Our Intolerantly Tolerant Nation

Since a bitter and divisive Presidential election last year, we have been embroiled in seemingly never-ending bitter and divisive protests regarding healthcare, immigration, court nominations, higher education, law enforcement, public health, gender and identity politics, K-12 education, religious liberty, gun control, free speech, and virtually every other aspect of governmental policies and their many—often unfortunate—intersections with our daily lives.

Now we have a new imbroglio, which this time concerns the behavior of some NFL players during the playing of the national anthem. This issue has been thrust onto center stage—at least for the moment—by President Trump’s blunt comments regarding the parentage of players who participate. This is not the first—nor will it be the last—instance of public protests dividing our nation. We have become shockingly expert at communicating nothing while supposedly making our points clear.

Each separate protest about any particular issue that is important to some group of individuals—given shape and sharpened by single-issue interest groups before being whipped into a merry froth by sensationalistic media outlets chasing eyeballs—has its own fraught history and contentious present. However, many of these matters have a common lineage: a celebration of the individual’s absolute right to self-expression and self-determination. To a degree that is sometimes startling in its scope, we have elevated the all-encompassing but ultimately amorphous concept of “tolerance” to the center of all our decision-making processes. Therefore, any idea, belief, or policy that sets boundaries, presumes judgment, or fails to wholeheartedly endorse the full range of human beliefs and behaviors is subject to attack as being an expression of “hate” against one group or another.

Tolerance is, of course, a fine and reasonable ideal because it provides an often necessary brake on our human tendency to form instant and lasting impressions of people and situations. Those who are quick to judge are many times equally slow to listen, so a commitment to tolerance can help to mediate between our preconceptions and reality, which can many times help to facilitate communication and understanding.

However, “tolerance” can also be used as a bludgeon to silence viewpoints with which we disagree. The assumption that all disagreements are rooted in mindless hatred and ancient bigotries is both an intensely comforting—and exceedingly lazy—approach to the many complexities of human life. It allows for a smug certainty that absolves one from even bothering to consider alternate viewpoints. If we occupy a safe space where our values and behaviors are beyond the reach of discussion or evaluation, we can blithely go through our lives assured that we are right and the rest of the world—or at least that portion that does not share our social media space—is just plain mean and wrong. Beyond this, any attempt to present or argue a contrary viewpoint is, should my interlocutor persist, an assault upon my personhood that empowers me—to assault you right back.

Is it any wonder that civil conversation about any issue seems ever more impossible with each passing day? Even a topic as previously anodyne as the weather is now enveloped in white-hot emotions about the truth and scope of global warming. I find it no surprise that we now spend all of our time peering at our phones and avoiding eye contact. It’s a great way to hide out.

I worry about the many issues that now crop up around campus speech and ask myself how higher education is supposed to thrive when the very act of asking a provocative question can result in the academic equivalent of shunning. I see our two major political parties growing more polarized and wonder how we can ever work together to find reasonable compromises to the many problems besetting our nation and world. I read the increasingly angry screeches that have now become the mainstays of our mainstream media’s analyses and shudder at the apparent absence of any ability to examine an opposing viewpoint without resorting to ad hominem attacks meant to harm rather than elucidate.

However, a commitment to “tolerance” will solve all our difficulties, right?

I increasingly suspect that tolerance—as both a value and strategy—will solve little. The problem becomes obvious when you wade a little deeper into the National Anthem protests in the NFL. On the one hand we are asked to respect the individual rights of players to “take a knee” to bring attention to discriminatory police behavior that targets African-Americans—so let’s be tolerant, people. However, given that this all takes place during the playing of the National Anthem, many patriotic Americans find this form of protest to be intolerably disrespectful to the flag and our nation. Which belief or behavior is more deserving of our tolerance? Do we accept a protest that offends many or back those who demand we show respect for the flag? Who is more deserving of our support in this situation—and a host of many more where our tolerance is loudly demanded? Given that any discussion of values or (gasp!) right and wrong will “privilege” one point of view or another, the only certainty in this situation and others like it is that we will continue to argue—forever.

Tolerance—and the moral relativism it encourages—is all fine and good when confined to a college classroom where we are asking students to open their minds to contrasting viewpoints as an academic exercise, but it fails miserably when it sails out into a nation where actual people might become actually angry when someone insults the actual values that inform their actual lives. If we insist tolerance is our highest value, one person’s morality will always be another’s bigotry, so we are now locked into a cultural cage match with no winners and no losers—only unceasing conflict.

Hence, we have become Protest Nation. Now that the volume of our shouts has superseded our quiet respect for common cultural values and signifiers—flag, faith, and family—that somehow managed to carry us into the middle of the last century, little remains beyond our anger. How very sad. In the course of discovering and celebrating our wondrous individuality over the past fifty years, we have forgotten our most basic responsibility to one another: simple, common courtesy.

As much as I would like to support the individual right to self-expression, I find the NFL player protests to be flawed in concept and pointless in practice. Sometimes you just have to stand for the anthem as a demonstration of national respect. I’m probably not the only person annoyed with virtue-signaling and empty, insulting public posturing. It’s time to stop behaving like self-important brats and rejoin Team USA.

I might not sound tolerant, but I am being honest.

 

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We Need To Remember We Are All Americans

 

Here in America we have managed to create a vibrant and enduring government of interlocking local, state, and federal systems that over the centuries have provided an unprecedented degree of prosperity and security and helped our nation and citizens navigate both crises and changes. Our never-ending fussing, feuding, and fighting over the shape, scope, and expense of government has helped to create a nation that is the envy of the world, but our successes have not come without pain, heartache—and even bloody civil war.

However, our relationship with our government seems to have become dramatically strained—and estranged—over the past few decades, and many now wonder how we will emerge from our current conflicts unscathed and whole. In order to get to the root of the all-encompassing sense of dissatisfaction and unease that plagues our country today, the question that we must address seems to be a very basic one: Can our government hope to obtain the consent of the governed when our citizens now embrace such widely varying—and perhaps fundamentally irreconcilable—ideals? Are secessionist movements in states such as California signs of healthy debate or worrisome symptoms of political, social, and cultural fragmentation that could eventually rend our nation?

America has always been a country rife with contradictions. We are a nation peopled by immigrants and their descendants, yet we have always imposed limitations on immigration. We are a nation whose founding documents extol freedom and liberty, yet we permitted indentured servitude and legalized outright slavery when we finally gained our independence from England. We claim to support democracy around the world, yet we often have found it convenient to tolerate tyrants. We believe ourselves to be the most peaceful of people, yet we have spilled—and continue to spill—much blood abroad.

Perhaps a necessary part of being an American is to more often—and more insistently—remind ourselves that we are inherently flawed because we are human. To expect perfection is to perhaps forget our earthly limitations. As hard as we have tried to live up to the noblest ideals of our nation, we have not always been successful, but one could reasonably and persuasively argue that no nation in history has ever worked longer and harder to surmount its weaknesses and mistakes. As a result, we are generally able to both acknowledge our errors and celebrate our achievements. It is, in fact, often the case that each are simply two sides of the same American coin, and the more sensible among us recognize this maddening conundrum.

There is, unfortunately, a tendency today among many to see only one side of this coin. Some see reasonable restrictions on immigration—and the enforcement of existing laws—as outright hatred and nothing but. Others see a tragic past of slavery but cannot acknowledge the equally tragic civil war that both ended it and forged a new national identity. More than a few condemn us for failing to topple every dictator, yet they conveniently forget the barriers that sometimes make this impossible. Too many excoriate our country for making wars, but they refuse to credit the sacrifices made by the men and women of our armed forces that ensure the freedom to complain about our government and its policies—and have provided this same privilege for many millions more around the world. Perhaps those who focus so intently upon the contradictions within our history should also take a look at the contradictions within their own hot emotional reactions and cold academic analyses. To casually and cruelly deride those who insist upon the importance of our nationhood as an expression of pride and place is to disrespect those who choose to wave the flag. Worse yet, this sort of blind hatred of our country fails to recognize the power of our national identity to bind us together as a people—and incorrectly conflates patriotism with fascism.

No matter how one feels about President Trump’s policies or personality, it must be acknowledged that a particular section of his Inaugural Address, which was widely panned by many smug media commentators, was absolutely correct: “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” I realize that patriotism is today greeted by some with the same incredulity and confusion that an 11 year old feels when encountering a rotary dial phone, but focusing more on our shared purpose rather than obsessing over our inevitable differences might provide a way out of the echo chamber of identity politics that now confounds us. If all parties in a negotiation can act like Americans who have America’s best interests at heart, we may still be able to pull together and solve our many problems. However, should we continue to approach one another like competing armies intent on obliterating an enemy, we can expect—and likely deserve—nothing more than the anger and gridlock that stymies even the most judicious efforts at dialogue and reform.

Americans have over the past couple of centuries enshrined the concept of government as a creation of the common consent of the governed. Although the leaders we select may occasionally be creatures of entrenched political and economic interests who see representative government as nothing more than a ready mechanism for power, profit, and plunder—or are simply outright fools not worthy of our trust—we have learned that elections are by far the best method available to select whom we want to govern. We need to remember that the ballot box is an expression of our national priorities, not a place for our petty vendettas to play out. Perhaps we are today too oddly jaded, too overly sophisticated, and too bizarrely suspicious of one another to do anything other than celebrate our treasured individuality. If this is so, we likely deserve the dismal future of governmental failure peeking out over the horizon because we can’t see beyond the tips of our own precious noses—and remember that we are all Americans.

I hope we can stop treating our neighbors across our nation as strangers and enemies. The incredible efforts of those struggling to deal with the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Harvey should be a lesson to us all. Moreover, we should recognize that, for all its problems both past and present, our government—federal, state, and local—is doing incredible work to help the victims of this storm regroup and recover. We can—and must—build upon this fine example of sacrifice, hard work, and cooperation to deal with the many other problems facing our nation. To continue to throw rocks at one another because our values or priorities may differ is to wallow if what separates us rather than focus on the responsibilities we all have to our country and to one another.

Big Money Politics Helps Produce Political Extremism

People have been complaining about the corrupting influence of political contributions forever, and it is true that the escalating costs of running for state and national political offices have turned our elected officials into full-time fundraisers—for themselves. Given the many millions of dollars it might today cost to campaign for a Congressional or Senate seat—and setting aside the astronomical $850 million spent by the two major party candidates during the 2016 Presidential race—it is apparent that we now have a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.

It is an open question just how much of the daily struggle of the average American actually gets through to candidates who are cosseted by campaign contributors handing them gobs of money. This does not become less of a problem after they are sworn into office. Upon being elected, officials immediately start to raise the dollars necessary to hold their seats, eclipsing the daily work on behalf of constituents—whose troublesome needs eat into the time that must be spent raising campaign funds.

However, the power of incumbency at least makes raising money easier because political favors now can be granted in exchange for campaign contributions, which are certainly a pernicious form of peculiarly legalized bribery. As the costs of political campaigns keep increasing, the importance of your opinion to your elected representative is ever more related to the size of your bank balance, the “pay to play” politics that disgusts most Americans. We are, sad to say, now all forced to live by the Golden Rule: “Those who have the gold make the rules.”

There is, however, another problem beyond the capture of our political institutions by wealthy individuals and interest groups—and it is helping to tear apart our nation.

Campaign fundraising used to be built around two basic appeals. On the one hand, you could attempt to appeal to the more elevated human traits of empathy or sympathy. An example of this approach might read as follows:

“Your contribution will give this puppy a warm bed tonight.”

Of course, if you really wanted to motivate potential contributors, a more crisis-laden approach was often more effective:

“Unless you contribute, this puppy will die tonight.”

If, however, you are running for political office today and need oodles of money in order to compete, a more sensationalistic and confrontational approach is preferred:

“UNLESS YOU CONTRIBUTE, MY OPPONENT WILL MURDER THIS PUPPY TONIGHT!” 

See the problem? The ongoing need for cash to keep today’s mega-million dollar campaigns afloat inevitably pushes all political discourse to the extremes because this is what best motivates contributors. Candidates can no longer afford to be gracious, reasonable, or moderate. All political opponents are now by grim necessity depicted as horrible brutes, and all opposing policy ideas are certain to result in lingering death, massive destruction, and the breakdown of civil society—because to say otherwise would not persuade anyone to write a check. Every election cycle is now Armageddon—the ultimate confrontation between good and evil—and each campaign season only further reinforces these venomous attitudes.

Big money politics have, of course, become an even worse problem over the years because of both inane Supreme Court decisions that have privileged wealthy donors and the sheer recalcitrance of officeholders who love the fundraising opportunities of incumbency and are allergic to reforms. However, reform we must if we are to have any hope of rescuing our nation from extremist politics and speech because campaign cash does more than just buy influence: It is itself a major driver of the political extremism that is both stalling our political processes and sidetracking legitimate national needs—all the while turning neighbors into enemies. Unless we can find a way to reduce the extraordinary costs now associated with political campaigns, we are likely condemned to yet more divisive and damaging political speech that will continue to hollow out the shrinking center of our national dialogue.

Media Blunt Force Trauma

There are a great many problems facing our nation today, but I wonder how many of us notice that we rarely actually discuss them. We are instead constantly beat over the head about a single issue that is apparently so earth shattering that it is far more important than any other matter facing our nation or world today:

(whack over the head)
Russia

(Another Whack Over The Head)
Russia!

(YET ANOTHER WHACK OVER THE HEAD)
RUSSIA!

If there is not some codicil in the Geneva Convention that prohibits this, there should be. Being bombarded with a steady stream of overcooked accusations, breathless innuendo, and anonymous attacks—all of which have so far added up (using Hillary Clinton’s famous characterization) to a “nothing burger”—has been excruciating. Given that a Special Counsel has been appointed to study the question of the Trump campaign’s supposed collusion with Vladimir Putin to throw the Presidential election (although, just how, nobody has yet explained), one would hope that sane minds in our mass media would simply wait for the investigation to determine whether any laws might have been broken. However, apparently they need a steady stream of eyeballs in order to sell advertising and subscriptions. Therefore…

(whack over the head)
Russia

(Another Whack Over The Head)
Russia!

(YET ANOTHER WHACK OVER THE HEAD)
RUSSIA!

Of course, some of this fixation is driven by a wild hatred of President Trump that is now the most salient characterisic of the news coverage offered our major media outlets. To say that all pretense of balance and objectivity has flown out the window would be like saying that the ocean is wet—at once blindingly obvious and wholly insufficient. Certainly the idea of journalism that is free of the taint of partisanship has been more an ideal than a reality for the vast majority of our nation’s history, but rarely have we seen coverage of a political leader that is so nakedly and unremittingly one-sided. I know that politics is a rough and dirty enterprise, but the sharp elbows exhibited by the press over that past couple of years have been a real eye-opener for many, and go very far to explain the 74% of Americans who, in a Pew Research Center poll conducted last summer, asserted they believe news coverage tends to favor one side over another. Of course, even this dismal lack of trust is likely the fault of…

(whack over the head)
Russia

(Another Whack Over The Head)
Russia!

(YET ANOTHER WHACK OVER THE HEAD)
RUSSIA!

There are, of course, perfectly reasonable arguments to be made against many parts of the Trump agenda and its implementation. The efforts of his administration and allies in Congress to erase most of the Obama regulatory, legislative, and foreign policy legacy virtually overnight raise legitimate questions about the effects of these actions on our nation’s citizens and our standing in the world.

Unfortunately, the response of President Trump’s critics has boiled down to a single inflammatory message on most every issue: “This man is insane!” Whether we are talking about the balance between cost and patient outcomes in healthcare, implementation of environmental regulations, school choice as a mechanism for improving student achievement, oil exploration as a means to greater energy independence, temporary immigration restrictions and enforcement of existing laws, or Federal and Supreme Court nominations, reasoned debate has been buried under acid rhetoric and doomsaying. All these policy changes could be the subjects of thoughtful and cool-headed inquiry by the press and mass media—and, to be fair, there has been some excellent work done—but a recent study of broadcast news found that 55% of news stories regarding the Trump administration have focused upon…

(whack over the head)
Russia

(Another Whack Over The Head)
Russia!

(YET ANOTHER WHACK OVER THE HEAD)
RUSSIA!

Now we have the peculiar saga of Donald Trump Jr. meeting with a Russian representative in the hope he could obtain some dirt on Hillary Clinton prior to last November’s election. Just to put this into context, Mr. Trump was looking for scandalous or salacious information on his father’s opponent—he wasn’t selling nuclear secrets. As described to date, the whole episode seems more Curious George than John le Carré, and those who are anxious to spin this clumsy and amateurish effort into a sinister plot to bring down our democracy might want to consider switching from Red Bull to decaf. It is possible more information could come to light that would result in a more dire interpretation of events, but that will come only after careful inquiry, sworn testimony, and thoughtful evaluation based on reality rather than supposition.

However, regardless of the actual facts of the matter, the talking heads are ready and raring to go. So, without further ado…

(whack over the head)
Russia

(Another Whack Over The Head)
Russia!

(YET ANOTHER WHACK OVER THE HEAD)
RUSSIA!

Looking Beyond A Broken State

 

If you live, work, or own a business in Illinois, the results of decades of political malfeasance are easy to spot: services cut, schools struggling, credit ratings downgraded, essential services curtailed, infrastructure in disrepair, public safety and health spending shortchanged, taxes and fees raised, and governmental reforms endlessly postponed. This is, understandably, a source of incredible frustration for citizens who daily deal with the many problems caused by the irresponsible practices of state government.

Unfortunately, the solutions that are now being proposed in Springfield boil down to more of the same: Give us your money. Apparently the idea that abandoning business as usual—when business as usual has nearly put the state out of business—is beyond consideration. Illinois has instead become the poster child for what happens when elected leaders decide that finding new and expensive ways to fund governmental failure is itself the whole point of governing.

These are the end times for giveaways and graft in the Land of Lincoln. The financial catastrophe that now confronts Illinois is wide, deep, and beyond repair—as the Governor and State Legislators are well aware; it is now simply a question of who will be blamed when the system crashes. A monstrous current accounts deficit, grotesquely underfunded state pension systems that offer retirees no security, and decades of excessive and corrupt overspending are now pushing Illinois right to the brink.

There is only one solution that will solve Illinois’ calamitous financial shortfall: bankruptcy. Although federal law currently prohibits states from entering bankruptcy, the recent “bankruptcy” of Puerto Rico demonstrates that laws can be tweaked to allow for state debts and obligations to be discharged. Although any Illinois insolvency would likely come with a more politically palatable appellation (“Fiscal Reconciliation”, anyone?), there is no other way forward. Delay of the inevitable may continue a little longer, but basic addition and subtraction will win out eventually.

Will this be painful? Yes. Will it prompt endless finger pointing and blame shifting? Absolutely. Will schools, state retirees, the elderly, children, state employees, the disabled, contractors, and taxpayers bear the brunt of the consequences while those with money and influence avoid the worst? Count on it. Fiscal meltdown, as much as we might wish it to be otherwise, is a process that is never fair and rarely reasonable. It is instead a dirty, raw, and frightening process that drives wedges between people and institutions while all are desperately scrambling for a seat on the last leaky lifeboat before the ship of state goes down.

Citizens of Illinois are in for a rough ride for years to come, and it is likely that even more residents will join the many already abandoning the state. However, those who remain will have an opportunity to participate in the historic rebuilding of a state government and its institutions. If people are strong, if they are responsible, and if they are humane, Illinois can once again be a wonderful place to live and work.