Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Hate is Hate: Responses to the Orlando Shooting

Much has already been written about the terrible shooting in Orlando this past afternoon, and much more will be written and said in the coming days and weeks. A lot of what we hear will be predictable, because we've had this "conversation" a lot of times before. I've written a lot about gun control already; if you want to my thoughts on that subject, type "gun control" in the search box on this blog and have at it. The short form: guns are a terrible means of self-defense, and the answer to gun violence isn't arming everyone else in society.

What I want to offer here is a broader perspective, one that looks at the shooting in Orlando not as simply as a terrorist attack or an attack on the LGBTQ community or a mass shooting, but as another event in the long and frequent chain of human violence.

Viewed from this very broad lens, the specific questions about the precise motives of the shooter or the detailed connections between him and various other organizations become much less important. They matter for this case in particular, but if our intention is to have a dialogue about how to have fewer such incidents in the future then we need to move beyond the specifics and talk about violence.

We tend to be guilty of "fighting the last war" in our response to mass shootings. After Sandy Hook and Aurora, the answer was "better mental health"; after Columbine, "better parenting". After Orlando, some want to use the "terrorist" label to claim that we have a particular enemy (ISIS? Radical Islamism?), and that all we have to do to prevent such attacks in the future is to eradicate that enemy.

All of this, of course, misses the point. We had plenty of shootings (including mass shootings) in the United States long before the current flavors of radicalized Islam came along, and we will likely have more long after they are gone. Many recent attacks (including Sandy Hook, Charleston, and Aurora) weren't conducted by Muslims at all, nor did they have any particular political motive. Yet the action, and the result, was much the same: innocent civilians, going about their daily lives, gunned down by an individual bent on their destruction.

Politicians who offer simple solutions are deluding us, and possibly themselves. There are no easy answers, no "if only I was in charge everything would be better" actions. Crimes of mass violence are at the same time unique and the offspring of a particular set of (very broad) factors:

Opportunity: This is the one factor that we never talk about, because there's simply nothing that can be done. If someone is bent on killing civilians and can manage to hide their plans from law enforcement ahead of time, there will always be opportunities. A sporting event. A dance club. A concert. A shopping mall. A movie theater. An airport. A train station. A school. The fact that we live in community makes us vulnerable. We can tinker with these vulnerabilities at the margins, but only for specific targets and for limited periods of time. To live in society means to live in vulnerability to one another. The key here is to live with that vulnerability, but without fear.

Means: This tends to attract a lot of heat, and not much light. There are many ways for people bent on mass destruction to cause it. Some are more effective than others, and some are easier to contain or implement than others. Homemade bombs are possible, but tricky, and efforts can be made to monitor certain kinds of chemicals in certain quantities to try to prevent another Oklahoma City. Knives and other hand implements can be deadly, but usually in small numbers; it is difficult to imagine an assailant killing 49 people in a night club with a knife.
     Guns come in various types, from small pistols with few rounds to large rifles with many rounds and high rates of fire. Guns get most of the attention because, in the United States, they are the perfect means for anyone bent on causing widespread destruction: easy to acquire, easy to use, widely available, and highly destructive. We already have a few restrictions on firearms - fully automatic weapons are widely restricted from civilian ownership, for example. Further restrictions would reduce the means available for mass killings. It would not eliminate these events, but it would make them both less frequent and less deadly when they do occur.

Motive: This is the arena in which people love to engage in rampant speculation, most of it useless. More often than not (Orlando, Sandy Hook, San Bernadino, etc.), the killers die in the incident, leaving us to speculate afterwards about their motives. What particular ideology or mental illness fueled this particular rampage? We think that, if only we can get the right answer (or say the right words), we can solve the problem.
     This is where we are most at sea. For law enforcement purposes, it matters whether the Orlando shooter was working with others or not. But for the purposes of trying to reduce the quantity and severity of violence in our society in the future, it's irrelevant. We shouldn't care whether this individual was a follower of ISIS, or al-Qaeda, or the KKK, or the Westboro Baptist Church. There will always be ideologies and theologies that justify, even demand, violence against innocents. There is only one thing they all have in common: Hate.

On Sunday night as we were still sifting through information about the shootings, I happened to be watching the Tony Awards and was treated to Lin-Manuel Miranda's moving and emotional sonnet, which he read in lieu of an acceptance speech. The poem is anchored in an anthem of the LBGTQ community, "Love is love", and so it is. But the opposite is also true: hate is hate, whether born of Christian or Muslim ideology, whether directed at women or blacks or sexual minorities or other nations or people of different faiths or members of different political parties.

If you're looking for one root cause to these acts of inhumane violence, here it is: hatred. Hatred of particular groups, hatred of others who are different, hatred of random strangers, even hatred of self. Hatred, as Star Wars reminded us, leads to suffering - for both the hated and the hater.

The thing about hatred is that it feeds on itself. Read, if you can, this Storify compilation of live tweets from a recent rally for Donald Trump. The anger and hatred, as the correspondent reported, were "palpable". Insults, curses, angry words, threats, coming both from the candidate and the crowd - all combined to raise the collective level of hatred far beyond simply the sum total of the individuals. The more anger and fear we immerse ourselves in, the more we hate. The more hatred we encounter in others, the more we hate. And make no mistake - there is hatred inside all of us.

Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us of this many years ago:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
If you want a more modern example, I encourage you to read this speech by the Lt. Governor of Utah. It is moving, it is eloquent, and it makes all the right points.

If we want to have less violence in our society, the answer doesn't lie in defeating an ideology or a religion. It doesn't rest on electing a strong man who promises peace but delivers only anger. It doesn't rest, in fact, on who we elect at all. It doesn't even rest, ultimately, on whether we put more money into mental health, or do better work with terrorist watch lists, or restrict guns - although all of those may be good things to do. The answer lies in us, every day. Every day we face opportunities to love more, to be kind, to come together. And we face temptations to give into fear, to express our anger, to hate someone a little bit more. We together decide which it will be.

Which will you choose today?

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Competing Narratives: The Brock Turner Case

For much of last week the case of Brock Turner, a Stanford student convicted of raping an unconscious woman, took over the internet. It went viral when the victim issued her own statement at Mr. Turner's sentencing, and when a letter sent by Mr. Turner's father to the judge in the case pleading for leniency was released into the internet wild. It's been bumped from the "front pages" by the Orlando shooting (about which I will write separately), but it remains and will remain a powerful parable.

The case raises many broader issues: the power of privilege and wealth, "rape culture" on campuses, race and the fairness (or lack thereof) of the criminal justice system. All are issues we've been battling over for the last few years; that they all combined in one single story says much about why this particular incident has such a powerful pull.

The story that took over the internet centered around two competing narratives: the narrative of the victim, movingly shared in her lengthy statement linked above, and the narrative constructed by Mr. Turner and his family and friends. Thanks to a lot of work and a lot of discussion in recent years, the narratives of victims of sexual assault have come to be taken seriously, even to hold a place of cultural dominance. So many people are so angry with Mr. Turner's sentence (six months in jail, likely reduced to three for good behavior) and with the Turner family precisely because they seem out of sync with the victim's story of suffering.

The Turner narrative is a throwback to a time when alcohol could be blamed as a causal factor, that this sort of thing could be put down simply to "too much drinking" and "bad judgment". There was a time when those stories would have held sway. As the Turner family is learning, that time is gone.

This narrative is apparent in a number of statements written to the court on Mr. Turner's behalf, including one from the local municipal judge (and former federal prosecutor), who said in part:
There is no doubt Brock made a mistake that night — he made a mistake in drinking excessively to the point where he could not fully appreciate that his female acquaintance was so intoxicated. I know Brock did not go to that party intending to hurt, or entice, or overpower anyone. That is not his nature. It never has been.
The problem with this narrative is that we no longer believe that drinking alcohol will make you do things that are not in some way already part of who you are. Quinn makes an essentialist argument about Mr. Turner's "nature", but to believe her story is to believe that if we drink enough, we will do things that are foreign or alien to us. Some years ago we took away that argument with regard to drunk driving, and we are now well on our way to doing so in cases of sexual assault.

Interestingly, another letter ostensibly written on Mr. Turner's behalf appears to make the same point:
From scientific evidence I have studied during my education and from my experience, alcohol is a depressant and a chemical that can release inhibition and magnify both positive and negative personality traits, something I saw too often and too negatively in the Emergency Department. It is not however a substance that dramatically changes someone’s intrinsic personality traits, suddenly altering someone from being mild mannered to criminalistics. 
Full disclosure: I know the author of this letter as a colleague. I have not spoken to him about this case, nor do I know his views beyond this particular quote.
The recent outrage over the case has centered around the sentence given to Mr. Turner: likely three months' jail time, plus a requirement that he register as a sex offender for the rest of his life (in addition to the loss of his position as Stanford and, as has been reported in some places, a lifetime ban from the US Olympic swim team to which he had aspired). Here there is a broad gulf of opinion, with supporters of the victim claiming that the sentence is far too light (and now calling for a recall of the judge in the case) while Turner's family and friends argue that it is in fact too much. Here again Judge Quinn's letter is illustrative:
I believe a prison term will serve no useful purpose in Brock’s case. He is forever changed by the events of that night. Judge please consider other options to prison — options which will serve the purpose for which a sentence is imposed, and options which will leave a future for this very scared young man. Probation could include heavy reporting requirements, counselling, community service in multiple ways, including speaking out about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption, college partying, and the “hook-up” culture on college campuses throughout the United States.
If you read the victim's statement (linked above) carefully, you will note some convergence here. The victim doesn't was Turner to "rot in jail". She is also not particularly interested in how frightened or scared he is about his own future. What she wants, more than anything, is acknowledgement that her narrative is legitimate and real. She is frustrated that Turner, and his supporters, seem unwilling to accept that there is another story here, another way of understanding what happened.

In that sense, Judge Quinn is right about one thing: prison time will not, in itself, help Mr. Turner very much. As retribution three months is quite light, but retribution isn't the point here. In terms of rehabilitation - changing his heart - prison is a terrible tool, and likely to have very little if any affect.

Quinn's call for probation with community service, however, misses the mark. Read the victim's statement carefully and you can see that what her narrative demands is in fact far harder than prison, far more difficult than talking to college students about the dangers of drinking and partying. It demands not only acknowledging but embracing the very real and terrible pain he caused, and the fact that he himself caused it through decisions he made. It insists that he face that squarely, not hiding behind alcohol or youthful indiscretion or anything else - that he take the full weight of his sin upon himself, hold it and accept it as part of himself.

As the Christian church (among many other faith traditions) has been teaching for thousands of years, there is no other way to receive true forgiveness and peace than to first embrace the sin. It is an incredibly painful process, far worse than simply spending a few months in prison. It is so painful, in fact, that many spend their whole lives running from it. It is a path that no court, no government, can mandate; only Mr. Turner himself can choose it.

However "broken" his friends and family claim that he is, we know that he has not yet chosen that path. He has made no statement indicating anything other than his "alcohol-made-me-do-it" story. He continues his legal battle to appeal his conviction. To all outwards appearances, he is as convinced as ever that he did very little wrong. He is not ready to own his victim's pain and her story.

I do not know Mr. Turner or his family, but they appear determined to fight with all of the tools available to "free" their son from the punishments imposed upon him - punishments which will make his life more difficult, but which will not in themselves change his heart. That path will always be open to him, and we can hope that someday he takes it. Until then, this story will continue to be only a tragedy, and Mr. Turner both a despised and pitied figure in it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Expertise Matters

Like most of us, I get a fair bit of nonsense that floats by my feed on Facebook. This is actually the byproduct of a deliberate strategy of keeping a diverse group of FB friends and connections. I don't want to fall into the "echo chamber" trap, and I find it interesting to see what people who think very differently from me are thinking and sharing among each other.

Sometimes, though, I run across something so ridiculously silly I just can't ignore it. Today is one of those days:

Now, I get that there are people out there convinced that everything that pharmaceutical companies do is evil. Pharmas like Eli Lilly and Pfizer have unfortunately done enough bad things that, if you cherry-pick your evidence, it's not hard to justify this viewpoint (I don't say it's right, but I can see where you could get the evidence for it).

But the response to this belief is for folks to go out and "do their own research". Do they first bother to go out and obtain degrees in biomedical sciences so they can do that research? Of course not! Because anybody can read peer-reviewed scientific research in obscure journals and understand it, right?

I'm not surprised, but it does still amaze me that people can manage to tie their minds up into this particular pretzel. Even allowing for the different meanings of the term "research", this is an absurd proposition. If by "research" we mean here going directly "to the source" and reading the results that non-biased, non-industry scientists produce in their labs, the notion that anybody with less than a graduate education in the relevant field can do this is laughable. I have as much chance of getting into this summer's olympics as the average suburbanite with a college degree in communications has of understanding the real meaning of an article published in the International Journal of Toxicology, much less in understanding the broader scope of literature in which that article is situated.

This, of course, is one of the factors that allows for communities of people to band together and believe absurd things. The echo chamber that is Facebook facilitates this, but long before Mark Zuckerberg some folks figured out that you can ignore the rest of the world and believe whatever you want about it, so long as you discard the idea of expertise. In order to uphold this notion, you have to believe - even if you don't articulate - that education, practice, and experience don't really matter, and that anybody can master anything with just a little bit of effort. I mean, how hard can biochemistry be really?

The problem, of course, is that the world doesn't care what we think. As Richard Feynman famously wrote in the last sentence of his report on the Challenger disaster, "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."

So folks are welcome to think that drug companies are evil (and somehow, amazingly disciplined - you'd think that more of the thousands of employees would leak the plans of their evil mastermind overlords). They're welcome to think that research that reaches conclusions they don't like isn't true, and that junk science and psychobabble that confirms their beliefs is real. What none of this will change is the reality underlying the science. Bacteria, genetic mutation, climate change - all of these things will happen whether we understand them or not, and whether we like them or not.

So if you find yourself patting your friends on the back for doing their "own research" that fits some broader conspiracy theory about science, take a step back. Adopt a little humility. Imagine for a moment that the thousands of people who have collectively spent millions of hours in labs struggling to master complex subjects might actually know something that you don't. Then imagine a world in which we struggle to find the truth together through dialogue and real research rather than snarky, self-congratulatory memes.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Seeing the World Through a Pinhole

If you follow politics, or the media, or both, you know that there is a long-standing debate about whether the media is politically biased or not. Both Left and Right like to sport bumper stickers and spout made-up epithets, from "lame-stream media" (one of Sarah Palin's favorites) to "corporate media" (a favorite of the Left). A lot of this argument, of course, is to feed martyr complexes on both sides that make each feel paradoxically disadvantaged and empowered by their victimhood at the hands of the supposedly evil media outlets.

The reality, in my view, is much more prosaic. We shouldn't be worried so much about the bias in the media as we should about our reliance on it to understand the world. The problem isn't that the media is slanting the news (they are, though not always in the directions we think), but that we fail to understand the severe limitations of news media at all.

When we talk about the media as a "lens" through which we view the world, we are either using the wrong metaphor or misunderstanding it. Yes, that lens has distortions. Specific outlets may distort based on ideological lines, but there are also distortions based on business decisions - what sells? Fear and anxiety, of course, sell much better than other things, and so we get a steady diet of stories about what's wrong with the world.

This past Sunday my local newspaper ran a story on the front page about an "increase" in "school threats" (incidents of threats made to schools, often as pranks by students). The headline was about how Ohio had more such incidents than any other state in the 2014-15 school year, which of course would make local news. The source of this data? A Cleveland-based consulting company called "National School Safety and Security Services", a company that provides training and consulting to school districts on security issues. How many such "studies" get put into headlines every day, based on bogus or uncorroborated data promulgated by people who have an interest in telling a particular story?

Beyond the specific stories and how they're reported is the question of setting the agenda. This is where the media is truly powerful, but only because we allow them to be. We assume that whatever is on the front page of the paper and what is being talked about on CNN is "what's going on". Transgender bathroom usage in high schools? This was a complete non-issue until somebody grabbed the media bullhorn and decided to make a big deal about it. Yes, schools should treat everybody fairly and bullying stinks. But why is this particular dimension of that problem driving the national conversation? Because somebody with an interest wanted it there.

Some have tried to argue recently that, despite the general national gloom, we're really pretty well off and things are going pretty well. These arguments, though they are likely true, won't go very far because the stories we see - the stories we assume tell us "what's going on in the world" are all bad. It's like looking at the world through a pinhole, or a telephoto lens. Consider this fellow:

He's in the midst of a beautiful location, surrounded by mountains, lakes, forests, and wildlife. How much of that will he capture in the picture he takes? He will no doubt bring back some really beautiful photos - but how much of what he's surrounded by will he have gotten?

I've gone on some amazing hikes, and have taken lots of pictures. Many of them are quite striking; here's one of my favorites:

This is just a tiny piece of the vista you can see from that spot. Depending on what you're interested in, it may not even be the most important piece to you.

Now imagine that someone else is controlling the camera, and they want you to think that you're in a terrible place. How hard would it be to take a dozen images of ugly things and pass those off as representative of the whole? This is what the media does every day - not because they're trying to favor the Left or the Right, but because Ugly sells and reality - which is often messy, complex, and too big to fit on the front page - doesn't.

So when you're reading the local paper, watching cable news, or scrolling through your FB feed, remember that what you're seeing is just a tiny, tiny part of the real world. There's a lot you're NOT seeing. Go out and find some more of that - and remember how big the world is the next time somebody tells you that it fits in a handbasket on its way to hell.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Beyond Fear: A Very Different View of American Presidential Politics

I was quite surprised to discover that the post I wrote last week, "Why I'm Not Afraid of President Trump", has rapidly become the most widely-read piece I've written a long time. In just two days it shot to the top 5 most-read posts on my blog, probably because a number of my FB friends shared it with their networks. Apparently I struck a chord.

I want to continue some of those thoughts from last week because of a confluence of two things. First, a desire to continue the "fear" theme in the post about a possible Trump Presidency. A lot of the subsequent FB chatter about the piece focused on the probable costs of Trump being President, and the various bad things that will happen. Some of these went to significant levels of detail in their predictions, in areas from foreign policy to judicial nominations.

Reading through these discussions made me realize that I hadn't expressed my intended point very well. A part of my argument, it is true, is that a Trump Presidency in reality will likely not be as bad as his worst critics think, much as the Bush and Obama Presidencies were not what their enemies foretold. We never did get Chuck Norris' "Thousand Years of Darkness" by re-electing Obama, and Dick Cheney didn't throw all of his political enemies into concentration camps.

What I meant to say - but didn't articulate very well - is that my decision not to be afraid of the future is not predicated on my ability to predict it. Yes, I have certain hunches about what will or will not happen. Some of those hunches are informed by actual expertise in the study of politics. But as my friend Steve Saideman pointed out recently, even experts get stuff wrong. I recognize that my ability to predict isn't very good. None of us predict the future well, and we tend to project a mishmash of our hopes and anxieties. Confirmation bias is everywhere.

What I should have said but didn't is, I choose not to be afraid not because I know what's going to happen but simply because I choose not to be afraid. I am humble about my ability to predict the future, and completely clear about my ability to affect it (near zero). I don't know what will happen in or after November. Given that situation, fear to me is a choice - I don't have to be afraid, so I choose not to.

There are some things I would like to see happen and some I would like to see not happen, but in the present there is nothing I can do about either. The strength of my preferences doesn't affect the outcome either - whether I mildly dislike The Donald or hate him passionately doesn't make any difference. My choice not to fear is likewise not an indicator of how I feel about Trump or his policies. I find the man and his politics despicable. But I don't have to let his awfulness ruin my day.

This is a position based not at all in politics, but in basic philosophy and self-awareness. The world cannot make me afraid; fear is my response to the world around me. I'm sure there are other circumstances in which I would have much greater difficulty controlling the temptation to fear. Today, for me, is not one of those. I can't speak for anybody else, but that's where I am.

The second event that sparked this particular blog post was a brief blurb I heard on the radio from Trump himself, who told a campaign rally "We're going to go after Hillary." In itself, this was not all that remarkable - had Cruz, or Kasich, or Jeb! been nominated, I imagine any of them would have said the same thing, quite possibly using exactly those words. The issue here isn't Trump, it's our politics in general.

We've been talking for decades about the increasingly personal level of attacks by candidates (and the rest of us) against their opponents. Historians have pointed out that there are ample cases from the 19th century of what we would regard as far more vicious attacks on opponents' character. So one candidate simply saying "we're going to go after" another isn't news.

And that's what strikes me - from a Very Different View - as troubling. Politics has become - perhaps has long been - combat. It's a contest of winners and losers. This is true not only on the surface, in terms of the mechanics of elections, but deep in our DNA. When Karl Rove talked a dozen years ago about a goal of creating a "permanent Republican majority," Democrats were distressed only because they were on the other side - not because the very notion itself, of one side "permanently" defeating the other, violates some very basic principles. We're so steeped in our own broken politics that we can't even see it anymore.

We see this in common political discourse, especially on the internet. How often do we run across a headline in which Person X "destroys" Opposing View Y with a few well-chosen words? This is, of course, verbal nonsense - no rhetoric on my part can destroy anything least of all an idea or a candidate. Yet we casually bandy about this idea of "destruction" every day.

The point here is that, despite our gut feeling otherwise, politics doesn't have to be this way. Communities can, and do, run themselves in far less confrontational and far more inclusive ways. The best examples are local, possibly because it's easier to treat other members of the community like real people when you're in close proximity to them and can interact with them in more authentic ways. Demonization of your opponents requires a certain distance. But distance does not create demonization, it only allows it.

Diversity plays a role here as well, but not in a deterministic way. At this point there's pretty much universal agreement that identities are socially constructed - you're not born being part of any particular kind of group so much as you're raised into a shared set of assumptions. Boundaries can be shifted and changed over time, usually by adopting different practices, patterns, behaviors, and norms.

Without quite realizing it, we have evolved our politics around a single norm: win for "our side" at all costs. This assumes a host of things, including the notion that "winning" is the best thing and that it makes any sense at all, and that we have "sides". This is not the only way to deal with differences of opinion, but we have come to think that it is. This, it seems to me, has become our biggest blindness.

We don't do this as much on an interpersonal level. I don't assault everyone I meet who disagrees with me, either verbally or physically. I know a few people who do, but in general we regard this as boorish behavior. But somehow, we reward and celebrate it in our politics.

So what's the alternative? Any different sort of politics has to start with fundamentals. Our current political habits are built on a set of mutually-reinforcing habits, beliefs, and unexamined norms. To borrow from the trite-but-true, if we want things to be different we have to think differently.

So what needs to change? Let me propose a few basic tenets:

1) All people are people - complex creatures with a dizzying array of characteristics, identities, and life experiences. People are not "Democrats" or "Republicans" - these categories don't define individuals.

2) All people deserve respect as people. This doesn't mean we have to agree on everything, be alike in all ways, or like everything about each other. Respect presumes certain assumptions of both attitude and behavior - we understand in general what it means to "treat someone with respect", and it certainly includes not harming others.

3) Insofar as is possible, politics should be the search for mutual solutions - that is, finding ways of establishing rules and distributing resources that are as close to consensus as can be reached, and that benefit everyone or nearly everyone. A corollary to this is that no one perspective and no one ideology has all of the "right" answers.

If we take the term "politics" out, this is how a great many of us lead our everyday lives. We tend to interact with individuals as individuals, and when we do lump people into undifferentiated categories we usually regard that as a bad thing. We tend to try to treat each other with respect, and when that doesn't happen we regard it as universally inappropriate. And outside of a few structured fields of endeavor, most people most of the time prefer to seek mutual solutions instead of trying to "beat" the other person. Workplaces built around that kind of competition tend to be very bad, both for the people who work there and for the work itself.

I realize that all of these assertions are from my own point of view, and that some will argue with me that "people aren't really like that". This is a debate as old as philosophy itself, and is difficult to gather data on. I'm likely not to convince people with a pessimistic view of human nature. But I have seen enough instances of this in my life to know that it's possible.

What does any of this have to do with one politician's unremarkable comment about "going after" his opponent? That comment shows just how far our politics has gotten away from the tenets I suggest above. We do not search for mutual solutions. We don't respect others. And we tend to reduce complex individuals (either public candidates or simply strangers whom we do not know except that they are on "the other side") to simplistic categories, and then condemn them en masse as such.

Despite being a lifelong student of politics, I dislike most of what we call "politics" for this very reason. We have discarded (to borrow Lincoln's phrase) the better angels of our nature and marinated ourselves in our own worst instincts. We are all poorer for it.

In this regard, the anger and frustration so often written about in this election cycle are entirely understandable. Every two or four years, we are told a Grand Lie: that if only our side wins, if only this or that candidate gets elected, if only the other side is defeated, all will be well. Things will be wonderful. Our nation will be Great Again.

This is nonsense. Our problems will not be resolved if Democrats win all the contests, if Republicans win all the contests, or if the result is some of each. We will be no closer to better mutual solutions; but we will in the meantime be a lot more anxious, and lot more distrustful of and compassionate towards our neighbors, and many of us will be frustrated and angry because "we" "lost".

This is a radically different way of looking at politics, and as such I expect it either won't make sense to many or will strike many as hopelessly naive. I can only point out that our current system of elections and parties seems to be making things worse, not better - and by "things" here I mean not only the overall outcomes of our society but us as individuals. We are, as persons and as a people, worse off because we do this to ourselves every few years.

Radicalism in politics is nothing new, but much of what passes itself off as "radical" is really quite tame. Genuinely radical is telling people to stop judging their neighbors and to attend to their own failings instead (Matthew 7:3). It is telling people to love their enemies (Luke 6:27, Matthew 5:44). It is suggesting that we lay down our lives for each other, not for our own good (John 15:13). Somehow, this kind of radical gets left out when folks suggest that their Christianity informs their politics.

Do I have a solution? Of course not. I pointed out above that I have zero ability to affect the outcomes of our nation. And propounding a solution would be beside the point anyway - saying, "I have the answer" would make me no different from the hordes of huckster politicians and pundits who sell us their wares, trying to make us believe that if only their ideas are adopted, everything will be great. I can't create a good solution; only we can.

This, then, is the conversation I long for: a conversation between people, as people, who can take each other seriously in our own wants, desires, experiences, hopes, and dreams. A conversation aimed at one goal: the discovery of things we agree on, the solutions that help all of us. A conversation in which there are no winners and losers, only participants and citizens. There is no room for that conversation in our current politics. Perhaps we can build one elsewhere.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Why I'm Not Afraid of President Trump

It's May 4 (better known in much of the Nerdverse as May the Fourth) again. Three years ago I published this post talking about how, while I'm a huge nerd and a Star Wars fan, I'm ambivalent about the widespread cultural acceptance of May 4 as a sort of unofficial "Star Wars Day", because in so doing we have lost what little remembrance we had of the much more serious events at Kent State some four and a half decades ago.

In this midst of this Presidential election cycle, with all its unexpected bizarreness, I think that remembering Kent State is more important than ever. As is typical, I've had a blog post floating around in my head for a while with the title "Why I'm Not Afraid of President Trump" - this is as good an opportunity as any to try to get that point across.

What does the Trump campaign have to do with remembering Kent State? In part because remembering the past helps us put the present in some context. There is a pretty widespread #neverTrump movement within the Republican Party, and I have a number of Republican friends who regard Trump as a fascist and a threat to the republic. The former accusation may be true, at least to a degree; the latter probably is not.

Much of the narrative of this election cycle has been about the "angry voter". The success of Trump, and the better-than-expected showing of Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, are held up as indicators that the American voter is "mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore". There is talk of "revolt" and "revolution". All of this because voters are voting for people somewhat outside the usual (rather narrow) mainstream of US politics.

We need to stop for a moment and remember what angry politics really looks like. If you want to see real anger in action, go back and watch footage of the riots outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago (an event that spawned the primary voter system we have today). Or read accounts of the race riots in over 100 American cities that same summer. Find a decent, sober history of the Weathermen (yes, I share a name [sort of] with one of their founders - no relation). And then read accounts, not only of the Kent State (and Jackson State) shootings, but of the divided reactions afterwards.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were suffused with anger so broad and so deep that substantial numbers of people seriously entertained the notion that violence was not only an acceptable tool of social and political change, but a necessary one. Part of this was generational, part of it racial, part based on the sudden collapse of a number of social norms and structures simultaneously. A lot of people were pissed off at other people (on both the Left and the Right), and in that anger were willing to support or at least sympathize with violence directed against their enemies.

Seen in that context, the interpersonal violence that has broken out at Trump rallies seems pale and almost pathetic in comparison. Yes, the candidate himself has at times egged his supporters on to beat up those who disagree with them. This has been directed largely at opponents who have shown up to those rallies - the few who have walked into the lion's den, as it were. Ugly as these incidents are, they are far removed from Nazi brownshirts accosting Jews in the street, much less an organized mass attack like Krystallnacht.

I find Trump reprehensible and completely unacceptable both as a candidate and, insofar as he presents himself in public, as a person. He is unqualified to be President. Being President would also probably drive him nuts, because it is a profoundly limited position. The history of our last three Presidents - all of them serving for two terms each - illustrates this nicely.

Opposition to Bill Clinton appears to have been largely personal, not ideological or political. Though Republicans accused him of being a "tax and spend" Democrat who would blow up the Federal government's finances, he was in fact a centrist who supported conservative ideas in welfare reform and brought the budget deficit down to near zero (depending on your accounting rules). He faced determined opposition in Congress despite his centrism. At the end of eight years, none of the terrible things Republicans feared had come true and the country was, to a substantial degree, much better off than it had been in 1992.

Leftist opposition to George W. Bush centered around both his foreign policies and, for the most committed opponents, his suspected authoritarian/fascist tendencies. His electoral victory in 2000 was questionable, which put his administration under a cloud from the beginning. The neoconservatives he brought into the government responded to the 9/11 disaster by starting major wars which, sadly, are still with us. These were policy failures of a significant order. He also supported a number of centrist domestic policies, with mixed results. One could lay some blame on the administration, perhaps, for the collapse of the financial system near the end of his Presidency, leading to the worst economic downturn in a generation. But in the end, he and his administration walked away from power after the 2008 election, and while the country was worse off the problems were recoverable and the republic still intact.

President Obama has faced a level of opposition not seen in modern times in our political system, both ideological and personal. His opponents have spread the most absurd of stories (He's a Kenyan! A Muslim! A socialist bent on destroying America!) while working to block nearly any initiative his administration has tried to undertake. Most of those initiatives have been (surprise!) centrist ones - even the much-maligned "Obamacare" is based on health care reform ideas largely drafted by Republicans a decade or two earlier, a far cry from the single-payer or government-run systems preferred by some on the Left. Nearing the end of his eight years in office, the country is somewhat better off, but not perhaps as far along as many might wish. But if he was trying to destroy the nation, he completely, totally, and utterly failed.

The point of these stories is that they all have a sameness. Despite our howls of protestation about the evils of our opponents (whoever they may be), there is a center of gravity in the American political system. That center can (and does) shift over time - since the 1980s it has shifted significantly to the right, which is why repeated Republican protestations about being victims in a country about to collapse into leftist socialism are bafflingly bizarre. The conservative movement has in fact been succeeding in slow, steady increments, yet to listen to them talk you'd think they were Davy Crockett at the Alamo.

And this is why I refuse to be afraid, even if Donald Trump is elected President. Whatever else he does, he will not push the country still farther to the right - he's not a conservative and never has been, which is why he keeps violating conservative principles on the campaign trail. He will not make the country more racist or xenophobic than it already is - all he is doing is drawing out the existing racism, xenophobia, and misogyny in the population. In a way (as some in the NYT have argued) he may be doing us a favor by bringing this nastiness out into the light where it can be more effectively countered.

Trump as President would be confronted with a badly divided and electorally weakened Republican party in Congress, quite likely a Democratic Senate that can filibuster anything he tries to do, and a vast Federal bureaucracy with decades of experience in centrist governance. Washington, DC isn't the Celebrity Apprentice - you can't just fire everybody and start over. If he tries - really tries - to impose his desires simply by force of will, as he has tended to do in his business life, he will rapidly find himself unable to do much of anything, and he might be impeached. His penchant for litigation will get him nowhere - who do you sue when you're the President?

Most of the stuff Americans really care about - that is, the economy - is beyond a President's grasp anyway. The Federal government tends to operate at the margins on the economy. Yes, decisions made today can have significant effects tomorrow. But given the opposing forces battling over those decisions, they are unlikely to drive us off a cliff. On foreign policy, Trump is likely to alienate a number of American allies - but will he do worse than George W?* In the end, international relations (as the Realists remind us) really is based on interests, not on personalities. Europeans and others understand this. They will suffer what they must and do what they can, and they will continue to work with the United States when it suits them, as they always have.

There's a popular saying that every crisis is an opportunity in disguise. A Trump Presidency would represent a crisis of sorts, but it would also present a lot of opportunities to have important conversations about what kind of country we want and how we're all going to get along in it. In the end, his greatest impact could well be to unite the country against him. Whatever happens, in the end the republic will still be standing. And so, while I will vote against him and urge everyone I know to do the same, I am not afraid.

*Some have argued that Trump's foreign policy views in particular need to be carefully examined, because Presidents have absolute power over foreign policy in a way they don't in the domestic sphere. See this piece in Vox today for an example of this view. I disagree with this diagnosis - there are in fact a great number of checks on the power of a President in foreign policy, not least that it is formulated, carried out, and managed by large bureaucracies (State, DoD, Treasury, even to some degree the NSC) staffed by professionals. Most of these organizations are only penetrable by Presidents down three or maybe four levels - everyone else is there whether you like them or not. And there probably aren't enough qualified people who share Trump's views on FP to staff all those Deputy Undersecretary slots. Some senior military officers have even indicated during the campaign that they will disobey orders that contradict US law and the Constitution - as they should. So in the end, I think a President Trump would find foreign policy just as frustrating as domestic policy, perhaps even more so.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The New York Times and Why the Ivy League Won't Fix Socio-Economic Inequality

Last January Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote a piece on how many elite colleges are rethinking their admissions processes. You can read the piece in its entirety here; it's informative reading if you have any interest in college admissions at highly selective schools.

Unfortunately, Bruni wants this to be a piece not about the narrow technical world of college admissions, but about the much broader goal of fixing the nation's social and economic inequality problems. In so doing, the article suffers from the myopia typical of everything that the NYT publishes regarding higher education. In Frank Bruni’s world (and, to be fair, that of most of his colleagues), “higher education” means the Ivy League and a handful (no more than 100) of other institutions that actually get mentioned in national newspapers. These are name-brand, prestigious schools - like UNC-Chapel Hill and Michigan (which, along with Harvard, Yale, and MIT, are the only schools he mentions by name). 

It is true that the admissions systems in many of these schools have been pretty messed up for a while, with weird incentive structures that lead prestige-seeking families to sacrifice a lot of money, time, and sanity in a desperate attempt to get their kids into Harvard or Yale. The fact that the families doing so are overwhelmingly upper middle class (and who are likely to read the NYT) reinforces the information flow here, since the Times annually publishes stories about how much harder it is to get into Ivy-level schools today than in the past.

It is also true that the vast majority of the kids who go to these schools are from privileged backgrounds, which does tend to reinforce inequalities in society - but not nearly as much as you’d think. Take the top 80 schools and assume that each one, on average, admits 1000 students per year (some smaller ones, like Williams College, rather less, other larger ones somewhat more). Assume further that those schools could, if they stretched their resources, each afford to give full-ride scholarships to 300 out of those 1000 students (they need varying levels of tuition from the rest in order to keep operating). That’s 24,000 kids from disadvantaged backgrounds per year that will get to go to elite schools (keep in mind, some fraction of that number already does).

That sounds great, and it certainly would be for the individuals lucky enough to hit the jackpot. But in a country of over 300,000,000 people, where the middle class is shrinking, the lower classes are expanding and falling farther behind, and the rate of college degree holding is 35% among adults, how much of a dent is 24,000 going to make? Not much.

So I think there are probably a lot of good ideas in this effort to redo Ivy-level admissions policies. I just don’t think they’re going to matter very much in the grand scheme of things. If higher education is the answer to society’s inequality problems, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton aren’t going to be part of the solution - they’re too small. The real solution lies in public two- and four-year institutions across the country where the vast majority of Americans go to college. In those institutions (my employer included), this conversation about hyper competitive admissions is irrelevant. The real conversation is about funding - states have been de-funding higher ed for many years, and that’s unlikely to change. The problem isn't that people can't get in, it's that we can't afford to provide a good education to as many students as we could serve.

I’ve been frustrated for years that Frank Bruni and his NYT colleagues don't seem to understand any of this. They don't get that the secret to solving the social mobility problem isn’t letting more poor kids into Harvard. If you really want to make a dent, do what we did the last time we had real social mobility in the 1950s and 1960s - make public higher education a serious investment and put resources into it. Tinkering with the way Harvard and UNC admit their students is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.