Sharing stuff I've learned, and things I've thought about...

Whistling past the graveyard

Moving On

For the past month, I’ve been listening to those who supported and voted for Donald Trump as president tell me and the others that are concerned about these election results to “get over it” and “move on”.

The snarky part of me wants to ask these folks why we should “get over it” when we’ve had to listen to them whine and kvetch and work themselves into apoplexies for the last eight years, but I really want to leave that there for now…

Instead, I want to say that I am trying to “get over it” and to “move on”. I really am. I frequently provoke my wife’s ire when I try to find something in Mr. Trump’s cabinet appointments or tweetstorms that allow me to think, if even for a few moments, that we’ve been here before, that the pendulum swings, that the party that controls the White House gets turned out every eight years with surprising regularity, that everything really is going to be ok.

We survived Nixon, and Reagan, and Bush I and Bush II. Sure, they moved the country in directions and instituted changes with which I disagreed, but despite the setbacks, in the larger historical arc things do get better. I really do believe that we need the push-me-pull-you political discourse that is built into our constitution because I’m convinced that given the opportunity the progressive/liberal/Democratic actors will put us into a ditch just as fast as the conservative/Republicans will, that none of us has all the answers, but that together we can work toward a better future. I continue to believe this despite the fact that this kind of attitude has been used by the out-for-blood, winning-is-everything take-no-prisoners tactics of the conservative political opposition to push through an agenda that is often at odds with a majority of Americans. But I refuse to sign on to the demonizing rhetoric that people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren like to deploy.

However, I have to admit that my attempts at being sanguine about the recent election is a case of “whistling past the graveyard”. When my attempts fail, my deepest fears fall into three categories.

  • The possibility of that we have permanently lost any basis for civil discourse on public policy issues, undermining the ability for our democracy to function
  • The possibility that we could endure an economic collapse more devastating, and less amenable to a quick recovery than the financial crisis of 2008
  • The possibility that America’s geopolitical standing could suffer a significant decline, either through the development of economic and geopolitical global alliances against us, or through a catastrophic war, possibly involving nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction.

Our Democracy Ceases to Function

This is the one that makes me physically ill, as we are already seeing this play out, so the question is how far will it go and how will the consequences play out?

The beauty inherent in our constitution it’s mechanism to allow for an orderly resolution of the basic tension between powerful, centralized government, local and regional government and individual liberty. The founders of our republic recognized that there were benefits and hazards in the mis-placement of power, but also wisely recognized that the proper division of power is not an absolute and must be argued and adapted for each generation and their time. If we work from a common perception of the truth, and can come to some agreement as to the goals, compromises can be made as to the means for establishing public policies that benefit all Americans.

This very mechanism has never before been threatened as it is now, because that common perception of the truth has been destroyed, and with the election of a man who clearly has a tenuous respect for truth, possibly for a very long time. Based on recent studies by the Pew Research Center, nearly 44% of all U.S. adults get their news from Facebook, and it has been well documented that Facebook and other news portals attempt to continue to feed users content that is consistent with other content for which they’ve shown a preference, with no distinction between those sources that promote damaging false stories or which feed conspiracy theories. Couple this with the another example from the Pew Research Center, 84% of Americans have either not heard of the “alt-right” or if they have, they don’t know what it stands for. Given the prevalence of news coverage of the alt-right and their visibility within this election (and indeed, one of the alt-right’s leading figures finding a place in Donald Trump’s White House staff), this is an appalling statistic. It evidences a populace that is so unfamiliar with any news source that they are likely unable to distinguish between legitimate and fake news sources.

For many years, Republicans have decried the “liberal” bias of mainstream press, but what has worried me has always been the tendency to brand as “liberal” facts and data that conflict with their world-view or their agenda. While it is valuable and worthwhile to argue about the interpretation of data, to question the validity of data compiled by non-partisan processes undercuts the ability to have a discussion at all. Case in point is Mr. Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as Education secretary, an ideological activist with no educational credentials who refuses to acknowledge data that shows how private charter schools in her home state of Michigan have consistently failed to live up to their promise, and in many cases, under-perform public schools.

It is one thing to dismiss or ignore data, or even refute it, it’s another thing entirely to suppress or degrade the quality of data. Not only does that suppress contrarian information, it further erodes the public’s faith in the data, and there are serious concerns that Donald Trump could do irreparable harm to data collected by government agencies.

We can’t talk to each other. We can’t agree on what is true. We can’t reach consensus. We can’t compromise. We all walk around in our own echo chambers or bubbles divorced one way or another from a majority of our fellow Americans, and we have entities like Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Infowars.com, Breitbart News that exaggerate our differences, fuel our suspicions, prejudices and fears and make a fortune in the process.

World Economic Collapse

While there is some question about the effect of protectionist trade policies when considering only the US economy, the wider impact of Trump’s victory, on both international relations and the strength of similar-minded anti-immigrant and anti-globalist right-wing politicians in Europe following the British departure from the EU could be devastating. Given the number of financial and business professionals Trump has looped into his administration, this is probably the least likely of the three disasters I fear, but the aid and comfort that Trump’s ascendancy gives to like-minded populist demagogues not only in Europe, but around the world could make for some very unsettled times.

Catastrophic Global Conflict

This is the really scary one, and something that I considered as a possibility given the lack of experience that Mr. Trump has in international relations, his distrust of US intelligence services, his inability to pay attention to details, his propensity for being reactive and impetuous, and most significantly his troubling admiration and opaque relationship with Russia and Vladimir putin. When these concerns existed in my own head, triggered by certain historical parallels, I could dismiss my concerns as baseless paranoia. That is until I encountered an article by Dr. Evelyn Farkas who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia from 2012 to 2015 that mirrored my own fevered imaginings.

I want to “get over it”. I want to “move on”. I really do.

I just can’t

 

Urban/Rural Cultural and Political Divide

This is kinda an “open letter” to the two writers I discuss below. If you haven’t done so already, please, Please, PLEASE read these three items:

I hope that this post pops up on David and J.D.’s radar – if it does, then David, meet J.D. – J.D., meet David.

David, you need to read J.D.’s book if you haven’t already, and J.D. you need to connect to David – you guys have a lot of background on which to compare notes.

I want to thank both of you for your observations and your bringing in a new perspective from which we can begin to understand the horrible things that our nation is experiencing right now.

Context – I’m an upper-middle-class liberal “elite” nearing retirement (like in two months) having been employed for the past 10 years in digital advertising for a major ad agency, son of a woman who was raised in a working-class single-parent household in Evansville Indiana, and a father who was raised in a middle-class urban household, WWII veteran, a high-school drop-out but who became a highly successful serial entrepreneur. I’ve enjoyed all of the advantages of a white upper-middle-class environment, and despite some extremely bone-headed choices in life, managed to get very lucky. I’m married to a medical social worker who grew up in urban poverty, but like J.D, she was able to transcend her circumstances, and who sees daily first-hand the struggle of both white and minority people dealing with their own poverty.

J.D. – I thought your book was absolutely great, and I’ve lost count of the number of people to whom I’ve recommended it. David, your piece was equally as enlightening, and I have to admit even more stinging in it’s rebuke of liberal attitudes than J.D.’s book, but you were using a short-form channel, so you you had to cut to the chase…

We live in Michigan and our state like others has been subjected to aggressive gerrymandering by the Republican majority that was in control after the census of both 2000, and 2010. I made a comment to my wife a couple of months ago that if you look at the map of state districts and their representation in Lansing, that the gerrymandering seems to be less along partisan lines, and more along an urban-rural divide.

J.D.’s book suggests, and David’s article states explicitly that this is no accident.

I think that your analyses are spot-on, and valuable in understanding what is happening in our country right now. Unfortunately, neither of you (and I’m not stating this as a criticism) offer any solutions, whether they be personal or policy-based.

I. Want. To. Fix. This.

This election has been the ugliest I’ve seen in my life, and I started observing electoral politics with the 1968 election (Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace were on the ticket). I want to try to do what I can to make this the nadir of national electoral politics in my lifetime, but I’m just one guy. I know that I’m not going to make any huge shift in people’s attitudes, but I think that some of us have to start talking about the issues that you both raise before we all run off a cliff.

I was reminded of the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and how their differing views on human nature are played out today in partisan world-views. I kept coming back to this fundamental difference, looking at how it affects people’s politics and their view of other groups in our communities, nation and world. I was convinced that developing some kind of social discourse that recognized and embraced these differing and divergent philosophies, rather than trying to argue them, might lead to the civil society so many of us yearn for. I still think that this is the case, but I have realized that while there may be a few more adherents of Hobbes among Republicans/conservatives, some of the followers of Bernie Sanders (and long before him in other extreme left-wing movements – remember the Weather Underground?) show that this kind of world-view can also strongly influence liberals in their propensity to demonize certain groups e.g. business & the financial industry, the wealthy, religions. However, your writing has also shown that there are other complex factors that overlay this fundamental view of human nature that we have to keep in mind if we are going to re-establish some kind of civil social and political discourse.

Finally, I don’t think we can ignore the fact that communication technology has pushed the extremes of our society (e.g. rich/poor, rural/urban, educated/working-class) into very close proximity, but in a very distant and impersonal way. This of course began with television, but that was one end of a continuum that has continued through cable networks, the internet and social media. All of this made it easy to derisively say “look at THEM!!” coupled with political leadership that was quick to use the dissonance of this impersonal in-your-face confrontation of cultures and values to deepen and widen the divisions between us for political gain. How much of our current situation is a matter of basic tribal instincts, and how much has been exaggerated and magnified because it makes it easier for some to get elected?

What must come to pass to inoculate ourselves against the tendency of political leaders to encourage our hatreds and fears? At one time, the news media had at least the potential to act as a buffer against inflammatory rhetoric (and sometimes even stepped up to the challenge). However in recent years some outlets have become active participants in the division of our people, some just enjoy the ratings boost from the carnival,  and still others endeavor to be “fair and balanced” for fear of appearing “partisan”, all accompanied by much public rhetoric that devalues any institutional influence they may have had.

J.D. – two take-aways from your writing keep coming back to me. You mentioned in your interview with Rod Dreher that “we need to judge less and understand more”. I do so strongly agree. I see so little effort being made to REALLY understand people that live very different lives than the ones we may lead. The other take-away was that you had some good role models growing up which you credit in large measure with your being able to escape the destructive cycle of many of your kin. This too is a failure of understanding, is it not? Look what happened to you when you were in the Marines when people helped you to understand “how the other half lives” and showed you how to start making good choices.

Anyway, thanks to both of you for bringing in some new and valuable perspectives on what we’re all going through. If you or anyone else reading this has any ideas about what I can do, personally to help move this conversation forward, please give me a holler!!

Religious freedom?

Prejudice is what we hold in our heads. We all have our prejudices – some of which we feel uncomfortable with and whose impact on our thinking and behavior we try to minimize. Others are strongly held beliefs that we may feel to be well-founded World Views.

Discrimination is the mechanism by which we allow our prejudices to cause harm to others.

The legal system uses the term “protected class” to identify groups who share a characteristic over which they have no control – their race or ethnicity, religion, cultural background, country of origin, skin color, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc.

Discrimination against any of these groups is an attempt to put obstacles up to prevent them from being successful and fully integrated into our society. Limitation of career choices or occupations, political participation, organizational membership, educational access, land or business ownership have all been used to hobble every immigrant, ethnic, religious or cultural minority throughout history.

Now, we’re hearing that placing a limitation on people’s ability to discriminate, to turn their private prejudices into institutional and public policy, represents a limitation of their “religious” freedom, and indeed, constitutes a “war on religion”.

No.

Our rights are not absolute, but within obvious limits (we might all take exception to virgin sacrifice or ritual beheadings), people have and always will be free in the United States to believe as they wish, and to freely practice their religion. However, it in no way restricts anyone’s practice of their religion if we deny them the ability to use discriminatory practices to try to coerce other people to live the way they think they should, or to otherwise successfully reduce a group of Americans to second-class status.

Once again, religion is being used to achieve some truly ugly goals. No unit of government should allow it’s citizens to use religion as an excuse to institutionalize or condone discriminatory practices.