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….”

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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.

Are We On The Cusp Of A Revival In Christian Faith?

A few months ago I re-watched several Star Wars and Harry Potter movies, and they set me to thinking about our never ending efforts to redesign religious faith for our secular age.

That the Star Wars and Harry Potter sagas are actually parables of Christianity—without the religion being too overly apparent—has been noted by many. Each chronicles a confrontation between forces representing good and evil, each has their own priesthood and prophets offering moral instruction, each has a “fallen angel” of sorts that must be battled, each set of protagonists draws strength from powers beyond our understanding (either “The Force” or old school magic), and each offers a climactic battle where good ultimately triumphs over evil. You could readily substitute a crucifix for a light saber or wooden wand and not lose much in the translation.

One could have a spirited debate regarding whether stories of this sort satisfy some human yearning baked into our DNA or our enthusiastic responses to the adventures of Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter are simply the Pavlovian result of a couple of thousand years of Christian thought and practice, but the outcome is still the same. We exult in their quests and are validated by their triumphs. Toss in some modern marketing expertise and computer-generated special effects, and you have today’s version of “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.

There is no doubt that we crave order and expect justice—whether in this life or the next. Few are comfortable with a world that seems beyond our control. Although we like to believe we are far more advanced than our tribal ancestors, we still typically trust our fates to wise elders—except now they rattle jargon-filled analyses instead of bean-filled gourds to impress us. We also crave and admire strong leaders. How else to explain why so much of our popular entertainment focuses on royalty, barbarians, criminals, warriors, and dictators?

However, our attraction to brute force and apparent fascination with violence is not necessarily a sign of atavism. It seems to me to instead be a clear sign that we have lost the spiritual counterbalance necessary in our lives; as a result, the darkness within our souls tends to run unchecked and causes us to be attracted to cruelty instead of condemning it.

Across the broad scope of Western civilization, Christianity—with the Ten Commandments as its foundation—has guided humanity to connect with a purpose for living that extends beyond the mere satisfaction of our physical needs. Although there can be no doubt that great wrongs have been committed in the name of religion, the historical ledger balance is still far on the side of Christianity encouraging compassion, justice, hope, and self-sacrifice.

There is, however, little doubt that we have spent a good deal of the 20th and early 21st centuries elevating hatred, venality and egocentrism to an art form, which has damaged both our culture and personal lives. If you look at our society today, it is hard to miss the human wreckage associated with the impoverishment of our spiritual existences.

There is a hole at the center of many people that cannot be filled with video games, hook ups, and opioids—and efforts to find workable alternatives to Christian theology have nibbled at the edges of our public and private discourses for many years. No one has, however, yet provided a satisfactory alternative moral framework for our modern world, one where faith is increasingly suspect or openly derided. If you believe in nothing beyond the physical fact of your existence and your own needs, how is it possible to create community or encourage rectitude using any appeal that does not boil down—after the soaring rhetoric is dissected—to simple selfishness and naked self-interest? This is a question we have not adequately answered, and we are now paying the price for our failure.

I do not know if we have yet reached an inflection point, but I more and more wonder whether Christianity is poised for a comeback across many regions of the world. Modern secular life, which often relies on mass consumption and mass entertainment to create a sense of belonging—while, oddly enough, simultaneously denigrating any notion of national identity—may be reaching its expiration date.

Whether Christianity’s revival would find itself in open warfare with current societal norms that equate moral judgement with hatred or reach a rapprochement with the world as it exists today is one that no one can answer. However, I believe there is a spiritual hunger in America today that begs to be satisfied, and our media and cultural mavens in New York and Los Angeles—preoccupied as always with the latest entertainment and fashion buzz—are perhaps blind to a stark change that could soon be coming. The Bible might, to the surprise of many, turn out to be the next “big thing”—which could be a help to a great many individuals and our nation as a whole.