Whodunit?

There’s an old personality test—introduced to me in middle school and lovingly preserved on the interwebs—involving a woman who gets herself killed journeying between her husband and her lover.  The “test,” as it were, centers on the question of who is most to blame for the woman’s untimely death.  Is it the bored husband who neglected to take his wife along on his business trip?  Is it the greedy boatman who refused to ferry her across the river to safety?  Is it the heartless boyfriend who didn’t lift a finger in her defense?  Or is it the woman herself for being unfaithful and blundering into the wrong place at the wrong time?

It’s a ridiculous conceit, but the idea is that how you assign blame for the woman’s murder is determined by what you value most in life.  The options, in this case, include such things as “fun,” “sex,” “money” and, my personal favorite, “magic.”

Anyway, that story’s been on my mind for the last few days as I’ve seen Donald Trump campaign events descend into violence and mayhem whenever a gaggle of anti-Trump agitators has sneaked its way into the arena.

With regards to these unholy scuffles, everyone seems to have a firm opinion about who is most at fault.  Interestingly, however—and I think you know where I’m going with this—no one can quite agree on who, exactly, that is.

Obviously, then, what we need is to update that silly game about the two-timing wife so that it applies to our own time and our own values.  With Trump—a man who stands as America’s signal Rorschach test of 2016—we can learn a great deal about how each of us thinks just by how we interpret what is happening directly in front of our eyes.

From a sampling of reactions, we find that most people trace the cause of this campaign unrest to either a) the protesters, b) Trump supporters or c) Trump himself.  To an extent, one’s opinion of these incidents is merely an affectation of one’s politics:  If you find Donald Trump generally detestable, you generally attribute all detestable acts to the man himself.  Conversely, if you think Trump speaks truth to political correctness, you find fault only with those who are preventing him from speaking.  It’s confirmation bias in action:  You see what you want to see and filter out everything else.

But of course, all of that is but the tip of the bloody, bloody iceberg.  However illuminating it might be to debate which side threw the first punch, it’s not until folks start to blame those who weren’t even in the room that the real fun begins.

We might start with the Donald himself, who has fingered Bernie Sanders as the main culprit for the madness, saying that the party crashers at his gatherings are on direct marching orders from the socialist from Vermont.  It is noteworthy that Trump bases this claim on no evidence whatsoever, while he has simultaneously blamed other outbursts on ISIS—yes, that ISIS—due to a YouTube video that was swiftly exposed as a typical Internet hoax.  As Trump explained on Meet the Press, “All I know is what’s on the Internet,” reminding us that he is apparently the one person in America who believes, with all his heart, that if it’s online, it must be true.

Farce that this undeniably is, such behavior nonetheless offers real insights into Trump’s personality and that of his fellow travelers.  Strongest among these, perhaps, is the value of “truthiness,” a.k.a. believing something to be true simply because your gut tells you so.

In fact, Trump’s entire movement is dependent on truthiness, since at least 80 percent of his campaign’s major claims are demonstrably false and his promise of “restoring America’s greatness” is one big fatuous smoke-and-mirrors routine containing nary a whiff of substance or honest reporting.  If all presidential candidates engage in hyperbole, Trump is unique for engaging in absolutely nothing else.

The real problem, though, is how sinister that hyperbole has been for the last nine months and how deeply it has metastasized within the GOP.  While this week’s outright physical violence might be relatively new, the truth is that Trump and his flock have been blaming other people for America’s problems for his entire presidential run.  Like any seasoned demagogue, Trump has invented most of this blame from whole cloth, while at other times he has even managed to invent the problems themselves.  (Who would ever know, for instance, that net immigration from Mexico is actually negative over the last five years, or that U.S. military spending increased from 2014 to 2015?)

Which leads us, as it must, to the most disturbing personality quirk of all:  The one that blames all of this turmoil on African-Americans and views the entire American experience in terms of white supremacy.

While it would be irresponsible to peg every Trump voter as a white supremacist—or, specifically, a Nazi or a Klansman—the point is that Trump rallies have become a safe space—if not a veritable breeding ground—for white people who think that punching, kicking and spitting on black people is their God-given right as members of a privileged race.  For all Trump’s claims that the protesters are the true instigators of these melees, most video clips suggest otherwise:  Largely, we just keep seeing groups of young, mostly black people nonviolently holding up signs and chanting cheeky slogans while white guards and white attendees proceed to manhandle them with the greatest possible force—egged on, every single time, by the candidate himself.

You see pictures like these—paired with people like Mike Huckabee calling the protesters “thugs,” a word that Republicans only ever use to describe African-Americans—and you realize all that’s missing are the dogs and the fire hoses.

Among the many sick ironies of Donald Trump is his supposed fidelity to the First Amendment, which he claims the dissenters at his rallies are attempting to suppress (as if Trump has ever lacked an outlet for expressing himself on a moment’s notice).  Historical ignoramus that he is, he doesn’t seem to realize that, when it comes to muzzling free speech, few things are more effective than riling up a large gang of angry white people by telling them how to mistreat a small gang of dark-skinned antagonists.  (And then, of course, pleading ignorance when those same white people do exactly what you suggest.)

Even if there were nothing at all race-based in Trump and company’s behavior, we would still be left with this profoundly dangerous idea that all problems can, and should, be solved with physical violence.  To hear Trump talk, you’d think his were the first-ever campaign events to feature any sort of disruptors and that there is no rational response except to treat them like enemy combatants.  (How long before Trump recommends waterboarding?)

The relevant terms here are “escalate” and “de-escalate.”  As any honest police officer knows, whenever you are faced with a potentially explosive situation, it is your moral responsibility to try to de-escalate tensions and not make matters worse.  Indeed, for anyone who wields authority or influence over others—not least in politics—the obligation to lead by example and get your minions under control is absolute and non-negotiable.

Donald Trump has failed that charge over and over again.  In so doing, he has revealed which values he holds dear and which values he does not—if, that is, he can be said to possess any values at all.

It proved quite prescient that Trump opened his campaign while riding an escalator in Trump Tower in Manhattan:  As it turns out, he is an escalator.

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Turn Off, Tune In, Log Out

How often we hear from those—including many Millennials—who want nothing more than to turn away from the technological toys they have been given, and return to a calmer, simpler time.

Specifically, I speak of the incessant complaints by many 20-somethings (and everyone else) about the increasing ubiquity of Facebook, Twitter, and so forth in the daily life of virtually every person in the industrialized world, and how much they wish it were otherwise.

We’ve all heard it.  No doubt, many of us have said it ourselves.  It’s not that we wish the social networking apps that have so dominated and defined the generation now coming of age would altogether cease to be.  It is, rather, that we would have them play a far more diminished role in our comings and goings.

Indeed, it is the fondest wish of (some of) these skeptics to detach from these omnipresent websites completely, if only to prove that Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk do not completely control our lives.

To these folks I have but one question:  What the heck are you waiting for?

If you really want to leave Facebook, then leave Facebook.  If you no longer wish to tweet, then don’t tweet.

If the addictiveness and lack of privacy inherent in these resources bother you that much, then, as the English say, get on with it.

Or, alternatively, you could cop to the truth of the matter, which is that you simply cannot imagine your life without Facebook et al., that you wouldn’t know how to function in the supposedly idyllic pre-Internet universe for which you so supposedly pine, and that, in the end, you’d much rather complain about the drawbacks to these technological marvels than actually part ways with them.

To be sure, there’s nothing unusual about this conundrum.  We all feel your pain.  No one particularly wants his or her privacy compromised, and few have any great confidence that the CEOs of these companies hold their customers’ privacy as their primary concern.

The question is whether we, today, have the choice to opt out of this system.

Literally, we do.  But practically?  Well, that may be the issue on which our entire culture hinges.

By all outward appearances, my own grandparents have managed to get away with it.  They have never owned a personal computer, let alone smart phones or Flickr accounts, and are able to operate happily on a day-to-day basis more or less as they always have.  If they need to be informed of anything important, someone gives them a phone call.  When a bill comes due, they send a check in the mail.  And if they absolutely must look up something online—well, that’s what libraries and grandchildren and for.

Of course, there is a giant asterisk to this story, which is that virtually everyone they know is well aware of their technological limitations, and have learned to act accordingly.  What is more, they spend half the year in a Florida retirement community, which means that nearly all the people they regularly interact with are, themselves, roughly on the same page.  So long as enough members of this generation exist, the rest of the world will be required to accommodate them.

Those in my parents’ generation, meanwhile, seem to lie right on the cusp of old and new ways of living.  For that reason, their experience is perhaps the most instructive of all.

My mother, after years of resistance, now has an active Facebook account.  My father does not, and possibly never will.

Like the rest of us, my mom joined out of a sense that she would otherwise be “out of the loop” regarding what certain friends and family members were up to—a concern validated by, say, learning about an engagement or pregnancy several months after the fact, since the announcement was made exclusively via Facebook, and everyone who received it assumed that everyone else had, too.

My dad, who is as interested in other people’s lives as anyone, does not seem to worry that his absence from online social networks has abridged his access to such information in any meaningful way.

Maybe this is because he knows he can rely on my mom to catch him up, if need be.  Maybe it’s that, like my grandparents, he is confident that the members of his real-life social network will keep him abreast of all important developments through other, more old-fashioned means.  And maybe the day will yet come when he determines he is not sufficiently plugged in to the world around him, and has no choice but to sign the “user agreement” the rest of us have found impossible to resist.

And if that happens, should we regard it more as an act of free will or latent cultural coercion?

We are advised, from an early age, not to bow to “peer pressure” and never to automatically run with the crowd, particularly when we object to the direction in which the crowd is headed.

And yet today’s social networks are a sparkling illustration of how nearly all of us do precisely those awful things, and how prevailing cultural trends have all but forced it upon us.

There is a playful paradox at work here, as we puzzle over how the collective world population has managed to levy peer pressure upon itself.  (I am somehow reminded of Yogi Berra’s quip about some restaurant, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”)

In any case, the Facebook phenomenon is nothing if not self-perpetuating:  As more join, more are compelled to follow suit.  This means that the only way this form of human connectedness could possibly abate is if a whole mess of people suddenly and forcefully abstain, casting society back to the bucolic, antiquated days of, say, the 1990s, when you learned what was going on by reading a newspaper or talking on the telephone.

Is that really what we want?  From the way many bitch about the Internet’s imperial, invasive designs, the answer is a definite “maybe.”

If so, these naysayers can take some comfort from the reminder that millions in America and elsewhere still live precisely that way, with no desire to change course.

For those who have already ceded to the tide but now nurse second thoughts, the decision to withdraw from online social life is fraught with difficulties that the blissfully ignorant probably cannot appreciate.

But I maintain, nonetheless, that it is not impossible, and I would urge such dissidents to give it the old college try, lest they show themselves to be full of nothing but hot air.

Live as you truly wish to live.  What, apart from everything you’ve ever known, do you have to lose?