She’s written a memoir about her experiences, called “Sticking It Out: From Juilliard to the Orchestra Pit,” and she spoke to me about how even now, after 25 years with the same orchestra — that’s 25 years without needing to audition, which is a major anxiety trigger for her — that perfectionism is still alive and well.
Niemi had been at Juilliard for two years when she sat down at a rehearsal and suddenly realized she had no control over her hands. She had been playing percussion since the age of ten, had participated in hundreds of rehearsals and countless performances, but had never experienced something like this before.
“Physically, what it feels like is you’re just going off the rails, and about to lose your mind,” she says, looking back on her old panic.
A painful inner monologue kept the engine going. It went like this: “I need to be perfect, I can’t be perfect, therefore what am I going to do?” And then, “Back to, I need to be perfect. It’s a long hard dialogue,” she says.
She says her anxiety got really bad at Juilliard because she suddenly realized how high the stakes were. “I felt like I suddenly had something to lose.”
She ended up using Inderal, a beta blocker, to calm her nerves so she could focus during an auditions and move forward.
During her last year there, an older male professor told Niemi that he had fallen in love with her. She was deeply uncomfortable and says it was “the perfect storm” of imbalanced power dynamics — and a sense of feeling trapped.
“Here you have a very powerful mentor an hour a week alone, and they have this power over you,” she says. “A teacher can recommend you for a certain audition if you weren’t able to get in to the audition,” at first. “I mean, they still have a lot of power as far as jobs go.”
Like Anita Hill did with Clarence Thomas, Niemi continued to work with her professor, and even go out to dinner with him. “It didn’t occur to me not to,” she says now. “I need to manage it, “ she thought at the time — and attempted to control the situation by asking her professor lots of questions about percussion and avoiding talking about anything else. “I just thought if I made him mad he would retaliate.”
Niemi says she’s heartened to see that things are different for women in universities now. Back then, in the late ’80s, she says there was no mechanism at the school for her to share what was going on. “It just wasn’t talked about,” she says.
“It still happens but now you’re told very clearly these are the lines you can’t cross. This is what you can’t do. And to be fair to him, he wasn’t told that, how it worked at the time.”
Niemi’s anxiety appeared well before the period her professor told her he was in love with her, but his “confession” did nothing to ease it.
“It had a pretty strong effect on me physically,” she says. Eventually she developed an ulcer. That anxiety came out most of all during her auditions.
In spite of her uncomfortable relationship with her professor, Niemi decided to stay on at Juilliard in their graduate program. “I started a master’s program mostly because living in New York and not having a place to practice for production is very difficult,” she told me. But after a few weeks, being around her teacher became overwhelming.
A few months in she braved another audition and succeeded in landing a position with the then-new New World Symphony, which accomplished two things for her: she was able to get away from her professor and she finally accomplished what she had set out to do from the age of 10 — live and work as a professional musician. But her professional aspirations were not yet complete. The New World Symphony is a training ensemble, and the participants are expected to continue to audition for permanent positions elsewhere.
In spite of the great lengths Niemi went to manage her anxiety and perfectionist standards, after a number of auditions she almost won but didn’t, she finally lost it. “My room got messy,” she writes in her memoir. “I didn’t care enough to clean it. While I was practicing for the Boston audition, it had been filled with instruments. Now the floor space was covered with dirty clothes. I let dishes sit in the sink until the silverware rusted, and a little white mouse appeared from behind my bookcase one day. I had been sitting at my table so immobile he probably assumed I was one of the chairs. He darted away only when I screamed.”
Niemi says it’s important to talk publicly about anxiety so that others don’t have to struggle as much as she did and because she says there is still stigma. “When I was in school it was so painful to me. I thought, I’m the only one doing this. Everybody else manages anxiety no problem.”
Twenty-five years ago she earned a spot with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and has played with them ever since.
During complicated performances, the old feelings return sometimes. Here’s how she described awaiting her moment in the orchestra pit for a cymbal crash: “Sitting there, trying to keep track, watching the singers up on stage, and it’s getting closer and closer. Finally, I’m counting down, I’m listening to the music. I’m waiting for my moment. I stand up I take these big hunks of metal I’m about to fling at one another and I wait for the moment and the conductor lowers the baton.”
Even after two and a half decades, “I know I have to be perfect in this moment and it has to happen.”
Niemi has tempered her anxiety with wisdom. She’s accepted that to do anything in life truly meaningful, failure comes with the territory. “Rejection is a gift,” she says.
“You are going to fail. It’s how you handle the failure to be perfect that you have to manage.”
When I asked Niemi if she has ever had a moment where she asked herself why she stays in a field that makes her feel this anxious, she said, “I always wanted to do it. It was so hard. But I never questioned whether I was going to do it. I worried about that in the book because I put so much emphasis on the hard parts of it that I would that come off sounding like I was ungrateful or I didn’t appreciate this opportunity I had. I’ve never felt ungrateful. I loved music. I love it. And I was really lucky to fall into this opportunity. I wanted to write about what was hard about it.”
Lauren Schiller is the Executive Producer of Audio for Salon.com and the creator and host of Inflection Point, a public radio show and podcast about how women rise up.
After Donald Trump’s stunning victory last November, major media outlets have enjoyed a surge in donations from concerned citizens hoping to restore a Fourth Estate that buckled and finally collapsed under the weight of the 2016 election. “Trump is the best thing to ever happen to the Times’ subscription strategy,” executive editor Dean Baquet told CNN in February. “Every time he tweets it drives subscriptions wildly.”It’s not a little dispiriting, then, that the New York Times has used its new appointment as a leader of the #Resistance to run some of the most reactionary opinion writing this side of the Weekly Standard. With its new subscription dollars, it’s hired a known climate denier and racist in Bret Stephens, published a conspiracy theorist in Louise Mensch, and started an ill-fated column asking people to say something nice about Donald Trump, to offer just a few examples.
By and large, these takes have been confined to the paper’s op-ed page. But Wednesday’s shooting in Alexandria, which left Republican whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana critically injured, has produced one exceptionally irresponsible piece of reporting. In a piece titled “Attack Tests Movement Sanders Founded,” journalist Yamiche Alcindor suggests that Sanders’ supporters, if not the Vermont senator himself, have somehow invited this kind of violence. (The shooter, James Hodgkinson, had volunteered for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign in Iowa.)
But long before the shooting on Wednesday, some of Mr. Sanders’s supporters had earned a belligerent reputation for their criticism of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party and others who they believed disagreed with their ideas. Sanders fans, sometimes referred to derogatorily as “Bernie Bros” or “Bernie Bots,” at times harassed reporters covering Mr. Sanders and flooded social media with angry posts directed at the “corporate media,” a term often used by the senator.
The Times also quotes Harlan Hill, a Trump surrogate who has called Sanders’ attacks on the president a “passive justification” for the shooting, despite the fact that his preferred politician has casually urged “Second Amendment people” to take care of Hillary Clinton, encouraged audiences to beat up protesters at rallies, and so on. But in her piece, Alcindor devotes just a single sentence to the many instances Trump has encouraged acts of violence.
What Alcindor doesn’t note, interestingly, is that Hodgkinson alluded to Trump’s Russia problems in several posts on his now-deleted Facebook page, and called the president a “traitor.” There’s obviously considerable overlap between Sanders supporters and Democrats who are especially preoccupied with the Russia scandal, but Sanders himself has been critical of the focus many in the party have placed on the issue. If Hodgkinson’s heinous act is somehow representative of Democratic socialism, isn’t the same true of those who think (not without some merit) that Russia intervened on Trump’s behalf?
The ideological sibling to this argument is a curdled, right-wing definition of the “left” best expressed by the National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson, who wrote that the “only thing resembling a genuine totalitarian movement in American politics is the progressive camp from which emerged the man who shot Steve Scalise.” (In the immediate aftermath of the shooting of Gabby Giffords in 2011, Williams used his column to shill for gun manufacturers and lament that liberals like Keith Olbermann would dare to blame Sarah Palin.)
The same criticisms that have been lobbed at so-called “Bernie Bros” for a year were launched at Barack Obama supporters in 2008, Clinton backers during the same race and again last year, and at Howard Dean devotees before both of them. On the other side, mainstream Republicans have long been dismissive of Ron Paul supporters for similar reasons. These fierce intra-party battles go back generations—Taftbros physically fought Eisenhowerbots at the 1952 Republican National Convention.
When actor Wendell Pierce attacked a Sanders supporter last year, there were no thinkpieces about the ferociousness of Clintonistas. Nor should there have been; Pierce is just one man. Ascribing his actions to Clinton or the nearly 17 million people who voted for her in the primary would be spectacularly wrongheaded. Human life is politics, and as such, people sometimes let their emotions get the best of them; that doesn’t mean the politics they got swept up in is at fault.
A mass shooting is something else altogether; any attempts to tether it to a political movement are as myopic as they are disingenuous. It’s imperative for the press to cast a critical eye on politicians, and Sanders is no exception. But linking him, Clinton, or any politician to the violent actions of their supporters does a disservice to readers hoping to understand Hodgkinson’s crimes.
The real takeaway, as Katie McDonough argued at Fusion on the day of the shooting, should be that people who commit domestic violence should not be able to buy guns. As has been the case in so many other mass shootings, Hodgkinson had a history of abusing women, including partners and his own daughter.
“We live in a country that lets domestic abusers keep their guns,” she wrote. “We are a country that never learns its lesson, and we are letting them kill.”
It has to be the most celebrated drumbeat in all of popular music. Often described in ballistic terms—a “rifle shot,” a “gunshot”—Bobby Gregg’s inaugural smack is indeed the shot heard ’round the world. “I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA,” Bruce Springsteen recalled twenty-four years after the fact, “and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” Greil Marcus, in his penetrating if overwrought study of “Like a Rolling Stone,” contends that while many other songs use the same kick-off—including the Beatles’ “Any Time at All” from the previous year and Dylan’s own “From a Buick 6” further down Highway 61—“on no other record does the sound, or the act, so call attention to itself, as an absolute announcement that something new has begun.” This might be overstating the case somewhat: as Al Kooper reminded Marcus, it’s very common for the drummer to end a one-two-three-four count with a sharp thwack. Still, there is something about this particular beat that makes it more than simple timekeeping, that renders it more memorable. Somehow, a common device has turned itself into a signature. If you heard only this one second of “Like a Rolling Stone,” you could still identify the song.
This drumbeat has become so associated with the song, in fact, that its presence or absence directly inflects upon the character of the performance. “Like a Rolling Stone” was the invariable closer of Dylan’s 1966 world tour. One can almost gauge the degree of exasperation he felt on any given night over the catcalls that greeted his electric set by the emphasis that drummer Mickey Jones placed on his opening salvo. It echoes authoritatively in Edinburgh. It booms with smashing finality in the valedictory concert at Albert Hall, following a drawling introduction in which Dylan dedicates the song to “the Taj Mahawwwl.” And it positively deafens with scorn following the legendary “Judas!—You’re a LIAR” exchange between Dylan and disgruntled fan Keith Butler at the Manchester Free Trade Hall ten days earlier, which triggered Dylan’s exhortation to the band to “play fuckin’ loud.” Its absence in favor of a cranking instrumental build-up, in the version played at the Isle of Wight in 1969, was one of the reasons for that performance often being tagged as lifeless. (Oddly, the version played at the infamous Newport concert, only weeks after the studio version was recorded and with many of the same musicians, also foregoes the opening bang: it made enough of a statement as it was.) Among the many, many covers of the song, one by the band Drive-By Truckers is notable in that it begins with a similar drum shot, which then rests for a few bars, imbuing their entire rendition with a kind of we-know-you-know slyness.
In fact, the famous drumbeat is actually two beats, the resounding snap of the snare followed by the almost subliminally faint echo of a kick-drum, which makes the whole thing take a half-step back and gives it an extra push of forward momentum: not ONE-(pause)-TWO, but ONE-two-THREE. Marcus, again, tends to oversell when he likens “the empty split-second that follows” the initial beat (but that’s just it: it’s not empty) to both “a house tumbling over a cliff ” and the Oklahoma Land Rush. What he’s missing in his own rush to hyperbole is the way that half-heard second beat pulls in, eases in, the onslaught of guitar, piano, organ, bass, and drum that henceforth sends the song—and the album it starts off with a literal bang—charging forward.
“Like a Rolling Stone” is also no doubt the most famous song ever written out of sheer boredom. Dylan had spent April and May 1965 in England, for what would be his last fully acoustic tour. Both the performances and the time surrounding them, captured in D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary Dont Look Back (the title’s lack of apostrophe mirroring Dylan’s idiosyncratic approach to punctuation), show a man barely going through the motions. Dylan is in control of his material and his audience, but there is no spontaneity and little verve. Even supposedly off-the-cuff remarks (“This one is called ‘It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding’—ho ho ho” [audience laughs]) have been rehearsed many times before. By the time he returned to the States at the beginning of June, he was considering giving up performing altogether. “I was very drained,” he explained [in a Playboy interview] several months later. “I was playing a lot of songs I didn’t want to play. I was singing words I didn’t really want to sing.… It’s very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don’t dig you.”
What changed his mind, he said, was the new musical vista opened by “Rolling Stone.” “I’d literally quit singing and playing,” he told Martin Bronstein of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “and I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit about twenty pages long, and out of it I took ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and made it as a single. And I’d never written anything like that before.” As he described it to Jules Siegel, the “vomit” began as simple prose ramblings: “It wasn’t called anything, just a rhythm thing on paper… I had never thought of it as a song, until one day I was at the piano, and on the paper it was singing, ‘How does it feel?’ in a slow motion pace, in the utmost of slow motion following something.”
Dylan’s interviews are notoriously unreliable sources of information, more like theatrical performances than communication sessions, and perhaps none more so than the ones he gave around the release of Highway 61. But what emerges consistently from his remarks about “Rolling Stone,” in addition to his pleasure at having written it—“the best song I wrote,” he told Gleason—is the sense of spontaneity regained, of an elusive but thrilling encounter with the muse. “It’s like a ghost is writing a song like that,” he recalled in 2004, with a note of wistfulness as if speaking of a long time gone. “It gives you the song and it goes away, it goes away. You don’t know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song.” To television commentator Ed Bradley that same year, he described the songs of this period as having come from “a place of magic.”
In this case, the magic seems to have been triggered precisely by the creative stagnation Dylan had been feeling (and that his records had been showing) over the previous two years. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is well-crafted but resolutely downbeat, more like medicine than entertainment, while Another Side, despite a few stand-outs, just sounds bored. Little wonder that by the time Dylan returned from his all-acoustic British tour, he’d decided to give it all up—or that the inspiration of “Rolling Stone” seemed such a godsend. It ushered in a creative outpouring that is almost unrivaled in Dylan’s career (let alone anyone else’s), and that over the following half-year resulted in many of the songs on which his reputation still stands.
Also rare for a chart-topping pop hit, the lyrics focused not on love but its opposite. It was “all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest,” Dylan told Siegel, immediately amending that to: “In the end it wasn’t hatred, it was telling someone something they didn’t know, telling them they were lucky. Revenge, that’s a better word… It was like swimming in lava. In your eyesight, you see your victim swimming in lava. Hanging by their arms from a birch tree.” Lucky in lava is not the same as lucky in love, but the contradiction is very much in keeping with the spirit of “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song that manages to balance sadism, compassion, and sheer liberated joy in a six-minute display of pure bravado.
Public Enemy: Flint, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play: A remarkable artistic event
By Joanne Laurier
15 June 2017
Written, directed and produced by Purni Morell, based on An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen
A remarkable cultural event took place last week in the devastated city of Flint, Michigan, whose 100,000 inhabitants have been systematically poisoned with dangerous amounts of lead and other deadly contaminants.
Actors from across the US, assisted by a British writer-director, performed Public Enemy: Flint, an adaptation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play, An Enemy of the People, on June 8, 9, and 10 in the gymnasium of a former school.
Ibsen’s famed work concerns a doctor, Thomas Stockmann, who tries to warn the local authorities—including his brother, the mayor—about water contamination problems and is persecuted for his discoveries. Parallels to the present catastrophe in Flint are striking, and hundreds of residents from the city and surrounding area responded enthusiastically to the performances.
British theater directors Purni Morell and Christian Roe learned about the Flint water crisis in January 2016, while touring the US. In an interview, Morell explained to a reporter: “It’s not about doing a play about a water crisis in a city experiencing a water crisis—it’s about the underlying issues, like what made the water crisis possible in the first place. In the play, as in Flint, the water is a symptom of a bigger problem, and I think that needs to be investigated because it affects all of us, not just the city of Flint.”
Morell’s version follows the general outline of Ibsen’s play. Dr. Heather Stockman has ascertained through laboratory tests that the water in the town’s economic “salvation,” its Wellness Resort, owned by Mineralcorp, is contaminated with lethal chemicals and carcinogens.
Stockman tells the newspaper editor Oscar Hofford: “I mean contaminated, Hofford. Polluted. Impure. Mercury, in high proportions, chloroform off the scale—that means legionella; copper levels way too high…I’m saying the Wellness Resort is a danger to public health. Anyone who uses the water is endangering himself.” It turns out, she explains, that an industrial plant upriver is “seeping chemicals into the groundwater. And that groundwater is the same groundwater that feeds the pipes into the pump room.”
Hofford, at this point supportive of Stockman’s exposé, thinks the contamination speaks to broader issues: “What if the water isn’t the problem, but only a symptom of the problem?… I think this is the perfect opportunity to talk about what’s really going on. The vested interests, the—well, maybe not corruption exactly, but the system, Heather—the system that means these people can do whatever they like without any comeback.”
Audience members in Flint
The newspaper’s publisher, Stephanie Anderson (Ibsen’s Aslaksen), representing the city’s small business concerns, makes an appearance. The embodiment of petty bourgeois philistinism, Anderson’s watchword is “moderation” in all things. As a founding member of the Homeowners’ Association and the Temperance Club, she informs Stockman that the “resort is the backbone of our enterprise…Especially for the property owners.”
Anderson too is initially supportive of Stockman’s revelations, even suggesting that the doctor be recognized for her “contribution to the city’s welfare.”
Everything changes when Stockman’s brother Peter, the mayor, outraged by word of the doctor’s findings, bursts in and demands that the truth be suppressed to protect Mineralcorp’s interests. He claims that re-laying the pipes, to avoid the contaminated water, will cost $7 million and mean closing the resort for at least two years. “Do you have any idea, any idea at all, what this means? … This would finish us. We close the resort, everyone else capitalises on our idea, and in three years’ time, when, if, we reopen it again, this city will face ruin. And it’ll be your fault.”
In Ibsen’s play, Act IV is entirely taken up by a public meeting at which Stockmann denounces town officials and imparts “a discovery of a far wider scope than the trifling matter that our water supply is poisoned … the discovery that all the sources of our moral life are poisoned and that the whole fabric of our civic community is founded on the pestiferous soil of falsehood.” He passes on from that insight to a misguided conception, the defense of “isolated, intellectually superior personalities” and the notion that the “majority never has right on its side.”
In the Morell-Flint adaptation, the director and actors have decided to turn over this portion of the play to a genuine public meeting.
Tyee Tilghman (Horster)
Tyee Tilghman, the actor playing Jim Horster, a soldier who faces deployment to Mosul in Iraq, addresses the audience directly: “What we’re going to do now is change things up a little bit because in the next scene in the play, there’s a town meeting and what normally happens in it is that Stockman tells the people in the town about the water problem, and they call him an enemy of the people because they don’t want to hear about it—but we thought it would be more interesting to do this a different way, since we’re here and you’re here, and so we thought we’d set up a little town hall of our own.”
This prompted audience members of all ages, children, teenagers and adults, to discuss their appalling and inhuman conditions. One man described having to lug endless cases of water up flights of stairs. Some audience members reported owning houses that were literally crumbling. Others bitterly denounced the bullying of the authorities, who threaten to take their homes and even their children. Still others recounted how they had received water bills higher than their mortgages, and how the homes of protesters had been broken into by police who confiscated computers. Angry residents explained how they contracted health problems and even debilitating diseases from the poisoned water.
All of this was reinforced by the fact that signs in the restrooms alerted users not to wash their hands with water from the taps! Cases of canned water were stacked against the wall.
Sign in the restroom warns against using tap water to wash hands
When Public Enemy: Flint resumes, Dr. Stockman and her daughter, Petra, a teacher, both lose their jobs. Moreover, Stockman’s mother-in-law, Eleanor, the owner of the polluting plant, threatens the doctor and her daughter with financial disenfranchisement and destitution. Stockman lashes back at “hypocrites” like Anderson, with her “cheap, small-town flimflam,” and the townspeople themselves.
Petra has the final word: “This town is fine—it’s no better or worse than anywhere else. OK, there are things you can’t fix—you can’t fix that people with money can buy their way out of problems, and you can’t fix that some people care more about their position than what’s right—maybe you can’t even fix the water.
“I think you’re wrong about people, Mom. You said people get the government they deserve but I think people get the government government can get away with. And the government gets away with a lot, not because people are poor or because people are stupid—but because for years, for decades, we’ve eroded our schools, we’ve failed to educate our youth, we’ve failed to invest in ourselves as people.”
And she mentions that like her counterpart in Ibsen’s play, a work now 130 years old, she will start a school.
Public Enemy: Flint is a highly unusual confluence of a classic play, committed, talented actors and a motivated and engaged audience. It is proof, if proof be needed, that art is not something detached from social life. Important, enduring art by definition is work that does not remain indifferent to the crises and convulsions of its time. From that point of view, this modest three-day presentation, staged in a gym, was one of the most significant theatrical efforts in the US in recent years. The participants in the production, which was serious and thoroughly professional throughout, deserve the strongest congratulations and thanks.
The central role of Dr. Stockman was exceptionally performed by Los Angeles-based actress Michole Briana White. She was supported by an outstanding cast that included Charles Shaw Robinson from Berkeley, California as Peter Stockman, Madelyn Porter from Detroit as Stephanie Anderson, Briana Carlson Goodman from New York as Petra, Tilghman from Los Angeles as Horster, Meg Thalken from Chicago as Eleanor and Chris Young from Flint as Billing.
Public Enemy: Flint was the creation of British theater company fieldwork, in collaboration with Detroit Public Theatre, Baltimore Center Stage, the Goodman Theatre (Chicago), Chautauqua Theater Company (New York), Berkeley Repertory Theater, People’s Light (Philadelphia), UM-Flint Department of Theatre and Dance, M.A.D.E. Institute, & the New McCree Theater, Flint.
Morell’s adaptation honored Ibsen’s play while eliminating its more elitist tendencies. The latter had a great deal to do with the situation in Norway in the 1880s, where, as Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov once explained, “a working class, in the present sense of the term, had not yet developed … and was, therefore, nowhere evident in public life.”
Plekhanov pays strong tribute to Ibsen’s social insight and instincts, in particular the dramatist’s abhorrence of the crude, grasping petty bourgeoisie. The Norwegian writer, observes Plekhanov, despises the “moral rottenness and hypocrisy of small town society and politics” and “the boundless tyranny of petty bourgeois public opinion.” He notes that “Ibsen hates opportunism with all his soul; he describes it brilliantly in his plays. Recall the printer Aslaksen [Anderson, in Morell’s play], with his incessant preaching of ‘moderation,’ which, in his own words, ‘is the greatest virtue in a citizen—at least, I think so.’ Aslaksen is the epitome of the petty bourgeois politician.”
The play’s passion and outrage continue to speak to present-day audiences, not least of all in Flint, whose working-class residents are the victims of corporate predation and government indifference or worse. In fact, when the mayor in Public Enemy: Flint proclaims that “the public doesn’t need new ideas; what the public needs is good, strong, time-tested method, not hare-brained theories that turn the world upside down,” one is tempted to shout out that the world, above all, needs to be turned upside down.
Early on Monday a colleague of mine messaged me with a link to a Politico article detailing how Russian intelligence has allegedly gathered “kompromat” on about 2,300 well-known American media personalities and politicians, apparently in conjunction with Vladimir Putin’s ongoing effort to subvert American democracy.
My political writer friend added, “This is scary. What do you think will happen?”
“Nothing,” I wrote back. “Not as long as Trump insists this is nothing more than a scam by the Democrats because Hillary lost.”
We can’t repeat this enough: The United States and our democratic institutions were attacked by a hostile foreign power, yet President Donald Trump refuses to do a damn thing about it. Not only is he still infuriatingly chummy with the Russians, gifting them (without reciprocation) classified intelligence inside the Oval Office and reopening housing compounds that serve as bases for Russian spies. He won’t even acknowledge as legitimate the very basic nut of the story, that Russia hacked the 2015-16 election cycle. Never mind the question of possible collusion for now. The Russians attacked us and there’s copious evidence to prove it.
Imagine if, in the wake of 9/11, the George W. Bush White House had refused to accept that the attack even occurred. The entire world would have thought Bush had lost his mind or that our entire nation was caught in the grip of mass delusion.
Either way, Trump is behaving as if a series of ongoing events that were palpably real weren’t so at all. Those of us who have followed Trump’s ridiculousness since the 1980s know that he’s perpetually full of crap. For example, you may recall his yarn: “Trump Steaks are the world’s greatest steaks and I mean that in every sense of the word.” But as a presidential candidate, and subsequently as the country’s chief executive, his world of make believe is unparalleled. Everything orbiting in Trump’s universe — a universe that includes his 62 million voters along with Fox News — is a fantasy.
Everything that’s real is fake and everything that’s fake is real.
Trump held a Cabinet meeting on Monday morning where he asked his department-level secretaries to offer allegedly unsolicited praise for him and to express effusive gratitude for the honor of serving Trump personally. The usually stoic CNBC reporter John Harwood described the meeting by saying, “Honestly this is like a scene from the Third World.” Indeed. Vice President Mike Pence said serving Trump was “the great honor of [his] life.” (Pence has three children, by the way, whose births must be way down on the list of honors.) Chief of staff Reince Priebus, who’s fighting for his job, said, “Thank you for the blessing you’ve given us.” Yes, I’m sure it’s quite a blessing to be in charge of scooping the rhetorical feces from the cage of a clownish supervillain who needed four tries to correctly spell “hereby.”
The Cabinet’s gooey, over-the-top praise was cloying and artificial, but in Trump’s world of make believe the president and his disciples were sufficiently fluffed, injecting every word of the Cabinet’s Eddie Haskell-ish ass kissing into the news cycle. Insofar as perception is reality, we can assume it worked on the faithful. If all these serious people think Trump is the greatest president God ever created, then it must be true!
Likewise, Trump expects everyone to believe there might be tapes of his one-on-one meetings with former FBI Director James Comey. Knowing Trump and the mendacity of his online blurtings, it’s safe to say there aren’t any tapes even though (to coin a phrase), “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.” If the tapes exist, he’d release them. But releasing the tapes is irrelevant because as long as his base believes Comey is what Trump claimed — a crazy, cowardly grandstander who’s obviously lying about the meetings — then pretending that such tapes might exist is enough for the voters who matter.
Contrary to Trump’s world of make believe, there weren’t 3 million illegal Hillary Clinton voters, nor did former President Barack Obama have Trump’s “wires tapped.” The tax reform bill Trump says is being negotiated doesn’t actually exist. The American Health Care Act (also known as “Trumpcare”) will not provide health insurance to more people and will ultimately leave tens of millions of people with no coverage, among other terrible things. His tweets about the “travel ban” won’t help his chances in court and only make matters worse for the future of his executive order.
Meanwhile, Trump praised his record on jobs so far: While 1.1 million new jobs have been created since Election Day, 1.3 million jobs were created during the previous seven months during former President Barack Obama’s administration. (Trump has also forgotten about the supposedly “real” unemployment rate he mentioned so often during the campaign.) Trump insists the Democrats are feckless, rudderless failures who can’t get anything done yet they’re also effectively obstructing his entire agenda despite the fact that the GOP controls everything. And sorry, James Comey is telling the truth.
I could do this all day. Nothing Trump says is real or accurate — nothing. Even discussing his statements as if they’re mere off-the-shelf political lies serves to only normalize him when, in fact, what he’s doing is galactically destructive. The world has lost faith in America’s leadership or is losing it fast. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans believe Trump has gone bye-bye. Why? Because his fictitiousness is so completely obvious that we have no choice but to wonder whether he’s mentally fit to lead. (He’s not.) He seems to sincerely believe that his kooky outbursts and cartoonish threats sound legitimate when anyone with a brain knows he’s tilting at windmills — even some of his core supporters.
Congressional Republicans are excusing Trump’s loony behavior, for the moment, as the consequences of his being “new to the job,” arguing that his rookie stature is the source of his nonstop flailing. I’m all in favor of any excuses that underscore the president’s massive incompetence, thanks. But the GOP seems to forget that Trump has acted like this for his entire career. He sculpts his own reality to compensate for his endless roster of inadequacies.
But before too long — and I hope this is true — the president and his supporters will be blindsided by reality. Sometime soon, Trump will be fully exposed for his part in the Trump-Russia attack whether as a willing participant or a conspirator after the fact, orchestrating the cover-up. No fairy tales from his Twitter feed will dig him out. The story has to end this way. Trump and all Trump’s men have to be held accountable, otherwise we might as well resign ourselves to believing our democracy is owned and operated by the Kremlin. We can’t allow Trump’s delusions to become American delusions. The bedtime story Trump is telling has to end and end the right way — or else.
Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon.com. He’s also the host of “The Bob Cesca Show” podcast, and a weekly guest on both the “Stephanie Miller Show” and “Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang.” Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
If you live in any major city in the world, you probably know the type: they roam the clean parts of town, lattes in hand, wearing American Apparel hoodies emblazoned with logos of vowel-deficient startups. Somehow, in the past decade, a profession turned into a lifestyle and a culture, with its own customs, habits and even lingo. In film, television and literature, the techie archetype is mocked, recycled, reduced to a stereotype (as in Mike Judge’s sitcom “Silicon Valley”), a radical hero (as in “Mr. Robot”), or both (as in “The Circle”).
If, as many claim, the hipster died at the end of the 2000s, the techie seems to have taken its place in the 2010s — not quite an offshoot, but rather a mutation. Consider the similarities: Like hipsters, techies are privy to esoteric knowledge, though of obscure code rather than obscure bands. They both seem to love kale. They tend to rove in packs, are associated with gentrification, and are overwhelmingly male. There are some fashion similarities: the tight jeans, the hoodie fetish, the predilection for modernist Scandinavian furniture. And like “hipster,” the term “techie” is often considered a slur, a pejorative that you lob at someone you want to depict as out of touch, rarefied and elite — not a fellow prole, in other words.
Yet there are differences, too: The techie often brings with him or her a certain worldview and language that attempts to describe the world in computational terms; the transformation of the word “hack” into an everyday verb attests to this. Some techies view their own bodies as merely machines that require food the way computers need electricity, a belief system exemplified by the popularity of powdered foods like Soylent. This happens in exercise, too — the rush to gamify health and wellness by tracking steps, calories and heartbeats turns the body into a spreadsheet.
How does a profession mutate into a culture? David Golumbia, an associate professor of digital studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “The Cultural Logic of Computation,” suggests that some of the cultural beliefs common to those in the tech industry about the utopian promise of computers trickle down into what we may think of as tech culture at large. Golumbia describes the basic idea, “computationalism,” as “the philosophical idea that the brain is a computer” as well as “a broader worldview according to which people or society are seen as computers, or that we might be living inside of a simulation.”
“You frequently find people who avoid formal education for some reason or another and then educate themselves through reading a variety of online resources that talk about this, and they subscribe to it as quasi-religious truth, that everything is a computer,” Golumbia said. “It’s appealing to people who find the messiness of the social and human world unappealing and difficult to manage. There’s frustration . . . expressed when parts of the world don’t appear to be computational, by which I mean, when their actions can’t be represented by algorithms that can be clearly defined.”
“It’s very reductive,” Golumbia added.
Mapping the social world onto the algorithmic world seems to be where tech culture goes astray. “This is part of my deep worry about it — we are heading in a direction where people who really identify with the computer are those who have a lot of trouble dealing with other people directly. People who find the social world difficult to manage often see the computer as the solution to their problems,” Golumbia said.
But tech culture isn’t confined to screen time anymore. It’s become part of everyday life, argues Jan English-Lueck, a professor of anthropology of San Jose State University and a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future. English-Lueck wrote an ethnographic account of Silicon Valley culture, “Cultures@SiliconValley,” and studies the people and culture of the region.
“We start to see our civic life in a very technical way. My favorite example of that is people going to a picnic and looking at some food and asking if that’s ‘open source’ [available to all]. So people use those technological metaphors to think about everyday things in life,” she said.
English-Lueck says the rapid pace of the tech field trickles down into tech culture, too. “People are fascinated with speed and efficiency, they’re enthusiastic and optimistic about what technology can accomplish.”
Golumbia saw the aspects of tech culture firsthand: Prior to being a professor, he worked in information technology for a software company on Wall Street. His convictions about computationalism were borne out in his colleagues. “What I saw was that there were at least two kinds of employees — there was a programmer type, who was very rigid but able to do the tasks that you put in front of them, and there were the managerial types who were much more flexible in their thinking.”
“My intuition in talking to [the] programmer types [was that] they had this very black-and-white mindset, that everything was or should be a computer,” he said. “And the managers, who tended to have taken at least a few liberal arts classes in college, and were interested in history of thought, understood you can’t manage people the way you manage machines.”
Yet the former worldview — that everything is a computer — seems to have won out. “When I started, I thought it was this minor small subgroup of society” that believed that, he told Salon. “But nowadays I think many executives in Silicon Valley have some version of this belief.”
For evidence that the metaphor of the human body as a computer has gone mainstream, look no further than our gadgetry. Devices like the Fitbit and the Apple Watch monitor a the wearer’s movement and activity constantly, producing data that they can obsess over or study. “There is a small group of people who become obsessed with quantification,” Golumbia told Salon. “Not just about exercise, but like, about intimate details of their life — how much time spent with one’s kids, how many orgasms you have — most people aren’t like that; they do counting for a while [and] then they get tired of counting. The counting part seems oppressive.”
But this counting obsession, a trickle-down ideology from tech culture, is no longer optional: In many gadgets, it is now imposed from above. My iPhone counts my steps whether I like it or not. And other industries and agencies love the idea that we should willingly be tracked and monitored constantly, including the NSA and social media companies who profit off knowing the intimate details of our lives and selling ads to us based on it. “Insurers are trying to get us to do this all the time as part of wellness programs,” Golumbia said. “It’s a booming top-down control thing that’s being sold to us as the opposite.”
Golumbia marvels at a recent ad for the Apple Watch that features the Beyoncé song “Freedom” blaring in the background. “How did we get to this world where freedom means having a device on your that measures what you do at all times?”
Why are we focusing on who leaked what to whom, when our democracy is under siege?
It was a breezy, surprisingly pleasant summer week in Washington as the frenzy around potential Trump-Russia revelations reached near-carnival levels. On Thursday, brightly clad groups scattered across the lawns of Capitol Hill could almost have been picnickers — if not for the mounds of cable leashing them to nearby satellite trucks. Every news studio in D.C. seemed to have spilled forth into the jarring sunlight, eager for the best live backdrop to the spectacle that awaited. Bars opened early for live viewing of former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. Political ads against Comey — who isn’t running for anything — aired during coverage of the hearing, often back-to-back with vibrant ads praising President Trump’s first foreign trip, where he “[united] forces for good against evil.”
Only D.C.’s usually opportunistic T-shirt printers seemed to have missed the cue, forced to display the usual tourist “FBI” fare in rainbow spectrum but offering no specialty knitwear for the occasion. The conversion of America’s political arena into a hybrid sporting event/reality show was nonetheless near complete.
Russian state media — eagerly throwing peanuts into the three-ring circus in the days before by endlessly looping Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin’s mockery of America’s “hysteria” on all things Russia, and on the day after by running headlines of American “collusion” with ISIS — was dead silent on either of this week’s Senate hearings, during both of which intelligence leaders offered bleak and candid assessments of the cascading Russian threat against America.
And this is perhaps the banner flying over the investigations circus: Missing from the investigation of the supposed Russia scandal is any real discussion of Russia.
The starkest aspect of Comey’s prepared statement was the president’s lack of curiosity about the long-running, deep-reaching, well-executed and terrifyingly effective Russian attack on American democracy. This was raised more than once in the hearing — that after Trump was briefed in January on the intelligence community’s report, which emphasized ongoing activity directed by the Kremlin against the United States, he has not subsequently evinced any interest in what can be done to protect us from another Russian assault. The president is interested in his own innocence, or the potential guilt of others around him — but not at all in the culpability of a foreign adversary, or what it meant. This is utterly astonishing.
Since the January intelligence report, the public’s understanding of the threat has not expanded. OK, Russia meddled in the election — but so what? Increasingly, responsibility for this is born by the White House, which in seeking to minimize the political damage of “Trump/Russia” is failing to craft a response to the greatest threat the United States and its allies have ever faced.
Even if the president and his team were correct, and the Comey testimony definitively cleared the president of potential obstruction of justice or collusion charges — even if that were true, that does not also exonerate Russia. Nonetheless, this is a line the president seems to want drawn.
So here are the real issues — about Russia; about the brutal facts we have yet to face; and about some hard questions we need to ask ourselves, and our political leaders, and our president.
1. No matter what is true or not, we have moved toward the fractured, inward-looking, weakened America that President Putin wants to see.
An honest assessment of where we are reads like the setting of a dystopian spy novel. Paid advertising is defaming private American citizens viewed as opponents of the president, while political ads praise our glorious leader. The policy process is paralyzed while both party caucuses, once well-oiled legislative and messaging machines, have factionalized into guerrilla-like cells. The same can be said of many government agencies, whose halls remain quiet, awaiting political appointees who may never arrive. Policies are floated and tweeted and drafted and retracted. There are uneasy relationships between the White House and the intelligence community, and between the White House and Congress, and between the White House and other parts of the White House — which is bleeding over into how the intelligence community interacts with the Congress, as well.
This factionalization mirrors a deep and deepening public divide, which has been greatly accelerated by a war on truth. The Russian narrative is increasingly being echoed by far right media, and finding its way into mainstream conservative media. Episodes of violent unrest, and the potential for wider chaos, don’t seem far off.
Meanwhile, no one seems to be watching what Russia is still doing to us. No one is systematically speaking about the tactics of Russian hybrid warfare, and that these go beyond “fake news” and “hacking” into far-reaching intelligence operations and initiatives to destabilize Western countries, economies and societies. No one is talking about how Russia provides training for militants and terrorists in Europe, even as U.S. generals say it is supporting the Taliban as it attacks American forces in Afghanistan. No one is leading a unified effort to roll back Russian influence in Europe or Asia or the Middle East. No one is commenting on Russia’s new efforts to entrench its presence near eastern Ukraine, escalate the fighting there and destabilize the government in Kyiv.
No one is commenting on how Russia is sparking and fueling Middle Eastern wars — first a physical one spiraling out from Syria, and now a diplomatic one that sweeps across the region. In a very real sense, if you want a glimpse of the world that Putin’s “grey Cardinal” Vladislav Surkov imagined when he described nonlinear warfare — “all against all” — the current churn throughout the Middle East, the Gulf states and North Africa is a pretty good example. This is a massive realignment that deeply affects U.S. interests, and which will cost us, in blood and treasure, in immeasurable ways.
But no one is commenting on the new hardware and manpower that Russia has deployed to the eastern and southern Mediterranean, or to its eastern and western borders. Our trenches will draw nearer again after the summer exercise season, but who will man them on the Western side is more uncertain. Europe’s newfound fortitude is absolutely critical — but their military capabilities will lag their ambitions for years to come.
Our relationships with our truest allies are frayed and fraying — and not just in headlines, but in trust and intelligence sharing and functionality, even as critical ambassadorships and administration jobs gape open. Those who remain, especially from the Pentagon and military commands — Defense Secretary James Mattis and the EUCOM and SOCOM commanders, notably — have been patrolling Europe with trips and reassurances, good work that was undone when the president removed mention of Article 5 from his speech at NATO headquarters. Though he committed to the principle of collective defense on Friday during a news conference with the president of Romania, that one act of petulance is devastating to years of NATO’s strategic planning.
Even behind closed doors, Trump reportedly did not once mention Russia to the NATO heads of state — not to discuss Russian attacks against our allies, and not to discuss Russia’s menacing of NATO skies, seas and borders. Instead, he browbeat our allies. Maybe it’s news to the White House — but it was Russia’s aggression, not Trump’s hectoring, that inspired the alliance to boost national military spending. Days later, the sting still on the slap, Trump lashed out at the mayor of London following a terror attack. These words and images, next to those of the president yukking it up in the Oval Office with the Russian foreign minister, add a dangerous element of fragility to the greatest military alliance in history.
It leaves us to wonder — who does President Trump imagine will come to our aid after the next attack on our soil? Who does he imagine will stand next to our troops and ease the burden at the front lines in the many wars he is fighting?
For while our attention is on the center ring and who may next find their head inside the lion’s mouth, we are engaged in expanding special warfare in Africa, a tense standoff on the Korean peninsula, expanding operations in the Middle East. The president has requested a military budget to match this operational appetite — even if his inability to manage Congress makes it near-certain this will be trapped behind a continuing budget resolution until after the midterm elections. The Pentagon is clear on the purpose and direction of these operations, but the president’s tirades against countries hosting our men and military assets — Qatar, South Korea, Germany, etc. — complicate our ability to execute on-task.
Even Putin admits that “patriotic” Russian hackers were behind the attack on America — a fact the president will still not mention without caveat. Trump is isolated, manages those around him with Stalinesque puppeteering, and rightly views himself as under attack. But even if given every benefit of the doubt about the election, it is clear he does not think Russia is a threat.
2. Russia has altered American policies, our relationships with our allies and our view of our place in the world.
To be clear: I am not saying Trump did not win the election, or that he didn’t have considerable momentum toward the end of the campaign. Candidate Trump had a narrative that captured many hearts and minds — but this did not happen in a vacuum, but rather a landscape awash in Russian active measures.
A constantly misunderstood narrative was revisited during the Comey hearing — questions about whether Russian actions “changed” the vote. The focus on whether this means Russia physically changed votes is the greatest diversion tactic of all. Ironically, D.C.’s political class — whose existence is based upon the ability to deploy narratives that get some people to vote, and others not to — refuses to admit that outside interests could change a small percentage of votes in the Rust Belt.
If the Trump campaign itself has openly discussed its use of data-backed information operations to conduct targeted voter-suppression campaigns, possibly at the individual level — why would we believe the Russians wouldn’t be experimenting with the same tools and tactics? Do we really think Russian-friendly parties, oligarchs and state-owned interests hire U.S. political consultants and pollsters and technology firms merely to run ad campaigns, rather than to learn how to use these things against us?
These tools and tactics in the information space work better against America than anywhere else because there are a lot of us, and because English is the language of internet — and the amplification factor because of these things is staggering, especially when one of our presidential candidates was borrowing and repeating Russian narrative and disinformation. What possible claim could any sensible American politician make that these factors had no impact in the decisionmaking process of the American voter?
In fact, you can track the radical changes in the belief of certain narratives during the time period Comey identified as when the most intensive Kremlin-led activities were underway (beginning in summer 2015 through present day). During this time frame, Republican views on free trade agreements dropped 30 points, from roughly the same as Democrats to radically divergent (Democratic views remained relatively steady). Putin’s favorability rating increased, even while unfavorable views remained constant, fueled by a 20-point increase among Republicans and an 11-point increase among Independents. Between early 2016 and now, Republican views of whether media criticism can help keep political leaders in line — which for the previous five years was almost identical to Democratic views — dropped by 35 points.
An isolationist America that is softer on Russia and more in favor of authoritarian traits in leaders fits right into the narratives that the Kremlin nurtures and spends billions to promote. And if views changed so dramatically on these aspects of Russian narratives — why is it we believe their efforts didn’t change any votes?
In many ways, the trust-based, state-based U.S. voting system is surprisingly resilient to basichacking or meddling. Every state, sometimes every county, runs its own elections with its own rules with its own machines (or not) serviced by their own vendors. Certainly, there are easy ways to hack this infrastructure — technicians servicing software, unsecured machines, etc. — but the decentralized system makes it a complicated affair. It’s uncertain and it’s messy and it would leave a trail of money and evidence that can be found and exposed.
Far simpler, it turns out, is just hacking people — getting them to change their views over time without realizing that they are doing so on the basis of deliberately coercive and false information that is targeted at them because they exhibit certain traits and habits that “data scientists” have profiled. And no one can prove anyone did anything.
And yes, this is indeed terrifying. So yes, it would be great if everyone would move on from denying the existence of the “hacked votes” no one is looking for to looking instead at the far more important issue: that Russian information warfare has come of age thanks to social media. Perhaps then, the tens of thousands of “programmers” working for Russia’s three largest data companies will make a lot more sense.
3. It will happen again; it is still happening now.
One final point, on the tactical weaponization of discrete pieces of information. Ours was not the only case where hacking introduced info or disinfo that came to dominate specific parts of the information space (particularly when massively amplified by botnets that know how to game the algorithms).
Just this week, the planting of a single false report, allegedly by Russian hackers, was used to justify a diplomatic rift that will fuel the realignment of the Middle East. Russia has been working to accelerate this process since 2011, when it used the Syrian civil war as a pretext to deploy to the region. It is no accident that this realignment has meant a proxy war that has empowered Iran — which has been helping kill Americans in Iraq since at least 2004 — and special efforts targeting countries that the U.S. has relied on for regional basing and power projection — including Turkey, Egypt, Qatar and Iraqi Kurdistan.
This tactic works because it prays on doubts and grievances that are already present — as the best information warfare does. Truth doesn’t matter. Once we know how we feel about something, who cares what the truth is? And information is just one act of Russia’s shadow war.
So this is where we are, six months after first taking stock of what Russia did to America. We are paralyzed and divided, watching a salacious sideshow of an investigation while Russian initiatives are underway in countless places, completely unchecked. The American president, eager to be rid of this “cloud,” has equated dismissing Russia’s global imperialist insurgency with loyalty to him.
As I wrote for Politico in January, Russia is clear about what its objectives are. When I said then that Russia was at war with the United States, this was an edgy, controversial view. Now, it is regularly repeated by senators and TV commentators. But our societal understanding of the war we face has not expanded fast enough.
Even looking only at the advance of Russian military assets — men, materiel, supporting infrastructure — the picture is grim. And yet the most concise encapsulation of the Russian concept of hybrid warfare — the chart depicting the “Gerasimov doctrine,” developed by the Russian chief of the general staff — shows that information warfare is the constant through all phases, and that the ideal ratio of nonmilitary to military activities is 4:1. The more important war is, by far, the shadow war. And yet we still refuse to accept what’s happening.
I don’t know why we just choose not to believe what Russia says, when they have repeatedly outlined what their strategic goals are and then moved to achieve them by force and guile. But it’s a bridge of disbelief we need to be willing to cross.
The war is in the shadows. And right now, Russia is winning. There is only one question that we should be asking: What are we going to do to protect the American people from Russian acts of war — and why doesn’t the president want to talk about it?