A Birthday Wish For America

July 4th historically has provided the exclamation point of the summer.  The corn is knee high, the barbecue grills are ablaze, the day off from work is welcome, the parades are packed with marching bands and shiny fire trucks, the baseball is blessed, the public pools are packed with screeching children, and the evening fireworks are thrilling.  Perhaps no other day of the year is quite the the archetype of what it means to be an American.

However, our national mood seems increasingly sour and suspicious.  A Gallup Poll now finds that a record low percentage of Americans, a pitiful 45% overall (and only 22% of Democrats!), are extremely proudof Americaand only 32% are proud of the American political system.  Thankfully, 70% are still proud to be Americans, although this is in itself a sad when one considers that 30% of Americans obviously cannot bring themselves to express the same sentiment to a pollster.

Although the many personal and political freedoms that allow us to freely speak our minds are the envy of other nations, it is certain that lots Americans are completely fed up with our squabbling politicians acting just like a bunch of squabbling politicians.  The constant adolescent feuding and fighting instead of making an adult effort to find common sense compromises is a boon to cable television shouting matches and the most partisan people posting on social media, but many Americans are sick and tired of one group of hyper-partisan Americans attacking other hyper-partisan Americansand hurting all Americans in the process.  

Criticizing is easy and provides one with a sense of clear moral superiority while doing so; finding solutions that require everyone to get off their high horses, roll up their sleeves, and engage with the messy complexities of life is what we need today.  

This will, on occasion require acknowledging unpleasantand occasionally irreconcilabletruths that are lost when one has the luxury of only dealing in moral absolutes: some illegal immigrants are criminals, late term abortions are repugnant, many young Americans are being raised poorly, our educational systems are crazy expensive and often just plain crazy, and bad personal choices tend to result in lousy life outcomes.  However, it must also be recognized that some illegal immigrants are fleeing certain death, access to first trimester abortion is a necessity, many parents are doing a great job against sometimes impossible odds, education is a core responsibility that must be done responsibly, and even people who make bad choices are sometimes deserving of a second chance.  The middle ground might be uncomfortable because extremists on both sides can easily snipe at you, but this is where the hard work of governingrather than grandstandingactually happens.

The first step in learning how to get along with our fellow Americans is, of course, to focus on disagreeing without being intolerably disagreeable. Any relationship where the least little problem is a ready excuse for spewing outrageous insults and threats is bound to fail.  The manner in which Republicans and Democrats approach matters of public policy should not resemble the two parties in an abusive marriage. Only crazy people stick a fork in your eye if the lasagna is overdone, but this is pretty much the kind of hair-trigger overreaction that we hear twenty times a day from the supposedly responsible elected officials whom we have entrusted with the future of our nation.

Breathtakingly disdainful rhetoric and behavior that from the outset dismisses the idea there are two sides to every story results in playground politics that allow bullies, cowards, and tattletales to dominate the dysfunctional discourse and destroy any hope for a reasonable resolution.  Given the gravity of the problems and questions facing us today, we need to rediscover the charmand purposeof conversation that communicates without wounding.  As much fun as sneer and snark might be fun for some, it forbids any but the most foolhardy or masochistic from participation in public life.

Therefore, my birthday wish for our nation is a simple one that might be damnably hard to achieve: a commitment to civility of language, moderation of thought, and charityof both heart and mind.  To continue as we are todayfists up and minds closedwill only continue the catastrophe of anger and gridlock paralyzingly our nation.

Take a deep breath, America.  Prepare to listen and learn from one another.  Have a beer.  And keep in mind were all in the same boattogether.

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House Of Lies

As odd as the thought might be, our daily lives are built around that which is unreal.  

We voraciously consume movies, television shows, books, magazines, and web-based content that is either entirely fictional or based on a true story, which means they are basically fictional.  The advertising we see and hear is hawking products and services claimingoften with the most specious of evidencethat we can be happier, thinner, more successful, more secure, smarter, sexier, or more popular for a seemingly modest purchase price.  Memoirists routinely shade the truth to present themselves in the best possible light.  Celebrities dazzle us with the assistance of armies of trainers, assistants, accountants, managers, and handlers who help ensure that their lovely lives seem effortless.  Even the supposed realityshows that we obsessively watch are carefully scripted and edited to provide enough faux controversy and fake drama to keep us tuned in for the next episode of someone elses exciting, miserable, or unbelievably screwed up life.

We search for truth where we can, but a great deal of the information made available to us has already been packaged in order to present a version of reality that is most easily sold to a particular target audience.  That which is carefully omitted or selectively presented often conceals a non-preferred truth, which helps with the task of manipulating our emotions, shaping our attitudes, and controlling our actions.

Choose any bit of news or information, and it is easy to see how editorial choices are crafted to elicit the desired response.  On one news feed I read about adult illegal alienscommitting heinous crimes; on another I read about adorable and innocent immigrantchildren hoping for better lives in America.  One moment I read of heroic women asserting sovereignty over their own bodies by choosing to have an abortion; five minutes later I learn of the intense pain a fetus feels as it is sucked from a womans womb. One expertassures us that we can have all of our needs taken care offor freeby taxing the super rich until they squeal; another is equally certain that this is mathematically impossible.  Truthis, as we typically learn as we get older, often dependent on who is doing the tellingand why.  Only the young or the hopelessly daft are foolish enough to abandon the cynicism that allows us to survive the mounds of mendacity (Yes, Im trying to use polite language here) that we now need to stomp through every day of our lives.

Truth is out there, but it can be unpleasant, unpalatable, and unsatisfactory.  Hence, we often choose to believe a version of reality that is less likely to cause us to squirm, or we simply ignore the messiness of the world around us altogether.  One of the reasons that our politics have slid toward the extremeswith political moderates ever more difficult to findis that practicality is predicated on some necessary incredulity.  Continued exposure to those who regularly deal in snake oil and bizarre fantasy tends to hollow out the sensible middle if we fail to leaven our naive faith with some clearheaded common sense.

We sometimes need lies to ease our many human fears, and sadly enough we are now cursed with a crop of political leaders who are happy to win our votes by cooing comforting nonsense.  To tell the truththat we cannot be offered protection from all of the worlds pain, despair, and injusticeis electoral suicide, so we are continually assured that with more laws, regulations, government programs, bureaucrats, mandates, tax increases, safe spaces, security cameras, oversight committees, bans, speech codes, censorship, permits, licenses, web policing, and fees we can eventually be cocooned in bliss.  Are we happy yet?

Those who are now proposing the next step, the use of Artificial Intelligence and computer algorithms to evaluate everyone in order to identify people who might (might!) someday pose a threat to others, are themselves terrifying; these individuals and organizations seem to be suggesting that life in an omnipresent, omniscientbut certainly not infalliblepolice state would be the most wonderful of all possible worlds.  That these ideas are considered credible and within reason seems to indicate that the domestic debate regarding delicate balance between freedom and security could be settled in a manner more Soviet than American.

Politics is, of course, theaterbut it should not be a theater of the absurd.  The lack of reality in so many of our national discussions, encouraged by feckless politicians and cheerleading media and celebrities, has led to policy impasses that forbid compromise due to an utter lack of consideration of costs and consequences by all involved.

The lies each side is able to tell because facts can now be treated as mere annoyances leaves our nation with no path forward, no hope for practicable solutions, and no ability for many to consider viewpoints other than their own.  Therefore, all we have left are the politics of personal destruction, which leads to endless attack and counterattack.  To assert this will lead to anything other than a hell of our own creation is the worst lie of all.

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.

Diversity And Its Discontents

One of the main insights of Sigmund Freud’s classic of modern psychology, Civilization and its Discontents, is that a major tension—and source of dissatisfaction—with our modern world is that the will of the individual must be restricted by communal norms in order to create a harmonious society. Therefore, we are trained from infancy to obey authority, restrain our impulses, and look out for others before we attend to our own needs.

This process, which sounds rather dark and unnatural when described by Freud, sounds suspiciously like the normal development of maturity and empathy as we proceed from child to adult, but we know many have now decided that the key to their personal happiness is to not give a hoot about what others think or need. It could, in fact, be persuasively argued that the signal feature of life in much of the developed world today is that many people have decided that to do and say whatever you want is the key to happiness. Communal norms have likely never been so weak and ineffectual, and many laws are, in fact, now written with the express intent of denying any effort to reassert past controls over behavior or attitudes.

However, communal control is still exercised, although in a distorted and unfortunate manner, through the ruthless and regular public attacks on those whose viewpoints or ideas suggest a distinction between that which is right and that which is wrong. Given our prevailing cultural milieu and desire for absolute individuality, to make a judgement of any kind for any reason is, by definition, to be hateful and intolerant—so you must be punished by the herd.

It, of course, makes perfect sense that increasingly diverse nations would admonish—or actually sanction—those who express disapproval of others. One of the reasons that President Trump grates on the nerves of many is that his persona and pronouncements are a clear and unmistakable repudiation of decades of efforts to promote tolerance—and he is, for many, a gigantic trigger warning with a tan. However, the often cruel cudgel of virtue signaling that flies right behind the imperative to be “tolerant” also has a tendency to cause reasonable conversations to spiral down into accusatory personal attacks that are poisonous to discussion and inquiry. Logic and evidence are no longer necessary in the marketplace of “ideas” in our world today. A clever and nasty put down is now considered all that is necessary to “win” an argument.

A misguided attempt to promote social harmony and cultural understanding by adopting an ever more censorious attitude toward individual disagreements and innocent misunderstandings has resulted in a world where every thoughtcrime is a felony. If someone displays a swastika in their living room and builds their life around quotes from Mein Kampf, it is entirely reasonable to question their actions and motives. However, if someone prefers to marry someone who shares their own religious background or avoids certain ethnic foods because they don’t like the taste, it is wrong to accuse that individual of harboring hateful attitudes before immediately launching into an attack. If we insist on punishing people for their natural diversity of opinions or values, we are creating a world where unending anger is the norm.

It is, of course, preferable that individuals be comfortable with a range of people, experiences, and ideas. However, we cannot condemn others simply because they prefer that which is familiar to that which is not. A great many wonderful Americans are still hanging around with the same friends they have had since elementary school, populating their Spotify with the same songs they have been listening to forever, and craving the same casseroles that Grandma cooks for Thanksgiving each year. To insist that those who revel in routine and regularity are racists is more than a little overboard, but it is not unfair to ask everyone to try their best to be open to new ideas, experiences, and people and resist the urge to automatically reject that—and those—which are unfamiliar.

Education, which until World War II was seen primarily as a mechanism for transmitting core academic skills along with a hefty dollop of cultural norms on the side, has been seen—especially since the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960’s—as the mechanism through which progressive educators could create citizens of the world and promote understanding. I still remember the elaborate presentation on the African nation of Zambia I did for my fifth grade classmates and the day we sampled the “cheeses of the world” in my seventh grade Social Studies classroom. Our multicultural experiences were, of course, greatly limited and designed for a much more innocent and parochial era. Today’s technology has opened up a range of possibilities that were simply unavailable in the slide rule and rotary dial telephone days of my youth, and students can now enjoy a range of culturally immersive experiences that can broaden both their perspectives and understanding.

Consequently, our political, educational, entertainment, and business worlds have never been so welcoming to the full richness of humanity. So why are so many convinced that bigotry of all types still runs rampant in America today—and violent and virulent speech is the necessary cure for those hatreds they see all around?

It could be the case that the unyielding dogma of “tolerance” and the messy reality of diversity might be a more combustible combination than we tend to realize, particularly when the 21st century disease of self-interest and self-absorption—turbocharged by the inherent narcissism of much social media usage—is added to the equation. If one believes that happiness depends upon acting with as little restraint as possible—“Hey, don’t oppress me!”—and we can now instantly lash out to either our circle of friends (or a worldwide audience) when we feel our experiences or opinions are not granted sufficient deference or respect, the end result is going to be a lot of outrage driving yet more outrage in return. If one is determined to create a world that respects diversity, it could be the case that we all must learn to be comfortable with the inevitable outcome: a diverse society that will have to accommodate a diverse—and sometimes judgmental—range of opinions.

Humans have always—and will always—disagree about every aspect of life. We cannot long survive if we insist that ideas that differ from our own must be attacked, suppressed, or outlawed altogether. Were Sigmund Freud alive to update Civilization and its Discontents for the Age of the Internet, I wonder what he would identify as our main source of discontent and where he might see civilization going in the years ahead. Can any civilization long survive if our passions are powered by the most powerful technology ever made available, and we are ready to use that power to defeat the “enemies” so many now seem to see all around them? This is an uncomfortable question for an uncomfortable age, and we are still groping toward personal and communal mechanisms for balancing our desires to express with our urges to attack.

Groupthink Gridlock

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 seemed to many the final triumph of Western liberal thought over a system known for its rigid adherence to doctrines driven by theory, the suppression of dissent, and demands for soul-crushing intellectual conformity by the nation’s elite leaders. A new golden age characterized by freedom of expression, a renewed faith in the value of free and open debate, and decision making based on facts rather than wishful fantasies had triumphed, and all the old divisions would be set aside in favor of a world run by a benevolent and tolerant meritocracy. Go, go Western democracies!

If you had told the celebrants who were gleefully demolishing the Berlin Wall that their futures would be characterized by crippling political polarization, public shaming of dissenters, and academic and political elites that ruthlessly enforced an intellectual orthodoxy that still somehow thrived despite ample evidence of its disastrous failures, they might well have put down their sledgehammers and gone home that day.

The liberal belief in a godlike global state that would be managed to peak efficiency by appointed bureaucrats managed to do little other than engineer a massive transfer of wealth to the super rich while insisting upon a zillion pettifogging regulations for the rest of us that neither protected our futures nor improved our daily lives. Our global elites instead enhanced the power of perhaps the most universally hated group on the planet—lawyers—because their expertise at navigating newly created mountains of arcane and contradictory bureaucratic mandates was now critical to every aspect of our now thoroughly regulated existences.

The steadily rising economic anger of the ruled against their rulers has now led to the election of Donald Trump in America, the revolt against the European Union that has pretty much ended the political career of its greatest champion, Angela Merkel, and the rise of populist leaders most everywhere else who have surfed to power on tsunamis of rage and outright revolt against the deeply dysfunctional status quo. The reaction of the new global elite to this new and unwelcome reality has been both predictable and depressing: Those who don’t appreciate our sage guidance are a bunch of ignorant and misguided bigots who fear what they cannot understand. Therefore, what we need now are new and enhanced powers to monitor and manage this unruly and ungrateful herd.

The self-serving outrage and smug insults of those leaders and their supporters who are angry about the vicissitudes of democracy isn’t likely to win back many of the disaffected. Here in the United States we are regularly treated to apocalyptic gabfests and learned commentary regarding why our governing structures are suddenly too weak to stand up to the scary “white supremacists” who are now diligently engaging in the one action that is characteristic of all budding domestic terrorists: casting a vote in an election. Democracy kind of sucks when those whom you deign to rule tell you to shove off.

However, despite their unwilling efforts to better understand the peculiar motivations of those whose lives revolve around work, faith, and family, the mainstream media and Beltway insiders have mostly fallen back on that old standby strategy familiar to despots the world over when faced with a revolt: We need to reassert our control by crushing dissent. Hence, we hear and read repeated calls to censor the dissemination of opposing viewpoints, incitement of the harassment of those who question the status quo, and the launching of daily ad hominem attacks on the values and morals of those deemed enemies of the statist solutions. Aided and abetted by those in academia equally concerned about the yearnings of many Americans to slip the leash of government-approved behavior and beliefs, we are regularly warned of the hell lying just ahead unless these ideas—and those who hold them—are destroyed and their rights to free speech are suppressed.

The problem is, of course, that neither the globalist or nationalist viewpoint is correct 100% of the time. Just as some matters are best left to individual nations to manage for themselves, so are some problems large and complex enough to warrant a response coordinated by an international body.

A thoughtful explanation followed by a reasonable suggestion is still more than able to sway opinions when the necessity arises, and the 2018 elections should be proof enough that democracy still has sturdy powers of self-correction despite breathless predictions of its imminent demise. However, those who lack faith in the wisdom of the governed are still anxious to hand power to unaccountable authorities who can more easily override the wishes of those who are obviously too stupid to manage their own lives or the planet without leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

New ideas are neither inherently dangerous nor destructive, but the ongoing effort to silence those who want to change the current direction of our nation and world will simply frustrate the legitimate aspirations of many and promote yet more of the theory-driven groupthink that has landed us in the mess we are today. Any refusal to listen is ultimately more harmful than the idea being expressed, and we might find that even those supposedly ignorant and bigoted masses who are not properly credentialed to rule have many ideas worthy of consideration. In the final analysis, those who do the working and the sweating will always understand more than those who devote their cloistered lives to study and judgement—so the voices of the people should be treated with far more respect than they often are today.