The Great Schism

As far back as Sodom and Gomorrah in The Holy Bible, cities have been seen as centers of sin and degradation and were often presented in stark contrast to rural towns and areas, which were considered the wellspring of sobriety and piety. This duality has run through the history of civilization, and it has influenced every facet of the arts, politics, and social mores for every society.  Country life was pure and wholesome, the city was rife with immorality and greed, and each viewed the other with distrust and condescension. 

As with any stereotype, there is perhaps some truth buried there.  Cities are often a place where people flee to escape the shackles of traditional beliefs and morality in order to reinvent themselves free of constraint; rural areas are generally populated by those who are comfortable with the values bequeathed to them by their parents and grandparents and so are more suspicious of change for change’s sake.  However, this does not necessarily translate into the more insulting stereotypes of ignorant and bigoted rustics pitted against conniving and degenerate urbanites.  The truth is, of course, far more complex, and both good and bad individuals can be found both in the country and the city—neither has a monopoly on either decency or vice.

We are, however, today experiencing an unusually high degree of disconnect between our major cities, which are invariably controlled by Democrats, and rural areas, which are almost exclusively controlled by Republicans.  The great electoral prize for both sides are obviously suburban voters, who do not generally align as rigidly with either of our two major political parties.  The geographic entrenchment of both parties—Democrats in big cities and college towns with Republicans controlling virtually everywhere else—was a vivid and telling aspect of the electoral map in 2016, and these differences have seemed to only further hardened in the years since.  The mutual cultural and social disdain that urban and rural residents have historically directed at one another has now taken on an acutely political dimension that is further dividing our nation.

There are obvious economic reasons why this divide has worsened in recent decades.  As cities have become ever more reliant on technology and finance jobs—manufacturing having been mostly driven out decades before—escalating real estate prices and their ripple effects on retail and services have created urban economic conditions that are extraordinarily (perhaps even dangerously) bifurcated.  At the top of the pyramid, we see wealthy and cosmopolitan urbanites who see themselves as citizens of a new internationalized economic order that allows them to generate enormous personal wealth.  Everyone else is left to scramble to scratch out a daily existence made enormously challenging by a cost structure that makes even paying for basic daily needs such as groceries a significant problem.  

Because of the extraordinary disconnect between the very rich and very poor that is now characteristic of city living, America’s urban areas are filling up with the homeless and the hopeless, and city streets are increasing being overrun with street encampments, rats, feces, and discarded needles, which unsurprisingly leads to louder and louder calls for government action to “solve” a problem that is largely attributable to highly restrictive zoning laws and wild real estate speculation, both tacitly if not openly encouraged by city leaders, that serve the needs of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

Those who live in rural areas of the nation look at the obvious dysfunction of many of our nation’s big cities and the desire of big city politicians to keep raising taxes to pay for more services to deal with those dysfunctions—and are repelled.  The idea that some Republican politicians in Illinois are now floating to cast Democratic Chicago adrift like a plague victim in a lonely lifeboat is related to proposals in California to separate the major cities on the coast from the inland areas and the eternal dislike of so many New Yorkers for New York City and it’s seemingly parasitic ways.  Rural residents look at the crime, filth, and insane costs of city living (“$25 for a PB & J?  Seriously?”), want to stay as far away as possible—and believe government is too often held hostage to the greed, immorality, and corruption of big city politicians whosneer at their simpler and perhaps more sensible lives.

Given the choice between free spending urban Democrats who apparently have never met a tax or fee they didn’t like and rural Republican politicians who often view government as a necessary evil, it is hardly a surprise that so few of the “Deplorables” voted for Hillary Clinton, whom they saw as just another big government swamp creature, in the 2016 election.  However, looking at it from the perspective of urban voters who felt that Hillary Clinton’s loss was an outcome of the racism, sexism, and xenophobia indicative of “white frailty”, the election results only confirmed their worst stereotypes of the ignorant and bigoted country rubes parading around with their assault rifles, abusing their simpleton wives, denigrating their repressed daughters, and mocking those who are not white and Christian.

This mutual incomprehension is more comprehensible when you look at the manner in which politicians often actively work to divide us in order to solidify their own block of voters.  Only today I read of one Democrat in Congress calling Republican voters ignorant and a Republican in the Senate calling Democrats extremists.  Add to this the incessant cable news gabfests that seem to exist only to create a ready demand for Prozac and the unending bile of so many on social media and what remains of the legacy mainstream media, and we can more easily recognize why efforts to understand have been replaced with a desire to destroy.  

The urban/rural divide is also driving an electoral dynamic that is creating a great deal of ill will at the moment.  Given the enormous pluralities for Democrats in coastal big cities, we could continue to see Presidential elections where the popular and electoral college votes continue to diverge as they did in 2016.  Even if a Democrat can win 100% of the vote in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and elsewhere and so win the popular vote, it may not result in national victory if the rest of the nation is turning into an inland ocean of Republican red. 

This may not be a concern in terms of purely local matters, but given the ferment concerning the larger national issues that continue to divide us—particularly immigration and abortion—it is leading to efforts in many state legislators to circumvent the electoral college by pledging those states’ electoral votes to whomever wins the national popular vote, which will have the net effect of disenfranchising the voters in those states if their statewide totals are at odds with the national ones.  Whether these bills will be able to survive the inevitable appeals up to the U.S. Supreme Court is almost beside the point.  These efforts are indicative of a complete lack of faith in our traditional democratic processes and a frightening disregard for the collective wisdom of our nation’s voters.  Of course, why would anyone have faith in the judgments of either “Deplorables” or “extremists” when it comes to choosing a President?  It seems many now feel the American election system must be rigged in order to generate the desired outcome, and this is further corroding an already strained relationship between elected officials and voters.

Watching reporters after the shock of the 2016 election fan out into the middle of the nation like 19th century explorers off to investigate some exotic foreign land, it was hard not to wince at their incredulity when they came face to face with perfectly decent people who own a gun but have no plans to shoot up a school, believe homosexuality to be a sin but would still love their son or daughter regardless, praise their neighbors but insist they reside here legally, and would rather raise a child with Down Syndrome than “murder” a baby with an abortion.  By the same token, it hurt to listen to harrumphing pundits explain the problems caused of “low information” (read: stupid) Americans who voted for fear and hatred by pulling the lever for Donald Trump and other Republicans rather than encouraging their viewers to respect the election outcome, analyze the pros and cons of differing viewpoints, and thereafter work to find common ground in order to solve our nation’s problems.

City and country may never see eye to eye, and we have seen other great historical movements—the crusade to pass Prohibition a century ago springs immediately to mind—that have pitted our rural and urban areas against one another in a battle for the soul of our nation.  However, this disconnect, this great schism between the two, is at least one of the factors driving our terrible political polarization today, and the continuing geographic self-selection by urban Democrats and rural Republicans is a significant factor in making it even worse.  

Perhaps like a terrible fever this battle between brothers and sisters will break and subside into a more generalized moderation of thought and action, but I am not counting on this any time soon unless we consciously work to dial down the inflammatory rhetoric and uncompromising attitudes in all regions of our nation.

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The Great “Unpersoning”

In his classic novel 1984 George Orwell introduced a term both banal and terrifying: the unperson. An unperson was an individual who had defied the orthodoxies of the government and society, so any mention of them or their ideas was removed from the public record and news media in order to ensure community harmony. Sometimes these unpersons were killed, but they could also be left to live out the span of their lives with their words gone, their voices silenced, and their individuality erased.

There was once a time in America and Europe when such censorship was unthinkable, but we are now creeping uncomfortably close to the dystopian reality that Mr. Orwell described, one where the ideas of those deemed outside the mainstream are removed from public view in the service of “the greater good” (a term that that typically is used to introduce the most demonstrably “un-good” policies), in this case the suppression of thoughts and ideas deemed hateful or harmful by some.

The mild term now used to describe the closing of someone’s “offensive” account on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or other social media sounds decidedly inoffensive: That person is being “deplatformed”. Setting aside the obvious question of what criteria an anonymous group of corporate screeners is using to decide what is offensive and what is not, it must be remembered that free thought is intrinsically offensive to somebody. We would still be scratching at the ground with sharp sticks if “troublesome” individuals throughout history had not loudly challenge the accepted wisdom—often at great personal risk—and forced changes upon an unwilling world and its leadership. Progress is often dependent on the rebel and the malcontent, and human advancement has been slowed—or rendered nonexistent—during those periods of our history when one orthodoxy reigned supreme and dissenting voices were silenced.

There are, of course, ideas that are—and have been—harmful to individuals, society, and the world as a whole. Allowing those whose ideas are stupid the opportunity to publicly demonstrate their stupidity is a workable and effective response to nonsense that has ably exposed idiocy for many a millennia. Continuing to allow individuals to use their own brains to evaluate the merits of evidence and arguments presented by others—to, in other words, use their common sense—will work much better than employing armies of screeners and evaluators to shield us from the need to exercise our own judgments during the course of our daily lives.

Those who favor taking away the social media accounts and access of those who promulgate and promote foolishness often cite the most extreme examples to support censorship, and their legal and extra-legal efforts to ban that which they characterize as hate speech are informed by honest passion regarding this matter. However, one has to ask whether the examples cited by the censorship advocates to support their viewpoints actually make any sense when held up to the light.

Everyone who claims to love free speech—but actually does not—tends to eventually gravitate toward the example of Hitler and the Nazis to support their censorious attitudes. Wouldn’t it be better, they ask, if “people like that” were simply prohibited from spewing their hateful ideas? Conveniently forgotten is that the German government “deplatformed” Adolf Hitler for 264 days in 1924 by tossing him in prison after the failed Beer Hall Putsch—and turned him into a national hero, which helped to fuel his rise to power.

Prohibition of awful ideas does not necessarily cause them to disappear; it often instead drives them underground, where they can mutate into more virulent and dangerous forms that now have the cachet of the forbidden to make them yet more attractive to potential followers. As painful and difficult as it is to have to listen to insulting gibberish—and as problematic as this sometimes might be because the mentally unstable or morally malformed might be attracted to the words of hate mongers—we are far better off overall if crackpot speech and beliefs are exposed to our scrutiny and scorn.

Censorship is the tool of authoritarian governments; the power and legitimacy of democracy is predicated on a free and open discussion of all ideas and viewpoints. The recently adopted motto of The Washington Post, “Democracy Dies in Darkness”, refers to the oversight of government by an informed citizenry, but it could just as well describe the well-lit marketplace of ideas that is necessary for democracy to function to its fullest. Just as campus speech codes have damaged the liberal idea—and ideals—of higher education, so does the censorship of offensive or extreme ideas on social media damage that which enables and enlivens the traditions and practices of Western liberal thought: the opportunity to hear all sides of a debate and forcefully engage with the opinions expressed.

Disorder In The Courts

Setting aside for the moment the unbelievably dispiriting saga of the Supreme Court nominationof Brett Kavanaugh, which is clearly a political and cultural inflection point that will keep commentators scribbling for decades to come, it seems apparent that our entire federal system of jurisprudence is suffering from a crisis of legitimacy that is perhaps unprecedented in recent memory.  

Some of the problems are self-inflicted wounds that are the result of obvious miscarriages of justice that have wronged the innocent and released the guilty.  Some issues have arisen from moving far away from simply applying or interpreting laws and becoming super-legislators whose individual judgments supersede those of duly-elected representatives.  Other difficulties facing our federal courts are the inevitable outcome of our nation’s ever widening cultural and moral divisions—every ruling now produces an army of the disgruntled.

The law and our federal courts have, of course, always been imperfect tools in our eternal quest for justice on earth because the humans who write and apply our laws are themselves imperfect creatures who are subject to the same stupidity and shortsightedness as us all.  However, the hope was that rigorous training of both lawyers and judges in evidentiary proceedings conducted under rules established by both precedents and common sense would be sufficient to reduce the opportunities for either fear or favor to influence the rulings of our federal courts.  This has not always worked, but additional procedures for appeals are available, and a trip up the marble steps of the Supreme Court has always been the final leg of the journey for those seeking justice.  

It is important to remember that, even when the wheels of justice turned slowly, the general perception was that the federal courts were a reliable bulwark against destructive partisan passions.  Although we understood that justice was sometimes elusive, judges and the courts were still held in high regard.  Despite the sometimes reasonable perception that true justice often seemed reserved for rich, white males, Americans had a sense that the federal courts were capable of hearing the pleas of those who felt historically disenfranchised and responding—if belatedly—to their needs, and this served to burnish the reputation of our federal courts in spite of all their missteps on the path to modernity.  Consequently, generations of idealists worked to make improvements to both the operations and outcomes of our federal court system, which enabled a broader spectrum of American society to enjoy the benefits of living in a nation of laws.  If small town local justice sometimes seemed small-minded, the federal courts many times provided the necessary broad corrections that could later be applied nationally through the precedents set by their rulings.

How far away this all seems today….

Perhaps the most pressing problem now facing the federal judiciary is one for which they have only themselves to blame: Abandoning the role of arbiter and assuming the mantle of advocacy has turned judges into yet another subset of political hacks within a system rife with political hacks.  Outsized egos and a lack of respect for the dire consequences of judicial activism have pushed the federal courts further and further beyond their constitutional mandate, which is sadly understandable if you consider the foibles of human nature.  

As much fun as it might be to be a “rock star judge” who finds new and inventive ways to circumvent judicial limitations and seize the powers delegated to the legislative and executive branches of government under the Constitution, the price to pay is the destructive surrender of all-important perceptions of restraint and impartiality.  The unsurprising result has been that federal judges are now subjected to the same rough and tumble scrutiny as those who must regularly win re-election to their offices by presenting their partisan credentials to voters—welcome to the jungle, Your Honor.

As the federal courts have come more and more to both reflect and reinforce the partisan splits in our nation by seeking to circumscribe—or outright negate—the laws and regulations approved by the President and Congress, they have waded deeper and deeper into stormy political and moral waters they cannot possibly navigate without eventually drowning.  Moreover, by making their own partisan agendas ever more apparent through their frequent speeches and voluminous writings, judges serving at the federal level are discarding all remaining pretense of objectivity in favor of social engineering on a scale that would both astonish and alarm their more circumspect predecessors on the bench.  

The sadly predictable outcome is never ending sniping and frighteningly vicious confirmation hearings that are erasing whatever tattered prestige our highest level of courts still retain.

We may not at this late date be able to turn back the clock because our nation’s elite law schools have themselves become the training grounds for a radical judicial philosophy that—terrifyingly enough—believes judges are wiser stewards of our nation than those whom we elect to represent us.  The outright disrespect for our democratic processes that we today so often see manifested in the rulings of our federal courts is an insult to the genius of our nation’s political system, which is still the wonder of the world despite its human flaws.

Therefore, having founded a nation by rejecting the divine rights of kings, it might just be the case that we will renew our nation’s commitment to democracy—however maddening and messy as the will of the people might sometimes be—by opposing the “divine rights” that have been assumed by judges who believe it is their prerogative to strike down legislation, oppose the President, and impose whatever mandates they see fit upon a captive America with a single court order.  

The battle has been joined, and those on both sides of this issue clearly understand what is at stake.  Whatever the outcome might be, we can be certain that our perceptions of the federal court system and its role in relation to the other two branches of our national government are about to undergo a profound shift—and the outcome will either begin to heal or further divide our already troubled nation.

Opinions Will Always Vary

I have been puzzling over the stark and seemingly insurmountable political differences that divide our nation these days, and I see some cause for hope—as faint as it might sometimes seem—in the current crop of more moderate candidates running for office across our nation today. Perhaps we are finally growing weary of shouts and insults as a proxy for policy discussions.  Accusing those with different views than your own of all manner of moral and intellectual failings—in the most caustic terms possible—tends to excite the excitable, but it also forestalls any opportunity for the sometimes inelegant compromises that keep the wheels of our nation going round.

There are obvious differences between the policies of our two major political parties. The clashes between the capitalists and socialists, those who favor open borders and those who do not, and the advocates of Big Government vs. fewer rules and regulations are both never ending and necessary.  The debates between diametrically opposite points of view sparks the synthesis that provides the solutions that we need to solve our problems.

However, our focus upon surface differences often ignores the morals, values, and judgments that inform our individual opinions.  Characterizing others as either “good” or “bad” based solely on the degree to which they agree or disagree with us neatly avoids the messy and occasionally maddening business of discussing the ethical, religious, and personal values that inform our decision making on a range of matters.  This failing enables the facile insults that now are the most prominent feature of our daily political and social discourse.  The shocking ease with which we demonize those whose ideas differ from our own often seems more like the rude and immature chatter in a middle school lunchroom that a discussion between reasonable adults.

Although we are often far from agreement on many issues, perhaps we also sometimes fail to understand how our differing priorities both divide us—and also have the potential to bring us together.  Think of a great many hot-button topics, and you will find the debate typically falls along familiar lines: Liberals will focus more on “rights”, and conservatives will be more preoccupied with “responsibilities”.

However, rights and responsibilities are simply two sides of the same coin because every right comes with an equal responsibility to use that right wisely and reasonably.  When we recognize this fact, we can better attempt to search for common ground regarding a variety of issues—and hopefully engage in a dialogue that will lead to less rage and more actual discussion.  Whether we are talking about issues as varied as law enforcement, housing, immigration, healthcare, education, military spending, or pension security, we can possibly have more polite and productive conversations that can lead to policy proposals that will solve problems rather than prompt yet more discord—if we remember the linkages between our rights and responsibilities.

There is also one further connection between rights and responsibilities than warrants our attention.  We have the right to disagree with others because our own values, priorities, and judgments lead us to different conclusions; however, we also have a responsibility to respect opinions and ideas that are different from our own.  We may believe what we do with all our heart and soul, but there is a very good chance that someone believes otherwise.  Their opposing ideas are not a signal that they are evil or deluded—or a ready target for our anger.  We are instead face to face with an immutable fact of life: Opinions will always vary.

We are welcome to advocate and attempt to swing others to our viewpoint through reasoned discussion and debate if both parties agree to engage, but we must resist the human urge to heedlessly denigrate—or ruthlessly attack.  We live in a big nation within a far larger world, and sometimes we are going to need to live by rules that conflict with our own because we assume certain responsibilities as members of a broader society.  We have the right to dissent, to support political candidates whose ideas align with our own—or even run for office ourselves.  However, we must always be keenly away of our responsibilities to others—and be aware that there is no “right” to be selfish, self-centered, or sneering.  This might be a tremendous disappointment to those who enjoy attacking others, but perhaps these are precisely the sort of individuals who are deserving of far less of our support and attention in the future.

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….”