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 is 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.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Did Hegemonic Stability Theory Predict Trump?

When I was in graduate school, we spent a lot of time studying theories of international politics - how the world works at the macro level. The dominant theory of the day was Ken Waltz' structural realism, which purported to explain how a bipolar system (two superpowers, the US and the USSR) could be so hostile and yet produce a world without major war. The historian John Lewis Gaddis picked up this theory and used it in his seminal work The Long Peace.

But while structural realism and its major competition, Keohane's neoliberalism, were all the rage, I was always drawn more to an offshoot of the realist world - hegemonic stability theory. Robert Gilpin's War and Change in World Politics, penned in the early 1980s, seemed to me to offer a better explanation of the Cold War. The superpowers were clearly not equal; by the 1980s it was clear that the US was far superior to the USSR in every category save one: the destructive power of its nuclear arsenal. On this, and this alone, were the two sides equal. But in terms of alliances, economic strength, prosperity, and the influence of "soft power" (Keohane's contribution to the discussion), the US was clearly way ahead.

Gilpin's theory postulated that world stability comes when a hegemon - one clearly dominant power - establishes order and a set of rules for the international system. Those rules are plain to see, and are embodied in the many structures built up after WWII - the UN and its Security Council, the IMF, the World Bank, and the GATT (which eventually became the World Trade Organization). Later we added to these the World Court and the International Criminal Court. All of these structures were, for the most part, written up by Americans - in part to make a better world, but in larger part to make a better world for the United States. Because that's what hegemons do - they write the rules of the world to advance their own interests.

The United States, moreover, seemed to have pulled off a singularly historical feat: it wrote a set of rules for the world that benefited not only itself, but also others. Anyone who agreed to play by those rules could participate and prosper*. Those that refused those rules - as the communists of the USSR did, preferring their own - were left out.
* An argument can be made that the prosperity afforded to others was limited and, to some significant degree, racially biased. It is true that chunks of the world were still exploited and left out of opportunity - though the causes were complex. Suffice it to say that the rules written by the United States were more open and inclusive than those of previous empires, even if they were not perfectly so. Africa has not faired well, but South Korea, Brazil, Turkey, and a number of others have.
Gilpin pointed out that the stability thus produced by a hegemon and a stable set of rules would last only so long as the hegemon could maintain its position against potential challengers - other powers that aspired to be hegemon themselves in order to impose their own rules. The Soviet Union was one such challenger, and not a terribly good one. It eventually drove itself into the ground in the effort. The end of the Cold War ushered in an era in which the US has, until recently, been largely unchallenged as the dominant world power.

Challengers do have a structural advantage: they don't have to pay the costs of maintaining the international system, whereas the hegemon does. Eventually, Gilpin argued, that structural advantage would cause a challenger to catch up, leading to a systemic war that would produce a new order - either the hegemon would reestablish itself, or the challenger would upend the existing order and take over. Either way, a new period of stability would then ensue.

Gilpin also pointed out that internal politics play a role, particularly within the hegemon. Because the hegemon has to bear the cost of maintaining the system, it's entirely likely that over time it will grow weary of spending the resources necessary to keep its position. The longer stability lasts, the more people will take it for granted as "the natural order of things", and forget that stability takes effort to maintain. The US did a good job to some degree of sharing those costs (the creation of NATO, for example), but there have been "burden-sharing" debates for decades about whether the US is "paying too much" to "be the world's policeman".

Into this world steps Donald Trump, who understands none of this. As many (supporters and detractors alike) have pointed out, he views the world in very transactional terms: every interaction is a separate, independent event producing a winner and a loser. These interactions appear in his worldview to have no connection to each other. He is the embodiment of Robert Axelrod's early experiment in multi-player prisoner's dilemma (though he obviously never read that article).

Viewed in this way, a trade treaty with South Korea (for example) has particular terms which favor one side or the other (the possibility that both gain is not entertained either - Trump's worldview is clearly always and everywhere zero-sum). The possibility that we might be willing to give something (or gain less) in this one interaction in order to gain something else in another arena (say, security cooperation and basing rights) does not occur to him. "Issue linkage", long a staple of American foreign policy, has been banished. In Trump's view, we must "win" on every single issue, or else pick up our marbles and go home.

The possibility that we might be willing to give up something as the cost of maintaining the international order is completely foreign to this President. Trump assumes that the United States is the dominant power, and the world is structured the way it is, because - divine right? Providence? I don't think he has any idea, because he's never asked the question why the world is the way it is. He is oblivious to the costs that the US has borne over the last 60+ years to establish and maintain the world that he has grown up in.

And so Trump is seeking to stop paying those costs, not because he wants to change the world but because he doesn't understand the consequences. He is like the homeowner who wants to rearrange the walls in his home without first asking which walls are bearing the load of the upper floors. In his view, it is better for us to keep and hoard our money than to spend it maintaining a system that clearly benefits others (as well as us). In his own words, doing so makes us "losers" and "suckers".

This is exactly the kind of behavior that Gilpin predicted 30+ years ago - that the hegemon will eventually grow tired of paying the costs of system maintenance, thereby hastening its own demise as the dominant player. In seeking to "Make America Great Again", Trump is actually moving in the opposite direction, driving the United States towards second-tier status on the world stage.

He does so, unfortunately, at a time when there is a real and viable challenger in the world: China. The Chinese government has made no secret at all of its desire for hegemonic dominance, and its plans for getting their are fairly plain to see. It will take some time, but that is the direction they are pushing in. As they move up, the United States is rushing downwards to meet them.

This, I suspect, is the source of much of the "resistance" within the Administration to Trump himself. Nearly everyone else in the government - certainly Jim Mattis, John Kelly, Mike Pompeo, Dan Coats, and their many underlings - understand American power and how our place in the world is maintained. This is not the "deep state", nor is it necessarily the "steady state" - it is simply the state, the natural outgrowth of two generations of foreign policy development in the United States that has always been more bipartisan than it appears.

What the result of this will be is yet unclear. The Trump Administration is young, and already faces resistance to Trump's apparent desire to chuck the role of hegemon and withdraw from the system we built. The midterm elections will matter, as will the next Presidential election. If Trump is just a blip, a future American President could restore the United States to its usual course - one that might forestall, or better manage, the growing conflict with China. On the other hand, if Trump gets his way then we may see a substantial rewriting of the rules of the international order - and not in America's favor.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

A Minor Controversy, a Major Problem

I read recently about a minor news story in my local paper. It's the kind of story that likely won't make the national news, and if it did it would be for 15 minutes or less:
Beef O'Brady's Beavercreek: No NFL Games Again This Year
The story is about a local pub owner who, for the second year in a row, is cancelling his business's subscription to the NFL direct service so as not to show NFL games in his establishment. Given that he runs a pub, this is fairly significant since some portion of his clientele presumably go to watch sports.

The article points out that the owner is a Marine Corps veteran, and that he has taken this position because his disagrees with some NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. Presumably, he regards that action (and the NFL's tolerance of it) as disrespectful to values that he holds in high regard. Not all military veterans feel this way, but some do.

So far, this is all fine. He's a private citizen running his own business. He's entitled to run that business as he sees fit, and to express his opinions as he likes. Others are welcome to either support him (as many have online) or disagree with him. Nothing unusual or particularly problematic here.

What caught my eye about the story was a quote from the owner explaining his decision:
“The outpouring of support the Beef ‘O’Brady’s family has received over the past year for taking a stand proves one thing. The majority of the American people is on the side of freedom. We’ve received tens of thousands of visits, emails, and letters from patriots in all fifty states. Donations accompanied hundreds of those letters.” [emphasis added]
The underlined sentence is problematic for three reasons. First, however many letters he has received proves nothing about what the majority of Americans think. We all have a tendency, of course, to assume that most people agree with us. But we're often wrong.

Second, there is an irony here in casting this side of the issue as standing for "freedom". That freedom apparently doesn't extend, in this business owner's mind, to NFL players expressing their own opinions in their place of business. This, too, is common: we tend to use the word "freedom" as a talisman, but what we really believe in is freedom for "us", not for "them".

But the primary problem I see is a microcosm of our failure as a society. By casting the issue the way he has, this gentleman has made it clear that he has not the slightest interest in what other people think. As far as he's concerned, he and those who agree with him are on the right side of everything - freedom, Mom, apple pie, and America. By implication, those who disagree stand against all of those things.

Most folks I know would greet this observation with a shrug. So what? People do this all the time. We constantly denigrate those with whom we disagree and dismiss them as cranks, or unhinged, or up to no good.

Or as Enemies of the State. Or Traitors. Or Animals.

This is why this small thing looms so large. Because this is the moment we are in. We are tearing at the fabric of our society, led by "leaders" who desire power over all things and will do anything to obtain and maintain it - up to and including destroying America as a society.

We know where this leads. It's not a new pattern. But it is new to the United States, at least within living memory. We thought we were different, exceptional. Turns out, not so much.

What we have lost is the capacity to listen. I was reminded of this recently when the following passage from the Letter of James came around in the lectionary:
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. (James 1:19-20)
There's a lot of "righteous" anger these days, and precious little listening. For those who claim to be faithful, Bible-reading Christians, apparently this passage has been forgotten. But for all of us, regardless of our faith or religion, we have lost the ability (or the willingness) to try to understand one another.

The pub owner above is not unusual. As he has discovered, there are many who agree with him - people who would rather feel comforted in their tribal righteousness than try to listen to others who might disagree. To understand why some players might choose to kneel during the national anthem rather than stand. And maybe, to work towards solutions instead of divisions.

So two cheers for the anonymous author of yesterday's New York Times op-ed in calling for us all to be Americans first. But that piece, and most others I have seen recently weakly extolling that same virtue, have forgotten the hard work of how we get there. We have to shut up and listen. That's hard work. And it's something we have largely forgotten how to do.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

What We Don't Know Can Hurt Us: Higher Education Edition

The old saying has it that "what you don't know can't hurt you". I believe that we are living through an era in which what we don't know about each other is hurting all of us, because that lack of knowledge fuels unnecessary conflict.

This is absolutely true in my industry of higher education. Universities all have varying levels of conflict, of many types. One of the most common is conflict between faculty and administration. Much of this conflict is unnecessary and stems from a lack of knowledge.

I have been reminded of this in many ways in recent weeks, but most proximately by a social media post from a friend which read in part:
My school has an "enrollment management" office with a multi million dollar budget that seems to go up every year. I have no idea what the hell they do, and why that money is spent, especially when my scholarship and other support dollars are at an all time low and will not go up anytime soon. Meanwhile, enrollment at the university as a whole has gone down, and continues to plummet, even while [our department's] enrollment grows each year. ... Bureaucrats will multiply and take all the money, meanwhile, people in [our field] will continue to connect and develop life long meaningful relationships.
To be clear: I have great respect for the faculty member who wrote this post, which also included excellent examples of the work going on in that person's department. I also have great respect for the department as a whole, and the ways in which it has succeeded despite having few resources at its disposal. I think these are excellent people doing great stuff.

My concern, as is often the case, is the characterization of the faceless "they" and the conflict which this needlessly perpetuates. The post above has a few problems caused by a lack of knowledge:

1) The budget of the enrollment management office in question has been going down, not up. The phrase "seems to go up every year" hides the fact that the author doesn't really know, but suspects. Often times, what we suspect to be true isn't. In this case, the office in question has been pushed to do more and more with less and less, just as (perhaps even more than) the academic departments have. And unlike some faculty, nobody in the enrollment office has tenure - many can be (and have been) fired.

2) The phrase "I have no idea what the hell they do, and why that money is spent" is honest, but conveys a suspicion that those efforts are wasted. Not knowing should be an occasion for either humility or research, or both. Negative speculation is harmful.
     In this case, the work of enrollment management is extremely difficult. If it were easy to control enrollments, more universities would do it - most except for the very elite struggle with this constantly. Moreover, the university in question has historically under-invested in marketing itself (an assertion which faculty might dispute but which in fact holds up under scrutiny if you take the time to look comparatively and to understand how marketing works).

3) The claim that "[b]ureaucrats will multiply and take all the money" is both broad and inaccurate. The contrast with the second half of that sentence reveals a broader narrative: faculty are the ones doing the important work of the university, whereas "bureaucrats" are wasted money whose work does not contribute to the education of students or the health of the university as a whole. Professional staff see these comments and know this attitude is out there.

Again, to be clear: faculty DO very important work. I agree that the work that faculty do directly with students is THE work of the university. It is in those relationships that education happens.

But it is also true that without the work of the "bureaucrats", the work of the faculty would be impossible. There is a vast amount of effort that goes into recruiting, admitting, housing, advising, scheduling, and providing for the needs of that student before she ever reaches the classroom. Most of this work is invisible to both students and faculty, as it should be. Ideally, all of this is as seamless and efficient as possible.

But seamless and efficient does not mean free. And while I believe that everyone within a university, at all levels, should be accountable for the quality of their work, the conflicts that arise between faculty and administration often aren't about accountability. They're about tribalism, about them being "them" and us being "us". They are always wrong, and we are always right. And because we are always right, I don't need to know anything about them, because they are wrong anyway, so why learn?

This is the very essence and root of our conflict. Yes, there are disagreements over interests and policy directions and so forth. But if we really understood each other, if we understood how things work on "the other side", and if we ceased doubting (or assuming) each other's motives, the concrete disagreements would be vastly easier to resolve.

Now that I have the position I do, I have few avenues to make these kinds of arguments. Faculty at many institutions are allergic to being "told what to do" by administrators, even if all we're saying is that we would like to develop a common understanding of how the world works. The narratives that drive these conflicts on our campuses are rooted in a fundamental mistrust about motives, but they are fueled and maintained by our steadfast refusal to learn more about each other. That's a problem we can fix - if we want to.

This is, of course, true in our broader society as well. I have previously argued that we don't really have an "America" anymore, but a feuding set of tribes that know less and less about each other. The antidote is always knowledge - not knowledge of facts so much as knowing and understanding people. We claim in our universities to be laboratories for solving society's problems. Perhaps we should start with this one.