Spy Games

It feels a bit like 1950….

Back in those panicky early Cold War days, the biggest show in town was the investigation of Alger Hiss, an American government official accused of being a highly placed spy working on behalf of the Soviet Union.  Over the past several weeks of today’s spy scare, it was revealed that a foreign policy advisor during Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign was placed under government surveillance due to suspicions (as yet unproven) that he was a Russian spy, a Russian woman who is here on a student visa was arrested and charged with being a spy, and a recent magazine article even explored the idea that President Trump himself is an agent of Russia.  All we need to round out the picture is an updated version of the House Un-American Activities Committee, some sweaty new version of Senator Joseph McCarthy at its helm, grilling terrified witnesses and loudly accusing them of espionage and treason.

However, before going any further with this discussion of spies and spying, two salient facts must be acknowledged.

The first is that every nation has spied on every other nation from the dawn of civilization.  It is both prudent and smart to make every effort to peek at the inner machinations and motivations of your neighbors, who might, sad to say, not always have your best interests at heart.  Given the terrifying weaponry washing around the world today, to not spy on other nations in order to divine their decision making would be both foolhardy and irresponsible.

In addition, it is both obvious—and understandable—that American politicians are always accusing their rivals of being un-American.  Wrapping yourself in the flag to win political and—even more importantly—moral advantage is as tried and true a method of winning votes as kissing babies.  Our opposition to Russia after the end of World War II in 1945 (Who now remembers that the Soviet Union was one of our most important allies in the fight against Nazi Germany?) only added a new twist to this old ploy, and Presidents from Truman to Trump have been accused of being Russian dupes by political opponents who saw advantage in making this charge.

I am not certain the ferocity of the attacks are any worse than they used to be.  President Truman was, for example, regularly excoriated by Republicans for having “lost China” to the Communists, and Republican Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater continually barked that President Lyndon Johnson was “soft on Communism” during his own failed campaign for the Oval Office.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the red-baiting disappeared for awhile because the Communists suddenly seemed like they wanted to become compliant capitalists, but the ascendancy of Vladimir Putin, his KGB credentials flying, signaled there were limitations to the goodwill that could be bought via a McDonalds dishing out Big Macs in Moscow

 What makes today’s iteration of the Cold War political attacks so difficult to understand is that it is now the Democrats accusing the Republicans of being blind to the Russian threat.  Even as they are busily embracing “Democratic Socialism”, which sounds like some focus group phrase concocted to make Communism palatable in Cleveland, Democrats are furiously lobbing accusations of treason at President Trump for having the temerity to attempt to de-escalate superpower tensions at the Helsinki summit.  Given that only a few years ago Democratic leaders like Senator Chuck Schumer and former President Clinton were best buddies with Vladimir Putin, the resurrection of this harsh and uncompromising Reagan-era “Evil Empire” rhetoric is apt to give one a bad case of whiplash.  What is not new are the old charges of treasonous intent that are on Page One of the “I’m more of a loyal American than you” handbook for demonizing your political opponents.  

None of this is, of course, connected with any tangible reality.  Many of the actions Donald Trump has taken as President have been the opposite of what any actual Russian agent would have done.  Whether he was pushing through a stupendous increase in U.S. defense spending, sending arms to Ukrainian separatists fighting for their freedom from the Russian Federation, or pushing rules of battlefield engagement in Syria that have already resulted in hundreds of Russian casualties, President Trump has been a much harsher adversary of Russia than his predecessor ever was.  

Indeed, if one flashes back to 2012 and President Obama—who was unaware that the microphone was on—timidly asking Russian President Medvedev to inform Vladimir Putin that he would have more flexibility to deal with difficult issues “after my election”, you have to wonder where all the Democrats and overwrought media were at that time.  Was Barack Obama colluding with Russia to swing the Presidential election in his favor?  Not surprisingly, there was no breathless inquiry regarding this question.

Of course, reality and rage do not have to necessarily coincide—what would be the fun in that?—and painting a hammer and sickle on President Trump’s back is a handy tool for escalating the anger necessary to drive Democratic voter turnout in 2018 and 2020.  Whether voters believe any of this or not is hardly the point.  The accusations that Donald Trump is a Russian spy or agentprovide a uniting issue for fractious Democrats, lend fresh legitimacy to Robert Mueller’s endless investigation, and hopefully distract voter attention from historically low unemployment and a roaring domestic economy.  Whether this will translate to Democratic electoral gains in the midterm elections and beyond is anyone’s guess, but it does not mean that we have heard the end of this discussion—and the many baseless theories it will spawn.

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Divided We Fall

The late United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously observed that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” This perfectly reasonable bit of wisdom seems lost upon our perfectly unreasonable age. Those with opposing beliefs see no event the same, so we are now defined by our disagreements and revel in the different and—as far as we are concerned—superior nature of both our own opinions and the sometimes questionable facts that inform them.

My worry is not only about our degree of political atomization, which is now so abundantly visible that it has almost descended to cliché. I also worry about the regional divides that have been building for many years—and which were starkly revealed on Election Night in 2016. Today’s Democratic coalition is mostly located on the coasts, college towns, and urban areas—elsewhere it is largely a sea of red.

This harsh reality explains a good deal of the unreality of the expert predictions leading up to Donald Trump’s thoroughly unexpected election victory. Pundits always live in big cities filled with like-minded Democrats on the east and west coasts—a scant 4% of voters in Washington, D.C., for example, cast their votes for Trump—so they were stunned down to their socks by the outcome. Call it the revenge of “flyover country” if you will, but the slack-jawed and occasionally tearful shock of the talking heads on network television spoke clearly and loudly on Election Night. We are, unfortunately, two nations living in two entirely separate worlds.

These divisions are exacerbated by media coverage that demonizes and denigrates those who hold opposing opinions. I am rather exhausted from reading articles that entirely skip reasoned analysis and instead focus on how someone has (these are, by the way, just from a quick browse of today’s online articles) “attacked, burned, scorched, destroyed, clapped back at, called out, or fired back at” another human being because they are a “kook, crook, dupe, hater, fascist, criminal, Nazi, fool, or idiot.” No wonder so many people now shudder when they see the front pages. Hurtful and harmful invective is now so thoroughly woven into our daily conversations that it is remarkable when we encounter grace and consideration, which is as about as sad an observation about the state of our nation as I can possibly imagine.

Inflammatory headlines and copy, sad to say, attract viewers and readers, so there is a built-in economic incentive that benefits media that are routinely rude, insulting, and unfair. In addition, the political interests of the most extreme are well-served by dehumanizing their opponents in order to attract equally outraged donors and followers. The unfortunate synergy that consequently arises between hungry media and angry partisans reinforces the worst in each, and those who adopt more moderate positions can expect to be ruthlessly and endlessly attacked by those at both fringes of the political spectrum—which serves only to squeeze the moderation right out of them.

My concerns have been increased by hearing accounts of people ditching social media because they simply cannot stand the levels of venom and vindictiveness that so many routinely display in their posts. The net result is to leave the dialogue to those who have the least interest in actual dialogue. What we see today is that famous couplet from William Butler Yeats poem, The Second Coming, in real life: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

We are lost if thoughtful and fair-minded Americans, who are those most likely to forge and support the consensus solutions our nation needs to survive, retreat from our public forums. The grim solitary comfort to be found in growling at our glowing televisions pales in comparison to taking part in a national conversation that involves listening intently, speaking respectfully, and caring intensely. As much as we may sometimes be discouraged by the wild anger of others, we cannot allow ourselves to be driven to the political sidelines by those who care for little beside the sound of their own brittle voices. A chorus is most robust when everyone sings their parts together, and we should not be afraid to raise our own voices to create America’s song.

For those who frown upon such foolishness, please forgive my little flight of poetry. It is an outcome of my fears regarding the foreboding path ahead if we do not—I hope—find it within ourselves to remember that we are all Americans.

Secrets and Lies

The recent arrest of a former Senate Intelligence Committee staff member—a veteran of almost 30 years in government service—on charges of lying to FBI agents investigating leaks of classified information surprised some.  However, what really churned the waters was the concurrent seizure of the phone and email records of The New York Times reporter to whom he had been allegedly leaking—but with whom he was most definitely having sex.  They don’t call Washington “The Swamp” for nothing.

This incident and so many like it speak to the inherent tension between government secrecy and a free press in a democracy.  That which government would prefer remains hidden has always been catnip for reporters, but it appears more and more the case that a symbiotic and worrisome relationship has developed between those in government and those working in the press—each seemingly tethered to fewer and fewer institutional norms or traditions.  Given that government cannot operate effectively in a glass house, both the leakers and those reporters who are anxious to disseminate secrets are playing a dangerous game that could have catastrophic consequences.

We generally find government information falls into three broad categories.  

First, we have information that can and should be made readily available to all: the cost of contracts, specific legislative and regulatory actions, court rulings, or initiatives of the Executive branch are obvious examples of information that is critical to the smooth functioning of democratic processes.  There are also categories of information that need to be carefully evaluated before they are made public; troop movements in wartime and active criminal investigations are obvious examples.  We don’t want to either compromise military operations and put lives at risk or allow crooks to escape before they can be apprehended and put on trial.

There remains, however, a third category of information that causes the most practical and ideological problems in an open and democratic society: that which cannot be revealed under any circumstances without causing perhaps irreversible harm to our nation and its people.  

The very existence of this final category of information is offensive to those who believe in absolute government transparency and deeply distrust the idea of government secrecy.  It must be acknowledged that the United States government—like every government in history—has sometimes tried to drop a veil of secrecy over information that would reveal neglect, malfeasance, or plain stupidity.  The question then arises whether revealing this information serves any public good or just causes further damage by either unnecessarily eroding public trust or politicizing what are, in the final analysis, nothing more than instances of human weakness or misjudgment.

Likely the two most famous examples of closely-held secrets revealed during the course of my own lifetime are the publication of the so-called “Pentagon Papers”, which allowed the general public to read the unvarnished political and military deliberations concerning the conduct of the Vietnam War, and the revelations surrounding President Nixon’s role in encouraging spying upon—and sabotage of—his political opponents, which led to his impeachment and resignation.  

In both of these cases the news media decided that our country and our citizens were best served by revealing the secrets and lies of our government officials.  We saw a long-term drop in our faith in government as a result—which is either healthy or harmful, depending on your point of view—but the issues at hand were clearly pertinent to both public policy and the operations of democratic government, so we needed to know the truth.  However, the facts associated with each case had far-reaching and long-term consequences for our country, so the editorial decisions to publicize this information were made only after long and careful internal deliberations concerning the complex balance between press freedom and our national interests.

That was then—and this is now.

Over the past 30-40 years journalistic standards have joined floppy disks on the scrap heap of history.  Our internet-driven 24/7 news cycle has produced a crazed bazaar of half-truths and one-sided opinions presented as facts.  As articles regarding personalities and perceptions—and snarky reactions to both—have continued to crowd out simple reporting in the quest for clickbait, any sense of proportion and decency has more and more been discarded.  Hence, “news” has devolved into just one more facet of our wacky entertainment culture rather than an enterprise where careful fact-checking and an unbiased presentation—combined with a deeply entrenched sense of reportorial responsibility—are considered normal and laudable.

Imagine, for example, if our current journalistic practices had been in place in the past.  Would the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bombs during World War II, have stayed off the front pages of The Washington Post for long?  Would news websites be breathlessly reporting every twist and turn of the Cuban Missile Crisis based on leaks and the wildest unsubstantiated speculation—thereby driving our world even closer to the brink of nuclear war?  On a less elevated level, would some mistress of President Kennedy be providing a slurp by slurp account of their liaisons to 60 Minutes or The Tonight Show—perhaps while simultaneously hawking her new web store with its own line of “Presidential” lingerie for sale?

We need a responsible and inquiring press in a democracy—and many news outlets are still doing important investigative reporting that provides necessary accountability for government and government officials.  However, the disdain much of the American public feels toward journalism and journalists—which President Trump channels and amplifies for his own political purposes—is a direct outcome of the damage done by reporters who have turned themselves into partisans and provocateurs in order to advance their own careers.

There is an old saying in Washington: “Those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know.”  We can add a codicil to this saying that is both a reflection of today’s reality and a warning: “and the public doesn’t know why so much talk leaves them knowing nothing at all….”

Are We On The Cusp Of A Revival In Christian Faith?

A few months ago I re-watched several Star Wars and Harry Potter movies, and they set me to thinking about our never ending efforts to redesign religious faith for our secular age.

That the Star Wars and Harry Potter sagas are actually parables of Christianity—without the religion being too overly apparent—has been noted by many. Each chronicles a confrontation between forces representing good and evil, each has their own priesthood and prophets offering moral instruction, each has a “fallen angel” of sorts that must be battled, each set of protagonists draws strength from powers beyond our understanding (either “The Force” or old school magic), and each offers a climactic battle where good ultimately triumphs over evil. You could readily substitute a crucifix for a light saber or wooden wand and not lose much in the translation.

One could have a spirited debate regarding whether stories of this sort satisfy some human yearning baked into our DNA or our enthusiastic responses to the adventures of Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter are simply the Pavlovian result of a couple of thousand years of Christian thought and practice, but the outcome is still the same. We exult in their quests and are validated by their triumphs. Toss in some modern marketing expertise and computer-generated special effects, and you have today’s version of “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.

There is no doubt that we crave order and expect justice—whether in this life or the next. Few are comfortable with a world that seems beyond our control. Although we like to believe we are far more advanced than our tribal ancestors, we still typically trust our fates to wise elders—except now they rattle jargon-filled analyses instead of bean-filled gourds to impress us. We also crave and admire strong leaders. How else to explain why so much of our popular entertainment focuses on royalty, barbarians, criminals, warriors, and dictators?

However, our attraction to brute force and apparent fascination with violence is not necessarily a sign of atavism. It seems to me to instead be a clear sign that we have lost the spiritual counterbalance necessary in our lives; as a result, the darkness within our souls tends to run unchecked and causes us to be attracted to cruelty instead of condemning it.

Across the broad scope of Western civilization, Christianity—with the Ten Commandments as its foundation—has guided humanity to connect with a purpose for living that extends beyond the mere satisfaction of our physical needs. Although there can be no doubt that great wrongs have been committed in the name of religion, the historical ledger balance is still far on the side of Christianity encouraging compassion, justice, hope, and self-sacrifice.

There is, however, little doubt that we have spent a good deal of the 20th and early 21st centuries elevating hatred, venality and egocentrism to an art form, which has damaged both our culture and personal lives. If you look at our society today, it is hard to miss the human wreckage associated with the impoverishment of our spiritual existences.

There is a hole at the center of many people that cannot be filled with video games, hook ups, and opioids—and efforts to find workable alternatives to Christian theology have nibbled at the edges of our public and private discourses for many years. No one has, however, yet provided a satisfactory alternative moral framework for our modern world, one where faith is increasingly suspect or openly derided. If you believe in nothing beyond the physical fact of your existence and your own needs, how is it possible to create community or encourage rectitude using any appeal that does not boil down—after the soaring rhetoric is dissected—to simple selfishness and naked self-interest? This is a question we have not adequately answered, and we are now paying the price for our failure.

I do not know if we have yet reached an inflection point, but I more and more wonder whether Christianity is poised for a comeback across many regions of the world. Modern secular life, which often relies on mass consumption and mass entertainment to create a sense of belonging—while, oddly enough, simultaneously denigrating any notion of national identity—may be reaching its expiration date.

Whether Christianity’s revival would find itself in open warfare with current societal norms that equate moral judgement with hatred or reach a rapprochement with the world as it exists today is one that no one can answer. However, I believe there is a spiritual hunger in America today that begs to be satisfied, and our media and cultural mavens in New York and Los Angeles—preoccupied as always with the latest entertainment and fashion buzz—are perhaps blind to a stark change that could soon be coming. The Bible might, to the surprise of many, turn out to be the next “big thing”—which could be a help to a great many individuals and our nation as a whole.

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.