FRIDAY, MAY 19, 2023
Our walls keep insiders separate: Donald Trump's performance at last week's "town hall" created a sense of shock and concern within our blue tribe's tents.
Certain parts of Trump's performance were seen as grossly insensitive.
Also, his blizzard of shaky factual claims really couldn't be fact-checked in real time. As if that wasn't bad enough, some reactions by the audience struck observers as inappropriate.
In the first two days of this week, we reviewed the lengthy exchange between Candidate Trump and Kaitlan Collins concerning his alleged failure to "finish the border wall."
As we noted, it's hard to create a full fact-check of even a narrowly circumscribed topic like that. In the past two days, we've reviewed a much more complex matter:
We've reviewed the ways blue and red tribunes have reported on Monday's release of the long-awaited Durham Report.
It's no secret that red and blue voters—red and blue fellow citizens—now quite frequently seem to be living in two different worlds. In the immediate aftermath of last week's town hall, Barack Obama offered some thoughts about that vast red/blue divide.
Obama was interviewed by Nate Burleson, co-host of the CBS Mornings program. Along the way, Burleson, a good, decent person, hit Obama with this:
BURLESON: You know, I'm a father of a 19-year-old, 17-year-old, a 12-year-old, and I am an optimistic man. But I find myself falling into the space where I have concern about the country that they will inherit when I'm gone.
Post-presidency, what about this country keeps you up most at night?
Burleson is an optimistic person. So is Barack Obama.
What worries the former president most? Here's the start of what he said:
OBAMA (continuing from above): The thing that I'm most worried about is the degree to which we now have a divided conversation, in part because we have a divided media, right?
We have "a divided media," Obama said. This has helped produce "a divided conversation"—and Obama said that that's the thing he's most worried about.
Concerning that "divided" media, we'd use a slightly stronger term than the one Obama chose. That said, after a bit of friendly banter, he described what is now a thoroughly ancient world:
OBAMA: When I was coming up, you had three TV stations. and people were getting a similar sense of what is true and what isn't, what was real and what was not.
Today, what I'm most concerned about is the fact that, because of the splintering of the media, we almost occupy different realities.
If something happens, in the past, everybody could say, "All right, we may disagree on how to solve it, but at least we all agree that, yeah, that's an issue."
Now, people will say, "Well, that didn't happen," or "I don't believe that."
Obama recalled an antique world—the world of those three TV stations.
Back then, we all heard the same accounts of the day's news events. Under that arrangement, American citizens tended to agree on the basic facts about those news events.
There weren't three million places a person could go to hear different accounts of the day's events—accounts which may have completely disagreed with what Walter and David were saying. Those days are long gone at this point.
It's much as Obama said! Today, if a federal jury says that Donald J. Trump committed a sexual assault, many people in a town hall audience may say, "I don't believe that." (For the record, there's no way to prove that some such belief would be wrong.)
The New York Times described the Durham Report as a dud. On Fox, Jesse Watters said something vastly different.
It isn't easy to produce an ultimate fact-check of such a complex matter. In Obama's view, "we almost occupy different realities" because of this state of affairs.
Red tribe voters are told one thing; blue voters hear something quite different. We almost occupy different realities! Here's what Obama says he'd like to do about that:
OBAMA (continuing directly): And one of, I think, the goals of the Obama Foundation, and one of the goals of my post-presidency, is: How do we return to that common conversation? How can we have a common set of facts?
We may disagree on gun violence in terms of what the best prescriptions are, but we can’t deny the data that says the United States has levels of gun violence that are five, 10, 15 times more than other countries.
So if we say that it’s just a mental health problem, well, it's not like there aren’t people with mental health problems in those other countries, what's the difference? Now we can have a debate, but at least we’ve agreed on some, on some facts.
In all honesty, the tea Obama chose to serve was surprisingly weak. In the case of the issue he chose to present, our differences, such as they are, don't seem to spring from some lack of a common set of facts.
No one disagrees with the basic fact that our nation has levels of gun violence which far exceed those found elsewhere. Our differences, such as they are, concern what we as a nation should do about that:
Blue voters may say that we need to outlaw certain types of guns. Red voters often react to high-profile gun violence by going out to buy more guns, presumably for self-protection.
Obama would like to see us return to a world where we all agree on the basic facts. Unfortunately, "disagreement about facts" is a very big business now, with money being made on all sides.
It won't soon be going away.
Obama said we have a "divided media," and that is certainly true. It's also true that our media is increasingly "segregated by viewpoint."
If you sit and watch the "cable news" shows of our own blue tribe, you'll hear the standard viewpoint of the blue tribe, and you'll hear nothing else.
You'll hear from "our favorite reporters and friends"—and no matter how many favorites are present, they'll all say the exact same things. It isn't that you won't heard a contradictory claim or point of view. In most circumstances, you won't even hear a serious word of nuance.
That's what you'll hear on blue tribe cable. On red tribe cable, you'll hear Jesse Watters. Until very recently, you could even hear Tucker Carlson!
On blue tribe cable, you'll hear Nicolle Wallace and her favorite reporters and friends. That utterly braindead branding statement should serve as a monumental tribal embarrassment, but at the present, highly polarized time, no such world exists.
Red tribe voters hear one set of standard viewpoints and claims. Blue tribe voters hear a different, contradictory set of standard assertions.
In the process, walls are erected between the two tribes, keeping those viewpoints separate. We're many years into this regime of segregation by viewpoint, and it's just as Obama said:
"We almost occupy different realities."
We'd only complain about one word there. The former president might perhaps have dropped one word: "almost."
Very high walls have been erected between our two warring tribes. Other walls are being built around the territories of other population groups.
It's hard to run a large modern nation when this many towering walls block or filter the light. With that in mind, we'll close for today with this fact about the role high walls have played down through the annals of time.
Towering walls have long been built to keep outsiders out. The Great Wall of China was built for that purpose. So were the towering walls around Troy, the high walls sacred Homer described.
The Great Wall of China kept outsiders out. According to Homer, the walls around Troy had kept the marauding Argives out for something like ten years as of the time when The Iliad starts.
The walls around Troy had served to keep the Argives out. Eventually, the Trojan prince Hector, his helmet flashing, decided to reason with fierce Achilles outside the walls of Troy.
By then, the walls had kept the Trojans and the Argives apart for a very long time. Swift Achilles slaughtered Hector, then dragged his body through the dust on the plains outside Troy.
The Trojans and the Argives occupied different realities! Such situations rarely end well. Homer describes the scene as Queen Hecuba, Hector's mother, watches her son being dragged. Professor Fagles translates:
So [Achilles] triumphed
And now he was bent on outrage, on shaming noble Hector.
So his whole head was dragged down in the dust.
And now his mother began to tear her hair,
she flung her shining veil to the ground and raised
a high, shattering scream, looking down at her son...
Why was Hecuba "looking down at her son?" She was watching from atop the high walls surrounding Troy—the towering ramparts which had served to keep the outsiders out.
High walls can keep outsiders out. Vast enmity grows in the process.
By way of contrast, the walls our tribes are building today keep insiders apart. They aren't designed to keep outsiders out. They're designed to keep fellow citizens separate.
A modern nation can't expect to function this way. More on this topic next week, with a focus on the unhelpful walls our own blue tribe keeps building.
Homer's immortal closing line: As translated by Professor Lattimore:
"Such was their burial of Hector, breaker of horses."