Everyone has a story. Everyone changes lanes. By 1981 it was time for a change – the first marriage had ended and teaching English at the prep school in Rochester, in the quiet upper left hand corner of New York, had lost its charm, or at least seemed to stretch out endlessly into the future in a sad Mister Chips sort of way. Life had become a matter of plowing through Hamlet and Great Expectations once again, and reading pretty much the same student essays, making the same comments, and then assigning a grade, which would be shrugged off or disputed in anger or tears – while real life went on elsewhere. That wouldn’t do. The real world was elsewhere.
So it was off to California, to a place at the beach and a job in aerospace – which in the eighties seemed real enough. There was the little red convertible and heading off to work each day in a suit and tie, with a briefcase, of all things, and conferences in Vegas or Newport Beach, with PowerPoint presentations and talk about systems and return-on-investment and such things. This had to be real life – after all, it paid more than three times as much, and no one really cared what Ophelia’s big problem might be. The talk was about competitive compensation practices and management training strategies and succession planning and all sorts of organizational development issues, and information systems to manage all that. That was support stuff, but in the next building they designed and assembled military satellites, and in the next building over, fire-control radar systems for fighter jets, and down the street it was guidance systems for our ICBMs in the submarines. All this was very real in a way Dickens wasn’t. One can change lanes.
The irony was that changing lanes wasn’t that easy in California. It was those Botts’ dots – those little round non-reflective raised pavement markers used to mark lanes on all the highways. Those provided tactile and auditory feedback if you drifted out of your lane – you’d hear a sudden rumble and the steering wheel would shake. Those were named after Elbert Dysart Botts, a California Department of Transportation engineer, but that’s trivia. Those dots kept you on the straight and narrow, in the land where there were no snowplows to scrape them off the road, because it never snows. In September 1966, the California State Legislature mandated that Botts’ dots be used for lane markings for all state highways – except in the few odd high places where it did snow. In 2017, the California Department of Transportation announced that it would stop using Botts’ dots – to make roadways more compatible with self-driving cars – but they had been useful. Late at night they could sober you up. Pay attention!
Pay attention to the automatically-generated sudden rumble. Stay in your lane. The Russians understand this, as Maya Kosoff explains:
Four months after representatives for Facebook, Twitter, and Google were hauled before Congress to explain how their platforms were overrun by Russian bots, trolls, and other agents of Moscow’s sprawling dezinformatsiya campaign, it appears Silicon Valley is still struggling to get the problem under control. In the immediate aftermath of a horrific mass shooting at a Florida high school on Wednesday, an army of fake accounts began pumping out disinformation on Twitter using the #ParklandShooting hashtag, Wired reports, amplifying hyper-partisan rhetoric, co-opting messaging from far-right extremists and the NRA and generally sowing fresh chaos in an already chaotic breaking-news environment.
The Russians are making sure everyone stays in their own angry lane – with bots, electronic Butt’s dots – and Wired has the details:
In the wake of Wednesday’s Parkland, Florida school shooting, which resulted in 17 deaths, troll and bot-tracking sites reported an immediate uptick in related tweets from political propaganda bots and Russia-linked Twitter accounts. Hamilton 68, a website created by Alliance for Securing Democracy, tracks Twitter activity from accounts it has identified as linked to Russian influence campaigns. As of morning, shooting-related terms dominated the site’s trending hashtags and topics, including Parkland, guncontrolnow, Florida, guncontrol, and Nikolas Cruz, the name of the alleged shooter. Popular trending topics among the bot network include shooter, NRA, shooting, Nikolas, Florida, and teacher.
On RoBhat Labs’ Botcheck.me, a website created by two Berkeley students to track 1500 political propaganda bots, all of the top two-word phrases used in the last 24 hours – excluding President Trump’s name – are related to the tragedy: School shooting, gun control, high school, Florida school. The top hashtags from the last 24 hours include Parkland, guncontrol, and guncontrolnow.
Kosoff adds this:
These troll and bot armies seem to follow a specific strategy for injecting hashtags, memes, and conspiracies into the mainstream. In cases like the Parkland shooting, human-controlled bots tend to hijack hashtags to push partisan pro-gun messaging. At the same time, bot creators will come up with their own hashtags, use bots to promote them, and then wait for real Twitter users to adopt them. “Because of the politicized nature of them, they are perfect fodder to take an extreme position and start spreading memes that have a very distinct political position on gun control,” Bret Schafer, a research analyst with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, told Wired. More dangerously, the feedback loop between fake and real accounts makes it difficult to stamp out disinformation campaigns, even if fake accounts can be identified and deleted.
As Twitter has grown, that problem has become increasingly unmanageable. Former executives I’ve spoken with at the company are emphatic about illustrating just how difficult a task it is to monitor the hundreds of millions of tweets sent on Twitter every day.
Elbert Dysart Botts would be proud, because once again an automatically-generated sudden rumble keeps everyone in their own lane, and Kosoff notes this:
There’s a certain genius to the way these bot networks have infiltrated the Twitter platform. In the early days of the 2016 election interference campaign, Russian actors did not appear to take sides in political debates on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks. Instead, accounts associated with Russia sometimes took both sides of any given debate. In one particularly remarkable example, Russian trolls organized two sides of a protest in Texas and encouraged attendees to confront each other in the streets. These campaigns may not be effective at changing hearts and minds, but they’re plenty effective at inflaming debates, sowing distrust, and spreading conspiracies that undermine our ability to talk to each other.
That assumes that Americans still have any sort of ability to talk to each other. The nation is now totally polarized. There is no middle and the far ends do no more than sneer and ridicule each other. There are thousands of analyses of that – and the Russians are making sure that will not change. There’s that sudden rumble. Everyone will stay in their lane.
Donald Trump will stay in his lane:
President Trump on Thursday called the suspect in the mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., “mentally disturbed” and vowed to help local jurisdictions tackle mental health issues, but he made no mention of stricter gun-control laws.
In a televised address at the White House, Trump focused his response on the need for the nation to offer more support for young people who feel isolated a day after Nikolas Cruz, 19, a former student who had been expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, was accused of the rampage that killed 17 people at his former school.
“I want you to know you are never alone and never will be,” Trump said during his six-minute address in the Diplomatic Room. He urged young people to turn for help to “a teacher, a family member, a local police officer or a faith leader.”
“Answer hate with love,” he said. “Answer cruelty with kindness.”
What? Forget hitting back ten times harder? Who was this man and what had he done with the real Donald Trump? This was odd, but he was staying in his lane:
Trump pledged his administration would help “tackle the difficult issue of mental health” and said the issue of improving safety in schools would be the top priority during a meeting later this month with governors and state attorneys general. Yet Trump made no mention of gun-control laws in the aftermath of the third-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
The Trump White House has not pushed for any new gun laws.
He made no mention of gun control, but he had to say something, and this was something, even if it was nonsense:
A year ago, Trump signed legislation that revoked an Obama-era regulation that aimed to make it more difficult for some people with mental illness to buy guns.
Oops. And there was this:
Aside from a presidential proclamation lowering flags to half mast, neither he nor anyone else at the White House said anything more about the shooting after his remarks, even after the leader of a white nationalist group in Florida said the shooter had trained with its members, or after CBS News verified an Instagram account belonging to the shooter in which he set a profile picture of himself wearing a red Make America Great Again hat.
That will come up again and again, even if Trump is not responsible for some idiot taking things too far – unless he is responsible. To the despair of the Republican Party he had said that many “fine people” had marched with the white nationalists in Charlottesville. He still says that. That sounds like approval. Approval isn’t responsibility for mass murder, but it comes close.
But he has his lane, and Obama had his, and the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe and Jenna Johnson discuss how that has shaped things:
As he heads to Florida this weekend, President Trump is following in the footsteps of former president Barack Obama, a man he disparages and a leader whose time in office in many ways came to be defined by mass shootings.
Obama bequeathed on his successor an almost ritualistic response to gun tragedies, beginning with the 2011 attack on then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and ending with the 2016 Dallas attack that left five officers dead. There were 15 speeches from the White House, countless prayers for the fallen and more than a dozen visits to the crime scenes.
All the while, Obama traveled a path from empathy and promises of action to anger and, ultimately, defeat. “I am not naive,” Obama said in Dallas. “I have seen how inadequate my own words have been.”
That’s one lane, and this is the other:
Trump, beginning the second year of his presidency with his third major mass shooting, has a different problem. His challenges when it comes to connecting with a grieving public are often both personal and political.
While Obama simply ran out of things to say about the nation’s unending string of gun tragedies, Trump – who often strains to express empathy – has struggled to find much to say about them at all.
In a statement from the White House on Thursday morning about the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Trump promised to work with state and local leaders to “tackle the difficult issue of mental health.”
But his remarks, which lasted about six minutes, were so generic that they could have applied to any catastrophe.
“To every parent, teacher and child who is hurting so badly, we are here for you, whatever you need, whatever we can do to ease your pain,” he said, reading from a script in a practiced monotone in the Diplomatic Room of the White House. “We are all joined together as one American family, and your suffering is our burden also.”
He was reading from a script in a practiced monotone and gritting his teeth. He seemed angry. He had to do an Obama thing and he isn’t Obama:
The comments mirrored what he said in September after the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana.
“When one American suffers – and I say this quite a bit, especially lately, when you see what’s going on – we all suffer,” Trump said in the storm’s aftermath. “We’re one American family brought together in times of tragedy by the unbreakable bonds of love and loyalty that we have for one another.”
This seems odd from a man who takes pride in demeaning rivals with insulting nicknames and everyone knows it:
Trump’s most genuine emotion, the one that attracted legions of followers to his presidential campaign is his anger, aides say… Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, said in a recent interview. “Anger and fear is what gets people to the polls.”
But anger has seemed off-limits for Trump when it comes to the root causes of mass shootings and the unwillingness to act in Washington. Polls suggest widespread support for gun-control legislation, but Trump has remained loyal to supporters who believed that Obama was trying to take away their guns. Instead, he has repeatedly pointed to mental illness as the cause of mass killings, including the one in Florida, though his administration has moved to cut spending on such care.
Everyone stays in their lane, and Jaffe and Johnson argue that everyone knows that too:
For presidents, the hours and days after mass shootings can be clarifying, exposing both their strengths and weaknesses as leaders. Some of Obama’s most memorable, moving and eloquent moments came in the wake of such tragedies.
“We can’t tolerate this anymore,” Obama said at an evening prayer vigil after the killings of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. “These tragedies must end.”
Following the slaughter of nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., Obama led an arena full of mourners in “Amazing Grace.”
But he was never able to mobilize Congress or the country to action — despite the vast public support for gun-control legislation.
“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” Obama said in 2016, with tears rolling down his face, as he recalled the Newtown massacre while surrounded by victims of mass shootings at the White House.
That’s not Trump:
On the campaign trail, Trump had a unique ability to connect with voters, presenting himself as someone who understood their problems and was fighting for them. Those connections have been tougher for him to forge as president – especially on issues such as gun control where he is out of step with most of the country.
Rather than offer policy solutions, Trump has stuck with general expressions of sadness following mass shootings.
On Thursday, he promised to visit Parkland to “meet with families and local officials and to continue coordinating the federal response.”
Maybe he’ll throw rolls of paper towels like he did in Puerto Rico., but don’t expect him to change lanes:
Trump followed a nearly identical routine in early October after the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, which left more than 50 dead at an outdoor country music festival in Las Vegas. After that tragedy, there were calls for Congress to outlaw “bump stocks,” a device used by the shooter in Las Vegas to turn an assault rifle into a rapidly firing machine gun. But Trump chose not to take a position on the issue.
“The president’s a strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at the time. “That hasn’t changed.”
One month later, after a gunman opened fire in a rural Texas church, killing 26, Trump issued a brief statement urging Americans to “pull together… join hands… lock arms… stand strong.” Trump, who was visiting Asia at the time of the tragedy, sent his vice president to the scene.
The big question for Trump is whether he will pay a political price for inaction in the wake of gun tragedies. Obama’s experience suggests that he will not.
That may be what this was about:
Trump seems well aware of Obama’s history and has shown almost no interest in pushing new policies on guns and mental health.
In the first hours after Wednesday’s school shooting, White House officials were scrambling to get more information and figure out how to respond.
Longer term, the president seemed to be making a different calculation. In his remarks, he spoke of the need for Americans “to work together to create a culture in our country that embraces the dignity of life, that creates deep and meaningful human connections, and that turns classmates and colleagues into friends and neighbors.”
By not setting concrete goals, Trump seemed to be betting that he can avoid a legislative failure like Obama’s.
Eventually, he seemed to be wagering, Americans will move on to other issues. Eventually, they will forget.
Then he can get back to being himself, but there was this:
In the familiar aftermath of America’s latest mass shooting, something new stood out: This time, the kids who survived the rampage on Wednesday were demanding to know why the adults who run the country had not done more to prevent it.
The comments came in an outpouring that began Wednesday and had not stopped by Thursday night. On Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook, they remembered peers and teachers and struggled with the emotion of the moment. Many students were interviewed on national TV, some for much of the day.
The pleas for action from Parkland struck a sharp contrast with the almost nonexistent debate on Capitol Hill over preventing gun violence. Calls to ban the semiautomatic weapon used by the shooter were considered a non-starter in a Republican-controlled Congress where lawmakers are heavily influenced by the National Rifle Association.
No one expected anything else, but the adults who run the country were looking a bit foolish:
Students in Parkland called leaders’ lack of action inexcusable, pointing specifically to the age of the alleged shooter, Nikolas Cruz, 19.
“How are we allowed to buy guns at the age of 18 or 19? That’s something we shouldn’t be able to do,” Lyliah Skinner, who survived the shooting, told CNN.
Guillermo Bogan, who is home-schooled but has friends at Douglas High, said the alleged shooter’s age shows the selfishness of the gun industry.
“Some people will just do anything for a dollar,” Bogan said at a midday vigil for the victims. “There should be a background check – are you mentally ill or are you not mentally ill? And clearly he was mentally ill.”
No one was staying in their lane and it got worse:
Some students had harsh words for President Trump, who committed to tackling “the difficult issue of mental health” in an address to the nation that did not mention further gun restrictions.
Speaking to CNN, Douglas High student Isabella Gomez singled out Trump’s remark that students needing help should “turn to a teacher, a family member.”
“What could our teachers do in that situation, rather than save themselves, just as we were?” Gomez said. “I feel like he really needs to take into consideration all this gun control.”
And the response was lame:
Asked Thursday afternoon whether Trump had heard the pleas of the student survivors and their parents, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said that the president’s “heart is heavy.” He said Trump would convene a discussion on school safety, though he provided few specifics.
But perhaps all those Russian bots had done their job:
At the vigil in Parkland, not all students were confident that policymakers can solve the problem.
“This stuff happens and we don’t know why,” said Mia Veliz, a senior at Calvary Christian Academy in nearby Fort Lauderdale. “There is nothing we can do to stop it.”
That’s the spirit. Those odd Russian bots inflame debates, sow distrust, and spread conspiracies that undermine our ability to talk to each other, and they were wildly successful. There is no middle and the far ends do no more than sneer and ridicule each other, and nothing gets done, and everyone knows that, and some are satisfied with that. There’s that sudden rumble, just like with those Botts’ dots. Everyone stays in their lane. Dots and bots work wonders.