John Oliver got this right last week: "When fake groups hire fake experts and fake crowds to shape the outcome of real events, it can cause real damage."
He wasn't talking about the "fake news" meme, and at the time of the taping, Reality TV star, Omorosa's SCUD missiles hadn't hit their mark at the West Wing. He was talking about Astroturfing, which is a form of live trolling that is effective in building fake public support for causes that the real public usually doesn't want. Astroturfing is a kind of propaganda led by phony special interest groups stood up by unseen corporate interests, "experts" who are actors paid to read specific talk points, and fake crowds which are hired, wardrobed and rehearsed to look like concerned citizens who support a given cause. The worst part is that it actually works. It shapes city ordinances, pushes bills through legislatures, gives tax breaks to the powerful and is yet another polarizing force that sets us against each other.
Astroturfing works because it gives us a sense of belonging and fuels our outrage against "the other." We want to believe. We seem to have a collective itch that only public adulation and constant acknowledgement can scratch, which makes us vulnerable to every con that comes down the pike. Narcissism, vanity, and self-interest have always been a nasty part of the human condition and probably existed when we lived in caves. But amplified by second-by-second universal, free access to a global audience, these are the only things that seem to matter, so we're an easy mark, easily stampeded. Which partially explains why we have the leadership we have in D.C.
Those of us who are following our politics minute-by-minute are living on the knife edge of a helpless cognitive dissonance. It's excruciating. I can't turn it off because I have to stay vigilant and aware. It's the most patriotic thing I think I can do--stay aware, be informed, and try to be a force against the institutional gaslighting that turns black to white, freedom to slavery, and peace to war--which left unchecked, could ultimately result in another civil war or turn America into the next "shithole country."
At the same time, it's poisoning my art, my photography and my general outlook on life. My series, "Fraught" was so-named because of it represented what I saw as the collective anxieties of others confronting the subconsciously stressful situation of air travel. Turns out, it's not my subjects that are fraught these days. It's me.
Whereas the original set of images flowed from an organic, authentic place, the ones I've developed over the past 18 months are much more tortured and difficult. They can't seem to be nasty enough. They're artificial and contrived, not because they contain a hard truth, but because I don't think they're finished until they're truly monstrous. Before, I knew when to stop and when the story was complete. Now an image isn't done until it's uncomfortable and horrifying.
I've never shot for peaceful beauty--that's not in my DNA. I've sought some glimmer of human truth in everything I've tried to do, which means my work is among the least likely to end up in a dentist's office (nothing wrong with beautiful, calm images, BTW!). But if my images are the mirror to my soul, I need different input, not just a vector to my mounting rage and sorrow for where we seem to be headed.
I'm stuck in ugly.
So I'm swearing off "he who shall not be named" for a while. I'll stay vigilant, but I'm done writing even tangentially about him and the effect he's had on the decline of our experiment in democracy. Not that he cares or will miss it. He gets enough ink, after all. My bet is that when Mueller and the NY District Attorney's office get close to his money, which they inevitably will, he'll declare his presidency, "the best in American History" and resign. He'll take his "base," which is essentially a target audience of about 10 million fools and fascists, ring up his buddy, Steve Bannon and start the most noxious media network since Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl. Then it's truly "game on," and I'll have to hit the streets again.
Until then, I just can't.