DAILY: May 27, 2019

(1)  Let’s start the week off with a bit of uplift.

Armistead Maupin and his husband Christopher Turner have moved to London.  I have loved his posts on Facebook of their new life over there.  But this one this morning was especially lovely and especially moving.

He writes: “This weekend we trained north to Bolton where 130 of Ian McKellen’s closest friends surprised the hell of him in the refectory of his childhood school on the occasion of his 80th birthday. There was lots of lovely moments but my favorite came when the plucky lads of the Bolton School performed Shakespeare for us. One of them clutched during the Seven Ages of Man speech, visibly mortified that he’d forgotten his lines, only to find himself gently prompted by three grownups sitting near the front: Sir Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench, and Sir Ian McKellen, the world’s greatest interpreters of the Bard. The rest of us were weeping at the beauty of that moment.”

Here is Sir Ian doing the Seven Ages at a gala for the Shanghai Film Festival in 2016.  He comes on at the 1:51 mark.  But the clips leading up to it of films based on Shakespeare’s plays is rather interesting, especially the final scene of Laurence Olivier as Hamlet with Yorick’s skull as dubbed by Chinese actor and director Sun Daolin  – 孫道臨.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pulc-S7gZaw

 

(2)  Re: Facebook.

I recently have stopped posting over there except about sessumsMagazine.com.  Indeed, the DAILY might have been better titled AFTER FACEBOOK.  I still go on to read other people’s posts, as the Armistead item attests.    I explained my no longer posting over there  in a long final post a couple of weeks ago.  I had my own personal reasons but they conflated with the troubling public aspects of the platform itself.  This Nancy Pelosi video story is just the latest example of the platform’s bad faith.  And I am trying to find a pathway right now – if not a good one, at least a better and redefined one – toward faith.

Kara Swisher writes in the New York Times that Facebook – or Fakebook, as she labels is – is over as we know it.  As a side note, I read this weekend that CrossFit has decided to leave Facebook and Instagram for its own reasons because Facebook had censored a diet plan it wanted to post which signaled much bigger issues that CrossFit  had with both platforms.

Swisher photographed by Jeff Elkins

Here is what Kara had to say:

So, Fakebook it is.

This week, unlike YouTube, Facebook decided to keep up a video deliberately and maliciously doctored to make it appear as if Speaker Nancy Pelosi was drunk or perhaps crazy. She was not. She was instead the victim of an obvious dirty trick by a dubious outfit with a Facebook page called Politics WatchDog.

The social media giant deemed the video a hoax and demoted its distribution, but the half-measure clearly didn’t work. The video ran wild across the system.

Facebook’s product policy and counterterrorism executive, Monika Bickert, drew the short straw and had to try to come up with a cogent justification for why Facebook was helping spew ugly political propaganda.

“We think it’s important for people to make their own informed choice for what to believe,” she said in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “Our job is to make sure we are getting them accurate information.”

This is ridiculous. The only thing the incident shows is how expert Facebook has become at blurring the lines between simple mistakes and deliberate deception, thereby abrogating its responsibility as the key distributor of news on the planet.

Would a broadcast network air this? Never. Would a newspaper publish it? Not without serious repercussions. Would a marketing campaign like this ever pass muster? False advertising.

No other media could get away with spreading anything like this because they lack the immunity protection that Facebook and other tech companies enjoy under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 was intended to spur innovation and encourage start-ups. Now it’s a shield to protect behemoths from any sensible rules.

Mr. Cooper must be less accustomed than some of us to the way Silicon Valley tortures the concept of free speech until it screams for mercy, because Ms. Bickert’s answer left him looking incredulous.

By conflating censorship with the responsible maintenance of its platforms, and by providing “rules” that are really just capricious decisions by a small coterie of the rich and powerful, Facebook and others have created a free-for-all with no consistent philosophy.

The Chewbacca mom video is sure fun, and so are New York Times articles, because classy journalism looks good on the platform. But the toxic stew of propaganda and fake news that is allowed to pour into the public river without filters? Also A-O.K., in the clearly underdeveloped mind of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, who has been — try as he might with great earnestness — guiding his ship into dangerous waters.

Don’t believe me? Listen to what came out of his mouth during a podcast interview with me less than a year ago, a comment that in hindsight makes his non-action against the Pelosi video look completely inevitable. We had been talking about the vile Alex Jones, whom Mr. Zuckerberg had declined to remove from Facebook despite his having violated many of its policies. (This month Facebook finally didbar him from the platform). For some reason, presumably to make a greater point, he shifted the conversation to the Holocaust. It was a mistake, to say the least.

“I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened. I find that deeply offensive,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”

I was shocked, but I wanted to hear more, so I said briefly: “In the case of Holocaust deniers, they might be, but go ahead.”

Did he ever: “It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent. I just think, as abhorrent as some of those examples are, I think the reality is also that I get things wrong when I speak publicly. I’m sure you do. I’m sure a lot of leaders and public figures we respect do too, and I just don’t think that it is the right thing to say, ‘We’re going to take someone off the platform if they get things wrong, even multiple times.’’

Here was the internal dialogue in my head when he uttered this senseless jumble of words: What? What? What? Mr. Zuckerberg’s own pile of dumb mistakes were the same thing as anti-Semitic lies? The same as the calculatedly demented rantings of Mr. Jones? The same as the wily manipulations of Russia’s Internet Research Agency?

Did he not realize the difference between problematic things said in good faith with those vomited up from the bowels of hate?

It was at that moment that I knew that Facebook was lost. And it’s been wandering ever since from one ethical quandary to the next. From the outside, the company can seem lazy and cynical, out to make money at the expense of just about anything or anyone, including Speaker Pelosi or an informed national electorate. It feels political too, as if its executives are making calculations based on nothing but what will keep the company free from trouble in these deeply partisan times.

And yet Facebook does remove content, such as posts it determines are a threat to public safety or from fake accounts.

Ms. Bickert, whom I have interviewed too and who certainly has made an effort to tame the platform, gamely tried to make this point to Mr. Cooper. “We aren’t in the news business. We’re in the social media business,” she said plaintively, as if that distinction could erase a thousand crimes taking place on the platform every day.

Not making these hard choices won’t work: The many indignities of being a Facebook user are making the platform a worse and worse place to be. So far, that has yet to infect the business itself, which is making money and continues to grow. But without a steadier hand at the wheel, Facebook cannot outrun a simple fact: It’s still Fakebook, and we already know how that story will end. Badly

(3)  And yet …

There are still good aspects to Facebook.  As an example, my old friend producer Michael Rourke, CEO of HudSun Media, has a remarkable reality show on the platform called Returning the Favor which focuses on service and community and giving to those who spend so much time giving back .  The show features host Mike Rowe as he travels the country searching for people who put their communities over themselves and shining a spotlight on them.  Click here for its, yes, Facebook page and catch up on its three seasons and 51 episodes.

Here is the premiere episode of Season Three.

https://www.facebook.com/ReturningTheFavor/videos/558852827918761/

(4) Small-town New York.

For those of us of a certain age and of a certain New York City ilk, there was a New York character who was everywhere with her wand, whether rollerskating down Christopher Street or rollerskating in ACT UP protests or rollerskating right past the velvet rope at Studio 54.  And yet there was a bit of mystery about her.  People said she was a staid Wall Street denizen during the weekdays, for example.  It’s odd.  I never really wanted to know anything about her except that she was Rollerena and she was New York City’s camp but politically conscious godmother of the fairy variety, a more radical Tinker Bell.   I think she grew up in Kentucky.  She’s now 71.  Here is a photo that Jackie Rudin posted of her on, yes, Facebook.

 

(5) “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” – James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake

Below, the New Times obituary for Murray Gell-Mann by George Johnson.

Murray Gell-Mann, who transformed physics with his preternatural ability to find hidden patterns among the tiny particles that make up the universe, earning a Nobel Prize, died on Friday at his home in Santa Fe. He was 89.

Jenna Marshall, a spokeswoman for the Santa Fe Institute, where he held the title of distinguished fellow, announced his death.

Much as atoms can be slotted into the rows and columns of the periodic table of the elements, Dr. Gell-Mann found a way, in 1961, to classify their smaller pieces — subatomic particles like protons, neutrons, and mesons, which were being discovered by the dozen in cosmic rays and particle accelerator blasts. Arranged according to their properties, the particles clustered in groups of eight and 10.

In a moment of whimsy, Dr. Gell-Mann, who hadn’t a mystical bone in his body, named his system the Eightfold Way after the Buddha’s eight-step path to enlightenment. He groaned ever after when people mistakenly inferred that particle physics was somehow related to Eastern philosophy.

Looking deeper, Dr. Gell-Mann realized that the patterns of the Eightfold Way could be further divided into triplets of even smaller components. He decided to call them quarks after a line from James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.”

With Dr. Gell-Mann at the forefront, physics took on a Joycean feel. Before long there were up quarks and down quarks, strange quarks and charm quarks, top quarks and bottom quarks, all stuck together with particles called gluons. The funny nomenclature was as much a Gell-Mann inspiration as the mathematics.

“Murray Gell-Mann dominated theoretical particle physics during the 1950s and ′60s, a period with an abundance of new experimental discoveries,” his colleague David J. Gross, another Nobel laureate in physics, said in an interview for this obituary in 2010. “With almost magical intuition Gell-Mann discerned the patterns and symmetries connecting the many new particles that were found.”

Conversant in several languages and fascinated by archaeology, linguistics, natural history and ornithology, Dr. Gell-Mann spotted and named subatomic phenomena as eagerly as if they were exotic birds.

Our work is a delightful game,” he said at the Nobel banquet in Stockholm, where he received the prize for physics in 1969. “I am frequently astonished that it so often results in correct predictions of experimental results.”

After comparing the simple structure of a mathematical formula to the rules of the sonnet, he surprised his hosts by finishing his speech in Swedish. (He later berated himself for mispronouncing a word.)

With his hyphenated surname and cosmopolitan ways, Dr. Gell-Mann liked to keep people wondering about his pedigree. The physicist Sheldon Glashow once recalled a party at which his colleague cagily spun a tale about the confluence in Scotland of the River Gell and the River Mann.

Dr. Gell-Mann also had a compulsion, upon meeting new people, to provide them with the etymology and proper pronunciation of their names, going on to expound on seemingly any subject under the sun. Some found him charming, others exasperating. No one doubted the immensity of his mind.

He was born on Sept. 15, 1929, in Lower Manhattan to Arthur and Pauline (Reichstein) Gell-Mann, both Eastern European immigrants. At the time, his father operated a language school. (Born Isidore Gellmann in a small town in what was then Galicia, near the Russian border, the elder Mr. Gell-Mann had studied mathematics and philosophy in Vienna. He changed his name to Arthur and apparently added the hyphen sometime after 1911, when he was called to New York by his parents, who had emigrated earlier and were having financial problems.)

During the Depression, the language school failed and the family, which included an older son, Ben, moved to cheaper quarters on 188th Street in the Bronx, near the Bronx Zoo, and later to the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

This was long before the time when an apartment in the neighborhood conferred a prestigious address. In an oral history interview, Dr. Gell-Mann recalled living in hard times. His father, he said, though intellectually curious, struggled to make a living, finding a back-office job on Wall Street, working for a toy importer and, finally, securing a position at a bank “at a very low salary.”

“We had very little money,” Dr. Gell-Mann said.Young Murray was already showing signs of precociousness, multiplying large numbers in his head and correcting his elders on the pronunciation of foreign words. With the encouragement of his mother and help from a piano teacher who gave lessons at a local settlement house, he won a scholarship to Columbia Grammar, a private school on West 93rd Street, where he earned the nickname “the Walking Encyclopedia.”Graduating as valedictorian at age 14, he went to Yale, also on scholarship. But physics was not his first choice as a major area of study, he said in the oral history. He considered archaeology or a field related to natural history. His father, however, pushed him to choose engineering, saying it would lead to a well-paying job. Murray resisted, and they settled on physics as a compromise — “to please the old man,” Dr. Gell-Mann said — and he soon found that the subject fascinated him.“My father was absolutely right,” he said.After Dr. Gell-Mann earned his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1951, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had directed the Manhattan Project, brought him to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. From there he went to the University of Chicago and worked under Enrico Fermi.The two decades after World War II were a golden age in physics, with experimenters discovering one new phenomenon after another for theorists to explain. Some particles bombarding the earth as cosmic rays seemed to defy the known laws of physics: They did not disintegrate nearly as quickly as the equations predicted. Dr. Gell-Mann showed that this behavior could be explained by positing a new physical quality, which he named “strangeness.”As with energy, there is a law of conservation of strangeness. (It is conserved in strong interactions and electromagnetic interactions but not in weak interactions.) Once this was taken into account, physicists could explain the particle’s surprisingly slow decay.In 1955 Dr. Gell-Mann married J. Margaret Dow, an archaeology assistant he had met during a visit back to Princeton. Lured by an offer from the California Institute of Technology, the couple moved to Pasadena, where they raised two children, Elizabeth and Nicholas. The renowned physicist Richard Feynman was also at Caltech, and the two men, their egos clashing, collaborated for a while before Dr. Gell-Mann struck out on his own.As with strangeness, the Eightfold Way and quarks were independently discovered by other theorists, but the breadth of Dr. Gell-Mann’s accomplishments and his flair for nomenclature ensured that his would be the name most remembered.His instincts weren’t infallible. At first he dismissed quarks as mathematical abstractions — an accounting device with no real correlate in the physical world. There was good reason for his skepticism: Quarks would have to have electrical charges measured in thirds, something that was never observed.

 

After quarks were confirmed indirectly in an experiment at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, in Menlo Park, Calif., Dr. Gell-Mann denied that he had ever doubted their existence. He went on to help explain how the tiny particles are permanently stuck together, keeping their fractional charges hidden from view. A “green” quark, a “red” quark and a “blue” quark (the labels were arbitrary) blended to form a “colorless” proton. It was Dr. Gell-Mann who named the theory quantum chromodynamics.

By this time he was becoming known for his abrasive style, cutting down colleagues with withering remarks or saddling some of them with derisive names. The physicist Abraham Pais became “the evil dwarf.” The renowned experimenter Leon Lederman (who died last October) was “the plumber.” But those who could abide Dr. Gell-Mann’s prickliness found the intellectual pugilism exciting.

“To work with him it helps first of all not to have too fragile an ego,” James Hartle, a former student and collaborator, said in a remembrance in 2014, when Dr. Gell-Mann received the prestigious Helmholtz Medal, established in 1892. (Past recipients included Lord Kelvin and Robert Bunsen.) “But despite the obvious differences in intellect and insight, Murray somehow makes you feel an equal partner when you are working with him.”

Dr. Gell-Mann was an early champion of superstrings, hypothetical particles that, if ever verified, would be even more fundamental than quarks. Later in his career he began thinking in other directions, puzzling over the way simple laws of physics give rise to the beauty and intricacy of the living world. He explored the idea in a popular book, “The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex” (1994).

In 1992, a little more than a decade after his wife, Margaret, died of cancer, he married Marcia Southwick, a poet he had met in Aspen, Colo., where he had a summer home. After retiring from Caltech and being named a fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, he moved with her to New Mexico. The marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his two children and by a stepson, Nicholas Southwick Levis.

By the time Dr. Gell-Mann learned he would receive the Helmholtz Medal from the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, he was in a wheelchair accompanied by an attendant. So the academy came to him, bestowing the prize in a ceremony at the Santa Fe Institute.

Afterward, Dr. Gell-Mann’s friend, the novelist Cormac McCarthy, raised a champagne toast. During the ceremony, Dr. Gell-Mann had been described as “one of the great physicists of the latter half of the 20th century.” Mr. McCarthy objected to the qualification. Dr. Gell-Mann, he said, is “undoubtedly one of the great scientists of the 20th century.”

In a talk in 2007, Dr. Gell-Mann compared the last century of physics to pulling back the skins of an onion, finding at every layer that the same mathematics applies — and hinting that an objective reality can conceivably be explained someday by a universal set of laws.

“Somewhere on some other planet orbiting some very distant star, maybe in another galaxy, there could well be entities that are at least as intelligent as we are,” he said. “Suppose they have very different sensory apparatus — they have seven tentacles, and they have 14 funny-looking little compound eyes and a brain shaped like a pretzel.” Nevertheless, Dr. Gell-Mann said, we can be confident that these creatures would discover the same fundamental laws. Some people believe otherwise, he added, “and I think that is utter baloney.”

(6) Masha Gessen gets it.   I have often stated that Pelosi and Trump are in a symbiotic relationship and are each in their way and for different reasons gaslighting the country to run out the clock so that one result occurs: no impeachment.  If she continues to stand in the way of impeachment while playing his foil, history will condemn her along with him.

Here is how Gessen explains it:

Gessen

The President of the United States is erratic, illiterate, and doesn’t want to know what he doesn’t know. The President has alienated former allies, befriended or courted murderous dictators, and has repeatedly brought the country to the brink of nuclear confrontation. The President lies constantly, knows that he is lying, and demands that Administration officials lie for him, and often they do. The President has waged war on the institutions of government, overseeing the gutting of the State Department and the destruction of other federal agencies by their own leaders, and effectively shut off media access to the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House. The President has acted to thwart oversight of the Administration by other branches of government. The President has never made a secret of despising the government itself: he has called it a “swamp” and gleefully shut it down for thirty-five days, during a temper tantrum. The President has not only failed to divest himself of his businesses but has installed his children in and near the White House, openly using his office for personal financial gain. The President has debased political culture and language, using his bully pulpit to spew lies, hate, and personal insults, and to serve fast-food burgers.

These are some of the known facts. The Trump Presidency has been a two-and-a-half-year-long high crime against common decency, good sense, human values, the national interest, and the law. The question is: What constitutes good opposition politics in this situation?

The prevailing wisdom in the Democratic Party seems to be that good opposition politics is a very slow walk to impeachment, as performed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She has said that she is opposed to impeachment because it is “divisive,” and because Trump is “just not worth it,  and has reportedly said, behind closed doors, that impeachment is what Trump wants, because he expects to be exonerated by the Senate. Pelosi, the wisdom has it, is building a case for impeachment both in congressional inquiries and in her public feud with Trump: she provokes him in some way—most recently, by saying that he is “engaged in a coverup,” or by hoping aloud that someone close to Trump would stage “an intervention for the good of the country”—and he responds by performing Trump. “In each case,” as Politico put it, “Trump handed Pelosi a huge gift, a priceless moment that helped unify the Democratic Caucus behind her at a crucial time.”

Trump’s performance is repetitive. None of what he has done in his battle of insults with Pelosi is surprising or new: not storming out of a meeting with her and the Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, on Wednesday (at least the third such walkout in six months); not the scuttling of an anticipated legislative deal with the Democrats (he does this every time); not his counterfactual assertions that he doesn’t “do coverups” and is a “very stable genius” (he has said this before); not the ugly spectacle of his meltdown; not the vulgar sexism of his insults. All of it is just more Trump.

Still, the premise of the argument that Trump is digging his own grave by doing more Trump is that the amount of Trump we have observed since January, 2017, is not yet enough to take action. Pelosi’s “coverup” comment, which set Trump off on Wednesday, implies that something remaining to be uncovered can make a difference to our understanding of this Presidency—that the known facts are not enough to make Trump’s continued Presidency inconceivable. Similarly, the idea that continued congressional hearings on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s findings are necessary to build a case for impeachment suggests that a hundred and eighty-two pages documenting the President’s efforts to obstruct the investigation are not enough. The purpose of these congressional hearings is not to systematize the evidence—that can be done in the course of impeachment proceedings—but to give human faces and voices to the Mueller report, and to goad Trump into obstructing oversight in plain view. The pragmatics are creating political momentum that might make it more difficult for Senate Republicans to resist impeachment. But the logic is that the public must be shown how unfit Trump is to be President. As though the public hasn’t seen enough—as though, indeed, what the public has seen so far is a Presidency that we can live with.

Worse, Pelosi’s tactics, apparently designed to expose Trump’s unfitness, affirm the Trumpian style of politics: vulgar, cruel, and value-free. Pelosi has become Trump’s personal troll. She played the part during the State of the Union address, when she applauded Trump the way one might applaud a lying, cheating, attention-hogging teen-ager: arms straight, head cocked, her entire being projecting insincerity. She played the part after she taunted the President following his tantrum, suggesting that he suffered from a “lack of confidence,” and again, on Thursday, with her “intervention” comments. Most of the mainstream media have followed with horse-race-style coverage, calling each step of the feud for Pelosi.

In a world where trolling is politics, Pelosi is winning. Politico praises her for being “so good at infuriating Trump.” CNN delights in Trump “taking Nancy Pelosi’s bait.” The Trumpification of American politics is being perpetrated by bipartisan consensus. Pelosi, and an apparent majority of Democratic Washington, seem to think this is preferable to an attempt at impeachment that is likely to be thwarted by Senate Republicans. Failure, in other words, is unacceptable, but this—the flagrant dysfunction, the trivialization of all that used to be politics, the spectacle of daily national shame—is acceptable. Trump will be gone someday, but the possibilities that Trumpism has created will remain.

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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