Been Down So Long….

“I’ve been down so long
Being down don’t bother me.
I’m gonna take all my troubles
Drown ’em in the deep blue sea.”
—from the album L.A. Woman by The Doors

A recent Gallup Poll found that a mere 38% of Americans believe that our nation is moving in the right direction—which is sad.  However, this represents a 12 year high for this number—which is astonishing.  Rarely have Americans been so discontented for so long.

A 12 year trip back in time brings us to the halcyon days of 2006.  George W. Bush was finishing his second term as President, and the “hope and change” presidency of Barack Obama was still two years in the future.  The failure of a comprehensive immigration reform bill led to massive protests, a deranged man killed 5 girls at an Amish schoolhouse, Iran and America were locked in a standoff regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program, North Korea was developing missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, Israel and Hezbollah were shooting at one another, and terrorist plots were launched and foiled.  Seems familiar, doesn’t it?

The Democrats won big in the midterm elections that year.  In 2006 voters were punishing President Bush over the bloody war in Iraq.  This year Democrats hope President Trump’s views on immigration, world trade, and polite conversation will lead to a repeat of their success at the ballot box.These past twelve years have featured the global economic meltdown of the Great Recession, two Presidential terms for Barack Obama, the rise of identity politics and Social Justice Warriors, the growth of a pervasive surveillance state, stark income inequality, gay marriage, a broad decline in civility coupled with an increase in rage, skyrocketing costs for life’s essentials, a growing political divide that has turned into a chasm, the failure of the inevitable and unstoppable Clinton campaign in 2016, a surprising summit with North Korea, endless investigations, escalating national debt, a slow motion national pension crisis, and the mutating growth of a form of entertainment known as the Kardashians.

If you ask ten different people, you will probably hear ten different explanations for the level of angst and anger that seems to now be the background music of American life.  Perhaps the only comfort we can take is that unhappiness seems to have become a global phenomenon.  People in many other nations seem frustrated for a wide variety of reasons—only some of which connect with our own concerns in America.

One could write a book—or many books—detailing the possible reasons for what ails the United States and its people at the present time, but I do have a theory that I believe provides a framework that explains a great deal: Many people now feel that their lives are beyond their own control, and this loss of control stems from two main sources: money and government.

First of all, despite living in the wealthiest nation in the world, we are more and more becoming debt slaves in order to finance the escalating costs of housing, education, and medical care.  Our financial futures can now be destroyed by a balloon payment on a mortgage, a student loan, or an illness—and the damage this causes today can stalk us throughout our lives in the form of ruined credit, aggressive debt collectors, and seized tax refunds.  In perhaps the most perverse twist of all, many Americans now end up in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay court-ordered fines, which basically means many Americans are being incarcerated for the singular crime of being too poor to live.  Except for the elite and connected few, we have truly lost control of our economic destinies as debt has washed over us—on both a personal and national level.

Moreover, multinational corporations now devastate the economies of entire communities by deciding to uproot a factory or office because they believe larger profits can be found with cheap labor overseas.  For those companies that continue to try to thrive in the U.S., wolves in hedge fund manager’s clothing often devour their thriving businesses and spit the bare bones into bankruptcy court when they are done.  The average worker is always the one who takes it on the chin; the top executives and hedge fund honchos take their bonuses and buyouts and hit the beach while those left behind form a line at the local food pantry.

In addition, government continues to circumscribe—many might say strangle—our lives.  More and more laws, rules, and regulations are enforced to shut down dissent and empower officials who want to dictate where we can live, what we can say, how we can raise our children, how our faith can be expressed, what we can buy, what ideas and information we can share, what natural resources we can consume, what we can eat, what we can drink, what we can smoke, what we can drive, what schools our children can attend, what we can throw in the trash—and even whether we can burn our own leaves in the fall.

Of course, not a single government mandate is actually intended to make us miserable; they are, after all, promulgated to promote the “greater good”.  However, their cumulative weight and intrusiveness—combined with government officials and experts who sometimes seem utterly oblivious to the needs and wants of the average person—is at turns annoying and maddening.

Given the many traumas we are repeatedly told the presidency of Donald Trump is inflicting on our nation, it seems odd that we have now hit a 12 year high—albeit a low one—regarding our attitudes toward the direction of our country.  I do not believe this is because Mr. Trump’s policies are universally popular—they most decidedly are not.  However, it seems to me that the pollsters and pundits are still failing to understand the populist fervor he has engendered among those who want—more than anything—to feel they can live their lives as they choose.

More than a bit of this voter enchantment with President Trump is, quite frankly, completely illogical.  A billionaire populist is an obvious contradiction, and some of his avowed policies may, in fact, end up harming those who are is his most fervent supporters.  However, he is perceived to be a man who fights back against the lousy and corrupt status quo, and this is a welcome relief for Americans who believe they have been kicked around for far too long. Despite the disdain of the media and entertainment elite toward Mr. Trump, voters are still standing in line for twelve hours for the chance to hear him speak, and they cheer him with the lusty enthusiasm of people whose faith has yet to be blunted by a sneering editorial in The Washington Post.

The perception of many of Mr. Trump’s supporters is that he is swinging hard—and landing body blows—against those who have long presumed to control their lives.  Every obscene or snotty celebrity or news media rant only strengthens their belief that he is their champion, and every pugnacious tweet he sends our berating his opponents thrills their downtrodden souls.  Those who cluck at his language and demeanor fail to understand that he is daily reinforcing the hardcore allegiance of those who neither drive a Prius nor ever plan to attend a performance of Hamilton on Broadway.

President Trump will never win over the most rarefied strata of our society, but his words and actions are giving hope to those who have long felt that control of their lives has been stolen from them by unknown and uncaring forces—and no one with a lick of good sense should ever dismiss the power and persistence of those who feel their hope finally has been restored.

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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.

What We Can Learn From The Bill Cosby Verdict

One would need to be living in a very deep cave to have not heard: Bill Cosby—once America’s favorite television comedian—is now a convicted sex offender. His conviction for aggravated sexual assault is both an affirmation that no one is immune from the force of the law and a depressing reminder of how those with power and influence typically believe they are far above the petty concerns of human decency and respect for others.

To say that everyone of a certain age is confused about finding out that Bill Cosby, Mr. Jell-O Pudding Pops, was in the habit of drugging and assaulting women—many, many women, apparently—is a stupendous understatement. Although he has been mostly out of the public eye in recent years—in part because of the mounting evidence of his criminal behavior—no one who came of age in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s could escape his mirthful and beneficent presence. He was America’s dad—no doubt about it.

Reading the comments on the media posts concerning Mr. Cosby’s conviction, one senses a collision of vindication and dismay. Bill Cosby was, as much as we might want to now conveniently forget it, a trailblazer who transformed the portrayal of African-Americans on television by presenting smart, compassionate professionals—super spy, teacher, and doctor—on a series of hit shows. It would be difficult to overestimate his influence in changing the perceptions—and correcting the misperceptions—of so many Americans across many decades. To now discover the twisted and cruel soul behind those sterling performances feels like the worst possible betrayal to his many, many former fans.

Nonetheless, knowledge is much healthier than fantasy, and this conviction will likely be a signal moment in the ongoing national debate—and painful reckoning—regarding the sexual harassment and assault of the past and present. To learn what we now know about Bill Cosby’s behavior is part of a necessary maturation of our society’s attitudes regarding the daily interactions of men and women.

Every moment of every day the sexes commune in ways that are typically mundane and sometimes profound or life-changing—and which must always be respectful of necessary and perfectly reasonable boundaries of privacy and personhood. We are still, of course, not where we need to be—yet. Sadly, both women and men still often shout across a divide where the differences between compliments and insults, flirting and harassment, or honesty and deception still sometimes feels like a common language is lacking. Add in our very human and messy sexual desires, and we have fertile ground for the misunderstandings and misgivings that cause many to cut off communication altogether because they fear being misinterpreted—or worse.

Many women still feel that Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump—a man who once gleefully described how she was “schlonged” by Barack Obama during her 2008 presidential run—is emblematic of the deep river of sexism that still runs through our society, and one would need to be very blind or foolish to fail to notice that women are still many times not accorded the respect that is their due. Indeed, however one might feel about Hillary Clinton’s policy positions or public record, it is sad to remember the many humiliations she has had to endure—ranging from America’s weird obsession with her hairstyles while First Lady to a philandering and thoroughly disingenuous husband—during her long and accomplished career. Many women understood and forgave her faults because they had experienced similar pain in their own lives, and they felt like the voters’ dismissal of her in favor of Donald Trump was a confirmation of all their worst fears regarding their own shaky status in American society.

Now that Hugh Hefner has gone to his eternal rest, perhaps we can now likewise bury his adolescent Playboy philosophy that is perhaps understandable in twelve year old boys but is still unseemly, nonetheless. Keeping firmly in mind that our nation’s past has never been as innocent as we might like to believe and idiocy can never be entirely eliminated, perhaps we can at least resolve to speak courteously, behave responsibly, and listen thoughtfully when around the opposite sex.

The divides between men and women are likely not so insurmountable as we might sometimes believe, and if we can all be a little open and honest regarding our own faults and shortcomings—no one is perfect—that might ease some of the anger that men and women sometimes feel toward one another. I know we can all agree that what Bill Cosby has been convicted of doing is wrong—wrong on every level and in every possible way. That might provide a basis for a dialogue regarding how our pervasive hookup culture and media misogyny has degraded and debased both men and women—and how healing and understanding requires a broad-based commitment to rejecting our worst instincts in favor of our highest aspirations. There is a lot of pain, bitterness, and confusion to be found all around us in both men and women; restoring the health of our relationships is a shared responsibility that we can either shun or embrace.

Breaking down those walls and dialing down the defensiveness will not be easy for many because of past experiences that have made it difficult to trust one another again, but the alternative is loneliness and an empty existence. Therefore, just how hard of a choice is this to make—really?

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.

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.