We Are All Bill Buckner

Bill Buckner was an outstanding professional baseball player in the 1970s and 1980s, and many believe him to be worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.  However, all his accomplishments on the field and in his life were eclipsed by a single incredibly horrible moment in his career, the ground ball that trickled between his legs at the end of Game 6 in the 1986 World Series.  His error allowed the Mets to complete an amazing comeback victory when the Red Sox were right on the cusp of winning the World Series for the first time since 1918, and the Red Sox lost the deciding Game 7 to the New York Mets, crushing their fans.

Mr. Buckner just recently passed away, and he tried valiantly to live down what might be the most infamous gaffe in baseball history for the remaining 33 years of his life.  To his credit, he bore the constant reminders of the shocking mistake with as much stoicism and grace as any human being likely could ever muster.  Thanks to the advent of the Internet and services such as YouTube since 1986, later generations have been able at their leisure to relive the most painful and humiliating moment of his sporting lifeagain and again and again.  How wonderful that must have been for him, his family, and his friends.

Given that so much of all of our lives is now available online for the edification and entertainment of the nosey and the nasty, questions about our personal privacy, the security of our data, and our increasingly shaky right to live away from the unblinking eye of pervasive surveillance become more pressing with each passing year.  Privacy and discretion are rapidly becoming artifacts as quaint as 19th century high-button shoes, and we now often know far more about strangers and near strangers than is perhaps either reasonable or healthful.  

Moreover, our predatory attitude toward anyone foolish enough to be a “public figure” is astoundingly cruel at times. I cannot even imagine what President Franklin Roosevelt, forced to use a wheelchair and leg braces due to polio from the 1920’s until his death, might have had to endure at the hands of his enemies in today’s mean meme world.  The media once understood human decency and consideration and so avoided photographing him in his wheelchair; this type of kindness now seems beyond all imagining.

A society that has raised both voyeurism and public humiliation to a high art is likely neither the healthiest nor most functional.  Although it could be reasonably argued that some of the obsessive self-revelation of early 21st century life has exposed injustices and abuses long hidden from viewthe #MeToomovement and instances of police misconduct spring immediately to mindthe degradation of personal boundaries and our addiction to gawking at misery and mischief is much less laudable.  

Being able to Google a celebrity sex tape or view a cell phone video of someone passed out from a drug overdose is unlikely to promote either individual dignity or social justice.  Both the ready availability of this sort of this material and our evident interest in it and other scandalous and salacious fare speaks to our lack of respect and empathy for others.  

The fortunes made on trafficking in the unhappiness and mistakes of others is both sad and shameful.  In the old days, blackmailers used to extort money from their victims by threatening to reveal an indiscreet letter or photograph; today’s modern blackmailer simply starts a website and sells subscriptions to the scandal-hungry masses.  Although making a quick buck by hawking stolen selfies and videos of some embarrassing moment might be good old-fashioned capitalist initiative at its best, the wonder is that we both allow and actively support this ugliness.

Our deeply embedded schadenfreudeour dark desire to savor the unhappiness of othersis likely to blame for much of our willingness to click on a hateful comment or watch a pratfall from respectability, but we also must recognize that the modern monetization of misery has served to extinguish boundaries of propriety and restraint that we are worse off for having lost.  A society that ruthlessly extinguishes its heroes for profit also discards any possibility for higher purpose or self-sacrifice because every human thought and action is reduced to sad farce or laughable self-delusion.  Even worse, a single misjudgment or misstep now has to power, thanks to the endlessly amplified echo chamber of infotainment and social media, to erase all memory of an otherwise respectable life and transform one into either a devil or a buffoon.

It is terrible that Bill Buckners life and professional career will be remembered for a twisting little grounder that danced past his ankles, but this is the reality that we all now face every day.  Any person, anywhere, and at any time canin but a single unguarded or unthoughtful momenthave ones life become an object of derision or delight for the multitudes who are anxious to revel in the misfortunes of others.  Is it somehow hilarious to post videos of the overstressed, overexcited, or overwhelmed?  Are accidents humorous?  Should we be shocked that humans sometimes make thoroughly human mistakes that seem oddly sinister when removed from their proper context?

To ask these questions is, of course, to question the business model of much of our modern media environment.  To answer these questions we need to, of necessity, look within ourselves, study our own hearts, and examine our consumption of our often coarse and cruel culture today.  To presume that our current reality is either permanent or desirable is wrongheaded.  We have the power to choose the type of world we want to inhabit, and we can certainly find the will to wean ourselves off the drugs of choice today: scandal, sleaze, and stupidity.

 

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The Perils Of Perfectionism

The history of humanity has been the history of the elusive quest for perfection.

This has been a great benefit to us in many ways.  Our tinkering with technology has vastly improved our lives by driving the development of machinery and devices that have taken us from standing agog at the sight of a fire to a blasé use of computing technology that is very close to magical.  Our desire to perfect business systems and industrial processes has led to greater productivity and cost savings.  Our wish to make a perfect meal, plan a perfect birthday party, or find the perfect gift provides a great deal of happiness to many and is a natural outgrowth of our love and friendship with one another.

However, the search for perfection has its dark side as well.  It can lead to obsession or cause unbearable and avoidable tensions in the home or workplace.  A dangerous rigidity of thought or purpose can result if the desire for perfection is not balanced by alternative viewpoints or common sense perspectives, and the search for perfection can cause some to fanatically embrace imperfect methods that cause great harm others in the process.  Perfection is a laudable goal, but we should recognize that humans are inherently imperfect and must sometimes be forgiven for words or deeds resulting from a lack of foresight, expertise, or experience rather than neglect, stupidity, or malice.

There is an old adage that perhaps also illustrates a problem that occurs with those who believe wholeheartedly in their own interpretation of what would constitute perfection: If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”  The belief in our own infallibility causes us to sometimes hammer away at those who disagree when we should instead be listening carefully to why their ideas differ from our own.  

This maladaptive tendency to insist that we are right when we should instead be learning why we might be wrong causes an unsurprising amount of conflict, and this explains at least part of the reason why so many necessary discussions descend into a nonproductive exchange of insults.  If we and our beliefs are perfect, those who believe differently are imperfectwithout a doubt.  The end result is arguments between parties that can never end in a resolution because for each only their own perfectoutcome is acceptable.  This my way or the highwaymindset, which by definition excludes any possibility of compromise, creates a great deal of the nightmarish gridlock that infects our governmental processes today.

This mindset is also, unfortunately, leading to a revisiting of history that focuses on flaws in human character and behaviorwhich are always easy to find with the least little effort. Every one of the heroes of history had their heaping share of human foibles, and rapidly changing social, cultural, and legal norms leave individuals and accomplishments from our past exposed to revisionist interpretations that strip them of their former glory.  

Is it appropriate to judge a 18th century historical figure such as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson by 21st century standards?  Are the pyramids not as wondrous because they were built by a conquering empire?  Was the fire that recently consumed Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris any less tragic because Christians have in the past forcibly converted or murdered those who did not share their faith?  Should we tear down all monuments to Martin Luther King Jr. because his less-than-welcoming views on homosexuality would now be considered hateful?

Human history is flawed because the humans who made it are flawed.  The desire of some to censure our celebrations of any historical figure or event that exhibits imperfectionsall of which we can easily spot with the benefit of 20/20 hindsightwill eventually leave us adrift in a world where we have no heroes or heroic acts.  Only miserable gradations of villains and villainy will remain as the heritage upon we must build our future.  

As bad as the past was on occasion, the actions, beliefs, and values of our ancestors bequeathed us the world in which we live today, and we should continue to recognize their mistakes and build upon their successes.  The many imperfections of the past can inform our judgments today, but we still need to recognizeand honorthe aspirations and achievements of those imperfect people.  The men and women who built our world were sometimes brutal, duplicitous, and unfairbut the best among them tried to rise above their own imperfections.  

It is both petty and shortsighted to castigate those who tried their best by focusing exclusively upon the worst that they did, and we need to remember that the most perfect of all human abilities is our capacity to forgive the flaws of others.  Tearing down the past is not the path we need to take as we too strive to rise above our human imperfections and create a better future for ourselves and the many generations to come.

We Live In The “Non-Information Age”

I miss the news.

I know this seems like an odd assertion when all the data in the world is—quite literally—at our fingertips, but I sometimes find it frustrating to dig through all the noise to find a straightforward presentation of fact that has not been spun into a prediction, rumination, admonishment, speculation, warning, or outright fantasy.  One lesson that I find increasingly easy to teach my college students—sadly enough—is that biased presentation of information is a fact of life today.  Worse yet, what even is a “fact” is now often a subject of intense partisan debate.  I sometimes wonder whether putting ten people in a room today to discuss whether the sky is blue would result in a brawl worthy of the Jerry Springer Show.

Of course, the primary reason that tempers flare when any matter beyond the most mundane is discussed relates to the stakes at hand when we try to attach the terms “right” and “wrong” to behavior, beliefs, or beliefs about behavior.  To be “right” can provide workplace advantage, educational preference, and legal protection.  To be “wrong” results in both a variety of benefits being unceremoniously jerked away and a beat down on social media as an added—and unwelcome—bonus.  Not surprisingly, “news” articles and programs are the primary mechanisms for both conveying and justifying the “correct” attitudes and perspectives, which many times means what passes for news is actually a mechanism for transmitting social, cultural, and political beliefs—not factual information that a reader or viewer can use to form independent judgments of their own.

I wonder how many journalists are even aware that in the not-too-distant past editorializing was confined to the editorial page (how quaint!), and every bit of information had to be confirmed by at least two credible sources identified in the notes that were reviewed by an editor prior to publication or broadcast.  Now “news” stories are many times exercises in rumor mongering and anonymous accusations.  This has, sad to say, resulted in a crushing drop of public trust and confidence in news media, a well-documented phenomenon that perversely seems to have incentivized yet more partisanship in the mainstream media in order to hold onto those readers and viewers who enjoy having their pre-existing beliefs confirmed.  Just to add another layer of crazy to this craziness, partisan journalists on both sides now launch regular attacks on one another’s credibility and judgment, which only further shreds whatever tattered public trust they each might still retain.

Reliable, credible, and unbiased journalism is as necessary to a functioning democracy as air is to human life.  Voters need sources of information that are free from the taint of partisanship in order to make thoughtful judgments about questions of public policy and to choose elected officials to implement those policies.  Lacking this, debate quickly descends into personal attack rather that reasoned discussion.  

It has, of course, always been the case that people have disagreements that result from differences in their judgments, experiences, and values.  However, when these differences are turbocharged by “news” that presents those with opposing ideas as deluded, stupid, or simply evil, any possibility for the type of compromise that allows both sides some satisfaction and creates the public trust necessary for democracy to thrive is eliminated.

As much as I might hope we can return to yesterday’s model of staid and boring journalistic practices, I know this is not possible in a modern media environment where scandal, shock, and salaciousness is necessary to attract viewers and readers.  Therefore, I fear that we may be irrevocably trapped in a pointless and destructive cycle of anger, insult, and accusation that will further deepen the already catastrophic divides in our nation.  

Until the day arrives when we finally realize what passes for news today is many times an addictive and damaging drug in disguise that is consuming both our public discourse and personal sanity, we are going to need to be reconciled to never ending conflict that is feeding a crippling distrust of one another rather than providing the tools we need to manage and build our nation.  How long we can proceed down this path before we take to the streets to start clubbing each other is anyone’s guess—I hope this day never comes—but it is a realistic concern for a nation whose “news” often cannot distinguish between what is real and what is fantasy.

 

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.

A Supreme Problem

The three co-equal branches of the United States government—executive, legislative, and judiciary—each have their roles to play in the management and mission of our nation. However, the federal judiciary and its judges, whose role current Chief Justice John Roberts famously (and perhaps disingenuously) characterized as one of simply “calling balls and strikes” regarding the matters before them, has until recently clung to an air of impartiality—but those days are now gone.

People who study the Supreme Court assert that 5-4 split decisions are no more common than they once were, but now every close or controversial decision has become another component of the partisan battles that are the background music of our hyper-politicized nation. Moreover, the celebrity, notoriety, and visibility of today’s Supreme Court justices invites speculation regarding their personal and legal agendas. Unfortunately, the near anonymity that the justices once cultivated has been replaced by a public advocacy for which those are both sides of the many issues dividing the Court and our country are equally culpable.

It would have been much better if the late Justice Antonin Scalia has been a little less fond of celebrating his own conservative viewpoints and linguistic cleverness in his speeches and writing. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—the “Notorious RBG” to her fans among liberals—foolishly interjected the Supreme Court into electoral politics in 2016 by openly criticizing the candidacy of Donald Trump and joking about moving to New Zealand if he were elected.

The abandonment of the circumspect silence that was once the glory of those who served on our nation’s highest court has thrilled some advocates, but this has also served to reduce the status and credibility of this branch of our government. This disintegration of the dignity once associated with the Supreme Court is evident in the ever more contentious confirmation battles over the past couple of decades. Supreme Court nominations are now yet one more piece of raw meat for partisan attack dogs to fight and growl over—and the perceived integrity of all our judicial processes are harmed as a result.

All of this makes me wary of the upcoming fight over seating a replacement for Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement from the Supreme Court this week. Due to his unique position as the swing vote on so many cases before the court during his thirty year tenure, his replacement will likely become the deciding factor for a great many 5-4 split decisions in the years—and perhaps decades—to come. Given what is a stake, partisan fervor regarding the confirmation of President Trump’s nominee is likely to rise to levels that will make all our other fractious arguments seem mild by comparison. The net effect of this pitched combat will be to cement the public perception of the Supreme Court as just another governmental outpost of politicized and polarizing discord, which will likely irreparably damage its already tattered status and cause it to lose more of its most precious asset—the nation’s trust.

Given the vast and often unbridgeable social, political, cultural, religious, economic, and regional divides in our nation at the present time, it is not surprising that our nation’s courts have been asked to arbitrate the fights around the table at Thanksgiving. Because so many disagreements do not easily lend themselves to compromise—a women cannot, for example, have half an abortion—and communal values have been largely replaced by assertions of unfettered individual rights heretofore unprecedented in history, judges are more and more trapped in the unenviable position of acting as the arbiters of our nation’s morals. Setting aside the basic reality that humans tend to disagree about everything, this task is made yet more thankless and impossible by the fact that significant segments of our population are openly and loudly adverse the very idea of morality, viewing it as either a vestigial annoyance or a pointless guilt trip.

Courts can—and should—mediate regarding the application of laws, but can—or should—the courts continue to mediate in ever more granular and quotidian aspects of our daily lives? The evidence would tend to suggest they should not, but our nation’s courts have, nonetheless, tried their best to solve the conundrum of differing moral and ethical values by simply granting more and more “rights” that are divorced from any notion of responsibility. The problem with this approach—which has become more and more obvious over time—is that trying to create a civil society by allowing everyone to do as they please is like trying to fix the economy by printing more money. A period of euphoric happiness follows, but an inevitable and catastrophic crash will ensue—and the problems that follow are certain to be beyond easy or painless remedy.

We now live in a rudderless nation where we are free to be as self-centered, spoiled and entitled as we want without fear of either consequence or rebuke from individuals, institutions, or government. To express even the mildest disagreements with the behavior of others is today a sure sign of hateful intolerance—which must, of course, be adjudicated through the courts. To a certain extent I suppose inventing more and more rights is wonderful new business development for lawyers and judges, but it is also guaranteed to facilitate every sort dysfunction, infuriate those who act responsibly, and destroy any sense of community and common purpose by privileging the few at the expense of the many.

Supreme Court nominations matter. The tone the Justices set for the entire judiciary matters. However, unless the rulings by all levels of the courts re-establish some balance between what individuals contribute to society and what society can reasonably provide to individuals, expect the worse.