E Unum Pluribus

US television viewers’ deeply disparate responses to the daily Trump coronavirus briefings means it’s time. Time to update the motto of the US, “e pluribus unum”, Latin for “out of many, one”; to “e unum pluribus”, out of one, many.

Out of one country, many factions with diametrically opposed perspectives on reality.

Exhibit A. How large swaths of liberal Democrats, like your favorite blogger, think about the pressers as described in The Trump O’Clock Follies by Susan B. Glasser of The New Yorker.

Her opening paragraph:

“During the Vietnam War, the United States had the Five O’Clock Follies, nightly briefings at which American military leaders claimed, citing a variety of bogus statistics, half-truths, and misleading reports from the front, to be winning a war that they were, in fact, losing. Richard Pyle, the Associated Press’s Saigon bureau chief, called the press conferences ‘the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia’s theater of the absurd,’ which, minus the ‘Southeast Asia’ part, is not a bad description of the scene currently playing out each evening in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, in the White House. We now have the Trump Follies, the nightly briefings at which President Trump has lied and bragged, lamented and equivocated, about the global pandemic that poses an existential threat to his Presidency. Just as the Vietnam briefings became a standard by which the erosion of government credibility could be measured then, historians of the future will consult the record of Trump’s mendacious, misleading press conferences as an example of a tragic failure of leadership at such a critical moment. There will be much material for them; the transcripts from just the first three days of this week runs to more than forty thousand words.”

Shortly thereafter, Glasser adds:

“The disconnect between Trumpian reality and actual reality has never been on starker display than in the past few days, as the true face of the horror we are facing in the United States has shown itself, in New York City, with overwhelmed morgues and emergency rooms, a governor pleading for ventilators and face masks from the federal government, and heartbreaking first-person accounts reminiscent of the open letters sent from Italy a few weeks back, which warned Americans: this is what is coming for you—don’t make our mistakes.”

But there’s a problem with Glasser’s analysis. Many, many of the Presidents’ supporters see a completely different reality. In ways I don’t understand, they literally do not see “horror” or “overwhelmed morgues and emergency rooms” or “a governor pleading for ventilators and face masks”. What do they see?

Exhibit B. How large swaths of conservative Republicans think about the pressers as described by the President’s daughter-in-law in “Trump’s handling of coronavirus crisis shows America what real leadership looks like”.

Lara Trump takes a little longer to warm up. From her second paragraph:

“Unprecedented times call for a strong leader. My father-in-law, President Trump, is showing what leadership looks like in a time of crisis. He is taking bold and historic steps to combat COVID-19.

While Democrats and the media were obsessing over impeachment, the president took early and effective actions to stop the spread of coronavirus. He ordered travel restrictions on China and Europe and restricted our southern and northern borders. Less than a month after learning of the virus, the CDC began working on a vaccine. By March, the president announced that the first potential vaccine entered a “phase one” trial, breaking records for the speed it moved to trials.

While these scientific developments were taking place, the president and the administration led efforts to support states, small businesses, jobs and American families. They’ve waived interest rates on federally held student loans and afforded borrowers the option to suspend payments. They have prioritized the health care of our most vulnerable veterans, and deployed tens of thousands of masks, gowns and other medical devices to states in need.”

Liberals will laugh this off much more quickly than they’ll acknowledge that the President’s approval ratings have gone up quite a bit since the daily pressers began. You can tell the President knows his ratings are trending up as he grows more informal, verbose, and cocksure with each passing one.

How will the (dis) United States resolve this dilemma of its citizens seeing things so differently? Through the electoral college on November 3rd, 2020. I just hope not too many people die unnecessarily between now and then.




Documentary Film

Francis, one of my ace commenters recently read my “Of What Value is Art?” reflection which inspired him to weigh in on “subjectivity in art and why the notion of experts in this field is problematic.” I agree that art inevitably produces different reactions in people. The social scientific notion of “selective perception” suggests that when you and I go to a film, stand and view a photograph, or watch a dance concert, there’s so much visual stimuli that we filter it differently and therefore don’t see the exact same film, photograph, or concert.

In addition, we interpret the film, photograph, and/or concert based upon our differing life experiences. In large part, that explains how you can excitedly send a friend to a favorite movie only to have them ask why on earth you liked it so much.

Even though selective perception and differing worldviews lead to idiosyncratic interpretations of art, I believe it’s possible to reach agreement on some broad criteria for discriminating between good and bad art.

For example, below I propose two criteria for identifying especially excellent documentary films.

Apparently, movies are relatively recession proof because people like to temporarily escape the worsening realities of their economic lives. I like watching documentaries not to escape reality, but to think deeply about someone else’s reality that I’m not familiar with. It’s less about entertainment than intellectual stimulation.

There are different types of documentaries all which find audiences so I don’t presume to have a monopoly on how to think about them. For me though, I have a two-part litmus test of documentary excellence. To illustrate the first, let’s rewind the tape of my life ten years to one night when I was channel surfing before going to bed. I stumbled upon a documentary on public television titled “The Farmer’s Wife”. It was just beginning and I was so mesmerized by a topic—farming—that I had no connection to and relatively little prior interest in, that I had to carve out six hours over three nights.

So that’s the first criterion, to what degree does the documentary film engage viewers with no previous connection to or interest in the subject?

The second litmus test is how intimate is the portrayal?

In the best documentary films, I’m grabbed by the collar and pulled into the screen as a result of authentic dialogue, compelling characters, subtle interactions, and sometimes music. “The Farmer’s Wife” was the ultimate in intimacy. For six hours I lived in a midwestern farm house with a hardworking struggling farmer, his equally hardworking and stressed out wife, and their daughters. Afterwards I had far more understanding of how difficult it is for small family farmers to survive in an era of increasingly large commercial farms.

The same filmmaker, David Sutherland, made another interesting documentary a few years ago titled “Country Boys”.

My all time favorite documentary? Hoop Dreams. I was at a conference in D.C. and went to an independent theatre in Georgetown by myself to watch it. Afterwards in the subway, replaying it in my mind, I realized I learned a lot more about what it’s like to be a poor African-American living in a large inner city than I did about high school basketball. 

And for those of you interested in learning more about one of the most maligned groups in society, middle schoolers, I enjoyed SpellBound, and  more recently, The Boys of Baraka.

Lastly, I’m not a fan of  intensely ideological documentary films. I like films that prompt questions because they stimulate my thinking far more than films that are one-sided arguments utterly lacking in subtlety. Maybe that explains why I’m probably the only liberal Democrat in the country who likes documentary films, but has never seen a single Michael Moore film. People tell me I’d really like Bowling at Columbine, but I still haven’t made time to watch it.