Been Down So Long….

“I’ve been down so long
Being down don’t bother me.
I’m gonna take all my troubles
Drown ’em in the deep blue sea.”
—from the album L.A. Woman by The Doors

A recent Gallup Poll found that a mere 38% of Americans believe that our nation is moving in the right direction—which is sad.  However, this represents a 12 year high for this number—which is astonishing.  Rarely have Americans been so discontented for so long.

A 12 year trip back in time brings us to the halcyon days of 2006.  George W. Bush was finishing his second term as President, and the “hope and change” presidency of Barack Obama was still two years in the future.  The failure of a comprehensive immigration reform bill led to massive protests, a deranged man killed 5 girls at an Amish schoolhouse, Iran and America were locked in a standoff regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program, North Korea was developing missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, Israel and Hezbollah were shooting at one another, and terrorist plots were launched and foiled.  Seems familiar, doesn’t it?

The Democrats won big in the midterm elections that year.  In 2006 voters were punishing President Bush over the bloody war in Iraq.  This year Democrats hope President Trump’s views on immigration, world trade, and polite conversation will lead to a repeat of their success at the ballot box.These past twelve years have featured the global economic meltdown of the Great Recession, two Presidential terms for Barack Obama, the rise of identity politics and Social Justice Warriors, the growth of a pervasive surveillance state, stark income inequality, gay marriage, a broad decline in civility coupled with an increase in rage, skyrocketing costs for life’s essentials, a growing political divide that has turned into a chasm, the failure of the inevitable and unstoppable Clinton campaign in 2016, a surprising summit with North Korea, endless investigations, escalating national debt, a slow motion national pension crisis, and the mutating growth of a form of entertainment known as the Kardashians.

If you ask ten different people, you will probably hear ten different explanations for the level of angst and anger that seems to now be the background music of American life.  Perhaps the only comfort we can take is that unhappiness seems to have become a global phenomenon.  People in many other nations seem frustrated for a wide variety of reasons—only some of which connect with our own concerns in America.

One could write a book—or many books—detailing the possible reasons for what ails the United States and its people at the present time, but I do have a theory that I believe provides a framework that explains a great deal: Many people now feel that their lives are beyond their own control, and this loss of control stems from two main sources: money and government.

First of all, despite living in the wealthiest nation in the world, we are more and more becoming debt slaves in order to finance the escalating costs of housing, education, and medical care.  Our financial futures can now be destroyed by a balloon payment on a mortgage, a student loan, or an illness—and the damage this causes today can stalk us throughout our lives in the form of ruined credit, aggressive debt collectors, and seized tax refunds.  In perhaps the most perverse twist of all, many Americans now end up in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay court-ordered fines, which basically means many Americans are being incarcerated for the singular crime of being too poor to live.  Except for the elite and connected few, we have truly lost control of our economic destinies as debt has washed over us—on both a personal and national level.

Moreover, multinational corporations now devastate the economies of entire communities by deciding to uproot a factory or office because they believe larger profits can be found with cheap labor overseas.  For those companies that continue to try to thrive in the U.S., wolves in hedge fund manager’s clothing often devour their thriving businesses and spit the bare bones into bankruptcy court when they are done.  The average worker is always the one who takes it on the chin; the top executives and hedge fund honchos take their bonuses and buyouts and hit the beach while those left behind form a line at the local food pantry.

In addition, government continues to circumscribe—many might say strangle—our lives.  More and more laws, rules, and regulations are enforced to shut down dissent and empower officials who want to dictate where we can live, what we can say, how we can raise our children, how our faith can be expressed, what we can buy, what ideas and information we can share, what natural resources we can consume, what we can eat, what we can drink, what we can smoke, what we can drive, what schools our children can attend, what we can throw in the trash—and even whether we can burn our own leaves in the fall.

Of course, not a single government mandate is actually intended to make us miserable; they are, after all, promulgated to promote the “greater good”.  However, their cumulative weight and intrusiveness—combined with government officials and experts who sometimes seem utterly oblivious to the needs and wants of the average person—is at turns annoying and maddening.

Given the many traumas we are repeatedly told the presidency of Donald Trump is inflicting on our nation, it seems odd that we have now hit a 12 year high—albeit a low one—regarding our attitudes toward the direction of our country.  I do not believe this is because Mr. Trump’s policies are universally popular—they most decidedly are not.  However, it seems to me that the pollsters and pundits are still failing to understand the populist fervor he has engendered among those who want—more than anything—to feel they can live their lives as they choose.

More than a bit of this voter enchantment with President Trump is, quite frankly, completely illogical.  A billionaire populist is an obvious contradiction, and some of his avowed policies may, in fact, end up harming those who are is his most fervent supporters.  However, he is perceived to be a man who fights back against the lousy and corrupt status quo, and this is a welcome relief for Americans who believe they have been kicked around for far too long. Despite the disdain of the media and entertainment elite toward Mr. Trump, voters are still standing in line for twelve hours for the chance to hear him speak, and they cheer him with the lusty enthusiasm of people whose faith has yet to be blunted by a sneering editorial in The Washington Post.

The perception of many of Mr. Trump’s supporters is that he is swinging hard—and landing body blows—against those who have long presumed to control their lives.  Every obscene or snotty celebrity or news media rant only strengthens their belief that he is their champion, and every pugnacious tweet he sends our berating his opponents thrills their downtrodden souls.  Those who cluck at his language and demeanor fail to understand that he is daily reinforcing the hardcore allegiance of those who neither drive a Prius nor ever plan to attend a performance of Hamilton on Broadway.

President Trump will never win over the most rarefied strata of our society, but his words and actions are giving hope to those who have long felt that control of their lives has been stolen from them by unknown and uncaring forces—and no one with a lick of good sense should ever dismiss the power and persistence of those who feel their hope finally has been restored.

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Secrets and Lies

The recent arrest of a former Senate Intelligence Committee staff member—a veteran of almost 30 years in government service—on charges of lying to FBI agents investigating leaks of classified information surprised some.  However, what really churned the waters was the concurrent seizure of the phone and email records of The New York Times reporter to whom he had been allegedly leaking—but with whom he was most definitely having sex.  They don’t call Washington “The Swamp” for nothing.

This incident and so many like it speak to the inherent tension between government secrecy and a free press in a democracy.  That which government would prefer remains hidden has always been catnip for reporters, but it appears more and more the case that a symbiotic and worrisome relationship has developed between those in government and those working in the press—each seemingly tethered to fewer and fewer institutional norms or traditions.  Given that government cannot operate effectively in a glass house, both the leakers and those reporters who are anxious to disseminate secrets are playing a dangerous game that could have catastrophic consequences.

We generally find government information falls into three broad categories.  

First, we have information that can and should be made readily available to all: the cost of contracts, specific legislative and regulatory actions, court rulings, or initiatives of the Executive branch are obvious examples of information that is critical to the smooth functioning of democratic processes.  There are also categories of information that need to be carefully evaluated before they are made public; troop movements in wartime and active criminal investigations are obvious examples.  We don’t want to either compromise military operations and put lives at risk or allow crooks to escape before they can be apprehended and put on trial.

There remains, however, a third category of information that causes the most practical and ideological problems in an open and democratic society: that which cannot be revealed under any circumstances without causing perhaps irreversible harm to our nation and its people.  

The very existence of this final category of information is offensive to those who believe in absolute government transparency and deeply distrust the idea of government secrecy.  It must be acknowledged that the United States government—like every government in history—has sometimes tried to drop a veil of secrecy over information that would reveal neglect, malfeasance, or plain stupidity.  The question then arises whether revealing this information serves any public good or just causes further damage by either unnecessarily eroding public trust or politicizing what are, in the final analysis, nothing more than instances of human weakness or misjudgment.

Likely the two most famous examples of closely-held secrets revealed during the course of my own lifetime are the publication of the so-called “Pentagon Papers”, which allowed the general public to read the unvarnished political and military deliberations concerning the conduct of the Vietnam War, and the revelations surrounding President Nixon’s role in encouraging spying upon—and sabotage of—his political opponents, which led to his impeachment and resignation.  

In both of these cases the news media decided that our country and our citizens were best served by revealing the secrets and lies of our government officials.  We saw a long-term drop in our faith in government as a result—which is either healthy or harmful, depending on your point of view—but the issues at hand were clearly pertinent to both public policy and the operations of democratic government, so we needed to know the truth.  However, the facts associated with each case had far-reaching and long-term consequences for our country, so the editorial decisions to publicize this information were made only after long and careful internal deliberations concerning the complex balance between press freedom and our national interests.

That was then—and this is now.

Over the past 30-40 years journalistic standards have joined floppy disks on the scrap heap of history.  Our internet-driven 24/7 news cycle has produced a crazed bazaar of half-truths and one-sided opinions presented as facts.  As articles regarding personalities and perceptions—and snarky reactions to both—have continued to crowd out simple reporting in the quest for clickbait, any sense of proportion and decency has more and more been discarded.  Hence, “news” has devolved into just one more facet of our wacky entertainment culture rather than an enterprise where careful fact-checking and an unbiased presentation—combined with a deeply entrenched sense of reportorial responsibility—are considered normal and laudable.

Imagine, for example, if our current journalistic practices had been in place in the past.  Would the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bombs during World War II, have stayed off the front pages of The Washington Post for long?  Would news websites be breathlessly reporting every twist and turn of the Cuban Missile Crisis based on leaks and the wildest unsubstantiated speculation—thereby driving our world even closer to the brink of nuclear war?  On a less elevated level, would some mistress of President Kennedy be providing a slurp by slurp account of their liaisons to 60 Minutes or The Tonight Show—perhaps while simultaneously hawking her new web store with its own line of “Presidential” lingerie for sale?

We need a responsible and inquiring press in a democracy—and many news outlets are still doing important investigative reporting that provides necessary accountability for government and government officials.  However, the disdain much of the American public feels toward journalism and journalists—which President Trump channels and amplifies for his own political purposes—is a direct outcome of the damage done by reporters who have turned themselves into partisans and provocateurs in order to advance their own careers.

There is an old saying in Washington: “Those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know.”  We can add a codicil to this saying that is both a reflection of today’s reality and a warning: “and the public doesn’t know why so much talk leaves them knowing nothing at all….”

Jimmy Obama?

Leo Durocher, the baseball player and manager, once famously observed that “nice guys finish last”. His contention was that winning required one to get down in the dirt—and play dirty—when the situation required it.

I’ve been mulling over this comment as I consider the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Both had their successes and failures. Each was considered by their contemporaries to be very smart and able individuals—as well as very good and compassionate men. Each was, however, replaced by a successor who ran as their antithesis, promised an American economic renewal and shrinking of government power—and set about methodically erasing their imprint upon our nation.

Jimmy Carter’s first and only term found him clashing frequently with the entrenched powers in Washington and beyond, and his manner was frequently mocked by his political opponents, who characterized him as weak—and at times condescending. His presidency was sidetracked by the seizure of hostages at the American embassy in Tehran, and his chances for re-election were dealt a mortal blow by the catastrophic failure of the military rescue mission of those American hostages in 1980, which ended in an ignominious helicopter crash in the Iranian desert. Despite voter doubts about the bellicose temperament and character of his opponent in 1980, Ronald Reagan won a smashing victory, and over the course of his two terms in office put a deeply conservative stamp on domestic politics while pursuing a massive military buildup, high risk foreign policy adventures, and deregulatory actions that ushered in an unprecedented economic boom.

Unlike Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama was both embraced and celebrated by the entrenched establishment in Washington and beyond, and his smooth style and golden public speaking won him great favor with the nation’s media and entertainment elites. Seen as a new type of leader whose personal qualities transcended the muck of mere politics, he was able to inspire his allies—but he often foundered when the need for bare knuckle, backroom deal making was required to bully his opponents into submission. Gliding above the fray with a deeply cerebral (and at times condescending) manner, he often resorted to the use of executive orders rather than legislation to pursue his policies—certain that his legacy would be secured by the sheer infallibility of his ideas.

However, despite voter doubts about the bellicose temperament and character of his hand-picked successor’s opponent in 2016, Donald Trump won a smashing victory, and over the course of his (very possible) two terms in office will put a deeply conservative stamp on domestic politics while pursuing a massive military buildup, high risk foreign policy adventures, and deregulatory actions that have already ushered in an unprecedented economic boom.

Coincidence?

Direct comparisons between the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama are difficult because they were operating in completely different political environments with completely different economic and strategic challenges. I still remember wrapping myself in a blanket in order to study in my freezing college dorm room because oil was so ruinously costly and scarce that heat was considered a luxury; it is a far different energy environment today—America is now one of the world’s largest exporters of oil. Old school corporate and industrial muscle still ruled during the Carter presidency; Barack Obama was the “information economy” President who claimed American manufacturing jobs were gone for good, so everyone now needed to learn how to code. Jimmy Carter still had to contend with a confrontational and expansionist Soviet Union; the revamped Russian Federation is a still powerful but far less threatening presence—now our eyes are turned to the dangers posed by China and North Korea.

Jimmy Carter has built an influential and successful ex-Presidency that focuses on peacemaking, the eradication of tropical diseases, and building—often with his own hands—houses for the poor and homeless. However, our airport in Washington is Reagan National, and we still refer to the “Reagan Revolution” as part of our political discourse; for all his good intentions, Jimmy Carter often now feels like a placeholder rather than a President.

It is too early to assess the legacy of President Obama, but his penchant for executive orders over the hurly-burly of legislation left many of his signature accomplishments subject to reversal at the stroke of a pen. Just sketching some of the highlights of Donald Trump’s first 500 days in office offers a jaw-dropping litany of stark policy changes:

• The Paris Climate Accord—Gone
• The Iran Nuclear Agreement—Gone
• The Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Deal—Gone
• The Affordable Care Act Individual Mandate—Gone

In addition, conservative federal judges (including one Supreme Court Justice) have been confirmed in record numbers, and President Obama’s patient and cooperative approach to economic and military affairs has been replaced by an extraordinarily combative style that is challenging international norms regarding long-established trade agreements with our allies—and is driving nuclear North Korea to the negotiating table with open threats of “annihilation”. Commentators have now begun referring to “Trump Time” to describe the hyper-accelerated pace of so much of his Presidency so far.

It is far too soon to evaluate the ultimate political impact of Barack Obama’s two terms in office, but it is perhaps not too early to wonder if his legacy will consist almost wholly of being our first African-America President. The anger that so many liberals feel over President Trump’s reversals of President Obama’s accomplishments is perhaps more and more tinged with fear. His brutal—and at times brutish—Presidential style has already reshaped the political landscape of our nation in ways that will be felt for generations to come, and the prospect of a second term—or even the mere completion of his first—fills his political opponents with terror.

Nice—Donald Trump is not. He may, however, be the living incarnation of Leo Durocher’s aphorism, and he could condemn Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter’s fate: a very nice guy whose Presidential legacy was gleefully stomped on by his successor—and then discarded.

The Consequence Of No Consequences

If there is any connective tissue between the many scandals and strife that fill our world today, it is this: People sure do hate being judged.

This is, of course, a very human reaction. Trying to bluster one’s way out of difficulty by proclaiming your actions were either innocent or misunderstood—which is, of course, sometimes true—has probably been a facet of human behavior from the dawn of civilization. However, what has now become a conspicuous characteristic of our troubled times is that both a belief in our own blamelessness and an embrace of utter shamelessness are now woven into the fabric of our modern culture.

A component of this is certainly based on our ongoing societal and political efforts to relegate shame to the dustbin of human history. Given that we now pretty much determine for ourselves what is right or wrong because the concept of social norms tends to annoy many, the only way you can really find yourself in hot water these days is to be critical of another person’s behavior. To attempt to cause anyone to feel shame is—ironically enough—considered shameful. This circular bit of ethical entrapment disables any possible discussion of right and wrong because, as is now the dominant doctrine in many quarters, right and wrong are nothing but social constructs meant to oppress us. Thankfully, we seem at least able to agree that child abuse is wrong, although even this issue collides on occasion with our desperation to celebrate non-Western or non-traditional child rearing practices.

Think about the news or commentary that we all read on a regular basis. It is incredible how often the stories today are less about actual events and more about criticisms of the reactions (or lack thereof) by others. As a result, we find ourselves trapped in an echo chamber of denunciations, which allows us to avoid any thoughtful discussion of blame, shame, or culpability. If those who disagree with us are themselves bad—because they either criticized us or failed to properly exalt us—we are able to deflect any shame our actions might bring and be held blameless. This is, unfortunately, a perpetual motion machine of insult and outrage that contributes very little to problem-solving but does much—far too much—to degrade and demean our public discourse.

The net outcome of these deflections of blame and shame is that all discussions dissolve into debates about whose interests are being helped or harmed—our lives reduced to nothing but a series of transactions devoid of values—and no effort is expended examining the basic morality of the actions or intentions of the parties involved.

An example of the confines of our cultural and political norms at the present time is the anger that erupted over the passage of a package of federal laws known as FOSTA-SESTA that now holds websites liable for advertising sexual services online. Opponents of these laws lament that sex workers will find themselves at greater personal risk and suffer professional inconvenience because they can no longer advertise their services easily and cheaply through the internet.

Lost in all the discussion of the law’s impact, which has been immediate and substantial, was perhaps a more fundamental issue few wanted to discuss because it would be considered judgmental or—to use a favorite expression of many—“slut shaming” of a subset of women who are, after all, simply trying to make a living: Does our nation have an obligation to facilitate—and therefore tacitly legitimize—the world’s oldest profession, prostitution?

Is it possible in today’s America to simply say that prostitution is immoral and damaging to all involved? Would we ever expect those in charge of our major news and media outlets in New York and California to criticize or condemn prostitutes and prostitution in an effort to improve public and private morals and behavior? Such questions are considered so old fashioned and retrograde to those who sit at the pinnacles of our elite sources of opinion and commentary as to even be unworthy of note. Imagine if the New York City Police Department and FBI were to launch a crackdown on prostitution—which seems extraordinarily unlikely. Would The New York Times, for example, endorse this effort or resort to running sympathetic profiles of all the valiant women who were being persecuted by the police and prosecutors for simply plying their trade?

Morality is, of course, a tricky business, and over the past several thousand years of civilization we have expended incredible time and energy attempting to distinguish right from wrong. Our ideas of what is moral and what is not have certainly undergone some revisions—but much of the essential framework has remained the same. Ignoring discussions of morality and immorality because they might make some feel uncomfortable or judged for their beliefs or behavior is a foundational problem that afflicts broad swathes of our nation and might explain the persistence and magnitude of at least some of the issues afflicting many communities, families, and individuals.

There are, to be sure, many difficulties we must today address, but most will likely remain unresolved if even the most basic issues of right and wrong are banned from the discussions because they might make some feel excluded—or bad about themselves. Perhaps this needs to change.

The Waste Land

Philip Roth recently died. During his long career as a novelist, he won every major award for his work except the Nobel Prize, and he is considered one of the preeminent writers of the late 20th century. However, with all due respect to Mr. Roth’ life and career, I don’t believe very many people outside of the rarified literary salons of the Boston-Washington corridor or a handful of PhD programs elsewhere actually read many of his novels—and he is an apt symbol for the wrong turn our cultural elites took in the post-WW II period.

In order to quickly illustrate my point and avoid a protracted explanation, please allow me to quote directly from Mr. Roth’s obituary in The New York Times: “His creations include Alexander Portnoy, a teenager so libidinous he has sex with both his baseball mitt and the family dinner, and David Kepesh, a professor who turns into an exquisitely sensitive 155-pound female breast.”

How could he have failed to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, you might well ask….

The literary novel—which was once, a long time ago now, built around characters wrestling with weighty matters of personal or social morality—has surrendered its purpose and lost its way. Our prevailing creative norm—in not only novels but movies and television as well—is now to sanctimoniously celebrate the triumphs of individuals over those family, foes, or institutions that fail to allow them to live just as they please. For an audience apparently content to be reassured that anyone who might pass moral judgment is simply hateful, this is somehow sufficient to make a story. Hence, there are generations of readers who, for reasons surpassing all understanding, find it entertaining that Holden Caulfield, the teenaged narrator of A Catcher in the Rye, calls every adult he meets a “phony”. When I had to inflict this novel on my own high school students, I sometimes wondered why this was considered a good use of instructional time, but keener minds than mine had long before determined this was a literary classic worthy of their attention.

The dramatic tension inherent in parsing issues of right and wrong (concepts utterly alien to much of our culture today) once gave the novel its power and cultural significance. Today these are reduced to a predictable polemic pitting the pure-hearted protagonists against an oppressive society that fails to properly recognize their uniqueness and sensitivity. It is little wonder that so much of our artistic output is now snark, pastiche, meta-fiction, satire—or comic book superheroes. To simply and seriously discuss the many complexities of morals or values today is to be hopelessly old-fashioned and overly judgmental.

Imagine our literary classics rewritten for our tolerant—and tech-savvy—modern world. Prince Hamlet today would be furiously and ineffectually tweeting about what a jerk his stepfather was, Ophelia would simply sext with Hamlet behind her father’s back, and Queen Gertrude would be busily working on her next palace podcast about her wonderful remarriage and her own journey of personal self-discovery. Given that all choices are now equally valid and correct, there would be no need for dramatic resolution. Everyone could simply do what they pleased, secure in the knowledge that their individual choices were unassailable, and we could sit back and enjoy the farce inherent in blowhards like Polonius futilely attempting to rein them all in. Ha-ha-ha.

Individual wants and needs are, of course, important; I am not advocating for a world run according to a hive mind mentality that neglects the critical importance of individuals within a larger community or society. However, there comes a point when a single-minded emphasis on individual wonderfulness becomes an empty intellectual exercise because it eventually will exclude any notions of shared duty or self-sacrifice for the common good—which, inconveniently enough, are necessary for a functioning and healthy society.

Adolescent self-satisfaction is, sad to say, now our predominant cultural characteristic, and just as any teenager typically does, we get awfully surly when someone points out that our selfish self-focus might be negatively affecting others. As much as we might want to sit in our rooms and just ignore all those other pesky people in our lives who somehow seem not to understand the importance of our needs, we do sometimes have to acknowledge the needs of others. It sucks, I know, but that’s what adulthood is all about. I might be ruining someone’s day by pointing this out, but a country composed of preening and self-involved individualists can cause as much damage to its citizens and their overall well-being as the most oppressive totalitarian state.

Please allow me to offer another related radical suggestion: That which is outré is not necessarily interesting or worthwhile. Circus “freak shows”, a blessedly discarded component of our entertainment culture, at one time offered viewers a chance to gawk at the physically afflicted. Sadly, we have not progressed much beyond this. Our late 20th and early 21st century cultural and artistic life has become overly enamored with the notion that examining characters and ideas occupying the fringes of our society will reveal heretofore untold truths about ourselves, an approach that, like the circus freak show, offers titillation but no illumination.

Which brings me back to modern literature, which has managed to write itself into irrelevance by mistaking the bizarre and obscure for the profound and life affirming. There is a reason that so many still love the plays of William Shakespeare, find life lessons in the Iliad and Odyssey, revel in the novels and short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, or continue to lose themselves in the adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional creation, Sherlock Holmes. These works have survived the test of time because they engage with our minds and souls rather than attempting to shock and repel the average reader. Even those characters who are less than admirable are presented as fully formed—but deeply flawed—human beings rather than two dimensional caricatures of corruption and dysfunction.

If you want people to read your books and—perhaps more importantly—you want your work to be part of our daily cultural dialogue, it might be worth giving your readers a reason to continue to turn the page. Setting up straw men and knocking them down might be satisfying on some simplistic level, but it will only rarely sustain reader interest over the long term because there is no recognition of the difficulties that even the most seemingly insignificant life choices entail. Having your main character furiously masturbate into a piece of liver his family will later consume will shock us—but there is no knowledge or insight to be gained beyond this.

Spiritually and morally bankrupt cultures often privilege the sensational over the conversational. Good authors realize this. The “two minute hates” in George Orwell’s 1984 existed in a fictional culture devoid of humanity. The “feelies” in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World were mass entertainment that stimulated rather than engaged their emotionally empty audiences. Our own two minute hates and feelies—now brought to us by our major literary publishers as well as cable television and the internet—are signs of how spiritually and morally bankrupt our culture has become, and we need to seriously discuss just how we can move literature and entertainment back in a direction that can again engage a mass audience in a broader discussion of the values that inform our lives.