Can We Talk?

Much that passes as idealism is disguised hatred or disguised love of power.
Bertrand Russell
Nobel Prize Lecture (1950)

I doubt whether years from now historians will be congratulating us for the inventive and insidious insults we now routinely hurl at one another before we get onto Twitter or Facebook to bask in the accolades of others regarding our “courage”. How “courageous” is it to call another human being a jerk—or something far, far worse—from our living room chair via the Internet? Maybe respectful dialogue is as passé as rotary dial telephones, but I cannot see how you can run a nation without it.

Worse yet, our policy discussions are now rarely about policy; we instead compete to convince voters of the craven immorality of our opponents’ positions. Rarely do we discuss the impact of proposals in any but the most inflammatory terms—criminal, racist, murderer, misogynist, monster—so we fail to thoroughly debate the functional or financial problems inherent in any issue. If our angry rhetoric now forbids reasoned discussion, we should not be surprised by the unreasonably dumb policies that now dominate our daily lives.

All of which brings me to President Trump’s proposed budget….

When one finishes digging through all the specifics, we are left to ponder a shocking change in priorities: a big boost to defense spending that is largely funded by huge cuts to domestic outlays. Given how broad and deep the domestic spending cuts run, there is no end to the aggrieved individuals and interest groups lining up to complain for the cameras.

We are now left with all rage—all the time—as we hear about the suffering, injury, and death these domestic budget cuts will cause. Some of this is doubtlessly true, and individuals, counties, cities, and states that count on federal checks to support specific agencies and programs will need to seek alternatives—but in some instances alternatives will simply not be available. It is, therefore, both remarkably easy and personally satisfying for so many to brand President Trump a cruel and heartless dictator who is abandoning the American people. What a bad, bad man he must be.

However, all our virtue signaling ignores an uncomfortable truth: Our armed forces have been stretched to the breaking point by widespread and ceaseless combat since the September 11th attacks over 15 years ago—and our world is now even more demonstrably dangerous than it was before that dark day of our nation’s history.

Although, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we can pinpoint foreign policy missteps of both the Bush and Obama presidencies that have increased the security risks to our nation, it would be foolhardy to assert these alone are responsible for the many perils we now face. The global list of threats against our nation is long, and arguing that if we simply adopt a less confrontational stance that all of them will magically melt away is wishful thinking at its very worst.

It must also be remembered that the very perception our military capabilities have been degraded by constant conflict can easily invite aggression from those who feel they can take advantage of our weakness. The ancient Romans understood this truth all too well when they wrote “Si vis pacem, para bellum.” Translation: If you want peace, prepare for war. A hollowed-out military capability is far more dangerous than many might realize, and security for our nation can only come from unassailable strength—which is a bit of truth-telling that makes some uncomfortable.

Accepting the need for military readiness does not, however, mean that gutting domestic spending to pay for our national defense is an idea we should embrace without reservations. The classic “guns vs. butter” debate accounts for the need to provide basic protections at home while preparing to secure our interests abroad.

We need to recognize that we have spent many, many decades creating a vast network of agencies and programs to serve the interests of our nation and its people, and at least some of them provide services that are still very necessary. Although I cannot quite fathom why we need to continue to fund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting when we live in a world where I can stream anything I want to watch onto my iPad, I am concerned that cuts to the Legal Services Corporation may deny some people their right to legal counsel in a criminal proceeding. The Congressional process of budget negotiation will hopefully ensure that we will not thoughtlessly eliminate today that which we will miss tomorrow.

However, what we do not need today—and certainly will not miss tomorrow—are inflammatory and abusive comments that are meant to do nothing other than question the essential humanity of one’s political opponents.

Given the necessity for balancing the budget and making a down payment on our frightening national debt in order to not once again crash into the debt ceiling, everybody of every political persuasion is going to need to make some very tough decisions about what can be sacrificed on the domestic side of the budget. Given how very broke we are after decades of profligate and sometimes stupid spending, the process of tightening our belts is going to be one fraught with angst and anger. If ever there was a time to work cooperatively to serve our broad national interests, this is it.

Presenting our partisan differences as ideological superiority may be a self-satisfying exercise for many, but it leaves a great deal of damage in its wake. Insisting that those with opposing views or different values are evil is actually the very definition of evil because it dehumanizes others and encourages the most vicious possible personal attacks.

The real danger of the Trump budget might not be its proposals. The danger may instead lie in the demons it unleashes in the minds of those who cannot imagine that anyone who thinks differently might be a good and decent person, for if we cannot learn how to work together, we will most assuredly fall apart.

We have seen periods in our history when the level of public discourse was equally corrosive—and they usually presaged those years we would dearly love to forget.

Perhaps we would communicate a little better if we could leave a few of our grievances at the door and try talking instead of sneering. A good deal of our toxic national culture is being driven by cultural trench warfare—encouraged and enabled by mass media and social media cultures that celebrate conflict rather than conciliation—as those across the political spectrum attempt to gain advantage by bullying and destroying their fellow citizens who have the unmitigated gall to think differently.

Let’s not allow a conversation about how to spend our scarce resources become yet another excuse to fragment our nation.

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