Our Intolerantly Tolerant Nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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We Need To Remember We Are All Americans

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Few Words About Events In Charlottesville

Given the superheated national dialogue regarding the conflict, violence, injuries, and deaths surrounding the “Unite The Right” rally that turned a lovely college town in Virginia into a battleground, I approach this topic with some trepidation. I worry that offering my thoughts will turn me into a target for trolls. I am frustrated that being a white male turns my opinions on many topics into an opportunity for someone to chastise me for my white privilege—which is a fairly annoying way to tell me that my viewpoints are not worth considering. I am concerned that somebody whom I have never met and who knows nothing about my life, my experiences, or my values will “dox” me, enable harassment at my home and workplace, and brand me as a bigot and hater around the world thanks to the global reach of social media—leaving me with absolutely no hope of redeeming myself through reasoned discussion.

Deep breath….

  1. The white supremacists marching and shouting in Charlottesville—all 500 of them, according the Associated Press—need to engage in some serious soul-searching. If these kinds of twisted and hateful thoughts are your life’s preoccupation, you’ve got some major personal issues to resolve.
  2. The bonehead who drove his car into a crowd deserves nothing but our contempt.
  3. The young woman who was killed is a tragic victim. My condolences go out to her family and friends.
  4. The deaths of two police officers in a helicopter crash is a senseless, unnecessary accident that diminishes us all.
  5. Any attempt to use these terrible events for political advantage should be resisted. This will do absolutely nothing but harden hearts and close minds.
  6. As impossible as it may be for some to believe, the vast majority of Americans are reasonable, caring, and respectful people who find it immensely frustrating that the idiotic actions of the very few are consuming the attention of the many. It is also worth asking whether the intense interest of the mass media in this kind of moronic behavior further encourages and legitimizes it.
  7. Larger lessons about the attitudes of our nation cannot be gleaned from the actions of a tiny group of losers. Just as I derived no useful understanding about America or Americans from the sniper murders of five Dallas police officers last year, I see the confrontation in Charlottesville as nothing more than an example of the sad power of crazy, stupid, and angry people to hurt the innocent.
  8. I agree with a quote widely attributed to M.K. Gandhi: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” As tempting—and perhaps personally satisfying—as it might be for the “Antifa” (Anti-Fascist) counter-demonstrators to punch, kick, and shove those espousing hatred, it is an urge that must be resisted. Of course, those lining up to fight back against idiocy might find this terribly unfair, but if you want to occupy the moral high ground, you have to demonstrate more restraint and maturity than the average six year old child.

The big picture moral of the story here seems straightforward enough. We need to keep in mind that those who are lost, angry, and embittered can cause great harm to others. Community mental health services might help some get their lives back on track, but most cuckoos are destined to remain cuckoos no matter what we may try to do to help them. Sad to say, therapy and medication have limited power to change hearts and minds warped by hatred.

In the final analysis we best serve ourselves and the interests of our nation by being alert to problems, open to thoughtful discussion, and firm in our resolve to never let fringe groups dominate our public spaces or private thoughts. Giving too much attention and credence to the rantings of extremists of any sort gives them much more power over our lives than they deserve. We should obviously not ignore virulent racists for the simple reason that we should never ignore any problem in our communities, but we need to avoid generalizing the bizarre and hurtful behavior of a few individuals to our entire country and its people because by so doing we only create problems where they might not exist, turning all interactions into ones fraught with suspicion or fear—and that would be a victory for those whose lives are consumed by hatred.

 

 

Doom and Gloom For The Democrats

Over the span of human history individuals and groups have found it advantageous to predict disaster. A sense of impending catastrophe motivates your followers, creates some temporary group cohesion, and calls into question the intelligence and motivations of those who are against you. If you can convince others that the world as we know it is about to end, the resulting crisis atmosphere also bestows enormous power to both manipulate and intimidate your opponents to reach your desired ends.

There are, however, two problems inherent in this approach. If the world doesn’t end in a reasonably short time, those who were willing to temporarily line up behind you are apt to quickly lose all faith because they think you a fool. Worse yet, if the disaster you predicted is not averted, those who put their trust in your skills and judgment will banish you from the tribe.

Now that we are finishing the seventh month of the Trump presidency, I believe we are seeing this dynamic play out—in a big way.

Watching the continuing vilification of Hillary Clinton since last November has been as transfixing as a train wreck. Her transformation from putative President-Elect to pariah has been both quick and merciless. Those who once touted her competence and celebrated her nomination are now often openly contemptuous of both her record and campaign. As comforting as the fervent belief in Russian chicanery is for many Democrats who are still shell-shocked by the election results and pining away for impeachment, the legacy of Hillary Clinton will always be that she somehow lost the election to a man who was widely considered unelectable—and embodies the repudiation of their party’s core beliefs. A fall from grace so swift and precipitous is almost without precedent in American politics.

In addition, President Trump’s dogged pursuit of his agendas on trade, immigration, healthcare, regulation, and the environment in the face of nearly universal opposition from the entrenched government bureaucracy and mainstream media has provided an instructive lesson regarding the limitations of crisis creation. Although this early phase of Trump’s administration has been an incredible uphill slog with a mix of both victories and defeats, the self-regarding Washington bubble is rapidly deflating. After all the supremely confident pre-election assurances that the changes Trump advocated would lead to instant and total catastrophe, the Democratic Party doomsayers seem stupefied. The facts that the sun still rises, jobs are being both created and reclaimed, and the lives of those outside of Washington-area zip codes are, by and large, either unaffected or improved since the Inauguration continues to erode their tattered credibility—and leaves them scrambling for a new message.

Consequently, Democrats face an existential question: If your leader has failed you and the predicted disaster has not occurred and validated your predictions, where do you go from here? This is clearly the problem that is roiling the Democratic Party at the moment—and causing a lot of doom and gloom among the Party’s faithful. Even worse, Bernie Sanders’ true believers and the stubborn remnants of the business-friendly Clinton wing are engaged in a self-destructive battle that does little to advance a coherent and compelling message—which is why no one seems to be able to understand where the Democratic Party now stands. Wistful efforts to anoint blank slate candidates such as Senator Kamala Harris are only further evidence of the ideological confusion that must be somehow crafted into a winning platform for 2018 and beyond. Winning Democratic leadership must come from the trenches—not a high-priced fundraiser in the Hamptons.

Waiting for a miracle—a pile of Russian gold in Donald Trump’s garage or a birth certificate proving that he was born in Moscow (wouldn’t that be ironic?)—is not going to save the Democratic Party. Nor is it a good idea for leadership to continually denounce all the remaining Democratic apostates who are still pro-choice, work somewhere other than a tech company, government agency, or non-profit organization, and (gasp!) sometimes meekly suggest that personal responsibility is more helpful than government handouts.

To fashion a winning coalition the Democratic Party needs new leaders who will rebuild trust that transcends party lines, offer solutions that are affordable, empower individuals rather than government or interest groups, and include rather than divide. Whether this is possible in the short term is questionable given the internecine divisions that now exist within the Party, but one can only hope that it will somehow be possible—someday soon.

Perhaps Our Compassion Needs A Little Push

Some news stories entertain us. Some arouse our curiosity. Yet others raise concerns.

However, on occasion we encounter a story that makes the hair on the back of our necks stand up and leads us to wonder just what in the heck is happening to our world—and just such a one recently tumbled out of the great state of Florida.

For those of you who may not have heard of this particular—and disturbing—event, please allow me to summarize:

On July 9th a man named Jamel Dunn drowned in a pond, and his body was later found. Local police were alerted to a cell phone video that documented Mr. Dunn’s drowning—and the five teens present can be heard taunting and mocking him from the shore as he struggled. None offered assistance, and no one thought it was necessary to use that cell phone to call 911. Their apparent glee as Mr. Dunn finally slipped beneath the surface of the water is both chilling and appalling. As there is no law on the books that affirms a responsibility to offer assistance or summon it, it seems the charges that can be levied against these uncaring young people begin and end at the level of a misdemeanor, which is a shock in itself.

One can hardly summon the words to describe just how horrifying all of this is.

Of course, the next—and entirely natural response—is to complain about the desensitizing effects of violent media and video games, the decline in our personal morality, our loss of a sense of shared community and responsibility, or the effects of neglectful (or absent) parenting on the youth of our nation. Although all of these factors may have played some part in the response—or lack of one—to Mr. Dunn’s struggles and demise, I wonder whether we are seizing on facile excuses that avoid the core of the issue before us.

We are, sad to say, not a naturally compassionate or gentle species, and the history of humanity is knee deep in the blood of others. Although we like to believe that we have outgrown our ancestral aggressions and evolved into a higher form than our forebears, the worldwide conflicts of the 20th century and many regional slaughters that continue around the globe to this very day seem to contradict the notion that we have entered an enlightened era of reasoned debate and spiritual awakening. Brute force—or at least the threat of it—still typically wins over uplifting rhetoric. One need only to remember Joseph Stalin’s blunt dismissal of the power of the Pontiff—“The Pope? How many divisions has he got?”—to properly understand the harsh limitations of moral suasion.

However, with all this said and true, there seem to be problems more worrisome affecting many of our young people today—and it is difficult to discern what they might be. When one adds up the broken—and breaking—homes where so many young people are raised today, an ever more coarse society, rampant drug use and abuse, and the economic stresses affecting so many households, one might find some reasons for what ails today’s youth, but I find these explanations to be unpersuasive on the whole. There seems to be more to consider.

First off, we need to ask whether our youth are actually more violent and troubled, or we simply perceive this to be the case. Although it is fashionable—and sadly acceptable—to roundly criticize the behavior and demeanor of young people today, I wonder whether the mass media finds the misdeeds of the dysfunctional few generates more viewers and readers than the plain fact that most teenagers are trying to do the best that they can in a bewildering and difficult world. Some follow the unhappy path of these Florida teens toward nihilism and numbness—and the pity we feel for Mr. Dunn for having crossed their paths might extend to these young people as well. All are, in their own ways, victims.

Still, the cell phone video and the comments captured on it are disturbing, and they speak to another unique problem facing young people today, the ready opportunity to document their mistakes on their cell phones right along with all the adults in this world who wish they had never sent that sexy text message, posted a drunk selfie, or engaged in a video chat with someone intent on embarrassing them. What has marked our world since the start of the 20th century—and has accelerated with lightning speed in only the last decade or so—is our ability to document man’s inhumanity to man or our own foolishness. Are we more shocked by hatred, violence, and indifference to the suffering of others simply because we can now so easily and thoroughly document and share it?

So are young people today more cruel or uncaring than previous generations? Stories that defend this idea are great click bait and may touch upon some uncomfortable truths about the most troubled of today’s youth, but to make such an assertion demonstrates what an insular and comfortable bubble so many of today’s commentators inhabit.

Just as we in the developed West are insulated from the horrors of war by our reliance on smart weapons and drone warfare, so have incredible changes in neighborhood policing helped to buffer many of us from the end results of daily human conflict. As much as some might decry this reality, infinitely more aggressive and sophisticated police techniques have successfully turned the tide of crime and violence in many corners of our society thanks to vast technologically-driven improvements in surveillance and detection. Those who complain incessantly about our terrifying young fail to realize that we now live in the safest society in the history of the civilized world—although some urban neighborhoods still suffer from elevated crime rates due to gang activity or localized issues The brutal behavior of some young people against this relatively placid background seems to scream out by comparison.

And what does all this mean in regard to those idiotic Florida teenagers who filmed a man drowning—and were later pleased and proud to share the video record of their cruelty with others?

On the continuum of human behavior, both their actions and inaction brand them as bullies and braggarts with no regard for others. Their obliviousness to human suffering and lack of concern with personal consequences certainly flag them for mental health evaluation, and some court-ordered supervision and treatment could provide some benefit, but I am eternally dubious about the practicable outcomes possible through modern psychology. Whether any of these youngsters will have further dealings with the legal system—their utter heartlessness could mark them as either future attorneys or defendants—will be for another day to tell.

However, the inability of law enforcement to hold them responsible for their actions speaks to grievous flaws in our laws—and only further sharpens our revulsion regarding their behavior. Perhaps something good can come from this horrible, terrible circumstance—although I am certain this is cold comfort for Mr. Dunn’s family and friends.

Given that human behavior often changes for the better only when a penalty is involved, perhaps we need to change our local, state, and federal laws in order to enact felony penalties for failing to report harm or potential harm to others. If we can require that educators be “mandated reporters” in cases of suspected abuse or neglect, we can certainly ask everyone to affirmatively act as his brother’s—or sister’s—keeper in order to save and protect lives. It seems nonsensical that any of us should be legally allowed to turn away from another in distress, and this strikes me as a change in the law that is long overdue.

We, of course, expect that everyone will watch out for everyone else without prodding or threat, but the case of these Florida teens is unique only because of the careful self-recording of their unconscionable conduct—people often fail to do what is right without anyone ever noticing it. I realize that civil libertarians are going to complain about the potential for new and improved laws to turn us all into “spies and snitches”, but I suspect that the benefits far outweigh any potential drawbacks. I am certain that I am not the only one who would rather everyone in the vicinity be legally compelled to pull out their phones and call the police if an old lady is being bludgeoned by a group of thugs. They need not jump into the fray themselves, but bystanders should be held criminally accountable if they do not phone for assistance.

Perhaps this is just weary life experience talking, but I no longer presume others will inevitably do what is right when asked to speak up to protect a stranger—or even a close family member. Therefore, it could be to our benefit to recognize this human shortcoming and move to remedy it. We might hate the fact that pushing people to do what is right is necessary, but it seems by far the wisest course of action.

We can, of course, still do what we can to reduce the violence in movies, television, and video games so they do not harm our children. In addition, focusing on improving our morals, building our communities, enhancing our personal connections to one another, and increasing our quality time with our families would be all for the good. However, a recognition of our flaws and limitations as human beings is also necessary so that we make changes to our laws that will compel us to help one another—just in case such actions do not come naturally.