Donald Trump in Wonderland

Literally everything our president says and does reflects the opposite of reality

Monday’s fawning Cabinet meeting was just the latest example of a doomed presidency driven by dangerous fictions

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.

What else?

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.

The techie is the new hipster — but what is tech culture?

The archetype of the “techie” has become commonplace in the past decade in art and in real life. But what is it?

The techie is the new hipster — but what is tech culture even?
(Credit: Getty/Geber86)

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?”

Keith A. Spencer is a cover editor at Salon.

Forget Comey. The Real Story Is Russia’s War on America

WAR ROOM

Why are we focusing on who leaked what to whom, when our democracy is under siege?

June 11, 2017

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 basic hacking 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?

Molly K. McKew (@MollyMcKew), an expert on information warfare, also advises governments and political parties on foreign policy and strategic communications. She advised Georgian President Saakashvili’s government from 2009-2013, and former Moldovan Prime Minister Filat, who has been a political prisoner since 2015, in 2014-2015.

Three intriguing new films that should not disappear unnoticed: Sami Blood, Past Life and Radio Dreams

By David Walsh
10 June 2017

There are still compelling reasons to pay attention to interesting, artistic films, such as Sami Blood (Sweden) , Past Life (Israel) and Radio Dreams (Iran-US), all of which opened in the US in early June.

Most of the films in movie theaters in the US at the moment are poor, juvenile or worse. As a result, the public is increasingly turning away. From 2009 through 2012, North American box office grew by slightly less than two percent. 2016 was one of the worst years in the history of the American film industry in terms of ticket sales per person. The decline seems likely to continue this year. Revenues climb solely because of the rising cost of movie tickets.

The exhaustion of the large film studios’ (i.e., conglomerates’) collective imagination has reached a dangerous, nearly provocative level.

It is almost a commonplace by now that more intriguing work, in general, is being done in the US in television, by the cable channels and so forth. There is even an argument to be made that the 8- or 10-part series is more conducive to pursuing certain subjects, including complex historical and social questions.

Moreover, the eruption of virtually universal political crisis legitimately and imperatively pushes certain issues to the fore. The film world comes in for justifiable impatience and anger for its failure by and large to confront those great issues.

However, that is not an argument against the filmmaker undertaking more personal or at least specialized work. The reasoning, should it emerge, that the urgency of the conditions means that only large-scale, panoramic films are worthwhile, is not a good one. As Trotsky once suggested, “personal lyrics of the very smallest scope have an absolute right to exist.” Moreover, he added, the new human being could not “be formed without a new lyric poetry.”

None of the three films that opened in early June falls into the category of “lyric poetry,” and, in fact, each raises certain historical or social questions, broadly speaking, but they are undoubtedly concise, detailed pictures, more concerned with the manner in which social events find psychological expression, and determine the course of individuals’ lives. Their greatest value lies in encouraging more complex thinking and feeling.

One or more may already have vanished from theaters in New York and Los Angeles, for example, but they are now in circulation, and will reappear somewhere or other, or in some other format. These are edited versions of comments that have appeared previously on the WSWS.

Sami Blood

Sami Blood

There are films that are painful and pleasurable at the same time. Amanda Kernell’s Sami Blood, from Sweden, is not an easy film to watch. It creates considerable unease and anxiety, reflecting the internally conflicted, nearly impossible situation of its central character.

The film, Kernell’s first feature-length work, is set in Sweden primarily in the 1930s. Elle Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok), 14, is a reindeer-herding Sami girl, who is sent to a state boarding school aimed at “civilizing” its students.

The Samis are an indigenous people inhabiting northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. Like other indigenous peoples, they have long faced racism and oppression.

One of the early scenes is memorable. Elle Marja is rowing herself and her younger sister, Njenna (Mia Sparrok), across a beautiful, tranquil lake. They are on their way to the boarding school, leaving their mother and everyone they know behind. Njenna cries quietly. “I don’t want to go,” she says simply, while her sister pulls the oars.

Elle Marja is a bright, ambitious girl. She wants very much to assimilate into the Swedish population. She sharply tells her sister, “You must speak Swedish.” Meanwhile local farm boys call them “dirty Lapps,” although one seems to be Sami himself.

One day, officials come to the school in a car and the girls and boys line up in their native costumes. The event starts out like some sort of stuffy but harmless bureaucratic ceremony. Horrifyingly, the officials are there to measure and photograph the Sami children, as part of research into “racial characteristics.”

Elle Marja wants to continue her education, she starts dreaming of another life, but her teacher (Hanna Alström) somewhat regretfully lets her know that “You people don’t have what it takes” to get by in the wider world. Eventually, Elle Marja takes off, for Uppsala, a large city. She tries to impose herself on the family of a Swedish boy she has met. Every effort to fit in ends in awkwardness for her, if not humiliation. At one point, a young guest at the family’s house, an anthropology student, asks her patronizingly to perform a traditional Sami singing style.

In any case, she needs money to pay for her schooling. She goes back home and demands a sum of cash. In an outburst, she tells her mother: “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be with you. I don’t want to be a f–––––– circus animal.”

Kernell’s film is made with great sensitivity and attention to detail. The director was born in 1986 in the far north of Sweden to a Swedish mother and Sami father. Sami Blood was reportedly inspired by the experiences of Kernell’s grandmother. The filmmaker told an interviewer that the treatment of the Samis was an “untold” story and a “dark chapter” in Swedish history. The film, she said, is about someone “leaving what you’re from, becoming another.” What are the consequences for Elle Marja when she “cuts all ties”?

The worst part of the story is that in order to make a life for herself, Elle Marja has to absorb into herself elements of racism and contempt for her own people. This is what Swedish society does to her. In one especially difficult scene, Elle Marja, who is trying to pass herself off as a “normal Swede,” is obliged to shoo away her own beloved sister, pretending not to understand what she is saying and blurting out, “Get away, you filthy Lapp.” Njenna may never forgive her for this.

The drama is remarkably intimate. We know at times almost more than we want to know about Elle Marja’s predicament. Kernell also provides hints of broader social processes–the concern with “race” and eugenics, for example. In the same interview, she said that she did not want to “explain” anything, but simply tell the story.

This is not the occasion to enter into a polemic on that score once again, especially in regard to a film that, for the most part, is moving and clear-sighted and a filmmaker who is obviously conscientious and humane.

However, it is one thing to recognize that artists for the most part are more expert at “showing” the world than explaining it, that they are seized by powerful impressions that have a strong element of intuition. It is another to make a positive program, as so many artists do today, out of “not explaining.” In our view, the filmmaker or novelist requires “high intellectual powers,” in Aleksandr Voronsky’s phrase, and cannot make progress without “immense, very persistent and complex rational activity.”

Sami Blood is an extraordinary, deeply felt film. But it is probably the sort of work that can only be done once. Even as it is, its strong emotional content should not blind us to certain tendencies that may endanger Kernell’s development: the relative narrowness, the intense immediacy. …

Past Life

Past Life

Avi Nesher’s Past Life, from Israel, is an intelligent, convincing film for the most part, inspired by a true story. It takes place in the late 1970s.

Aspiring composer Sephi Milch (Joy Rieger) is in Berlin to sing with her choral group when a woman approaches her after a concert, and upon hearing her name, calls her father a “murderer.” The woman seems to be Polish, and wears a crucifix around her neck.

Sephi and her older sister Nana (Nelly Tagar), who has an axe to grind against her stern father, set out to look into the matter. Nana works for a leftist magazine of some kind and has arguments with her father about Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. When we first see her, she is condemning Israelis for “robbing people of their land” and for justifying “our crimes by crimes committed against us.” Her father, a gynecologist, will hear none of it.

The sisters, with Nana (“I hate secrets”) in the lead, uncover painful facts about their father’s life in Poland during World War II, when he hid in a farmer’s basement from the Gestapo. Eventually, against his better judgment and against his wife’s wishes (“Why bring up the past?”), Baruch Milch (Doron Tavory), reads to his daughters his wartime diary, a diary of “hell.”

The story is complicated by the woman Sephi met in Berlin, Agnieszka Zielinska (Katarzyna Gniewkowska), and her son, Thomas Zielinski (Rafael Stachowiak), a composer with whom Sephi develops a friendship. Why is the Polish woman so convinced Dr. Milch is a murderer? Can a victim of the greatest crime in history have committed inexcusable acts?

There are many complications and intricacies in this story. There is even an element of “suspense.” Some of the situations seem unlikely, but they are apparently rooted in fact. Nesher, a veteran director, comments, “World War II ended in 1945 and it took the world seven decades but finally everyone seems to have moved on–everyone, that is, except for the sons and daughters of those Holocaust survivors, the very people who constitute the vast majority of the population of my homeland.”

He continues: “Slippery politicians know only too well how to press the Holocaust button and activate reactions that would do Pavlov proud. … [The Holocaust] is a deeply rooted trauma that is very difficult to overcome, but overcome it we must if our children are to have a future.”

Nesher, however, seems to have a limited notion of what “overcoming” the past would mean. It seems simply bound up with “forgiveness,” “reconciliation” and similar concepts. He has set the film when he did for a reason. Past Life’s production notes explain: “1977 is the same year Egyptian president Sadat decided to break the shackles of history and bravely embark on a peace process with Israel. In many ways this is exactly what the two sisters need to do as they travel throughout Europe, bent on uncovering the past and getting to the truth behind their parents’ darkest secret.” This is a poor comparison on every score.

The desire to promote reconciliation as such perhaps helps explain the somewhat unconvincing, pat final scenes, during which various attempts are made to bring Dr. Milch and his wife together with Agnieszka Zielinska.

For the most part though, the film is intensely and richly written and performed. The sense of historical nightmare hanging over the various characters is palpable. Tavory is particularly memorable.

Past Life is inspired by Dr. Baruch Milch’s autobiography Can Heaven Be Void? Milch’s diary was brought to Nesher’s attention by Milch’s daughter, Ella Sheriff. Sheriff explained to an interviewer: “It was terrifying to know that our parents had a secret, but never knowing what it might be. In fact, the atmosphere was consistently grim. There was never a feeling of a happy childhood. We could not share our own distressing experiencing with our parents, either, and yet on the other hand we girls were always overprotected, especially by our father, and we could not understand where this anxiety was coming from, the constant fear of loss.”

Shedding light on the mentality of many of those who emigrated to Israel after the war, Sheriff pointed to her father’s personal “Ten Commandments,” which include: “Thou shall have no other Gods before yourself,” “Do only that which benefits you, and do not sacrifice for others,” “Toughen your heart and do not heed it,” “Do not get too close to people, and do not bring them closer to you,” and “Do not be gullible, and trust no one.”

Radio Dreams

Radio Dreams

Radio Dreams, directed by Iranian-born, London-based director Babak Jalali, is a pleasurable experience. The film takes place for the most part in a Farsi-language radio station in the Bay Area during the course of one day.

Numerous tensions exist, side by side. The programming director, Hamid Royami, is an Iranian émigré, a novelist, well-known in his own country (played by the Iranian singer-songwriter, Mohsen Namjoo). He has artistic ideals, and some sort of leftist past. He wants to present something about life, including the lives of Iranians in the US, in poetry, songs, stories.

Maral (Boshra Dastournezhad), the daughter of the station’s owner, worries only about the income coming in from advertisers. The station owner himself is mainly interested in wrestling. Maral’s noisy, crass commercials for pizza shops and dermatologists interrupt and cut into Hamid’s artistic programming, threatening to send him over the edge.

Bizarrely, everyone at the radio station is waiting for the appearance of Metallica, the rock ‘n’ roll band. The three members of the Afghan band, Kabul Dreams, in particular are sitting around in hopes of meeting their idols. One of the band, meanwhile, falls in love with Maral and reads her a poem, in which he explains that he will wait “120 years in the gutter” for her to whisper his name.

An English-language interviewer asks Hamid why he has invited Metallica to the station. The latter explains, with and without the aid of his inadequate translator, that he was thinking of the tragic history of the two countries, the US and Afghanistan, and wanting to bring the two bands together, “without war, without violence.”

Out of the blue, the station has the opportunity to broadcast an interview with Miss Iran USA. On the way to the station, an employee points out to the young woman, who is dressed in full beauty queen attire, that “No one can see you on radio.” This is the sort of programming that appalls Hamid, her eventual interviewer. The pageant winner has a history of modeling and aspires to be a pharmacist. She is also a poet of sorts. “Do you want me to read one of my poems?,” she asks on air. “No,” Hamid replies, leaving it at that.

In the end, one of Metallica’s members makes an unlikely appearance, but it may be too late for Hamid.

Radio Dreams is appealing. Namjoo, with his amazing shock of grey hair, is an intelligent and sensitive presence. “Poetry like bread is for everyone,” he explains early in the film. How can he reconcile his artistic feelings and his social views with life in America, where he can barely speak the language, and, specifically, with the philistine goings-on at the radio station?

Taking into account the situation in the Middle East and Central Asia, one might wish for a greater urgency. Nor is the social layer represented in Babak Jalali’s film the most oppressed or hard-pressed. But there is a painful element here too: the strangeness of emigration, the indifference of the new country and its population … This is a rather sad comedy. If it were an American film at present, unhappily, the various episodes would be vulgarly done, over the top and terribly unfunny. Jalali brings humanity and sophistication to the work.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/06/10/past-j10.html

Donald Trump’s presidency is fake news

The administration keeps delivering “policy announcements” that are little more than hollow media spectacles

A television set is on in the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Monday, May 15, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

President Donald Trump had a “bill signing” on Monday. After delivering some televised remarks, he sat at a small desk emblazoned with the presidential seal, signed a document, and handed out pens to assembled members of Congress. But the actual document he signed was not a bill, never passed through Congress, and had no legal effect whatsoever.

Instead, what Trump signed was a set of “principles” for his plan to hand air traffic control duties to the private sector. The document was purely symbolic; no one has even introduced new legislation to enact these principles, though the basic gist of them was derived from an older proposal.

Add Trump’s “principles” to the long and growing list of White House announcements that have zero legal import or policy ramifications. Another entry: the very same day as Trump’s pantomime bill signing, Brookings Senior fellow Bruce Riedel announced that the administration’s much-ballyhooed $110 billion weapons deal with Saudi Arabia is, in fact, “fake news.”

“There is no $110 billion deal. Instead, there are a bunch of letters of interest or intent, but not contracts,” wrote Reidel, citing “contacts in the defense business and on the Hill.”

“Many are offers that the defense industry thinks the Saudis will be interested in someday,” he added. “None of the deals identified so far are new, all began in the Obama administration.”

When Trump doesn’t yet have a fake policy to fake-announce, he sometimes pledges that one will be announced soon, and chalks that up as an achievement in of itself. (As Bloomberg noted this week, every White House proposal seems perpetually to be “two weeks” away from unveiling.) Other times, he boasts about wholly imaginary legislation, as when he said last week that his “tax bill is moving along in Congress” and “doing very well.”

There is no tax bill.

For the win

President Trump is not embellishing his agenda with fictitious achievements. The pretend bill signings and symbolic declarations are his agenda. This was clear from the very beginning of his presidential transition, when he claimed to have spared numerous jobs from outsourcing by negotiating deals with individual manufacturers. The details of his agreements with businesses like Carrier invariably turned out to be less than spectacular — but even if he had delivered everything he promised, strong-arming one factory owner at a time was never going to have a meaningful impact on the employment rate across entire sectors of the economy.

Then again, the employment rate was never the point. Trump’s announcements netted him a series of uncritical headlines and some upbeat cable news coverage. For the transition team, that counted as a policy “win.”

The problem with such victories, besides their essential hollowness, is that they’re intrinsically fleeting. Plus, like all bids for positive media attention, they depend on novelty to make a splash. It wasn’t long before Carrier-style deals were yielding diminishing returns in the PR department.

But once Trump entered the White House, he had other tools at his disposal. So he and his team hastily promulgated a series of sloppy, legally dubious executive orders that he could describe as policy victories. Those included, most famously, his misbegotten travel ban curtailing arrivals from seven Muslim-majority countries. While these orders looked like displays of untrammeled power at first, the took on a slightly different color once the judicial branch got involved.

The administration’s frantic push to repeal Obamacare — regardless of the dire consequences for millions of Americans — was similarly driven by a need for some kind of “win” that would light up Anderson Cooper’s A-block for a few precious minutes. This is not speculation; as Politico reported in April, administration officials pushed for a rushed House vote to replace the health care law specifically so Trump “could tout [it] as a major legislative victory before… his 100th day in office.”

When the bill to strip 23 million people of their health insurance did eventually get through the House (albeit after the 100-day deadline) Trump celebrated with a Rose Garden ceremony, despite not having a final version of the legislation to sign.

But at least that was a real piece of legislation, which had passed at least one chamber of Congress. As the president’s approval rating continues to collapse and the odds lengthen that he’ll get any other major legislation through either the House or the Senate, the White House has now defaulted to touting “achievements” that are little more than jerry-rigged performance art.

Some of these non-policies can invigorate Trump’s base, or provide the temporary illusion of momentum. But few have translated into anything approaching a real legacy. And none of them have arrested the inexorable downward slide of the president’s approval rating — quite the opposite, in fact. Based on the Gallup daily tracking numbers, it looks like taking away millions of people’s health coverage and ripping up multinational agreements to mitigate climate change are unpopular even in the abstract.

The secret of any good con is knowing when to take the money and beat a hasty departure. But Trump’s con landed him a four-year term in America’s highest office; his efforts to extend that grift for the duration have not, so far, been particularly successful.

Why are there so many billionaires leading money-losing companies?

Uber lost $708 million in 6 months, but its CEO/founder is worth billions. Is Silicon Valley a pyramid scheme?

Why are there so many billionaires leading money-losing companies?
(Credit: Getty/Ronstik)

In a financial report released last week, ride-hailing app company Uber reported a staggering $708 million loss for the first three months of the year. Since the company was founded eight years ago, it’s burned through almost half of the $15 billion in private venture capital that it has raised.

But despite the mounting losses, the departure of more than a dozen company executives over the past year and a string of controversies that would send the typical company plunging into an irreversible death spiral, Uber CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick’s net worth is immense.

According to Forbes, Kalanick is worth $6.3 billion, making him the world’s 226th wealthiest billionaire and the 35th richest magnate of the global tech industry. That makes him richer than Wal-Mart heiress Christy Walton and Liu Qiandong, founder and head of Chinese e-commerce and retail giant JD.com, which recently reported $11 billion in quarterly sales and its first profit as a publicly traded company.

Kalanick’s bounty seems largely immune (so far) to Uber’s string of mishaps, including allegations of about its workplace being hostile to women, a bitter legal fight with Google over allegedly stolen self-driving car technology, scrutiny over the company’s attempt to deceive government officials, and other controversies concerning its treatment of drivers.

So how does a 40-year-old computer programmer heading a beleaguered and unprofitable company have a net worth greater than the gross domestic product of Barbados?

The short answer is: hopes, dreams and aspirations. Specifically, those of the Uber’s financial backers, who believe in the gospel that Uber is on its way to killing the global taxi industry.

Under normal startup circumstances, a business faces intense pressure to attain profitability within a short period of time. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 1 in 5 new businesses goes under in the first year while nearly half fail within the fifth year. According to a 2015 study from Babson and Baruch Colleges, the typical entrepreneur provides nearly 60 percent of the funding needed for his or her business.

But in the world of Silicon Valley, profitability takes a back seat as deep-pocketed investors throw money at long-term aspirations. For years private investors have assigned sky-high valuations to tech industry startups in a bid to find the next Amazon or Google nestled in some Northern California office building or garage. Billionaire investors, private equity firms and sovereign wealth fund managers are willing to take considerable risks that mushroom the wealth of founders and CEOs to astronomical levels.

Kalanick is a billionaire because private investors have assigned a value to Uber based on its future potential; that’s where the hopey-dreamy stuff comes in. The company is currently valued at a sky-high $68 billion according to CBInsights, more than half the value of global aerospace behemoth Boeing. Because Kalanick is a primary shareholder of Uber, his net worth is boosted by this potentially irrational valuation, making him a “paper” billionaire.

Though what he does with his equity is not publicly known, Kalanick can potentially leverage this net worth to grow his personal fortune by using his stake in Uber to engage in other business endeavors, like buying real estate or investing in securities, all based on what private investors think his startup is worth.

In the typical scenario, an executive at private equity firm considering an investment in a private startup might compare the numbers offered in a business plan with those of a comparable publicly traded company and examine operating costs, profit margins and overall capital structure. If the startup has a prospectus with targets that seem viable compared with those of an existing competitor, investors will have some degree of confidence that they’ll wind up with a windfall of profit once the company is acquired or it files an initial public offering.

But because of the strange nature of the tech industry, there often isn’t a comparable company upon which investors can base their assessments. When Amazon was raising money in the early 1990s, there was no existing competitor with a similar business model, so early investors had to make estimates and assumptions to base their hopes on. It is interesting that very few individuals invested in Amazon prior to its initial public offering.

In retrospect, offering seed money to Amazon was a no brainer. Internet commerce was growing by a staggering 2,300 percent a year in 1994, and Jeff Bezos saw that light early and famously drew up a business plan during a road trip to Seattle. Venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers was one of a few private investors that gave Bezos money early on, and it reaped a fortune after Amazon filed its initial public offering in 1997 just as the dot-com bubble peaked.

But the success of tech companies like Amazon.com and Google are few and far between. Often the decision by private investors whether to invest in a technology startup is based on assumptions, best estimates and industrywide averages of publicly traded companies in the same sector.

While private equity firms have special access to review a startup’s books, CEO- founders have much more latitude in selling their plans and manipulating their numbers than the heads of established publicly traded companies, who face more regulatory scrutiny.

Once startups make their way to the public markets through initial public offerings, founder-CEOs can continue to reap billions from their company’s valuations without the companies making a dime in profit. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who’s worth an estimated $16 billion, the head of Snap, Evan Spiegel ($4.7 billion) and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey ($1.8 billion) are notable examples of rich CEOs who head unprofitable companies.

These founder-CEOs can spend good portions of their lives as billionaire heads of money-losing companies as long as investors keep believing that these companies may someday strike it rich. But there’s always a make-or-break point, and paper billionaire are always at risk of sinking their fortunes with investors losing their shirts. One thing is almost certain: Even if Uber crashes and burns, Kalanick would likely walk away from the wreckage a very wealthy computer programmer.

 

Kids Are Quoting Trump To Bully Their Classmates And Teachers Don’t Know What To Do About It

 

BuzzFeed News reviewed more than 50 reports of school bullying since the election and found that kids nationwide are using Trump’s words to taunt their classmates. If the president can say those things, why can’t they?

Posted on June 6, 2017, at 8:55 a.m.

Donald Trump’s campaign and election have added an alarming twist to school bullying, with white students using the president’s words and slogans to bully Latino, Middle Eastern, black, Asian, and Jewish classmates. In the first comprehensive review of post-election bullying, BuzzFeed News has confirmed more than 50 incidents, across 26 states, in which a K-12 student invoked Trump’s name or message in an apparent effort to harass a classmate during the past school year.

In the parking lot of a high school in Shakopee, Minnesota, boys in Donald Trump shirts gathered around a black teenage girl and sang a portion of “The Star Spangled Banner,” replacing the closing line with “and the home of the slaves.” On a playground at an elementary school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, third-graders surrounded a boy and chanted “Trump! Trump! Trump!”

On a school bus in San Antonio, Texas, a white eighth-grader said to a Filipino classmate, “You are going to be deported.” In a classroom in Brea, California, a white eighth-grader told a black classmate, “Now that Trump won, you’re going to have to go back to Africa, where you belong.” In the hallway of a high school in San Carlos, California, a white student told two biracial girls to “go back home to whatever country you’re from.” In Louisville, Kentucky, a third-grade boy chased a Latina girl around the classroom shouting “build the wall!” In a stadium parking lot in Jacksonville, Florida, after a high school football game, white students chanted at black students from the opposing school: “Donald Trump! Donald Trump! Donald Trump!”

Today’s high schoolers will be eligible to vote in 2020, and today’s fifth graders will be eligible to vote in 2024.

The first school year of the Donald Trump presidency left educators struggling to navigate a climate where misogyny, religious intolerance, name-calling, and racial exclusion have become part of mainstream political speech.

These budding political beliefs among some students carry consequences beyond the schoolyard. Today’s high schoolers will be eligible to vote in 2020, and today’s fifth-graders will be eligible to vote in 2024. But even if the wave of Trump-related bullying doesn’t reflect some widespread political awakening among young people, it indicates a more troubling reality: the extent to which racial and religious intolerance has shaped how kids talk, joke, and bully.

“It’s unacceptable and it reflects a wider climate of hate that we’re seeing,” Antonio Lopez, an assistant school superintendent in Portland, Oregon, told BuzzFeed News. Lopez in March announced a plan to personally track racist bullying in his district, citing the importance of snubbing out hateful speech as early as possible.

Lopez said the hate incidents in his district were on his mind when he heard that white supremacist Jeremy Joseph Christian had stabbed three people, two of them fatally, on a Portland train after they intervened to stop his racist rant against two teenage girls, one of them a Muslim wearing a headscarf.

While there are no quantitative studies examining the election’s impact on school bullying, BuzzFeed News conducted the first large-scale nationwide analysis of bullying incidents linked to Trump, reviewing hundreds of reports submitted to the Documenting Hate project, a database of tips about hate crimes and bias incidents set up by ProPublica and shared with other news organizations.

BuzzFeed News reviewed every alleged incident, from early October to late May. The reports spanned 149 schools. Of those, BuzzFeed News was able to follow up on 54 cases through interviews, public statements from school officials, and local news reports. (BuzzFeed News has not heard back from the people who filed the other 95 tips.)

For teachers and principals, the first school year of the Trump presidency brought a new test.

“This is my 21st year in education and I’ve never seen a situation like this before,” said Brent Emmons, principal of Hood River Middle School in Oregon. “It’s a delicate tightrope to walk. It’s not my role to tell people how to think about political policies, but it is my role to make sure every kid feels safe at the school.”

At a time of thick political and racial tensions, and of heightened worries among people of color, what is a teacher to say when a student asks: Why can the president say it but I can’t?

BuzzFeed News

Teachers, like everybody else in the United States, realized at some point in 2016 that this election was very different.

Over her 10 years as a middle school English teacher in Spokane Valley, Washington, Amanda Mead liked to shift her curriculum based on current events. She assigned readings from the civil rights era when protests roiled Ferguson in 2014. In 2012 and 2008, her classroom discussions often turned to the presidential election.

“We’d talk about Bush, Obama, McCain, et cetera, and the kids would just nod their heads,” Mead said. “But as the campaign heated up last year, I started to notice a pretty significant change among my kids. They would say things that I have never heard kids in my school district say. Far more vitriolic.”

She caught a group of white students following a Latino student in the hallway, taunting him with chants of “the wall’s coming!” and “Trump! Trump! Trump!” She overheard kids repeating insults Trump had aimed at Hillary Clinton.

For the kids, there was no escaping Trump. His speeches played on television nearly every night. Every adult seemed to be talking about him — at dinner tables, on social media. He was the central figure of the cultural moment, and he talked like a playground bully.

“As the campaign heated up last year, I started to notice a pretty significant change among my kids.”

“It’s a daily occurrence that they hear this language,” said Dorothy Espelage, an education psychology professor at the University of Florida who has researched school bullying. “They’re just parroting back what they hear” — from parents, from Trump, from raucous crowds on televised campaign rallies.

Emmons, the middle school principal in Oregon, didn’t realize how much kids had latched on to Trump’s message until dozens of his students chanted “Build that wall!” during a Halloween assembly after two teachers performing in a skit entered the stage wearing masks of Trump and Clinton. A third of the school’s students are Latino.

“That was the first time that I knew it was going to be a problem at my school,” Emmons said. “Many of our students felt unsafe and disrespected. These words are hateful and scary for them.”

When Emmons talked to some of kids who had chanted, he said he found that “some students had no idea what it meant.” They were simply joining in with the mob. “It’s middle school; it’s what you do because you’re right next to them,” Emmons said. “I really don’t believe that 99% of the kids who were chanting it had any malice or hate in their hearts.”

Recalling an incident he witnessed in which some white students harassed minority students with the usual lines about walls and deportation, Dylan Henderson, a high school sophomore in Atlanta, said, “Maybe a few of them truly were passionate about those beliefs, but the others seemed to just be doing it to incite a response, to see what will happen.”

Kids, like the president, tend to enjoy a good troll.

To Emmons and other educators, activities and discussions that once seemed innocently enriching had suddenly become fraught. Teachers grappled with how to talk to students about the election — or whether to talk about it at all. One fifth-grade teacher in North Carolina, who requested anonymity, said her school told teachers to avoid discussion about the candidates and focus on the political process when talking about the election. “I don’t think anyone has known how to handle it or approach it,” the teacher said.

Parents were similarly caught off guard by the racist bullying, which many had not encountered.

A week before the election, students at a high school in Florien, Louisiana, held a mock election in the lunchroom. Nearly all of the 200 or so students voted for Trump. When the vote count was read out, some students began asking who had voted for Clinton. One boy, a Latino 10th-grader, raised his hand. “Go back home!” somebody shouted. “Do you have your working papers?” somebody else said. A “build a wall!” chant broke out.

“He didn’t want to go back to school,” said the boy’s mother, who requested anonymity. “He said he didn’t feel safe.”

Having lived in the small town all his life, the boy had gone to school with the same classmates since kindergarten. Most of them are white, yet “this was the first time he felt his race was an issue,” his mother said. “I had to explain to him that this is how some people see the world.”

In suburban Dallas, one mother said her sixth-grade son came home from school on Election Day and told her that some classmates had taunted him and two friends on the playground that morning: “Heil Hitlary,” one boy said; another said, “one million of your lives is worth less than 30,000 deleted emails.” After the boy recalled the incident, he asked his mother, “How did they know we’re Jewish?”

The bullying in schools is part of a larger wave of hate speech, vandalism, and violence that has occurred across the country within the past year. In the four months following the election, Jewish cemeteries were defaced in at least three states, and at least three mosques were set on fire. In Kansas and Washington, white men shot brown men because they thought they were Muslim, killing one and wounding two more. In New York City, a white man who fatally stabbed a black man said he was on a mission to kill many more. A BuzzFeed News investigation earlier this year tallied at least 18 hate crimes and bias incidents from November to March in Oregon alone.

 “I don’t think anyone has known how to handle it or approach it.”

With so many recent examples of racist beliefs leading to violence, the verbal abuse in schools stands out not just as an example of kids testing boundaries, but as a possible window into a disturbing future.

On Election Day in Silverton, Oregon, around three dozen students gathered in their high school’s parking lot, holding Trump signs and waving American flags. When Latino students passed by, teens in the crowd shouted “Pack your bags, you’re leaving tomorrow!” and “Tell your family goodbye!”

At a Philadelphia prep school, four white students posed for a photo while holding pictures of the Confederate flag and Donald Trump. In the weeks after the election, pro-Trump messages, alongside racist pejoratives and symbols, were spray-painted on walls at schools in Newtown, Pennsylvania; Suwanee, Georgia; and Brookline, Massachusetts.

In Millersburg, Pennsylvania, a Latina high school student broke into tears when more than 30 classmates chanted “Trump!” at her. In York County, Pennsylvania, a group of high school students holding Trump signs marched through the halls; one shouted “white power.” In Coppell, Texas, a Latino high school student found on his desk a goodbye card with a note suggesting he would be deported and ending, “Make America Great Again! Adios!”

On a school bus in a suburb of St. Louis, a white teen said to a black teen, “Are you ready to get back on the boat now that Trump is president?” In a fifth-grade classroom in Greensboro, North Carolina, a Latino boy cried after another student told him, “Donald Trump wants to send you guys away. He doesn’t want you here.” At a high school volleyball game in Archer City, Texas, and at high school basketball games in Jefferson Township, New Jersey, and San Diego, white students chanted “build the wall” at Latino students on the other team. In Nebraska, at baseball games against Schuyler High School, which is 80% Latino, opposing students brought Trump signs and shouted taunts about deportation and building a wall.

The known incidents of Trump-related school harassment form an incomplete list. Missing are the cases that adults never hear about, the ones lost to the closed ecosystem of adolescent social life.

One Los Angeles County seventh-grader begged his mom not to tell the principal about the anti-Semitic harassment he was getting from a Trump supporter in his class. The bully was a popular kid. “My son didn’t want to deal with the social consequences,” his mother said. “He was really adamant that we didn’t out this boy.”

Another mother, from the San Francisco Bay Area, learned of a post-election bullying incident when her teenage daughter mentioned it in passing. “She didn’t want to talk about it,” the mother said. “She didn’t want to make a big deal. I was upset. I wanted to go to the principal. But she didn’t want that.” The girl, a 10th-grader, was new at her school and feared making trouble.

President Trump holds up the coloring sheet he wrote on while joining children at a craft table during the 139th Easter Egg Roll on the White House's South Lawn on April 17, 2017.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

President Trump holds up the coloring sheet he wrote on while joining children at a craft table during the 139th Easter Egg Roll on the White House’s South Lawn on April 17, 2017.

When reports did make it up the chain, many principals and superintendents, including in Archer City and Philadelphia, responded swiftly, with public statements or district-wide emails condemning the bullying — stands that drew praise from parents. In Warrensburg, Missouri, after a white student held a Donald Trump sign at a high school basketball game against a team whose players were mostly black, the superintendent issued an apology, calling the act “inappropriate and insensitive toward our opponents.” The school board in Highland Park, Texas, formed a committee to look into the reports of racist harassment after the election. In San Diego County, the school board passed a resolution vowing to maintain a safe climate for students of all races. In a few cases, such as in Silverton, Oregon, and Millersburg, Pennsylvania, students were suspended.

Often, kids themselves have made efforts to counter hate incidents at their schools. High schoolers in Atlanta started a group aimed at promoting tolerance. Two middle schoolers in Oregon put together a video showing dozens of classmates stating what they “believe in” — “respect” and “equal rights” were among the more popular lines. In New Albany, Ohio, students took to social media to pressure administrators to remove graffiti of racist words and Trump’s name at their high school. When the Latino boy from Florien, Louisiana, returned to school the day after the mock election, “his friends banded around him and the other children who were bullied,” his mother said.

But, at a time when the line between political speech and racist hate seems increasingly faint, responses to bullying sometimes brought a backlash.

After a white third-grade boy chanted “build the wall” at a Latina classmate at a Louisville elementary school, the teacher and principal gathered the class and told them the boy’s actions had been racist. Not everybody was pleased with this lecture.

“Parents got mad that the school said it was racist,” said the mother of another boy in the class.

“Parents got mad that the school said it was racist.”

Indeed, as some educators learned this past school year, “build the wall” is not an easy phrase to police. It is, after all, a campaign slogan of a major party candidate, chanted by millions of Americans at rallies across the country, and a primary policy objective of the person elected president. How does a teacher explain to a student why the phrase is unacceptable in the classroom without being accused of political partisanship?

After the chant at the Hood River Middle School Halloween assembly, Principal Emmons put it this way in a letter to students: “This statement makes many of your fellow students feel badly because it has been used by politicians to threaten deportation of immigrants and threaten Americans of Mexican heritage. Many students at our school are from families of recent immigrants and these words are hurtful and scary for them.”

He called a school-wide assembly to address the incident, ordered a school-wide writing assignment about it, and organized a festival on campus that showcased games and food from around the world.

Several parents complained that the school’s response was heavy-handed. They accused the principal of suppressing political speech. Recalling those meetings, Emmons said, “We discussed whether a public school has the ability to limit speech that’s used in the national arena. Their viewpoint was: If you thought this way, it didn’t make you a bad person; that it was just about improved border security.”

The same argument emerged in May when a high school in North Carolina confiscated yearbooks after administrators discovered that one student’s senior quote was “Build that wall.” A message on the district’s Facebook page called the quote “inappropriate.” Hundreds of people left comments, mostly criticizing the decision:

“This is a violation of the student’s rights!!!”

“What is so ‘racist’ about the quote?”

“Quoting the POTUS is never inappropriate!”

For some families, the end of the school year brings hard choices. One mother from a suburb outside Richmond, Virginia, said that she and her husband, both US citizens born in Mexico, sent their son and daughter to a local Catholic school “thinking we’ll have the same values as the families there.” Things were smooth for years, until November, when their son was 12 and their daughter 14. “After Trump won, we tried to tell our kids not to worry, but then we started hearing a lot of hate,” she said. A classmate at the school, which is predominantly white, called her son a “Mexican churro.” When her son scored a goal at a soccer game at recess, another classmate said, “Don’t worry, he’s going to be deported pretty soon.” There were frequent “build the wall” jokes.

She informed the principal and the parish priest, she said, but they took no action. When she went to the mother of one of the boys who had targeted her son, the woman defended the comments, saying that the boy was merely “expressing his political point of view.”

The mother and father are now considering transferring their kids to a public school. ●


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Albert Samaha is the criminal justice reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Albert Samaha at albert.samaha@buzzfeed.com.

Michael Hayes is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Mike Hayes at mike@buzzfeed.com.

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