Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Look At Time Honored Advice For Keeping Focused On What's Important - Eye On The Ball, Follow The Money, etc.

Let's see, we've got a burning London tower, Comey and Sessions hearings, an attack on Republicans playing baseball, a new health care bill, Trump tweets . . .  And then everyone has state issues to follow - in Alaska our legislature is in a special session called by the governor because there's a stalemate between the Democratically controlled House and the Republicanly controlled Senate.  There's so much stuff flying at us, how can anyone keep track?

That's what this post is about.  I'm going to look at words of advice on how to intelligently track what's going on in a few different areas:
  • Sports - Keep Your Eye On The Ball
  • Magic - Misdirection
  • Politics -" Follow The Money" and "Watch What We Do, Not What We Say"

Do any of these help us figure out what we should do?   Let's go through each one first, then try to tease out any similarities.  

Keep your eye on the ball.   -  For players, this seems to be good advice.  From Inside Science:
"For the first time, scientists have documented the eye movement of athletes running at full speed to catch fly balls. The results are the most convincing yet to support past notions that constant eye contact is essential to a successful catch."
But for the audience, taking your eye off the ball may give you a better understanding of what's happening.

There's a well known psychological test where subjects are asked to count the number of times the white team passes the basketball.  If you've never seen this video, you should watch it now.  Really.  It's short.  Go ahead.  I'll get back to this later.

From NPR:
"Don't watch the ball. That's it. Don't watch the ball. Wait, the ball is large and orange and demands to be watched. It's a magnetic orb through which all action flows and all camera angles are oriented. True enough, but to understand and appreciate the sport, look away. If you begin to look at what the other players are doing without the ball, the sport presents itself to you differently.
You see how a player came to be open or how a defender came to thwart an offensive play - grabbing a jersey is the answer more often than you'd think. On the San Antonio Spurs, watch Pau Gasol as he muscles into position under the basket. On the Cleveland Cavaliers, when Kyrie Irving has the ball, watch LeBron. When LeBron has the ball, watch Kyrie or Kevin Love. You think to yourself, he's standing sentinel ready to fire up a three-pointer, but then he plunges towards the hoop for a rebound or to set himself up in the post."
There's also a book on the NFL called Take Your Eye Off The Ball 2.0.  I was guessing it has similar kind of advice about football, but I couldn't find anything online that actually says that.

But it's clear that if you keep your eye on the ball, you miss a lot of other things, like a team sets up plays and does its defense.  Just as in the video, where concentrating on the ball and the white team causes most folks to not even see the gorilla.

And in sports, where there is usually only one ball in play at a time, it's much easier than in politics where the myriad of issues I listed at the beginning suggests there are many metaphorical balls in play at once.

Magic - Misdirection

From an article on the psychology of magic:
Physical misdirection is a well-known tool for the magician: he points at an object, a big gesture distracts, spectators fixate on a suddenly appearing dove. All are designed to distract from another movement that is vital for the trick.
The article goes on to make the point I was intending to make here, that we can get psychologically misdirected too.
"Psychological misdirection is much more subtle – a good example is the false solution. This is where the magician leads spectators to believe they’ve worked out how the trick is done. Once this ‘solution’ is suggested people are much less likely to notice the clues that crop up as to how it’s really done. Instead people look for confirmation that their own theory is correct. When the magician finally shows this ‘solution’ is no such thing, spectators are left even more bemused. The false solution is, therefore, not just a happy coincidence, it is used as a distraction from the real solution."
In fact, many have suggested that Trump's tweets are a form of misdirection, and politicians have always used distraction to slip through things when people were looking elsewhere.  So the real question is where should our eyes (and ears) be focused?

Let's go to a couple suggestions from the Watergate era.

"Follow The Money" 

For me, this quote goes back to Watergate and Deep Throat (the informant reporters Bernstein and Woodward????  used to confirm they were going in the right direction).  He kept telling them to 'follow the money.'  I suspect that's a lot like 'keep your eye on the ball.'   This Wikipedia entry suggests that it probably was the screenwriter's (for the film about Bernstein and Woodward, All the President's Men) shortcut of less pithy advice.

I think this is probably good advice now as well.  There are lots of flows of money to watch.  Who funds which candidates is always a good way to figure out why politicians vote the way they vote.  But the Citizens United decision makes it harder to do - which is more confirmation that following the money is important.  And there are a number of websites that help us do that, such as and open

But it's getting apparent that following Trump's money - the money he borrowed from Russian linked people to keep building after his bankruptcy and money that corporations and governments are steering toward his businesses how people are trying to document possible violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution.  The Russian money, as one hypothesis goes,  to help determine how badly they can hurt him financially if he doesn't do their bidding. The other money, well so they can influence him as well.  We learned just the other day that there's been a huge increase in the percent of investments by shell companies in Trump real estate.

So it seems like the money is an important factor to attend to.

"Watch What We Do, Not What We Say"

Conservative commentator William Safire explained it this way in 1988:

 '''Watch what we do, not what we say,' Attorney General John Mitchell advised reporters at the start of the Nixon Administration.
Coming from the law-and-order campaign manager with the visage of a bloodhound, that epigram was interpreted as the epitome of political deceptiveness.
But his intent was to reassure blacks that, foot-dragging poses aside, the Nixon Justice Department would accomplish desegregation. John Mitchell knew that the appearance of a tilt toward white Southerners would ease the way for acceptance of steady civil rights progress for blacks, and sure enough, what he did in this area was much better than what he said."

I think this is pretty clear - what we say means little.  What we actually do is important.  Except for the code words we use to alert our base that we're talking to them.

But I need to shed a little more light on Safire's take on this.  Using examples like this isn't so easy.  Well, I could just slip it in, but the record is not as clearcut as it seems.  Should I go into all that?  I feel that I have to, even if it makes the post a little harder to get through.  But you can skip down to the conclusions if you like.   A CNN article quotes Nixon top aide, John Ehrlichman, as saying,
"'You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,' Ehrlichman said. 'We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.' 
Ehrlichman's comment is the first time the war on drugs has been plainly characterized as a political assault designed to help Nixon win, and keep, the White House."
The article goes on to say that none of Ehrlichman's five children believe the quote because

"'We never saw or heard anything from our dad, John Ehrlichman, that was derogatory about any person of color,'" wrote Peter Ehrlichman, Tom Ehrlichman, Jan Ehrlichman, Michael Ehrlichman and Jody E. Pineda in a statement provided to CNN."
If you've seen the 2017 movie Get Out you've seen lots of examples of how even liberal whites who ostensibly support blacks in any number of ways, can still be unconsciously racist.  And the point Ehrlichman was making was that they were targeting political opponents who just happened to be black, just as North Carolina argued in their gerrymandering cases.   I'm sure that Ehrlichman's kids would also say that he wasn't racist against whites either, but most hippies were white.

The book White Rage (last chapter I believe) documents how blacks were targeted in the war on drugs as a both a way to keep them from voting and to fill the private prisons of campaign supporters.  (I thought I posted about the last chapter, but apparently I only got to Chapter 4 which does talk about how the Nixon and Reagan administrations declared racism over with desegregation and the Voting Rights Act.)


This may seem like a long way to get to the obvious, but I think it's important to always check our assumptions.  And in this particular political period, to find ways to focus on what's really important.

1.  Keeping your eye on the ball, as an observer, can cause you to miss the bigger picture - how the defense and offense are structured, where the strengths and weaknesses lie, etc.  And you could miss the gorilla in the middle of the room.  We need to keep track of the big picture and not get too bogged down in all the details.

That said, if there is a ball in politics, it's probably the money.  Watch the whole game, but pay attention to the money!

2.  Misdirection  - Just because the magician looks up, doesn't mean you should too.  It's a feint to distract you from what she's doing with her hands.  Trump's tweets are often misdirection, distracting us from the important things.  But they also do tell us something about Trump's need for constant attention and total focus on himself, his bad sleeping habits, his lack of self control.  An interesting historical tidbit that came up the Safire article cited above, was a mention of Nixon attorney general John Mitchell's wife,
"Martha's propensity to make wild phone calls during sleepless nights"
Sound familiar?  Maybe there's a new entry for the DSM here.  Or maybe it's already in there, but one would think someone would have pointed it out by now.

3.  Follow the Money -  as I started to say in #1, Money is the 'ball' of politics.  So this is always important, just don't forget to keep it all in context.

4.  "Watch What We Do, Not What We Say"  If Safire's example of this is accurate, it's appropriate here.  "What we say" is aimed at our base and shouldn't be believed, except by them.  I think that's sort of true about Trump, except that he's got enough advisors who were spokesmen for his base's key issues, that he's at least taking some actions to do things he said he'd do.  Like building a wall, banning Muslims, killing Obamacare, pulling out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.  He's just turned around and dissed the House health care reform and the courts have, so far, blocked his immigration actions.  But there's a lot of damage he can do.

Without forgetting what he said, it is good to watch what he's actually doing.  I suspect he's more focused on the Trump empire than on the needs of the United States.  And Safire's benign conclusion that the Nixon administration actually helped blacks is more what they said and not what they did.  The War on Drugs was, as I cited above, a war on blacks and hippies (really anti-war folks.)  And it is only now that people are recognizing that our prison population has skyrocketed to the benefit of private prison contractors and to the detriment of everyone else.

I don't think the Trump administration is competent enough to be that deviously successful.  First of all, they aren't disguising their racism, sexism, and anti-Muslimism.  The Trump policies are front on attacks.

So I think we should both listen and watch.

Finally, I'd say, limit your Twitter and Facebook and NPR or whatever news sources you use to a reasonable amount of time each day.  Get out into nature, keep up with your exercise, and spend good time with your family and friends.  That way you can keep some balance in life and not go crazy like our president.

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