Thursday, March 7, 2019

"Free Speech in Higher Education": Not about Higher Education, and Not About Free Speech

Those of us in higher education got an earful about one particular bit of President Trump's CPAC speech, regarding his pledge to create an executive order restricting federal research funds to campuses that don't "protect free speech". Here's one story among many from the higher ed press:
Legal Scholars Don’t Know the Details of Trump’s Order on Campus Speech. But They Think It’s a Mistake.
This issue has been buzzing around the political sphere for while now, usually in discussions on the conservative or Republican side. Accusations have been flying about how there is a "crisis" in free speech in higher education.

Here's my take: there is no crisis. This isn't about higher education. And it isn't about free speech.

The poster child for this "crisis" of late has been Hayden Williams, an activist with an organization called Turning Point USA, a conservative group that recruits on college campuses. Williams was at an event on the UC-Berkeley campus last year when he was punched by another individual. The event was captured on camera and broadcast across the internet, where it quickly became fodder among conservative commentators as evidence of the "crisis of free speech" on campuses. The President brought Williams up on stage during his CPAC speech to illustrate the "crisis" he's trying to address.

I think the Williams case is actually the perfect example of the broader issue. Williams is not a student at UC-Berkeley - indeed, he has no affiliation with the university at all. He is a private citizen who came onto the campus from outside to use it as a platform for the message he wanted to promulgate.

The man who punched Williams was also not a student, nor affiliated with UC-Berkeley in any way. He was another private citizen who had come onto campus from outside, presumably to oppose or object to Williams' views. Or maybe he was just passing by.

So this isn't about higher education at all. This encounter could just as well have occurred in a public park, or on a street corner, or in the local post office. If it had, I doubt we would be talking about a "crisis in free speech in our public parks".

Moreover, Berkeley did exactly what any institution committed to free speech would do. It openly permitted Mr. Williams to come onto campus and speak and made no attempt to curtail or constrain that speech. Its police promptly arrested the man who threw the punch. Allowing that UC-Berkeley is a government entity, and that the right of free speech is a right to be free from government interference in speech, there was nothing about this incident that involved what we would consider constraints on free speech. The problem here was about civility, not government (or university) constraints on speech.

Finally, this is nowhere near the definition of a "crisis". There are between 3000 and 4000 institutions of higher education in this country. Every day, in every one of them, there are robust conversations about all sorts of things. If you were to add up all of the public incidents about "free speech" on college campuses over the past year, they wouldn't amount to more than a dozen or two, most involving small groups of students (if they involve students at all). Out of three million+ college students, a couple dozen is a rounding error, not a crisis.

Polls of the broader population show that large percentages of Republican-identifying adults believe that college professors are out to indoctrinate students with liberal ideas and suppress conservatives. These polls are meaningless, because they are asking these questions of a population that isn't actually in college and has no direct knowledge of what's going on on campuses. Moreover, well over 50% of that population has never been to college, so they don't even have their own past experiences to draw on. All these polls show is the power of media persuasion to get people to believe something in the absence of any direct evidence or experience.

So any executive order (if there is one, and if it is crafted to actually be implementable) will be a solution in search of a problem, a symbolic act designed for purposes that have nothing to do with what it's supposedly about. Which is a perfect statement about our politics today: angry, tribal symbolism disconnected from reality - at best, a distraction; at worst, an obstacle to us trying to build the society we really want to live in.


Thursday, January 31, 2019

Not Every Victory is a Victory

The title of this piece was quoted to me by a friend. We were discussing a situation that seems common these days: a public negotiation that has become a game of Chicken.

For those not familiar with the game-theory construct of Chicken, it's a two-player game in which each side tries to get the other to concede first. The typical narrative is two cars racing towards each other head-on. The loser is the one that swerves out of the way first to avoid a collision. One "wins" at Chicken by convincing the other side that your side is willing to risk total destruction if you don't get your way. In game theory matrix terms, Chicken looks like this:

If one player swerves (gives in) and the other doesn't, there's a clear winner and a clear loser. If both swerve, there's a tie but neither wins anything. Both continuing straight ends in disaster.

The recent budget negotiation between Congress (in particular, Congressional Democrats) and the White House could be modeled this way. Indeed, many did characterize the period of the shutdown as just this kind of test of wills - who would "swerve" first? And it seems that both sides saw themselves as engaged in Chicken, as both engaged in various commitment behaviors to try to convince the other side of their willingness to risk a Crash.

In this narrative, the Democrats "won" and the President "lost", because he was seen as swerving first (by agreeing to reopen the government without border wall funding). This game may get replayed again in three weeks - we'll see what happens in the next round, if there is one.

On the local level, I've been watching a similar Chicken game at my former employer. Tenure-track faculty (represented by an AAUP chapter) have gone on strike against what they regard as an unfair, imposed contract (18 months of negotiations failed to produce an agreement). Both sides have dug in, although the last couple of days have seen negotiations that may bear fruit.

The problem with applying the Chicken game framework to real-world situations isn't that it doesn't capture the dynamics of the two sides. The artificial model misses out on important parts of reality. Two real-world dynamics, in particular, are missing from the matrix. And when we forget about these things, then what we might think of as a victory really isn't.

First, as with most game-theory constructs the Chicken payoff matrix is set up as a single-play game. The "racing cars" metaphor is a one-time event - players play, there's an outcome, you're done. But life is not a single-play game - life is an iterated game. In most cases, you will interact with the same people tomorrow that you interact with today. Regardless of the outcome of a particular game, the choice of game itself and the strategies in it impact the relationship.

This is where Chicken is particularly problematic, because Chicken destroys relationships. In order to be willing to play Chicken at all, you have to take the position that you would rather die (or suffer horrifically bad consequences) than let the other side win. Once you make that statement, the other side will likely never trust you again. Playing this game at all - regardless of the outcome - largely closes off future opportunities for cooperation, because who would cooperate with someone with that value structure?

The second problem with Chicken in the real world is that, unlike in the game metaphor, the consequences of the game aren't borne by the players. Playing Chicken in a public environment doesn't mean being willing to absorb punishment oneself so much as being willing to inflict harm on bystanders that aren't in the game at all.

The Federal government shutdown was a classic example of this. 800,000 federal workers, and perhaps more than 1,000,000 contractors, went without paychecks for a month. The latter group will never recoup that lost money. Regardless of who "won", those people all lost. And that's not counting the ripple effects throughout the economy, as spending dropped and families became anxious. Standard & Poor's estimated that the shutdown evaporated about $6 billion from the US economy.

A faculty strike has the same dynamics. Yes, faculty who strike do suffer (unless the union has built up a Strike Fund, they go without pay for some period of time), as does the administration (which must scramble to figure out how to cover or substitute classes). But the real losers are the students. If you take seriously that what faculty do in the classroom matters, then some number of students are being robbed of the educational opportunity for which they have paid and arranged their lives. The longer the strike goes on (it's now into its second week as of this writing), the greater that cost is. A "crash" scenario means that some could lose the entire semester, setting their lives back by six months at least.

This is why even the "winners" in Chicken aren't really winners. There are no heroes in this game, only tragic victims and fools. As the movie War Games put it so many year ago:


Thursday, January 3, 2019

What Do You Believe?

I've spent a lot of time thinking about belief lately, and the ways in which beliefs shape our lives and our behavior. What we believe tends to drive what we do - whether we know it or not.

During the 2008 Democratic Presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton famously criticized Barack Obama's "Hope and Change" slogan with the zingy one-liner, "Hope is not a strategy." The attack failed, of course, and Obama went on to win both the primaries and the election.

Electoral history aside, the important thing here is that Clinton's critique missed the entire point. People don't seek hope in place of a strategy or a how-to manual. People are drawn to hope because they believe in something. Belief is necessary, and then strategy follows. One quote (variously attributed to different sources) puts it this way:

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Our beliefs and desires are what really motivate us. Everything else is details.

We live in an increasingly belief-free age - or one in which our beliefs are becoming smaller and smaller. On the political stage, "1000 Points of Light" and "Yes We Can" (beliefs in America meant, however imperfectly, for everyone) have been replaced with "Make America Great Again" (with a decidedly smaller and less inclusive "America").

We don't believe our politicians anymore (for many good reasons). We also don't believe in corporations, or religious institutions, or government, or indeed very much else. Polls about Americans' trust in various groups and institutions are usually referenced with regard to what is higher or lower than what, but the overall trend of trust - of belief that someone or something will be good - is down.

Given how politicians, and corporations, and religious leaders, and just about everyone else in the public eye have behaved over the past couple of decades, this decline in belief in understandable. It's hard to believe in things that disappoint or betray you.

But it's also hard to live without belief. Most of us do, in fact, believe some things about the world, though we may not be aware of those beliefs. If we believe that other people are fundamentally untrustworthy, we will act accordingly. If we believe that institutions cannot be trusted, we will not trust them. If we believe that some people ("them") are worth less than others ("us"), we will treat them worse.

I see this in professional life as well. I have worked for a number of colleges and universities over time. Those that have tended to do best, or at least those that have tended to be the most enjoyable to work for, were those where people both in leadership and throughout the organization believed in the institution and its work. People who believe in a place act like as if the institution is both good and capable of being better. People who don't act as if it's lousy and can't get any better.

The problem with a decline in belief is that things get worse for everyone. People trust less and distrust more; listen less and filter information more; cooperate less and attack more.

For all its simplicity, Prisoner's Dilemma still has a lot to teach us. I think its enduring power is because the PD dynamic captures something fundamental about life. In nearly all arenas, and certainly in all communities, we are all collectively better off when we cooperate and we are all collectively worse off when we defect. The more we defect, the poorer (socially, economically, emotionally, and spiritually) we all become.

What can be done? Here, the PD model does offer some hope. The best strategy over the long haul in PD is Tit-for-Tat (TFT). A lot of folks think of TFT in terms of its reactive nature - when someone else defects on me, I defect back at them. That's the part of TFT that our cynical age can get behind.

But the real power of TFT is the opening move, which is always to cooperate. When we begin with cooperation, good things happen. Not every time, and not perfectly. But in the end, it's the only choice that will make things any better.

We cooperate when we share something in common - interests, values, goals, beliefs. When we long for the sea together, we will figure out how to build a ship together, because the sea is our goal. When we believe that our community, or our company, or our nation can be made better - and (crucially) when we agree on what "better" means - then we will find a way to work towards that end. We don't cooperate because cooperation is good for us, we cooperate because we want to accomplish something.

In too many places, we have stopped having conversations about what we believe in, or what we hope for. In a cynical age, we see belief as something for "suckers", for "losers", for people who "don't get it". And so we believe in nothing, or we fall back on unexamined beliefs that often reflect our fears and insecurities rather than our better angels.

These are the conversations we need to have. We need to talk again about belief as if belief were something worth having. We need to talk about hope as if hope were a real thing.

We are far more powerful than we realize in this way: when we believe that hope is dead, then our belief becomes true. But if we believe that hope is alive and worth nourishing, then it becomes so immediately.

I know which world I want to live in. And so, I believe.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Who We Are: Reflections on the 2018 Election

Since we're in the post-election season of "what did it all mean?", I might as well throw my thoughts into the arena. Finding meaning in events is one of the most important things we do, because the meanings we construct become the world we inhabit.

I would start with an observation. We think of elections as tools, as moments when we can change who we are as a society. While this is true to some degree, I think it is more the case that elections are mirrors that who reveal who we were already but perhaps failed to recognize.

Lot of folks want to characterize elections as a referendum on either people or policies. Both can be true to a point - there are some single-issue voters (though not many), and there are some voters who become particularly attached to (or repulsed by) a particular political figure. Political parties know this, and spend a lot of time trying to make these the salient points, because these are things they can try to control.

Elections, it should be noted, are also about a ton of local things. Trying to look across a landscape of 435 House races, ~33 Senate races, and a number of state governorships to find some common theme is a bit of a fool's errand. Tip O'Neill was largely right - a lot of politics is indeed local.

Nevertheless, this set of midterms more than most had a national flavor to it. Much of that was driven by a White House far more active not only in campaigning, but in trying to drive the agenda and the conversation. Much of that agenda, especially in the final weeks of the campaign, turned on issues of immigration, which are really issues about Identity - who is Us and who is Them.

This surprises no one, because the Us/Them theme has been central to the current President since the moment he started campaigning (and, likely, for many years before that). Donald Trump has never been accused of being a "big tent" sort of person, and I don't know that he's ever given a speech, the primary theme of which was what unites Americans. That's a significant departure - every past President, Republican and Democrat, has given some version of that speech, usually many times. Think of Ronald Reagan's "City on a Hill" or Bill Clinton's "Bridge to the 21st Century" or Barack Obama's "there is no 'Red America' and 'Blue America'", or George W's impromptu bullhorn speech after 9/11.

So with the Who We Are question on the ballot this year, what do the election results tell us?

The results should surprise no one: they revealed a divided country. Many millions of Americans still believe in America as the land of equal opportunity, the "nation of immigrants" that embraces people from all around the world in tolerance and community, the America of "bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses". Particularly in the cities but increasingly in the suburbs as well, this America has reacted very negatively to the President's approach and to a message of division and exclusion.

Yet many other millions of Americans believe in a different America - one that in which people like them are (or should be) the dominant group, where their particular race or culture sets the standard, where people who do not fit that mold are to be feared, or subjugated, or driven away. Their America, they believe, is under threat from Them. They believe that the central challenge of this time is to drive back that threat, already far advanced, so that things will be Great Again. There is some of this view everywhere, of course, but it is more concentrated in rural areas and smaller communities, often themselves very homogeneous.

The latter group has known about the former for a long time. Folks in rural areas have always been subjected to the cultural pressures of the city, especially over the last century as mass communication (radio, television) has driven much of our national communication and entertainment. This group didn't particularly like the changes it saw, coming from the more urbanized, wealthy, and liberal America, but they were always aware of them.

The former group, however, has been quite surprised in recent years by the size, even the existence, of the latter. Many well-educated urban and suburbanites have been convinced, between their own daily existence and their presence in mass media, that their cosmopolitan view of the world was the dominant one, and that other views were dwindling if not mostly dead. The tendency of urban centers to view less-populated areas as "flyover country" didn't help much.

When elections were contested on policies and well-known personalities, this divide didn't matter a lot. Politicians could selectively play on it, but tended to stick to other alignments more in keeping with their vision of political parties as aggregations of policy preferences (tax cuts vs. gov't spending, more or less regulation, guns vs. butter, that sort of thing).

To the extent that the parties are realigning around identity politics, we're starting to see where people stand on the Who We Are question much more clearly - because now it matters. Whatever else may be, Donald Trump has managed to bring this question front and center of the American political debate.

The divide of identity was already and always there. It will not go away if Trump loses the election two years from now, or even if he is impeached and thrown out of office by Feb. 15. None of this is about who the President is. It's about who we are.

In response to a number of recent events - the synagogue shooting in my old neighborhood being only the latest - many people have proclaimed, "we're better than this". They have wanted to believe that we as a nation are not violently racist, that we really do believe in the "nation of immigrants", in tolerance and acceptance and equality of opportunity. They want to believe this because they themselves believe it and had thought that this was a settled question.

Unfortunately, the statement "we're better than this" is only true for a limited definition of "we". Some of us are clearly not "better", if by "better" we mean tolerant of difference and embracing of diversity. For a host of reasons, "we" - all Americans together - don't fit that description. We are not, as a people, all at that table.

This really shouldn't surprise us, except for the power of wishful thinking. All of us want to believe that everyone else thinks the way we do, because that's a far more comfortable world to live in. Folks in the "America First" camp never had that luxury - they knew, through their televisions and movies and whatnot, that theirs was not the only view in the world. They persisted anyway, invisible to everyone else until recently.

So where do we go from here? That depends, as always, on the end goal. If we want to work towards a nation with a shared understanding of Who We Are, then we need to start listening to each other - on both sides. That will be hard, and it will take a long time, and we will have to ignore screeching politicians who want to use our different views for their own factious purposes. And it will take commitment on both sides - a genuine desire to forge a common view of America that doesn't just involve imposing our views on the other side.

An alternative is to negotiate a workable detente. In some sense, this is already happening - people are increasingly moving to areas where their view of Who We Are is better represented, separating themselves from people who think differently. To the extent that different areas have different views, and they can agree to leave each other alone, that can work.

But we all live under one government and one set of laws. Our federalist structure means that we can finesse that to a point, as long as we're willing to let other areas be different. But on some larger questions, we can't just agree to disagree and call it a day. Equality under the law means that we share the same law.

The third possibility is that the conflict itself comes to define us. Short of a genocidal civil war, identity conflicts like this aren't solvable by force (and usually, not even then). There is no "winning" in this "fight". Indeed, "fight" is really the wrong analogy entirely. No one ever succeeded in getting someone else to agree with them via a Twitter war.

So it may be that Who We Are for the foreseeable future is this: two nations, sharing space and laws, that cannot agree. I wrote back on the eve of the 2016 election that America is Dying. Looking back on that post through the lens of this election, I am afraid I was right, and that we have gone farther down that road in the years since. Our third possibility is to recognize that America, as one nation at peace with itself, is gravely ill, and to wait and hope for healing.

When we are in conflict, elections are the last thing we need. Elections do not heal, they exacerbate conflict. They can, sometimes, clarify the situation in much the same way that a biopsy can tell you if you have cancer or not. But at best they are diagnostic. They don't make things better, and they may well make things worse.

So this, then, is the real choice of our time. Not Democrats or Republicans. Not Trump or anti-Trump. Not Red or Blue. We must decide what we want to be: One Nation, or Two. The question is not whether we want to Make America Great Again. The question is, Who is America?

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Foreign Policy and Hate Crimes: The Interactions Between International & Domestic Politics

In the discussions swirling around last Saturday's tragic killings in Pittsburgh, one dimension has struck me as particularly interesting. While many (including myself) have argued that the current President has contributed to an atmosphere of anger and hatred in our broader society (and thus bears some responsibility for Saturday's horror), others have countered that the President cannot possibly be to blame because he is (in the words of a number of supporters) the "most pro-Jewish President" in recent history.

This latter defense turns on the Trump Administration's foreign policy vis-a-vis Israel. This Administration has taken a number of steps long desired by a certain segment of the Israeli political spectrum, in particular moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing the latter as the capital city of the state of Israel. The President cannot possibly be anti-Semitic, it is argued, because he has done things that are deemed to be pro-Israel.

There are at least two problems to this line of reasoning. First, it conflates the political preferences of the current Likud-led government in Israel with the interests and preferences of all Jews worldwide. Moving the Embassy, taking a harder line with Palestinians, and so forth are not universally held positions even within Israel, much less throughout the Jewish Diaspora. Some Israelis applaud these moves, others condemn them. From an American point of view we ought not to presume that we understand (or can speak for) an entire people on the basis of a particular list of policy preferences, especially when those preferences are so obviously and publicly contested.

This argument also conflates the interests of the Israeli state (defined in a specific way) with the interests of the Jewish Diaspora, which ignores another very complex relationship - a topic for another day.

The second and more interesting problem lies in the blending of foreign policy with domestic policy. The crux of the argument is that "anti-Semitic" is a one-dimensional matter: one either is or isn't, and that this is true across all possible policy and political domains. Because President Trump has done good things for Israel in the foreign policy arena, he therefore cannot be an anti-Semite, nor could he be accused of doing things that are bad for the Jewish community. This sort of simplistic, one-dimensional assumption is very American. It's also, of course, wrong.

Foreign and domestic policy issues occupy different, though connected and overlapping, realms. This administration in particular seems to struggle with the connections between different issues areas, often playing one game in one arena only to discover that those same moves are having different effects on a different game board. No one, not even supporters of the administration, have accused it of an excess of professionalism, and a mastery of two-level games dynamics is something only gained through long professional experience. So it's not surprising that there's not much understanding here.

In this case, it is possible both to be a supporter of a particular Israeli policies preferences while also engaging in behavior that fosters and foments anti-Semitism domestically. A part of the one-dimensional defense involves intention: if I don't mean to be anti-Semitic, I can't be. But this desire to pin everything on intentions both ignores the fact that actions have unintended consequences, and leaves out a third category between pro- and anti-: a lack of concern for those consequences.

There is little argument that Donald Trump, as a private citizen, a candidate, and President, has fed and fomented all manner of conspiracy theories. Many of these things, like the "birther" craze, fed specifically into conspiracies much-loved by White Nationalist movements, as did his apparent support for those movements in the wake of the Charlottesville conflict last year. He continues to re-tweet and otherwise communicate out all manner of conspiracies and unsubstantiated claims, built around terms like "deep state" and "fake news".

The thing about White Nationalism is that it has always been anti-Semitic at its heart. Nearly all of the many and varied conspiracies floated by people in that circle sooner or later loop back to one grounding belief: that Jews control the world, to the intended detriment of (Christian) White Civilization. Not all White Nationalists believe this - but a great many of them do. The extensive and now widespread vilification of George Soros is just the latest iteration of this belief, which stretches back at least to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion hoax over 100 years ago.

This is how we get from continued attacks on Central American migrants (which the President continued in tweets over the last couple of days, continuing unfounded assertions about who those people are) to hatred of Jews. These things seem unconnected, and undoubtedly in Mr. Trump's mind they are. But to White Nationalists, they are all part of the same fabric, which is why Mr. Bowers leapt so easily from fearing a caravan of Spanish-speaking immigrants to believing that Jews are committing genocide against "his people".

We are in a political age in which once-fringe political views have become increasingly mainstream. Many politicians, far more tactical than strategic, have adopted all manner of uncompromising views because they think it necessary to win elections, or to protect themselves from being outflanked by someone more vociferous and outrageous. Old theories about running "out" to the wings for primaries and then back to the center for general elections have gone by the wayside. It's all fringe now.

The thing is, most Americans don't really live out on those fringes. But because those who are most likely to vote do, we're left with little choice when we go to the ballot box. Or we don't vote, ceding yet more territory to those few in number but loud of voice.

Having fueled this mess, our national political conversation won't save us from it. Our real hope is in local, personal, real community. We need to rediscover Tip O'Neill's famous dictum that "all politics is local". We can learn to live and work together, not just despite our differences but made stronger by them. We just need to stop listening to the far-away voices of anger and rage, and start listening to each other in real conversation.


Monday, October 29, 2018

Anger, Violence, and Society: A Personal Reflection

My son and I sat on the first floor of the Tepper Building, a brand-new, state-of-the-art academic facility on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University. We had come for an admissions presentation, part of the formal pageantry of a college visit. We had just taken a quick walk through the campus, and were looking at a map and chatting about things I remembered from my youth. I grew up in and around this place, and it was interesting to see how the university has grown and changed. We were looking forward to the campus tour following the presentation.

The first floor of Tepper looks out on Forbes Avenue with big floor-to-ceiling windows. We watched as an ambulance went by, lights flashing, siren blaring, speeding up Forbes to the west. It's a city, and in that part of town there are hospitals everywhere. We thought nothing of it, and kept chatting.

Five minutes later, a police car and another ambulance went by in the same direction, moving fast. Two minutes past that, another police car and a third ambulance went screaming by. A TV van followed not far behind. It was clear that something big was happening east of campus.

Thirty minutes into the admissions presentation I got a text from my father: Police working on active shooting at Shady & Wilkins (Tree of Life). We hear 7 casualties. Be careful.

I know that intersection, that synagogue, instantly. I grew up in that neighborhood. Some of the kids on my school bus were probably members of that congregation. I could see it in my mind.

We read about mass shootings all too often in the news. But they are usually somewhere else, in some other place. For most of us, they are theoretical events, things to argue about with talking points and, in our present era, partisan rancor.

This was home - my home. The Tree of Life is perhaps a 20 minute walk from the CMU campus we were visiting. It's 15 minutes from my father's home, and 5 minutes from the campus where my stepmother teaches. It's a place I'd been past thousands of times in my youth, walking to friends' houses and the shops in Squirrel Hill. To Mineo's, and Games Unlimited, and Famous Frank's.

After the admissions presentation, a CMU staffer came out apologetically and explained that the campus was closing all events for the afternoon. There would be no campus tour. I checked in with my parents and we headed back out of town, shocked and disappointed and not sure what would come next.

It's hard to comprehend the level of hatred, anger, and rage that would cause someone to stockpile guns and ammunition, walk into a house of worship, and kill people in cold blood. To be so far outside society that you will fire on police, on the elderly, on anyone in your path. That's a heavy lift when it's a largely theoretical exercise, an event among strangers in a strange place.

For me this is harder, because it's so close. We were right there. We watched the shock waves ripple across the city in real time.

One thing we do know: this kind of wanton violence is born in anger, in rage, and in hatred. We know that these things are grown over time, cultivated in dark places on the internet and in small groups. We know that they are nourished by the broader zeitgeist. Hatred draws sustenance when hate becomes mainstream. Anger grows when anger is all around.

There is no direct line here, no way to draw a clear connection between a particular speech and a particular act, any more than we can connect one cloud or one weather front with a particular tree in the forest. But the atmosphere, the environment, matters. Plants grow when conditions in the environment are supportive. Anger and hatred flourish when the same is true.

So it matters that we have a President for whom anger and hatred are daily tools. It matters that people openly sell, and wear, t-shirts that revel in violence at political rallies. It matters that abuse (both verbal and physical) aimed political enemies and out-groups has become so commonplace that no one bothers to comment on it anymore. We have created a hothouse of anger in our society. We should not be surprised at the fruit it yields.

To my conservative friends: yes, there are people on the left contributing to this problem. Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables" comment was a horrible thing to say. Eric Holder's "when they go low, kick 'em" was worse, even if he later explained it away as a metaphor. There are those on the left who have been calling to "fight fire with fire", arguing that anger must be met with anger. I'm getting tired of being told that I should be outraged all the time.

But none of that excuses the President, or the Republican Party, which has been gleefully throwing fuel on this fire or looking the other way when their allies do. "Fine people on both sides"? Scare stories about "rapists and murders" "pouring" over our southern border? Full-throated defenses of "free speech" without the slightest care or concern about what freedom is for? Politics has gone from being an effort to win elections to an effort to annihilate the other side, to create a "pure" society where only the "right-thinking" have a place. Sound familiar?

In the face of Saturday's culmination of a horrible two years of growing anger and hatred, I wonder whether there is any bedrock left on which we agree. Once, we agreed that violence was out of bounds in politics and society. At moments we have crossed that boundary, but we have at least agreed in hindsight that those were our worst moments.

Can we agree on even that much anymore? Can we agree that our public conversation has become so toxic that it is breeding and unleashing killers? I wonder whether we can, because to agree on the problem is to agree that we are part of the problem. When our national leaders boast of never apologizing or admitting to any fault or mistake, how can we take even the first step on the road back to peace?

I do not know what will happen in the future, or how much worse things will get before they get better. But I am reminded of the wisdom of CS Lewis: the devil wants us to worry about what will happen to us, but God wants us to be concerned with what we do.

Paul wrote about the "fruit of the Spirit", the outward signs of God's desire translated into human terms. In the letter to the Galatians he wrote, "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control".

You don't have to be a Christian, or a person of any faith, to agree that a society based on love is better than one built on hate. That peace is preferable to violence. That generosity is better than selfishness. That in the moments when we are at our best, we are kind and generous and patient.

I used to think that these things were the bedrock on which we build our society. Politics is usually about what we disagree on, but these are things on which we all agree. We all, I thought, wanted roughly the same kind of society, we just disagreed about how to get there.

Now I wonder if I was wrong. There are clearly people who want a very different society, one that is selfish and violent and angry and divided. Many of these people now occupy positions of prominence in our government. And many millions vote for them, apparently wanting the same.

What, then, to do? Be patient and kind and generous and faithful and gentle. Celebrate love and joy and peace. Be citizens of the society we want.

If enough of us agree, we might be able to move our society in this direction. It won't be easy, and it won't happen quickly. But in the face of Saturday's horror, it is the only response I can find that makes sense.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Power, Misbehavior, and Sorrow

Like anyone not deliberately cutting themselves off from the news, I've been inundated with the daily drumbeat of stories regarding Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court confirmation process, and the increasing number of women accusing him of various assaults and misbehaviors in the past. I finally had to shut it all off, because in the end it all just makes me sad.

The chances are extremely high that Kavanaugh will be confirmed to the Supreme Court. As a justice on the bench, he will likely add another (hopefully thoughtful) conservative voice. I don't go in much for Court politics, and tend to eschew predictions of the end of the world because the 5-4 split on the court shifts.

So up until a few weeks ago, I wasn't overly concerned about Kavanaugh's nomination. In the traditional sense - in the realm of concern for how the Court will rule on various matters - I'm still not. What will be, will be. I realize this isn't everyone's view, but it's mine.

What makes me sad about the whole thing is the damage that this process is doing once again to the right of women not be assaulted/harassed/abused by men. Just like Anita Hill a generation ago, women across the country are being re-taught the lesson: if you tell your story about a man in power, you will lose.

We thought we were making progress. Bill Cosby fell. Harvey Weinstein was brought down. Louis CK, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Les Moonves - a host of figures from TV and Hollywood were (at least temporarily) laid low by what seemed like a burgeoning movement. #Metoo seemed to finally have broken down the walls, gotten people to listen to women and brought men to account for their often atrocious behavior.

A few voices pointed out that all of these figures were in show business. What we're learning now, I believe, is just how powerless those men are. Or how much power women have obtained in that particular sphere. Which would be a good thing, but it's clearly limited to that arena.

Other areas are different entirely. Men in sports seem to continue to enjoy protection against similar accusations. In sports, the crime of choice is often domestic violence rather than sexual harassment - arguably worse than the depredations of Harvey Weinstein, or at least equal to them. But coaches and players alike seem to continue their careers unaffected by the discovery that they beat their wives or girlfriends. Kneel during the national anthem, and your career is over. Hit your girlfriend repeatedly on camera and you get to keep playing. Joe Paterno was brought down because he failed to report child abuse. But Urban Meyer just enjoyed a brief vacation from his job for failing to report spousal abuse.

Then there's politics. When Rep. Jim Jordan was tied to a sexual abuse case at Ohio State on the wrestling team, his party and his fans flocked to his defense. Catholic priests accused of the same are defrocked and shamed, but not politicians. We believe the accusations when the target is a priest. When it's an elected official in our own political tribe, we don't.

Then there's the President, who has so far been unscathed by a host of credible allegations of his own misconduct, bolstered by his own on-mic admissions, to say nothing of his tone-deaf, retrograde tweets that make it clear that he doesn't understand women's point of view and has no interest in trying. If ever there were a poster child for the protection that politics affords men who abuse women, Trump is it.

So even as the #Metoo movement forges ahead, winning well-deserved victories, I can't help but wonder if they're only working on the fringes of the problem. Those with relatively little power - entertainers, Catholic priests, local high school teachers - can be brought to account. But the truly powerful remain unaffected, perhaps immune.

And that makes me sad. I am sad that after so much time - the entirety of my lifetime, now approaching 50 years - women (and some men) have been struggling to right this wrong, to afford to women the basic dignity of their persons, to win the right simply to be people. And in far too many ways, we seem little nearer than we were back in the 1970s and 80s.

When Kavanaugh is confirmed - and I expect that he will be - it will be yet another reminder that power and abuse go hand in hand, that our systems of justice are still radically imperfect, and that women are still denied the dignity afforded to men.
I recognize that by "men" here we need to acknowledge that this is largely about "white men". Men of color, especially black men, face their own problems in our society, from Colin Kapernik to Tamir Rice and too many others. But that's a topic for another day.
And so I am sad to see daily the evidence that for far too many men, partisanship and "victory" for their party is more important than women's right to be heard, to be respected, to be granted dignity, and for men to be held to account for their behavior. We want very much to claim that "we're better than this". But I have yet to see evidence that we are. And until powerful men change - or are forced to change - it is who we will continue to be.