Code of Silence

It was not a surprise to hear this, but a comment one of my students recently made in class seemed to neatly sum up our anxious and antagonistic national mood: “I really don’t like to express my opinion about anything because people just attack you for what you think.”

Yep. That pretty much nails it.

I am not one of those who believe that our major news outlets are part of some liberal cabal out to subvert America. Watching the sense of shock suffuse the faces of the pollsters and pundits on Election Night in 2016, it was obvious that the results had them completely gobsmacked. Having spent the previous couple of years in animated discussion with one another, they were convinced that anyone with a lick of intelligence thought just the way they did, and all of the national polls served to provide ironclad proof that we would be toasting President-elect Clinton’s landslide victory when the dawn broke.

One of the reasons more and more “experts” are so confused by the current state of our nation is likely that fewer and fewer Americans have any interest in serious discussions that extend beyond a small circle of close friends or immediate family. My student is absolutely correct that talk too often leads to trouble in our hyper-vigilant and hyper-sensitive environment. I sometimes feel the same way when I receive flaming ripostes regarding my blog commentaries. Principled disagreement based on values, judgment, knowledge, and experience has been relegated to the scrap heap of representative democracy. Now the focus is on “shutting down” those whose views are different from your own. Given the very high probability that your opinions will be misrepresented, misinterpreted, or mischaracterized, many now consider it a mistake to ever express what they think on a topic or issue of the day.

This problem harms our nation in three distinct—and important—ways.

First and foremost, open and fearless debate regarding the issues facing our nation is the very lifeblood of democracy. The moment that citizens start to shut up in order to avoid being “shut down” by angry partisans on either side, the possibilities for discussion leading to consensus are diminished. We may not always like what those who believe differently have to say, but we cheat ourselves and our nation if we do not listen to the doubters and dissenters who may see a problem or flaw that has been overlooked—or simply ignored—by those who are absolutely, positively certain there can be no legitimate viewpoint other than their own.

Moreover, there can be little doubt—particularly after the 2016 election—that silence produces suspicion. All those Trump voters flying beneath the radar resulted in the never ending—and never proven—narrative of Russian collusion that has poisoned our political discussions ever since. Although it is certainly true that the mainstream media chose to ignore the many signals that Hillary Clinton’s coronation was far from assured, it has also been well-documented that many Trump voters kept quiet in order to avoid the ire of family, friends, and co-workers—as well as the scorn of total strangers. In retrospect, more frank and open dialogue would have benefited everyone by perhaps diminishing the shock of Donald Trump’s victory and avoiding the creation of a thriving industry of conspiracy theorists who cling to a self-comforting and self-defeating saga of election fraud rather than doing the hard work of converting more voters to their causes.

Worst of all, any nation in which a few loud and angry voices are allowed to dominate is fertile ground for extremists of all stripes. The eye-rolling, smirks, and sneers that accompany so many of our debates today empower those who present the angriest denunciations of people whose only crime is to hold to a different belief or set of values. Moderation and accommodation is impossible when your opponents are considered twisted, evil, or deluded. Those who vilify others tend to attract a crowd, but that crowd—who are primed for the attack—readily becomes an angry mob intent on driving diversity of opinion down into the dust.

The fragmentation and fulmination of our political sphere today is frightening. Our innate human differences have now become deep and immutable divides that reduce us all to either friend or foe, which leads to yet more insularity and ignorance that will further erode our already damaged and dysfunctional civic culture. We must do better: More listening and less insulting would be a good place to start.

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The Blame Game

Roughly a decade ago, I found myself trying to answer a surprising question from a classroom full of my foreign students: Why do ladders in the U.S. have warnings plastered all over them informing users it is possible to fall off? They were honestly befuddled. Don’t Americans, they asked in their innocence, know that already?

I tried to explain the in-and-outs of product liability laws in our nation, but most simply shook their heads. It all just seemed very silly to them.

I am sitting next to a big yellow warning label right now on my bus ride to work: “Caution—Please Hold On While The Bus Is In Motion. Always Be Prepared For Sudden Stops.” This does not seem like unreasonable advice. I have seen passengers stumble and fall because of an unexpected lurch. One should always expect the unexpected. Our lives are full of “sudden stops”.

I spend a fair amount of my work day as a teacher doling out warnings, which I hope sound like sage professorial advice. “Don’t skip class. Don’t do your work at the last minute. Don’t trust Spellcheck. Don’t take zeros by failing to complete your assignments. Don’t just sit there if you have a question. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.

My father filled my formative years with his own singular, all-purpose parental advice: “Don’t be stupid.” This wisdom had the benefit of both pithiness and infinite expandability, and it has served me well throughout my life thus far. I have, nonetheless, still engaged in a fair amount of my very own stupidity—both accidental and deliberate—but I have tried my best to keep this to a manageable minimum.

As much as we might like to believe we can simply avoid problem situations or problem people, the sad fact of the matter is that both are unavoidable at times. In fact, one of the key—and most troublesome—issues that we continually face when it comes to developing and tweaking our social welfare policies is simply deciding to what extent individuals should be asked to bear the consequences of ignoring reasonable warnings of harm. Did your own carelessness or stupidity cause you to land right smack on your face—and should taxpayers bear the responsibility for picking you back up again?

If, for example, someone abuses drugs or alcohol, should taxpayers be asked to bear the cost of a liver transplant? If this individual persists in self-destructive behavior and causes yet more damage to their new liver, does society owe that person yet more expensive—and likely futile—medical treatments?

If someone who is receiving housing assistance is evicted for causing a nuisance or damaging their rental property, should taxpayers be responsible for finding that person or family yet another suitable shelter?

If a teenager decides to skip high school classes and so fails to learn how to read or write well enough to secure gainful employment, who should be responsible for paying for the Adult Education classes that will obviously be necessary later in life to remediate that person’s deficient academic skills?

Every life problem begs a question of personal culpability.

If we deem that a “second chance” is indeed reasonable to offer to those who find themselves in certain difficulties for which we feel they are blameless, do we also by default owe them third, fourth, and fifth chances as well if the same problems reoccur? When does compassion end and enabling begin? Is it possible that in some situations our innate human impulse to be kindhearted is actually destructive to others because we are rewarding irresponsibility and discouraging the development of independence or problem-solving skills?

I hate to write a long string of questions, but these are issues we still struggle to answer as a country, and the many debates that scorch our national dialogue at the present time often boil down to ones of how to best assist those who are unable—or perhaps unwilling—to help themselves. As these questions often hinge upon the failures of other governmental programs—perhaps public schools that failed to educate or family services that failed to keep the family together—the answers are rarely straightforward or simple. Problems caused by governmental inefficiency or neglect in the past many times turn into even worse problems today—so what should we do now? How can we right these wrongs, and how much time, money, and effort is reasonable? Yet more questions we must struggle to answer.

Some problems cannot be prevented, yet we still expect everyone to exercise good judgment and live with the consequences of the stupidity or carelessness that the average person would know to avoid. My foreign students found warning labels on ladders to be inexplicable and ridiculous—if you fall off, it is your own fault. If I stand up during my bus ride home later today, I will have no one to blame but myself if I fail to hold on to a strap and do a face plant when we round the corner.

Whether we decide that individuals should pay more heed to warnings or—as some suggest—our entire nation needs a warning label slapped on it due to its dysfunctions is one we have yet to adequately answer in many instances. Should we decide that foolish or deceitful individuals are causing society’s problems, that drives one set of solutions. If, however, one assumes that a discriminatory and cruel society is the root cause of the problems suffered by individuals, that pushes the discussion in a wholly different direction and alters the equation of blame and personal responsibility that drives the assessment of proposed solutions. Each possibility requires careful thought and sober evaluation when assessing individual or societal problems. Neither can, sad to say, be proven to be true beyond a shadow of a doubt.

And perhaps this debate over blame and responsibility explains our stark political divide better than any other metric we can use. Our problems may not be urban vs. rural, college educated vs. those who are not, or even Democrat vs. Republican. It could instead be the case that we cannot agree whether the individual or society as a whole are to blame for many of the problems that afflict our families and communities, so it is impossible to find the common ground necessary to formulate solutions that seem fair and compassionate to all.

Of course, as any effective physician, judge, or legislator knows, some measure of “tough love” is sometimes necessary in order to effect the best—but not, of course, perfect—outcomes for both individuals and our society as a whole. To lack the will or the spine to make hard decisions when they are needed will only lead to more problems for all later on, and to simply dole out favor where none is warranted is the worst of all possible solutions to the many problems facing us today because yet more problems are almost certain to spring from our “kindness”.

However, we are all ultimately to blame if we cannot cooperatively work to help those in need of help in a manner that balances personality responsibility and at least a smidgen of magnanimity—while also recognizing there is never a “perfect” solution to any of the perfectly awful problems afflicting our nation and its people.

The Cost Of Compassion

A few weeks ago Ruth Marcus caused quite a stir with a commentary in The Washington Post entitled “I would’ve aborted a fetus with Down syndrome. Women need that right.” Her viewpoint was offered as a counterpoint to the actions of state legislatures in North Dakota, Ohio, Indiana, and Louisiana, which have passed legislation that prohibits abortion if the sole reason for terminating the pregnancy is a pre-natal diagnosis of Down Syndrome, a genetic problem that results in impaired cognitive functioning and health problems associated with a shortened lifespan. Ms. Marcus framed this controversy as an attack on the reproductive rights of women, and data she quoted seemed to demonstrate that the majority of women would not choose to bring a child with Down Syndrome into the world because of the long-term financial costs involved—as well as the emotional toll on the parents and family.

However, I wonder whether this horrid discussion actually touches on much broader issues that increasingly vex our nation and seem more and more at the core of many controversies: Are there reasonable financial limits to our compassion, and how should these limitations translate into issues of law and public policy?

Americans are often adverse to the notion of limitations, which is reflected in our continued political inability to live within our means. Our breathtaking levels of federal debt, which has more than doubled in just the past ten years to $21 trillion, and willingness to both impose all sorts of unfunded mandates and pass legislation that robs the future to pay for the present is symptomatic of our societal refusal to grapple with economic reality. Ms. Marcus’ decision-making might seem cold-hearted and inhumane to some, but she is at least honest about the financial limitations of her personal compassion for others.

Public policy and spending are likewise increasingly embroiled in questions regarding the boundary between compassion and foolishness. Whether we are discussing healthcare, housing, education, immigration, or a host of other concerns, the shape of the dialogue does not vary. On the one side we have those who are arguing for limitations based on fiscal reality—they are the “heartless” ones. On the other side, we have those who demand expansion or protection of government programs and services—they are the “compassionate” ones. The dynamic plays out over and over, much like that endless loop of Muzak in the dentist’s office while your teeth are being drilled, and each side shakes their heads at the other while the borrowing and spending continues unabated. Our recent omnibus federal spending bill, which will tack another several hundred billion dollars of debt onto Americans by the end of only this fiscal year, is simply another in a long line of bipartisan failures to somehow balance compassion and the “heartless” arithmetic of fiscal reality.

Those of us who live in Illinois should have a front row seat for the collision of the rhetoric of our “heartless” Governor, Bruce Rauner, and his “compassionate” Democratic challenger, J.B. Pritzker, during the upcoming gubernatorial election. Governor Rauner will, probably to no avail, argue for more fiscal restraint because Illinois is crushed by debt. During just the past year—despite an increase in the state income tax and a strong national economy—the financial health of our state government has continued to deteriorate with astonishing speed. Illinois is now so far underwater that simply rising to the surface to gasp for air is now beyond all imagining.

The functional bankruptcy of our great state will, however, mean little to all those “compassionate” souls who will harken to Mr. Pritzker’s calls for increased spending on education, healthcare, senior care, and social programs. It is, after all, the belief of many that government exists to distribute benefits to the multitudes, which will somehow be financed by higher taxes on Illinois’ rapidly shrinking pool of “wealthy” taxpayers—many of whom are joining the general exodus of residents from Illinois as we sail blithely downwards toward insolvency.

It has been interesting to read the comments regarding Ms. Marcus’ ideas concerning the connection abortion rights and Down Syndrome. Many who agreed with her privileged her right to control her own future by refusing to accept responsibility for a child that would likely impose extra financial burdens on her life and that of her family. Her compassion in this situation is circumscribed by a dollar sign, which seems perfectly appropriate to those who worry about their life choices being limited by government.

Oddly enough, what many compassionate souls fail to recognize is that their demands for more—and more expensive—government programs and benefits are corroding our individual rights because it is binding our futures to unsustainable debt that will limit the choices available to us all. Politicians often try to mitigate the shock of out-of-control spending by framing pure pork as “investments”, but more commonly any effort to rein in spending is positioned as a test of our “compassion”, which puts those who want to spend away our collective futures in the morally enviable positions of being the nice people fighting against those nasty folks who aren’t nearly as good-hearted and generous. We don’t wear signs around our necks detailing the amounts of debt our federal, state, and local governments have saddled us with paying, but anyone who is, for example, struggling with the monthly costs of student loan payments has a clear understanding of how yesterday’s debt tends to constrict the choices available today.

Setting aside the question of the obvious immorality inherent in ending the life of a child for reasons that, high-flown rhetoric aside, pretty much boil down to personal convenience, Ms. Marcus is at least astute enough to recognize that her compassion has a price tag attached—and she can easily recognize this because the costs will not be spread out among our nation’s beleaguered taxpayers. The next time she publicly advocates for more borrowing and spending due to her finely tuned sense of concern for others, perhaps she should remember how the money borrowed today to help demonstrate how much more wonderful she is (unlike those meanies who understand arithmetic) simply burdens generations of Americans to come with the bill for her marvelous “compassion”.

If anyone can effectively explain why bankrupting our nation and its citizens with government spending is compassionate, there is a future in politics—or perhaps an editorship at The Washington Post—waiting for you.

Sex and The Not-So-Single President

Another in a long line of Presidential sex scandals is upon us. The unsurprising news that many women are willing to sleep with rich and powerful men—and rich and powerful men are willing to let them do so even if one or both parties are married—still somehow manages to shock journalists, who apparently are all themselves paragons of rectitude. Of course, what truly turbocharges today’s Trump scandals is that they both provide a cudgel for the mass media outlets that loathe him and crash headlong into a moment in our cultural history when issues of sexual consent are paramount in the minds of many. The distance from Harvey Weinstein masturbating into a potted plant in front of an actress to President Kennedy giving the actress Angie Dickinson what she later described as “the best 20 seconds of my life” is perhaps not so vast as we would like to believe.

There are two facets to the accusations of impropriety now swirling around President Trump. The first is that he seems to have broken his marriage vows—more than once. The second is that he had his lovers sign non-disclosure agreements in exchange for large cash payments that were arranged through third parties, which sets all sorts of alarm bells ringing when the #MeToo movement is now highlighting the many women who have been compelled to remain silent in the past about sexual abuse and assault.

All of this, of course, is taking place against a background of President Trump’s documented boorishness regarding women. The infamous “grab them by the pussy” comments on the Access Hollywood recording and accusations of unwelcome advances elsewhere have been widely reported, but it seems all the extramarital sexual encounters that have so far come to light are entirely consensual.

We do not know—nor do I believe it is our business to know—the details of Donald and Melania Trump’s marriage. Whether they have a private understanding that permits liaisons outside of their marriage or Mr. Trump is simply making the same mistake that so many men make—believing that marriage and dating are entirely compatible—I do not know. Although I understand it is all but impossible for public figures to keep any aspect of their lives private in our tell-all and scandal-driven media landscape, I am old-fashioned enough to believe that the privacy of married life should be respected.

However, now that the much-hyped expectations for actual evidence of Russian collusion during the 2016 election seem increasingly elusive, we can expect that President Trump’s personal and political enemies will be wielding women who claim to have slept with him like an enchanted sword they hope to use to slay the Donald Dragon. Adultery is not an impeachable offense, but it is embarrassing and uncomfortable. Democrats obviously hope keeping it continually and loudly in the news will erode the support that put Mr. Trump into the White House and further stoke the hatreds of his detractors—thus driving them to the ballot box come November. Reality will, of course, take a backseat to hyperbolic and salacious speculation from those with an axe to grind, and the media will be only too glad to spread the seediest and silliest theories far and wide with terrier-like tenacity and great glee.

How much of a teachable moment this will turn out to be remains to be seen. Unlike Thomas Jefferson having sex with a slave whom he owned or Bill Clinton using his charisma and power to hit on a baby-faced intern, President Trump seems to have confined his pre-Presidential affections to adult women who were experienced enough to know just what to expect from a philandering billionaire in search of some recreational nookie. As much as the media would like to paint these women as fair flowers defiled by a cad, porn stars and Playboy Bunnies seem the least likely of candidates for the fainting couch if approached by a man with lust in his heart.

None of this, sadly, is of any consequence to those political opponents who want to drive a duly-elected President from office because he is intent on shrinking the role of government, deporting illegal immigrants, reducing regulations, and cutting taxes—all of which are existential threats to their own policy ambitions. One should never shun a debate concerning the merits and cost-effectiveness of differing approaches to our nation’s problems, but the relentless spew of raw anger flung at those who want to change the direction of our country is unseemly and unhelpful. Government by insult, for which President Trump is equally guilty, makes it extraordinarily difficult to create the coalitions necessary to govern effectively, and relying on partisan judges and lawyers rather than elected legislators to form and implement policies will quickly erode the legitimacy of government as a whole.

If the end game here is to run the same playbook used to disable the Clinton presidency, endless innuendo capped by an obstruction of justice charge born of an understandable presidential reluctance to be forthcoming about every nasty detail of an extramarital affair, the true intent of Special Counsel Mueller and his supporters will be blindingly obvious. If this does turn out to be the case, we can expect our already insane partisan divisions to glow white hot, and Washington and the mass media that counts upon it for sustenance will spend many months (or perhaps years) screeching like monkeys and ignoring the needs of everyone outside of the Beltway Bubble while they jockey for political advantage—and the money sure to follow.

There is so much that we need to do and so many conversations we need to have. It makes no sense at all to waste our energies on this, but I have a sick, sinking feeling that improving our nation will take a backseat to breathless gossip for quite some time to come. It’s really too bad.

Conspiracy Theories Or Reasonable Questions?

As long as humanity has had a toehold on terra firma, we have looked for someone to blame for our woes. Our many problems, which for much of our history were blamed on either the disfavor or caprices of the gods, now are typically blamed on human agents—who are usually part of some cabal out to fool and manipulate us.

Whether we are seeking those behind the JFK assassination, the true story behind 9/11, those UFOs parked in Area 51, or the UN office behind Agenda 21 (perhaps our better conspiracies end with the number 1!), many are convinced that dark forces with malevolent motivations are controlling our world in pursuit of one dastardly agenda or another.

It is, of course, simple human nature to demand a simple explanation for catastrophe. Placating powerful gods at one time consumed those portions of our short and often brutal lives when we were not already engrossed with scratching our meager livings from the earth. Those who claimed to be able to divine and communicate with forces beyond our understanding always were able to win favor, and if some degree of protection from pain or horror might be secured through either ritual or avoiding proscribed behaviors, there would always be a ready audience for such notions. Our compelling interests in avoiding famine, flood, fire, and disease baked a certain degree of easy credulity into humanity’s DNA over the course of many thousands of years, and we must recognize this inheritance is within us all.

Today the thunder of the gods has receded somewhat, and our shamans are typically scientists. Based upon their sage advice, we gulp supplements, avoid bacon and cigarettes, run on treadmills like hamsters, slather on sunscreen, and assiduously attempt to forestall the inevitable deaths of both ourselves and those whom we love by seeking out the secrets to our ever elusive immortality. These behaviors are, by and large, fairly benign and typically work to our benefit. When, for example, is the last time you met someone sporting a large and unsightly goiter—and do most of us even know what this is anymore?

However, the flip side of our credulous belief in the wonders of science as an agent for individual improvement is our bizarre belief in the perfectibility of humanity itself. Hence our willingness to embrace ideas based on the crudest eugenic theories and our obsession with elevating ourselves—while degrading others—based upon what are ultimately the most minute variations in our genes. The hatreds and warfare that have soaked our species in blood now more typically manifest themselves in cartoonish characterizations that are more laughable than dangerous—although ethnic and racial slaughters still pop up around the world with depressing regularity. We obviously still have quite a way to go before we entirely stamp out stupidity.

Recognizing our twin desires to both avoid disaster—and to know who to blame when it befalls us—is necessary if we are to fully understand many of the political and social problems besetting our nation and our world. As our global affairs have become more complex and interdependent, the opportunities for exploitation have multiplied exponentially, and government and multinational corporations—often working hand in glove—have become the golden idols at the center of our lives. Far more powerful, intrusive, and frightening than the supposedly omnipotent gods of old, the power of government and industry to grant stupendous wealth, poison our bodies and minds, destroy our planet, provide uncounted comforts and distractions, take away our property and livelihoods, either greatly extend or savagely shorten our lives, and ultimately control every facet of our existences is unprecedented in human history. Zeus and Apollo were mere amateurs compared to Google and Goldman Sachs.

It should not be much of a surprise that our fear and wonder drives us to anxiously search for patterns and clues to help avoid the wrath of these new and implacable gods—and seek the reasons why they insist on punishing so many of us. Some call them conspiracy theories. More times than we realize, they may be remarkably reasonable questions about our remarkably unreasonable world.

Our grim awareness of the naked and shameless lust for wealth and power that drives so many who now control our lives makes the construction of the conspiracy theories/querulous narratives that animate our discussions all the easier. Understanding the extremist ideologies that undergirded so much of the Cold War, it is easier to imagine whispered instructions from a secretive group ordering the murder of a President. Knowing of the desire of multi-national corporations and their government cronies to secure control of Mideast oil supplies, one need not work too hard to see a stupendous plot to fake a terrorist attack against America in order to justify endless war. Having been kept in the dark about so many secret government military projects, little green men in flying saucers becomes a plausible explanation for so many of those bright lights in the night sky. Observing the never ending violence and drug traffic in our inner cities involving African-Americans, it is little wonder that so many are certain this is being facilitated by the government as part of a genocidal war of extermination.

Given the craven and corrupt behavior that is now so common among government officials and business executives, are we paranoid to believe that our needs come far behind the interests of those in power who are chasing riches and influence? One could, of course, argue that dishonesty and avarice have defined the leaders of every age—why else, after all, would one chase high office in government or business? However, we perhaps have a confluence of circumstances today that heightens the stench that often emanates from the halls of power.

The Information Age has been a boon to the average American citizen—and a bane to those in power. Although political scientists often trace our loss of faith in our leadership back to the twin national traumas of the Vietnam War and Watergate, I suspect the crux of the problem is the more adversarial style of journalism these scandals helped to create and the rise of alternative news sources—first in print and later on through the worldwide web. Just as putting a brighter lightbulb in a room causes one to suddenly notice the stained carpet and peeling paint, so has the variety and visibility of news and opinion targeted to—and now increasingly produced by—the masses led to an enormous range of information that speaks to the fears and concerns of virtually everyone.

Although muckrakers and iconoclasts like Ida Tarbell and I. F. Stone played influential roles in shaping opinion earlier in the 20th century, the 24/7 news and information cycle—and the many to whom cheap and powerful technology has now given an unsanctioned and unrestrained voice—has made it virtually impossible for the crooked and corrupt to fly beneath the radar undetected. This visibility produces a higher degree of accountability, but it also calls the motives and methods of business and government—today’s omnipotent yet mysterious gods—into question on a daily basis.

If this scrutiny produces more “conspiracy theories”, so be it. The rich and the powerful are perfectly able to defend themselves if the suspicions of impropriety are unwarranted. If we are compelled to listen to outlandish notions on occasion—only to have them later debunked—I do not find this too high a price to pay for the ongoing oversight that is now possible. If those in charge want our trust, perhaps they had best conduct themselves in a manner that is above suspicion. If not, we should be free to arrive at our own judgments concerning their veracity and good intentions.