at the main reason why most people who have both the talent and aspiration to write betray their potential. They don't write enough.

There are a few reasons why they don't write enough, though the most common is fear that what they write won't be any good. Worse, it will incite derision, ridicule or disinterest. So, they are inhibited from starting the actual act of composing thoughts on paper (these days, monitors.) They console themselves by spending a lot of time and energy thinking about writing, under the rationale that they are simply formulating the big ideas in their heads, which will, once properly constructed, fall effortlessly through their fingers and onto the page. This is a fallacy, of course. For a couple reasons.

Writing is, in great part, a type of thinking. It takes inchoate feelings and inarticulate thoughts and expresses them in a transferable form. Words make thoughts and feelings concrete, but also, the very act of forming structure inspires thought. Sometimes, there really is no idea until the words start to form.

Ergo, the only way to know if you really have a thought worth communicating is to put it into words. You have to actually write it down.

The other reason is more practical. You have to practice the trade. You can no more become a good writer by thinking about writing than you can become John Coltrane by imagining yourself playing the sax. Professional writers are obsessed by things like sentence structure, word count, punctuation, literary voice, style consistency and concentration. Just like world famous woodworkers are obsessed with things like router bits, bench dogs, chip out and finishing oils. You can't write a book or make a Chippendale highboy thinking only about the grand vision. They're both products of millions of little visions manifest in little acts of craft.

And it really doesn't matter what form you're writing in. Your heart may be committed to poetry, but your brain gets almost the same benefit from writing billboards. To extend the music analogy, a familiarity with Bach gives a jazz musician a killer advantage. It's the practice that counts, and the knowledge and experience that comes from practicing within a variety of formats and protocols.

Hemingway also said that "Writing is rewriting." This is also a simple statement pregnant with complex meaning. Many failed writers who write too little do so because they think they're supposed to hone and perfectly render every little piece of description or exposition as it's written. Very bad approach. Much better to disgorge everything you can onto the page, to get yourself into a chatty monologue with your presumed reader, and just let it go wherever it's going to go.

The next day, it might be all for naught. The work might be unsalvageable. But probably, there is something there. Now, with an objectivity developed over time, you start to rewrite. You lop off big chunks of unworkable babble — often the first things you wrote down — and start to shape the words into something more elegantly and originally expressed — or, just as important — something persuasively, clearly expressed.

None of this is possible if you aren't writing. You've got to pile up your own mother lode in order to refine the gems.

Hemingway, that wordy guy, also said that he strove to write something that "was true."

True, in the sense that it was as close to real as humanly possible. Honest to his mind, and not contrived. But also true in the sense of a picture hanging true on the wall. In the sense of your aim being true. Even, balanced, harmonious, artfully composed. He believed that both definitions of the word true were mutually generative. Honesty encourages symmetry and vice versa.

To quote the last line in The Sun Also Rises, "isn't it pretty to think so."


Originally from How I Got Published: Famous Authors Tell You In Their Own Words

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Chris Knopf’s 14th thriller, Back Lash, came out last year, and his 15th, Tango Down will be published in November. He’s had multiple sub-rights sales for all of his titles, has won several awards (including the Nero Award) and is also co-publisher at The Permanent Press.
This is the first of two postings he has addressed to writers that should sharpen the skills of many who would like to be published and already published writers interested in polishing their craft. We urge all of you to send this blog to everyone you know, and we welcome your comments. You can also reach us by email at shepard@thepermanentpress.com or at ChrisK@mintz-hoke.com. Happy writing!


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

HARPOONING DONALD TRUMP

How would I describe Tom LeClair’s latest blog? As part of an important democratic movement to rid ourselves of an illiterate President (he has said he doesn’t read books), a con-artist, a man with a thin skin, a compulsive liar, ill-tempered, and in the service of fellow millionaires and billionaires.   

Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897 in which he described how this blood-sucking vampire was finally eliminated by driving a sword through the fiend’s heart while he slept in his coffin during the day. This is not a plan of action I would recommend today, though Donald poses a far greater threat to us than Dracula. It’s easy to acknowledge he had been a great television showman in the Barnum and Bailey tradition, and it seems to me the only civilized way to rid ourselves of him is by verbally pricking him countless times—like letting the hot air out of a Thanksgiving Day float.

And so I take particular pleasure in publishing Tom LeClair’s contribution to exposing this dreadful creature whose ratings are now the lowest in American history—down to 37% after three months in office.

Marty

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HARPOONING DONALD TRUMP
by Tom LeClair
In which the author interviews himself

From a novel about Lincoln and his law partner to essays about Donald Trump and his literary opponents—that’s quite a jump.

Not really.  William “Billy” Herndon of Lincoln’s Billy was a highly literary man who spent 20 years of his life trying to publish unsavory truths about Saint Abraham. The “research” for Harpooning Donald Trump: A Novelist’s Essays was much easier, and I didn’t have to invent anything because Trump and his politics and his crooked friends are unsavory through and through. The challenge was finding new ways to understand and discuss Trump. My decades as a literature professor helped me out with that—from Homer’s Iliad to Coover’s The Public Burning, Pope’s The Dunciad and Melville’s Moby-Dick. But the book would never have been written if I hadn’t spent most of November and December holding signs in front of Trump Tower.

You’ve said you went every day. Why?

I’m a writer. The only things I could write after Trump’s election were my protest signs. From the very first one, RAGE TRUMPS HATE, which played off the usual ones I was seeing, I suppose I was seeking some creative outlet for my anger and disgust. The protest became a kind of contest: my imagination in writing signs versus Trump’s ignorance, his hateful clich├ęs and dog whistles. So I tried to write inventive signs that responded to his actions, particularly his appointments of people like Scott Pruitt at the EPA and Betsy DeVos for Education. Of course, I was going to lose because Trump has what my Jesuit teachers called “invincible ignorance.” After more than a month of displaying signs, I started to write the essays in the book.

What did you hope to achieve as a solitary protester on the street?

During November and December, there was a series of mass protests, usually on weekends. I wanted to be in front of Trump Tower on weekdays and weekends to demonstrate with my modest example that Trump’s election was not normal politics, that this fact needed to be expressed day in and day out to the thousands of people who passed by the Tower. If I was sufficiently enraged to stand in the cold for six hours, I hoped my example would inspire citizens to stay angry, refuse to normalize the demagogue, resist in whatever way they could. My purposes changed some as I understood my demographic. Many of the passersby were foreign tourists. I wanted them to know that Trump and his Tower did not represent America or, at least, the best of America. The Tower was Babel, a construct of pride and greed. Out on the street, I hoped to use the social media that helped Trump get elected against him. I invited people to take photos of my signs and post them on Facebook and Instagram—and thus extend the protest of a solitary enraged old man.

Do you think you were successful?

Maybe the N.S.A. could answer that with some kind of universal image scanning for my signs. They did get me interviewed by television networks, radio stations, and print journalists—almost all of them from outside the United States. Japanese national TV interviewed me twice, even showed the covers of a couple of my books including Lincoln’s Billy. It’s possible my spoken words reached more people than my written words ever did. That’s kind of discouraging for a writer, but I’m still happy to be speaking with you about the written words in this book, which wouldn’t exist without the experience of protesting on the street.

So how is this book of essays different?

I rarely had long conversations with people on Fifth Avenue. The essays give me a chance to explain why I was protesting and how to understand Trump the man and phenomenon in more profound ways than daily news reports give us. Probably the central essay in Harpooning is the one entitled “Donald Trump Won’t Read This” where I apply the insights of the anthropologist Walter Ong to Trump. In his book Orality and Literacy, Ong contrasts the cognitive processes of preliterate humans and those of literate humans. Literacy created what we now call “thinking”—linguistic precision and logical analysis. Before literacy, cognition was through story-telling and bombastic display. Trump admits that he does not read. He therefore does not “think” as literate persons do. He reacts, he blurts and blusters, he uses the oral language of a third-grader, he lies as if his words disappeared into thin air. You can see him as the insult-obsessed Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, a poem about pre-literate warriors that was composed before writing. In this essay, I contrast Trump’s mind and language with the discourse of President Obama, who continued to be a reader despite the pressures of the White House.

Why do you feel this essay about literacy is “central”?

A working title of the collection was “Literature Against Trump.” Literature is literacy on steroids, the highest achievement of literacy. By its very nature, literature offers an alternative to the vacant mind and vapid expression of Trump. But not just an alternative. Literature can also be a weapon, a harpoon as my title has it. Since Trump’s election, journalists have written about the value of dystopian novels such as 1984.  My interests are in what that harpooner Captain Ahab calls “the little lower layer”—literary works that provide psychological, historical, even anthropological insights that help us understand and, perhaps, undermine the demagogue. Historians and other scholars can place Trump in appropriate cultural contexts. Literature is a weapon because it elicits emotional responses. You might call it “demi-goguery,” half demagogic, half rigorous thought.

Do you think of yourself as Ahab?

No, because Melville “harpoons” the monomaniac Ahab at the end of Moby-Dick. I know this is not a popular recommendation, but try reading Moby-Dick as a political novel, and you will have a new understanding of and fear of Ahab’s—and Trump’s—aggressive narcissism that now threatens our ship of state. For a more recent and remarkably prescient novel read Robert Coover’s The Public Burning to learn how demagogues use the scapegoating sacrifice of “un-American” others to satisfy the masses. My argument is encapsulated in my epigraph from William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” If you step back a bit from the daily news cycle, if you see Trump through the eyes and words of profound imaginative writers I think you will understand his ignorance and his threat in new and deep and useful ways. Not just understand but feel.

You’ve published six novels. Why don’t you write a harpooning novel?

Homer, Melville, Coover, and other recent writers I mention in the book—they are tough acts to follow for an old man. But I have written a tale about Uncle Sam and Donald Trump, two angry old white men, as an appendix to the essays. It’s a small sequel of sorts to Coover’s magical realism novel that describes an unusual way in which Uncle Sam “incarnates” the power of the presidency in each new office-holder.  One reader called my fiction a “scabrous satire.” That’s fairly accurate. Consider this a “trigger warning.” Or is it a solicitation?

Have you taken some heat for this fiction?

Yes, but some readers don’t see that it’s ultimately somewhat sympathetic to Trump. While writing the essays, I wasn’t able to understand how he became the enraged person he turned into as an adult, so I invented a plausible cause. Trump tells Uncle Sam of a childhood “wound” that explains—for Sam—Trump’s treatment of women, but Sam misses the larger effects of the wound—Trump’s fragile ego and his need to assert his power in ways both sexual and not. If Trump weren’t such a danger to the Republic and its citizens, I’d feel sorry for him because he is pretty obviously acting out obsessions and compulsions over which he has little control, the reason he is so often depicted as a child.

Are you still protesting at Trump Tower?

I took some time off to write the essays, but now I’ll be back a few days a week signing and selling my books, completing the loop from displaying signs to offering extended semiotic commentary on the target of those first signs. I think of the book as everything I couldn’t fit on pieces of cardboard. I’m looking forward to being back, interacting with citizens and tourists, hoping that one day Donald will come down and engage this Ancient Mariner. One of the many cops around the Tower asked me what I’d do if Trump showed up. I told the cop I’d say, “I don’t talk with liars,” and I’d turn my back on him, just as one of my signs says: TURN YOUR BACK ON TRUMP. The weather should be warmer now than when I began, but I still hope Trump will do something so stupid that he will have to resign and I can go back to writing.

So you’re still outraged?  What outrages you the most?

As a former professor, I think I’m most outraged by his willful and smug ignorance. He’s every teacher’s recalcitrant dunce. I believe this ignorance is the root of his amorality, his treatment of women, his lying, his fraudulence. Trump’s ignorance is his harpoon, and he holds it dear. In the realm of policy, I’m most outraged by his environmental policies and appointees, the three men—polluting Pruitt, Exxon Rex, and numb-nuts Perry—that I call the “Fossil Fools.” Some of the damage Trump’s other policies will do may be repaired in four years, but his effect on the air and water will be difficult to repair. The British poet Alexander Pope wrote an epic satire called The Dunciad in which he called his time “the Age of Lead.” I fear that under Trump and his climate-denying dunces we will become the United States of Flint. Harpooning Donald Trump is dedicated to my two granddaughters. I’m enraged on their behalf, on behalf of a future polluted literally and figuratively by the First Fool and his family of greedheads.


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I ASK ALL OF YOU to send this blog on to everyone you know, both here and abroad. I particularly welcome your comments on this cockeyed pessimist site. You can also reach me by email (shepard@thepermanentpress.com), or reach Tom LeClair by email (leclaite@ucmail.uc.edu).  Let us all spread the word in every way we can, given the perilous days ahead.

Marty



Saturday, February 25, 2017

AN ANTIDOTE FOR DESPAIR


“In times of political turmoil, books can become more relevant than they ever have. Frederic Hunter’s new novel, Love in the Time of Apartheid, paints a grim picture of what racism and dictatorships can do on a personal level. Hunter’s discussion of the sixties in South Africa seems closer than ever when put into perspective with our own tumultuous climate. To see two individuals kept apart because society dictates that they are from two very different worlds is devastating but very much a reality for Petra and Gat, Hunter’s main characters. Today in the aftermath of our political campaigns, we have seen opposing viewpoints break apart families, tear apart relationships, and irrevocably damage the personal lives of others. It is no different for Petra and Gat. They go so far as to try to out-run the oppression and the violence that surrounds them, only to be stopped by the overreaching hand of Petra’s father, who heads the Bureau of State Security. It is their love for each other and their personal moral compasses that rescue them. We can only hope that in the wake of our political uproar that something as good as the love Petra and Gat share comes out of it.”   —Emily Montaglione, Managing Editor    

                                *             *             *

“I share Emily’s concerns but have less faith that things will work out given our recent elections where two very unpopular candidates faced one another. In the end, like the actor Viggo Mortensen and many others, I decided to avoid voting for Trump or Hillary, refusing to choose between two flawed major candidates, instead, writing in Judy Shepard’s name on the New York ballot. Nor do I see any relief in sight.

But I do cast a similar vote for the reading of books for there is artfulness out there in the literary world. While a strong majority of politicians are bought and sold by lobbyists, no one has yet been able to stop us from reading quality fiction or non-fiction, which removes us from the bickering and heat that runs rife in our political system. A good book can take us into a ‘better world’ without leaving us enraged by things we clearly haven’t the ability to fix right  now.

Politically I would say America got what it deserved this time around. Now is surely the time to say ‘God Save America,’’ for Americans and their candidates do not seem capable of bringing back wisdom. But a good book can surely bring back a sense if comity and convey a different perspective when it comes to seeing how different our lives might be.  —Martin Shepard
co-publisher

WHICH BRINGS US TO Love in the Time of Apartheid which was widely praised in the following Kirkus Review that appeared on September 15 and will be published at the end of November.

“A quasi-political thriller and love story set in 1960's Africa. Gat, aka Adriaan Gautier, has been given instructions by his Belgian superiors in the Congo: "disappear." With $2,000 American and a forged passport, he flees to South Africa to reinvent himself and shrug off the demons that haunt him from his soldiering in Prime Minster Patrice Lumumba's new Congo. The lonely Gat eyes an 18-year-old beauty from an Afrikaner and English family, and he begins a promising courtship. But Petra is the daughter of a racist Cape Town police colonel, and Gat abhors apartheid. Gat, who is guilt-ridden and fighting nightmares of murder, helps Pet see beyond her family's prejudices. When a black woman is struck by a car, however, Pet's rushed conversion to fervent good Samaritan-ism may be a bit too convenient. The lovers skip town and marry, but Pet's enraged father won't let them go easily. This novel's hodgepodge of subplots—hiding spies, thwarted romance, systemic racism—ultimately coalesces. Hunter (The Girl Ran Away, 2014, etc.), a former Africa Correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor, ably captures South Africa. Plain prose and dialogue keep the pace motoring, and the simply told espionage storyline may appeal to Ian Fleming fans. There is daring, intrigue, and an ugly current of racism, but make no mistake, this is a love story at its core. Austere and well-told; an unlikely mix of espionage, apartheid, and love on the run.”


Or this blurb from Joan Baum, NPR reviewer, who will likely expand her review after publication.

 “With a nod to Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Apartheid, Frederic Hunter beautifully explores the subtle and sensual power of love as a counter force to the diseases of racism and war. Though set in South Africa, with nightmare flashbacks to the Congo when Lumumba was assassinated, the suspenseful narrative resonates with deeply moving timeliness.”

Click the link below for Fred Hunter’s Love in the Time of Apartheid. May you pass it on to others. 

Thursday, February 2, 2017


A SOCIOPATH IN THE WHITE HOUSE?
by Jacob M. Appel MD JD

As both a practicing psychiatrist and the author of the forthcoming The Mask of Sanity, a novel that features a high functioning sociopath, I find myself asked with increasing frequency about the mental health of our incoming President.  Readers inquire:  Is Donald Trump mentally ill?  What is his diagnosis?  Could he truly be a sociopath and what does this bode for our country? 

 Even if I were able to answer these questions—and my sense is that you do not need a fancy medical degree to answer the first two—I may not.  Since 1973, section 7.3 of the American Psychiatric Association’s code of ethics, colloquially known as the “Goldwater rule,” has prohibited headshrinkers like myself from offering “a professional opinion” about “an individual who is in the light of public attention...unless he or she has conducted an examination” of that person “and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.”  So I am prohibited from commenting on Mr. Trump’s mental health based upon his public behavior—at the risk of losing my hospital privileges or even my medical license. 

 Similarly, I’d be remiss to claim that Charles Manson or the “Son of Sam” suffers from mental illnesses, as I have never evaluated either of them personally.  In the early 1990s, the APA adopted a more lax approach regarding deceased historical figures, so I am at liberty to suggest that the Roman Emperor, Caligula, was troubled, and to offer general comments on the mental health of Joan of Arc and Vincent Van Gogh.  But Fred Trump’s pride and joy is clearly off limits.  

The “Goldwater rule” arose out of a specific set of disturbing historical circumstances.  In the lead up to the 1964 Presidential election, a magazine called Fact published an issue on “The Unconscious of a Conservative” that focused on the psychological makeup and alleged pathology of Republican candidate Barry Goldwater.  The magazine’s editor, Ralph Ginzburg, included a survey of psychiatrists in which 1,189 out of 2,417 respondents declared the conservative Arizona senator unfit for the nation’s highest office.  Some of the comments published alongside the survey proved damning, even by modern standards.  

One anonymous critic wrote:  “I believe Goldwater to be suffering from a chronic psychosis.”  Another observed:  “I believe Goldwater has the same pathological makeup as Hitler, Castro, Stalin, and other known schizophrenic leaders.”  And a third:  “A megalomaniacal, grandiose omnipotence appears to pervade Mr. Goldwater’s personality giving further evidence of his denial and lack of recognition of his own feelings of insecurity and ineffectiveness.”  

Understandably, a backlash arose—both inside and outside the professional.  Bioethicist Jonathan Moreno makes a persuasive case that much of this handwringing among shrinks stemmed from fears that “amateurish psychological assessments and poor political prognostication” threatened the credibility of psychoanalytic psychiatrists.  Rather than an anomaly, concern over attacks on Goldwater followed similar reactions to A.A. Brill’s diagnosis of Abraham Lincoln as “a manic schizoid personality” and preceded William Bullit’s controversial “necro-analysis” of Woodrow Wilson.

During the recent presidential campaign, a number of leading psychiatrists and psychologists—myself included—called for the repeal of the “Goldwater rule.”  (APA President Maria Oquendo has led an impassioned public defense.)  Other thought leaders in mental health have circumvented the rule by offering “image” assessments without formal clinical diagnoses, an approach noted forensic psychiatrist Paul Appelbaum derided in the New York Times as “splitting hairs.”  As I have argued elsewhere, the cases where the “Goldwater rule” proves most harmful are not those involving politicians or celebrities, but criminal prosecutions of deranged spree killers like Gabrielle Giffords shooter Jared Loughner and Aurora movie theater gunman James Holmes. 

 In many of these cases, psychiatrists could offer a likely diagnosis based on public documents and courtroom “performances,” diagnoses that might help the American people understand these tragedies and could lead to both to more appropriate punishments and better prevention.  (Certainly, these killers should never walk the streets again, but many belong in psychiatric facilities, rather than prisons.)  Instead, the experts most fit to comment are unable to do so, ceding the public forum to uninformed talking heads.  In contrast, whether the political process truly suffers because I cannot comment publicly upon my congressperson’s sanity is not so readily apparent.

 What is rather clear in hindsight is that the late Barry Goldwater was not mentally ill.  While I disagree with many of the five-term senator’s political stances, nothing in his conduct over more than four decades in the public eye—including as a military pilot during World War II—suggests anything other than a noble, well-adjusted servant of the commonweal.  As a liberal myself, I fear one of the repeated canards of the American Left is the claim that political conservatives are mentally ill, rather than merely misguided or wrong.  From painting Ronald Reagan as a madman in 1980 to questioning John McCain’s temperament in 2008, the myth of the “crazy” right-winger has become a consistent theme in progressive politics. 

It is the meme that cried wolf.  (As far as I know, the only major party candidate who suffered from a mental illness between 1945 and 2016 was 1972 Vice Presidential choice Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, a fine United States Senator who had undergone shock treatment for depression, and who was rapidly pushed off the Democratic ticket by George McGovern when this became known.)  Only through the lens of the current political situation does the damage done by those false claims against earlier Republicans become fully clear.

Up to a certain point, of course, all presidents—and many successful people—have narcissistic and antisocial traits.  A bit of narcissism helps a psychiatrist get through medical school; a dose of sociopathy helps Presidents send American soldiers overseas to risk their lives.  But traits are not the same as pathologies.  Nobody wants a psychiatrist who does all the talking or a trigger-happy leader for the Free World.

This might be a good moment to make an observation that is not a popular view in liberal circles where I travel, nor presumably in conservative ones either:  By both international and historical standards, the differences between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, in terms of policies and values, were rather small.  So too of Bush and Gore, even Reagan and Mondale.  All of these men believed in certain fundamental norms—norms that are outliers in a world where half of the global population lives without basic civil liberties or political rights.  Among these common norms are the belief that if you lose the election, the other side gets to assume office.  No tanks or martial law involved.  And that if you disagree with your opponents, you are welcome to denounce them on television or the Internet—but not to poison them with polonium.  And, most important, that leaders of the other political party are opponents, or rivals, but not enemies.  None of these men ever conflated the elected officials seated across the aisle with the foreign operatives across the Bering Sea.  These are enormous commonalities, ones that dwarf any differences regarding tax policy or abortion rights or the wisdom of the War in Iraq

Certainly, the policy differences between the parties will affect the lives of ordinary Americans in countless, meaningful ways.  That is why we have elections:  For voters to determine the direction of these policies.  But the shared values of our recent political leaders in both parties far outweigh their disagreements.  Anybody who scoffs at the importance of these shared beliefs should spend a few weeks in Eritrea or Equatorial Guinea—or read a history of the Weimar Republic.  When someone challenges these common values, as Mr. Trump has arguably done, both sides need to step back from the brink and acknowledge their importance.  As Grandpa Vanderhof observes in the Kaufman and Hart comedy, You Can’t Take it With You, “Got all worked up about whether Cleveland or Blaine was going to be elected President—seemed awful important at the time, but who cares now?” 

The Goldwater rule prevents me from answering the question:  Is Donald Trump a high functioning narcissistic sociopath?  I must allow readers to evaluate that matter on their own.  What I can say is that high functioning sociopaths are dangerous.  Highly so.  They are often unable to accept criticism and incapable of adjusting their conduct to circumstances.   Great presidents are rarely judged by their Supreme Court appointments or infrastructure programs, but by their responses to cataclysmic challenges like Pearl Harbor, Soviet warheads in Cuba, or 9-11. 

 Had a   high functioning narcissistic sociopath been president during the Cuban Missile Crisis, we would all likely be dead.  Food for thought.  (I highly recommend that book on Weimar, by the way, for the next fool who declares, “Mike Pence would be worse.”)  Alas, I cannot comment on Mr. Trump’s mental health—either to bury it or to praise it.  But if I were a reader, I might ask myself what distinguishes Mr. Trump from Bernie Madoff or Martin Shkreli other than circumstance?


When George W. Bush was first elected president, I used to joke that the great thing about America is that even the son of a President can grow up to be President.  But I never doubted that George W. Bush was sane or rational or genuinely believed he was serving the public good.  Maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is not, Is the President a high functioning sociopath?  A better question might be:  How did we ever reach the point where anyone might even have to ask whether the President is a high functioning sociopath?  Once you’ve asked that question, does it really matter whether the clinical answer is yes or no?

Friday, January 20, 2017

AN INTELLECTUAL FAILURE OF MASSIVE PROPORTIONS

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from Chris Knopf   

The political establishment, in which I include government officials, party apparatchiks, consultants, and commentators, is acting like a wounded elephant, after running headlong into a tree—dazed and confused, and lumbering around wondering what the heck just happened.


 In the ad agency business, when the buying behavior of potential customers is directly counter to all the predictions of planning and research, we euphemistically call this a “disconnect”.  Our clients tend to use other words, like “you’re fired.”

What we have in the political world is a disconnect of massive, historic proportions.  I consider it a total, systemic intellectual failure.
             
By intellectuals, I don’t just mean PhD.s or other brainy sorts in various walks of life. I mean anyone who has an active mind, kept enlivened by lifetime learning and intelligent discourse.  If you could find one of these folks who thought a year ago that Trump would be elected president, or Sanders would emerge as a tight second for the Democratic nomination, you’d call them intelligent, but sadly misguided.
            
And yet here we are. 
           
Doubtless thousands if not millions of dollars were spent in recent years on pollsters and opinion researchers that should have revealed what we now know to be demonstrably true:  a huge percentage of voters hate the political establishment, and are in such emotional pain, they’d vote for anyone who said the American system is rigged against them, no matter how it was said. 
            
My experience with market research tells me two things:  all that money was spent asking the wrong questions, or the researchers totally misunderstood the answers they got.  A third possibility is that the people interviewed gave false testimony.  This happens all the time, which brought us New Coke, and why even gifted pollsters like Nate Silver can get it terribly wrong.  Only the deep heart of the respondents knows what they’ll actually do at the moment of decision.  In this case, in the voting booth.
             
I think that’s part of the explanation, but I’m inclined to believe experts heard what people were saying, but didn’t truly understand what they were hearing.  Any researcher will tell you that data means nothing unless properly interpreted. 
            
This misunderstanding worked its way from the information gatherers to the information disseminators—journalists and other commentators—who stirred in their own biases and vested (intellectual)  interests, resulting in a national frame of mind that was diametrically opposed to what was actually going on.
            
Confirmation bias is the scourge of the digital society.  We have so much information flooding our brains, unreliably curated, that we naturally embrace those bits that conform to our view of the world.  This extends to the media we gravitate to, which I’d include regular face-to-face conversations, as our social lives become more and more tribal—economically, ideologically, intellectually. 
            
So it should come as no surprise that the information gatherers, who mostly come from one social class (relatively well off) would unconsciously process the agony of another social class (working people in both parties facing declining circumstances) through their personal filters, however earnestly they believe in their own objectivity.  
           
 I’m reminded of the scene in The Big Short when Steve Carell’s character went to Florida and met a stripper who had something like five sub-prime mortgages.  It was a great Gestalt moment.  Economic catastrophe was about to land on our heads and almost no one anywhere would see it coming. 
           
 I didn’t see it coming either.  Neither did I think for a second that Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders would be realistic candidates (for the record, I hoped Bernie would prevail).  Though I had one moment at the beginning of the campaign listening to an NPR talk show, where a caller from Kentucky wondered about the media fuss over Jeb Bush when everyone he knew was excited about Trump.
          
 I wonder if there was a researcher moderating a focus group of middle-class people in Kentucky, or Michigan, or Connecticut, who heard everyone say that the American system had failed them, that they were frightened and angry, and fired up to do something about it. 

And if the moderator said to herself, uh-oh, these people are going to vote their hearts.  And nobody’s paying attention.

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