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.

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Sex and The Not-So-Single President

Another in a long line of Presidential sex scandals is upon us. The unsurprising news that many women are willing to sleep with rich and powerful men—and rich and powerful men are willing to let them do so even if one or both parties are married—still somehow manages to shock journalists, who apparently are all themselves paragons of rectitude. Of course, what truly turbocharges today’s Trump scandals is that they both provide a cudgel for the mass media outlets that loathe him and crash headlong into a moment in our cultural history when issues of sexual consent are paramount in the minds of many. The distance from Harvey Weinstein masturbating into a potted plant in front of an actress to President Kennedy giving the actress Angie Dickinson what she later described as “the best 20 seconds of my life” is perhaps not so vast as we would like to believe.

There are two facets to the accusations of impropriety now swirling around President Trump. The first is that he seems to have broken his marriage vows—more than once. The second is that he had his lovers sign non-disclosure agreements in exchange for large cash payments that were arranged through third parties, which sets all sorts of alarm bells ringing when the #MeToo movement is now highlighting the many women who have been compelled to remain silent in the past about sexual abuse and assault.

All of this, of course, is taking place against a background of President Trump’s documented boorishness regarding women. The infamous “grab them by the pussy” comments on the Access Hollywood recording and accusations of unwelcome advances elsewhere have been widely reported, but it seems all the extramarital sexual encounters that have so far come to light are entirely consensual.

We do not know—nor do I believe it is our business to know—the details of Donald and Melania Trump’s marriage. Whether they have a private understanding that permits liaisons outside of their marriage or Mr. Trump is simply making the same mistake that so many men make—believing that marriage and dating are entirely compatible—I do not know. Although I understand it is all but impossible for public figures to keep any aspect of their lives private in our tell-all and scandal-driven media landscape, I am old-fashioned enough to believe that the privacy of married life should be respected.

However, now that the much-hyped expectations for actual evidence of Russian collusion during the 2016 election seem increasingly elusive, we can expect that President Trump’s personal and political enemies will be wielding women who claim to have slept with him like an enchanted sword they hope to use to slay the Donald Dragon. Adultery is not an impeachable offense, but it is embarrassing and uncomfortable. Democrats obviously hope keeping it continually and loudly in the news will erode the support that put Mr. Trump into the White House and further stoke the hatreds of his detractors—thus driving them to the ballot box come November. Reality will, of course, take a backseat to hyperbolic and salacious speculation from those with an axe to grind, and the media will be only too glad to spread the seediest and silliest theories far and wide with terrier-like tenacity and great glee.

How much of a teachable moment this will turn out to be remains to be seen. Unlike Thomas Jefferson having sex with a slave whom he owned or Bill Clinton using his charisma and power to hit on a baby-faced intern, President Trump seems to have confined his pre-Presidential affections to adult women who were experienced enough to know just what to expect from a philandering billionaire in search of some recreational nookie. As much as the media would like to paint these women as fair flowers defiled by a cad, porn stars and Playboy Bunnies seem the least likely of candidates for the fainting couch if approached by a man with lust in his heart.

None of this, sadly, is of any consequence to those political opponents who want to drive a duly-elected President from office because he is intent on shrinking the role of government, deporting illegal immigrants, reducing regulations, and cutting taxes—all of which are existential threats to their own policy ambitions. One should never shun a debate concerning the merits and cost-effectiveness of differing approaches to our nation’s problems, but the relentless spew of raw anger flung at those who want to change the direction of our country is unseemly and unhelpful. Government by insult, for which President Trump is equally guilty, makes it extraordinarily difficult to create the coalitions necessary to govern effectively, and relying on partisan judges and lawyers rather than elected legislators to form and implement policies will quickly erode the legitimacy of government as a whole.

If the end game here is to run the same playbook used to disable the Clinton presidency, endless innuendo capped by an obstruction of justice charge born of an understandable presidential reluctance to be forthcoming about every nasty detail of an extramarital affair, the true intent of Special Counsel Mueller and his supporters will be blindingly obvious. If this does turn out to be the case, we can expect our already insane partisan divisions to glow white hot, and Washington and the mass media that counts upon it for sustenance will spend many months (or perhaps years) screeching like monkeys and ignoring the needs of everyone outside of the Beltway Bubble while they jockey for political advantage—and the money sure to follow.

There is so much that we need to do and so many conversations we need to have. It makes no sense at all to waste our energies on this, but I have a sick, sinking feeling that improving our nation will take a backseat to breathless gossip for quite some time to come. It’s really too bad.

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.

Me Hate You

Another day, another mass shooting. Another day, another sexual abuse scandal. Another day, another corruption scandal. Another day, another random outrage.

As much as we try to avert our eyes and focus on feel-good stories and videos of adorably cavorting puppies, it is sometimes difficult to avoid the frightening suspicion that a great many facets of our society are breaking down and raining catastrophe upon our heads. As we grope for answers to our problems, the cacophony of competing solutions is enough to make one’s head spin, and most boil down to either exponentially expanding our personal freedoms or rashly restricting them. Therefore, during any given week we will be excoriated for being either intolerant or too tolerant—and those who hold contrary views will present their disagreements in the most derisive and wounding terms possible.

Just this past week we were treated to multiple loud fights. A morning television host compared the religious beliefs of Vice President Pence to a mental illness. Another school mass shooting—this time in Florida—prompted some to liken gun control opponents to child murderers. We were asked to simultaneously celebrate the athletic achievements an Olympic athlete and condemn him for a documented instance of sexual harassment. These and so many other angry and injurious debates are the non-stop, jack-hammering background noise of our daily lives.

The frothing rage generated by President Trump’s proposal to reform the federal food assistance program, still generally referred to by many as “food stamps”, is a useful example of all that ails us today. The program is currently rife with bureaucratic red tape, exceedingly expensive to operate, and does not even meet the basic requirement of ensuring that those who need assistance are receiving the help that they actually need. Today the single largest category of “food” purchased with food stamps is soft drinks. Racing right behind are candies, cookies, chips, and other junk food.

It seems, therefore, completely reasonable to propose providing boxes of nutritious, domestically grown, shelf stable food—real food—to those who cannot provide for themselves or their families. After all, no one is going to be able to live a healthful and happy life on a diet of Pepsi and Doritos, which are food purchase choices supported by the current program. Although some would argue that the poor should have the same opportunity to cram their faces full of empty calories as do the affluent, this seems a perverse twisting of our idea of freedom in order to put hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of grocers and junk food manufacturers that are profiting from a system that actually causes great physical harm to those whom it was meant to help.

However, those who believe that the current program is too tolerant—providing the minimum nutrition at the maximum cost—find themselves hotly criticized by those who feel that insisting food assistance provide actual food is an intolerant restriction of a seemingly fundamental American freedom, the right to eat junk food. That we even find ourselves at loggerheads over common sense reforms meant to both reduce costs and improve nutritional outcomes is a sign of just how destructively—some might say self-destructively—partisan and toxic our political processes have become.

To provide high quality food to the needy seems a no-brainer, but it apparently is not. When reality itself is captive to one political or moral viewpoint or another, there seems little hope for solving many more pressing problems. Moreover, the inevitable result of spinning every bit of information to suit one agenda or another is the echo chamber of insults that we now occupy. It seems there are no longer two legitimate sides to any issue. Today it is that I’m 100% correct and you’re an idiot—who is ugly as well.

These corrosive—and fundamentally intolerant—interactions between those who hold differing views should be a red flag that we are careening toward a final breakdown of our democratic processes. If the word most commonly associated with government over a long period of time by the vast majority of Americans is “failure”, which poll after poll shows to be the case, that is a clear sign that our faith in the system has dissipated to a point that goes beyond worry—panic might be a more apt descriptor.

The collapse of our political and social discourse is not a “canary in a coal mine”. That canary fell of its perch quite a number of years ago and is stiff and cold on the ground. We are no longer disagreeing; everyone is in full attack mode 24/7 and prepared to do whatever is necessary to destroy those with the temerity to hold fast to values or ideas that differ from their own.

The core questions are really no longer ones regarding tolerance or intolerance for others or their ideas. Many of us simply need to look in the mirror and ask what is wrong with ourselves. Why are we so comfortable with denigrating those whose values, experiences, and judgments are different from our own? This is a question that each of us must answer for ourselves if we are guilty of attacking when we might be more helpful by listening.

This problem has been growing worse for decades, and there is plenty of blame to spread around across the political spectrum. Those who are old enough to remember the Clinton presidency might recall the suicide of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster in 1993, a man who was widely considered an honest and decent person—perhaps too honest and decent for Washington. A line from his torn-up suicide note perhaps provided a terribly accurately foreshadowing of where we are today: “Here ruining people is considered sport.”

When we reach this point personally and politically, there is no place to go but further down into the muck and slime of personal attacks and sleazy innuendos masquerading as policy debates. We have many huge, difficult, and complex challenges ahead of us as a nation—none of which will be solved by continuing to throw mud balls at one another.

I am not optimistic, but I try my best to remain so. Perhaps our very human tendency to seek hope where there seems none will be what finally saves us from ourselves. Maybe.

In the meantime, enjoy your Pepsi and Doritos . . .

Partisan Politics By The Numbers

One of the pleasures of being a sports fan has always been the statistics that seem to explain what is happening on the field—and what is likely to happen next. Therefore, we are bombarded with batting averages, free throw percentages, and yards per run—along with a host of ever more arcane permutations of athletic performance—that confer the illusion that we understand the action. Perhaps our illusion of actual knowledge is the reason we are so stunned by the ground ball skipping through Bill Buckner’s legs or, to use a more recent example, the “Minnesota Miracle” last second pass that sent the Vikings on to the NFC Championship game. No matter how hard you squint at the statistics, there is simply no way to predict a bolt of lightning.

However, at least the statistics in sports bear some passing relation to a clear and readily understandable reality. One of the most salient attributes of the numbers endlessly disgorged by both public and private entities to explain our world is that they routinely obfuscate rather than illuminate. Based on some quirky tick upwards or downwards of measurements that have been cooked up via methods few truly comprehend, we are expected to make informed judgements regarding the present or draw reasoned conclusions about what is likely to happen in the future. We presume understandings about the job market, housing, the overall economy, healthcare, the environment, education, politics, public opinion, and many other matters too innumerable to count. And we sail confidently ahead—often right off a cliff.

Perhaps this is why it is amazing that numbers that are both obvious and concerning engender so little interest—or are waved away as somehow not worthy of our interest. The federal deficit. The shrinking number of active workers supporting an exploding number of retirees. The number of people living in our nation who lack legal status to be here. The reading, writing, and math skills (or lack thereof) of American children and adolescents compared to students from other nations. The size and costs of our prison population. The number of American soldiers, sailors, pilots, and marines killed and wounded defending our nation in an increasingly dangerous world. All these statistics and many others are typically totaled up at the bottom of a long yet completely understandable column, which makes them less able to be skewed or distorted by ideological biases—and therefore far less interesting to partisans on either side of any issue.

I’ve been mulling over numbers as I consider President Trump’s proposal for a massive military parade in Washington later this year, which will probably be timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. The number of rants and raves this idea has already produced is remarkable, and the liberal/conservative divergence of opinion is fairly apparent.

Some who are opposed argue a military parade smacks of the kind of grandstanding typical of tin-pot dictatorships and does not befit a great democracy. Some are outraged by the transportation and personnel costs inherent in such an endeavor. Some are even worried that all that heavy, armored equipment is going to tear up the roads in Washington—oh, pity the poor pavement!

I am going to vote for the idea, and my support is based on the numbers for just a few of our more notable wars throughout history, which I present in round figures after looking over several public and private databases.

American Deaths:
Revolutionary War:       25,000
World War I:                 116,500
World War II:                405,400
Korean War:                    54,200
Vietnam War:                 58,200
War on Terror:                  6,900

These numbers do not account for those wounded in ways both visible and invisible. These totals cannot capture the cumulative loss and despair of so many families and friends left behind. We have no way to measure the cost in sheer human potential caused by each of these deaths.

There will, of course, be those who might belittle these sacrifices. Perhaps they will point out that far more Americans have died from cancer, car accidents, and a basic lack of sanitation over the course of our nation’s history. Churlish commentators are welcome to make such foolish comparisons and advocate for a procession of oncologists, traffic engineers, and sewage plant managers instead of our armed forces. We do, after all, live in a nation where we are free to express our opinions—which is exactly the point I want everyone to remember.

We are free because others died for our country—I cannot put it plainer than that. A few hours of parading and several hours more of traffic jams seem a small enough price to pay in order to honor the loved and lost throughout our nation’s history.

You are, of course, free to disagree with my support for a military parade. That is your right—bought with the blood and pain and horror endured by so many who have died defending our nation. However, I encourage you to consider the numbers—and think about the lives those numbers actually represent—while remembering all those whose names you do not know but who have helped guarantee the freedoms that you enjoy today.

This is one of those times that the numbers do not lie—and are immune from partisan interpretations. It’s time to say thank you and leave the arguments aside for just one day.