Daily Dispatch 2/5/2020: #SOTU: The image is our reality

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Daily Dispatch

February 5, 2020

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tears up her copy of President Trump’s s State of the Union address. Alex Brandon/AP

In case you missed it last night, Trump announced that the United States is now the greatest country on earth, indeed the greatest country that ever was, never any better, not in any era. I mean it’s HUGE. This greatness was achieved in just three years, due to his singular efforts to lift us all from the grips of an American “carnage” of widespread government regulation overseen by a sort-of-socialist who might have been born in another country. 

Never a better president. Ever. Certainly among the top three presidents who have faced impeachment.

Meanwhile the Democrats are trying to figure out how to read partial results from a delegate distribution system that no one seems to understand. Iowa was supposed to narrow the field and begin the process of slowly unifying the party behind a candidate. I guess that’s New Hampshire’s job now. Pelosi was seen ripping the results apart last night (or was that a speech?) In any event, confusion reigns.

And then there is the great acquittal we are all waiting for with bated breath. Some time today the Senate will do what everyone has known they would do since the entire discussion of a possible impeachment – for any reason – first emerged sometime in January of 2017. Oh the anticipation. 

I am nerdy enough to have a favorite Marxist (or is that Marxian? yeah even nerdier than you thought!) political theorist. Currently Guy Debord has replaced Antonio Gramsci on my list. There is a logic to that segue. 

Guy Debord, you may know, wrote a book 50 or so years ago called The Society of the Spectacle. It is a maddening mess of propositions about “the spectacle” as a metaphor for the emerging mass consumer culture of capitalism, obsessed as it was/is with image and advertising. People are starting to take another look at Debord in more recent years, because his diagnosis seems even more accurate today than it might have been back in 1967.

For example, the “book” begins with this: 

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.

And then, a few passages later, this:

The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.

Heady stuff. Debord was largely riffing on long established themes in Marxist/Marxian political thought concerning the function of alienation in a capitalist society. But his particular focus on the “image” as a mediating force – standing between us and reality, and indeed, taken for reality – sums up the debacle social media has made of politics today. Facebook is sort of the pinnacle of mystifying and dividing the world where we actually live into niches for the marketing of values and politicians, vacation hide-aways and “low-T” treatments. Debord was talking about a different world – but he describes the current one pretty well.

Basically, Trump is the first social media president. He was made on Twitter and Facebook, and may well be re-elected on Twitter and Facebook. No amount of fact-checking will tilt the scales. He pretty much lies about everything. It doesn’t matter. Politics has always been much more about perception than any agreed upon set of facts anyway – and, thus, the ability to spin information into tight little ideological sound bites is more important than any analysis. That dynamic, coupled with social media’s necessarily decontextualized, abbreviated reliance on images, has been a disaster. I think most of us understand that the world we actually live in today almost never meets the world we debate on Facebook, or watch on cable news (through carefully curated clips on YouTube). 

We might shake our heads at policy pronouncements and foreign policy decisions announced on Twitter. But these tweets will dominate the news cycle. Who tweeted in response? What did they say, in 280 characters or less? Did they “own” the President with a witty take down? Does it matter? Sadly, yes. Apparently.

And the opposition? Shredded a speech on stage. The take down, call out culture of social media now dictates political strategy. It will be a viral image to be sure, but also vacuous conceptually, ready to be spun endlessly: Social media magic.

So, if you are a refugee, asylum seeker, or simply someone who is looking for a more secure living for your family, you’re done. Because you are no longer any of these things in political terms. You are simply a symbol in someone’s tool box. An image to be rolled out as a stand in for a point of view. In short, a re-presentation of “the problem.” 

Trump talks about immigration by showing us victims of violence. He talks about arresting “criminal aliens,” and gives us a stream of decontextualized “facts” that don’t mean what he says they mean. (The most common arrest leading to “criminal removal” proceedings is for traffic violations). We know that Trump has done the least of any recent president to remove traffic violators (and other criminals). And has, instead, used his authority to dismantle every authorized path to immigration that exists. No to refugees. No to asylum seekers. No to family members of U.S. citizens. No to people who can’t demonstrate the means to purchase medical insurance (without defining what the “means” are). No to people who do everything right, except they put a dash or “N/A” in a field on their visa form that did not apply to them, instead of writing, “this does not apply to me.” No. No. No. There is no “doing things right.” No line left to stand in. 

People are dying because of this president’s immigration policies. They are forced to live on shit-strewn streets in makeshift tent cities at the border, because the “image” of a Border Patrol agent who loves his country is more powerful than the image of 10,000 refugees trapped in Ciudad Juarez after seeking asylum in the United States.

And we cheer for shredded paper. GTFOH

Welcome to the actual State of the Union. 

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