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.

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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.

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.

Let Our People Tweet!

In a recent interview, Barack Obama made the following observation regarding the promise—and pitfalls—associated with the rapid growth of the use of social media in our hyper-politicized age: “The question has to do with how do we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, allows a diversity of views, but doesn’t lead to a Balkanization of society and allows ways of finding common ground.” This is a good question, but it may miss the mark just slightly—as many perfectly reasonable questions sometimes do.

The ever-expanding range of social media—everything from Facebook to Twitter to Snapchat and beyond—has fundamentally changed our political, personal, and social discourse in ways we are still struggling to understand. Who, for example, had heard of “hashtag activism” a scant few years ago or would have foreseen the manner in which a political neophyte could leverage his love of “tweeting” into the highest elected office in our nation?

Politicians, reporters, businesspeople, celebrities, athletes, and others now race to provide their instantaneous reactions—we cannot possibly call it analysis—regarding every twitch in the fabric of our world. No event or statement—no matter how momentous or mundane—seems beyond comment, and YouTube personalities now rake in six and seven figure incomes for sharing (or perhaps oversharing) every aspect of their daily lives. Our planet’s population has become a global network of symbiotic exhibitionists and voyeurs, each dependent upon the other for the peculiar gratifications of either posing or peering. It is sometimes a wonder that anyone finds the time to brush their teeth between checking online, posting, and anxiously waiting for the “likes” to appear.

As a result, privacy is now nearly synonymous with invisibility, which has both individual and cultural consequences we can only begin to today fathom. We should, however, by now recognize the drawbacks inherent in engaging with social media in a manner that slices and dices individuals into ever-smaller subgroups based upon identities, interests, and political leanings. Although shared community can certainly result from, for example, finding Facebook “friends” who are just like you—and actively “unfriending” those who are not—this can easily slip into the Balkanization that concerns Mr. Obama. The myopic view of the world that results from communing exclusively with those who agree with everything you say produces the mental flabbiness and smug certitude that has helped to poison so many of our national conversations. Speaking only to those like ourselves surely separates us from one another—and impedes honest discussion.

However, this being acknowledged, I believe that Mr. Obama neglected to emphasize perhaps the greatest benefit of social media: the removal of mediators and filters that decide how information is transmitted—or whether it is transmitted at all. I am old enough to remember when a mere handful of major networks and newspapers were able to impose a virtual information hegemony upon our nation, which turned them into arbiters, gatekeepers, and kingmakers—and drastically narrowed the range of information and opinions available. Perhaps the most startling—or, for some, terrifying—aspect of last year’s Presidential election was that Donald Trump won without a single endorsement from a major news outlet and slogged on to victory while thumbing his nose at their repeated disparagements. This was, no matter how it might otherwise be spun, a stunning populist victory that would most certainly have been stopped in its tracks by the mainstream media in years past. It will be up to historians to determine the merits of Donald Trump’s presidency, but his success at the ballot box would have been impossible before the advent of social media.

Of course, right now a Trump opponent is rolling his or her eyes at his use—some would say manipulation—of his Twitter account, but it should be remembered that there would be no #MeToo moment or #BlackLivesMatter tidal wave revealing decades of pain and abuse were it not for the enormous power and reach of social media. In both of these instances, the entrenched establishment lost control of the narrative because millions of voices were suddenly able to speak and be heard. This is what most terrifies those in positions of previously unassailable power and influence: The average person can now wield a mighty sword to cut them down to size with just the tip of their finger tapping on a screen.

The nascent effort to combat “fake news” by empowering corporations and government agencies to ferret out information they deem unreliable—or perhaps embarrassing—seems to me to be nothing but a thinly veiled attempt by the establishment to reassert their control over what information is available in order to maintain their crumbling authority. Rumors, gossip, and pettiness have been baked into humanity since the dawn of civilization, but the official lies that have driven disastrous misadventures (we never did find those “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, did we?) are too numerous to enumerate and have caused vastly more damage to our nation and its people.

We are likely much better off with a wild and uncontrollable social media environment that asks uncomfortable questions and attacks complacent assumptions. If people are sometimes insulted and misinformation is occasionally spread, this is a small price to pay for the incredibly free and open discussion that is now possible, and we would be fools indeed to have this wrested away from us because some are more comfortable with the hollow silence that would soon follow.

The common ground we find after free-wheeling debate is a firmer foundation than the shaky consensus forced upon us by stilling voices of dissent. We must, of course, learn how to avoid ad hominem attacks and cruel invective as we discuss difficult and divisive issues, but the Balkanization that so concerns Mr. Obama also might be characterized as the messy and maddening freedom to speak truth to power and challenge a status quo that many find unacceptable. It is normal and healthy for citizens in a democracy to disagree, and those who yearn for the good old days when those who owned the television broadcast licenses or printing presses decided what we would be allowed to hear or say are simply hoping that taking away the voices of the many will protect the power of the few.

No matter how many times experts and insiders assure us that strict social media censorship will produce peace, harmony, or security, don’t believe it for a second. We are much better off with the sloppy cacophony of voices and viewpoints that we have right now, and those who are pushing for more curated conformity and crass control deserve nothing other than a good kick in the pants—on social media.

Has Big Government Killed Compromise?

I was reading a book the other day that discussed the internecine religious conflict that roiled England during the reigns of Henry VIII, Mary I (“Bloody Mary”), and Elizabeth I. Protestants and Catholics, each convinced their own values and doctrinal interpretations were right and good, fought an unyielding battle for control and supremacy over both government and nation, and neither side was the least interested in even the most basic compromises. Each conflict was filled with hatred and every speech—it would be impossible to call them discussions—was colored by apocalyptic visions of the catastrophic outcomes that would certainly result were the beliefs of the opposition allowed to gain ascendancy. It was brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, and region against region as each side scrambled to vanquish their blood enemies, who were, in point of fact, actually their fellow countrymen.

Does any of this sound familiar?

To say that many of the citizens of our nation seem to have a visceral and implacable dislike for one another is stating the obvious. Worse yet, because so many are convinced that those who hold differing beliefs are inherently immoral—or even just plain evil—the possibilities for thoughtful and reasonable conversations between individuals of good will seem fewer and fewer with each passing day. I am thankful that today we restrict our public burnings to social media, but the outcome remains the same: hearts hardened, hatreds stoked, and minds irreversibly closed.

I like to think that reasonable people can come to reasonable compromises regarding the many issues that divide our nation at the present time, but I am beginning to suspect that this may be impossible more often than I would like to believe for a reason some might find unbelievable: the fantastically expanded powers of American government itself.

The questions of governance that now so bedevil us are inextricably tied to foundational issues of family, faith, patriotism, and the balance between rights and responsibilities—each jostling against the other and further complicating the next. Thankfully we can still (most of the time) decide where to put a highway off-ramp. However, now that government has grown to control almost all of our daily activities, we are crashing headlong into the problems inherent in allowing legislators, judges, and bureaucrats—today’s kings and queens—to monitor and control so many deeply personal facets of our lives. Any government that holds absolute power—even if many believe this power is being used for the greater good—creates a lot of problems, and this is where the analogy to Tudor England really takes hold.

Four hundred or so years ago perfectly sane English men and women were willing to imprison, torture, and slaughter one another because government held absolute power over an aspect of their lives as fundamental as their form of worship. Not surprisingly, every conflict was fought to the death—or nearly so—because to lose any battle was to lose every bit of freedom to live according one’s values and choose one’s own life path. American government has now amplified this power to control individual human choice to a degree that perhaps even the Tudor royalty would have found objectionable—and we should not be surprised by the results.

Most of us want government to provide basic services that ensure our health and safety, maintain critical infrastructure, and defend our borders—although even these can be subject to intense debate regarding principles and practices. However, when we inject the nearly limitless powers that government can grant itself into every aspect of our personal behavior and interpersonal interactions, we should not be overly surprised at the divisive results.

Just as the Tudor royalty discovered saving souls and creating a heaven on earth backed by the power of the crown turned out to be a fairly unpopular and ugly business, so do our Washington “royalty’s” many decrees that punish attitudes deemed unacceptable to the elite cause political, cultural, and social discord that fragments our nation and stymies even the most reasonable political compromises. Our leadership could take a lesson from Elizabeth I, the last of the great Tudor monarchs. Her true genius, which transformed her broken and divided nation into a world power, was to abandon state-mandated orthodoxy and tolerate a range of inherently conflicting beliefs during her long and successful reign.

The lesson of human history is clear to any who cares to look: Nations typically flourish when they allow their people to believe as they please with only minimal common sense restraints on their behavior. If you want to understand the root cause of our inability to cooperate, you need only look inside the confines of Washington, D.C. for the answer. A great many Americans would be very pleased if those now occupying that dysfunctional zip code would just leave us alone and focus on delivering those basic services they have neglected while busying themselves with telling everyone how they should think and live.

We’re just fine with figuring it all out for ourselves, thank you. In fact, we’ll probably do a much better job at the fraction of the cost—and with a fraction of the anger. We folks in flyover country are a lot smarter and more sensible than the Washington crowd of social engineers and scolds, and we could probably teach the D.C. royalty a lesson or two—if they ever bothered to listen to what the peasants have to say.