About Trump and That Disabled Reporter

So, odds are good that you’ve heard about actress Meryl Streep’s speech the other night where she said politically charged things like “disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.” OK, that’s not quite a fair depiction of the matter. Her speech actually did constitute an attack on Donald Trump. I didn’t watch the it, but I heard about it in real time from friends on Facebook who felt like she was speaking for them.

At the same time, the speech was given from a very particular perspective – that of someone ensconced in the entertainment industry, a world which works rather differently than the world which the rest of us live in. I have some of the same criticisms of the content of the speech as Trevor Noah. (“Don’t make your point by shitting on someone else’s thing.”) Of course, there was the expected backlash from people who resented “being lectured” by a Hollywood celebrity. But those folks were by and large the same people who voted for a reality TV star for president, so they can really just stfu now.

Anyways, Streep’s speech highlighted an incident from 2015 in which Donald Trump apparently mocked reporter Serge Kovaleski’s physical disability. True to form, Trump has insisted that he did no such thing and that the media was just being mean and unfair. Streep’s speech has lead to a resurrection of videos claiming to prove that Trump did not actually mock a reporter’s physical disability, one of which I’ll embed below.

Now, clearly I and a good number of other people have decided that it is necessary to take an oppositional stance to Trump, but obviously we don’t want to become monsters ourselves in the fight. So it’s wise to actually look at the evidence from the other side in order to avoid being dishonest or unfair in ways that amount to being unjust. So, let’s look at the evidence against the claim that Trump mocked a reporter’s physical disability and evaluate it. (Trigger warning: video of Donald Trump, including audio of his voice. My sincere apologies.)

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FDonaldTrumpAmerica45%2Fvideos%2F981815025296933%2F&show_text=1&width=560

So here’s my take on the evidence, such as it is. First off, the mocking of the general from that same speech didn’t look remotely like the spastic display he put on when talking about the disabled reporter. The clip of him mocking Ted Cruz happened after Trump had already come under fire for apparently mocking a reporter’s disability and was probably him just creating cover for himself. The clip from 25 days before the incident in question bears only the vaguest resemblance to the incident in question. And the one from Larry King live (that they had to go back 11 years to find) is somewhat similar, but not nearly as animated as the incident in question. I’m thinking the fact that they have 3 clips from prior to the outrage, spanning over a decade’s worth of time is kind of the opposite of compelling evidence that Trump was not mocking a reporter’s disability.

However, even if we accept as an absolute fact that Trump occasionally imitates spasticity to mock people (including himself), there’s still the reality that a normal, decent person would not use that particular gesture to mock someone who actually suffers from spasticity. Ever. In fact, I’m pretty sure that people who suffer from spasticity would very much appreciate it if we’d stop using an imitation of their disability as visual short hand for “idiot”. If you really want to get down to it.

But even those of us who aren’t all that sensitive will still go out of our way not to create the appearance of mocking someone’s physical disability. And we’re horrified and embarrassed if we happen to do something which causes someone to think that we’re  mocking a person’s disability. It’s the sort of thing we have nightmares about doing. In fact, I knew a guy back in college who was born with a deformed arm and hand who would reach out to shake with that hand when he wanted to be a jerk just because he knew the person would be embarrassed by their own reaction. Because again, most of us put a lot of stock in the value of not appearing to make fun of someone’s physical disability.

So, did Donald Trump make fun of a reporter’s disability? I would say yes. But even if his defender’s arguments are 100% correct, the fact still remains that Donald Trump, true to form, does not behave anything like a normal, decent person behaves. Not even in situations with a really low bar like not using an imitation of spasticity when making fun of someone who suffers from spasticity. Duh.

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You Can’t Fight Reality Forever

Is the church dead? No. But plenty of people seem to be preparing the obituaries, going over which funeral plans are most suitable for everyone and making the funeral arrangements for that inevitable day. Inside Christian circles, the pessimism over the prospects for the church is palpable. There’s a real sense among many that some threshold has been crossed and that it’s all down hill from here.

There are a few die hards who are still trying to “take the culture back for Christ”, but increasingly there’s a recognition that the church went to war and lost. Even the dominionist movement, which has gained some footholds in state politics, seems to exist purely for the purpose of alienating everyone else. Their time will pass, once they’ve done enough damage that even the call the “take the culture back” isn’t enough to garner votes from nostalgic and frightened Christians.

Now, I do not share this very pessimistic view of the direction Christianity is heading. In fact, I’m rather enthused about the future of the church. But I understand the defeatism which is being driven by the realization that the church went to war and lost. Badly. On every issue which the church decided to take a stand, they lost. Not only did the wider culture not embrace the church’s positions, the things which the church felt important enough to declare war over are the very reasons people give for leaving the church. And let’s face it, that kind of rejection stings.

Over the last few years, copious pixels have been used analyzing and lamenting the reasons for the church’s impotence in the face of the freight train of cultural change. Some have traced the beginning of the end all the way back to the Enlightenment. Or Constantine. Or the hippies and women in pants.

So what happened, really? It seems to me that the answer is pretty simple: reality.

For much of human history, our understanding of reality was pretty limited. The sun circled the earth. God or gods controlled the weather. Sicknesses were demons or curses or God’s vengeance. Counting and measuring were for economic transactions, not studying. In this environment, one of the purposes of religion was to explain a reality which was otherwise unexplainable. Part of the power held by Christianity was that, in addition to being a spiritual path, it provided narratives and explanations for reality that worked well enough to be plausible.

Along came the Enlightenment and with it the rise of Empiricism. (Empiricism being the idea that knowledge is gained by observing and measuring what can be experienced through our senses. As opposed to rationalism which favors using logic in order to construct an understanding of reality.) Basically, we went from learning about the world by thinking about how things might work or should work to observing how they actually do work.

This shift in our approach to understanding the world frequently had an unsettling result; it turns out that the world didn’t work very much at all the way we thought it did. And not only that, we could prove it. Conjecture and supernaturalism were no longer realistic methods of explaining the world around us. And unlike religious or philosophical ideas which could be rejected or accepted based on our own judgment (or the judgment of authorities), rejecting the findings of empiricism meant rejecting proven reality.   Continue reading