Thursday, January 28, 2016

I Don't Want to Talk About Donald Trump

If you've been following the 2016 American Presidential election campaign at all, you know that 95% of the campaign coverage has been devoted to Donald Trump. I've seen some really smart stuff written about Trump in recent days, including this gem from my friend Peter Trumbore. For a similar take by a different author, you can check this piece out as well.

It has been well-noted by now that Trump is a master at dominating the news cycle. He has gotten enormous amounts of attention by saying outrageous things. This is clearly a big part of his strategy - maybe the whole of it. Everywhere he goes (which is to say, everywhere on the nation's airwaves and social media) he causes arguments. He is, in a very real sense, the center of attention.

Which is precisely why I don't want to talk about him. It's not just that I dislike him as a leader and as a person (though I do). More importantly, I dislike the fact that we spend an enormous amount of time talking about things that don't matter nearly as much as the stuff we're not talking about. Trump, in this sense, is a symptom of a broken political system that seems incapable of fostering the kinds of conversations we really need to have as a society.

I've pointed this out in other contexts before, so this is not a new argument for me (see here and here and here, as examples). A mentor of mine in higher education some years ago was fond of saying, "college is a conversation". This is true of society as well. We go along and live our lives, but what defines us as a community is the conversations we have with each other. The better those conversations are, the stronger our communities are. This is yet another way in which life isn't the end result of a process - life is process.

I see little hope, at least through the primary season, that our political process is going to produce conversations that would be useful for us as a country. We're not talking about climate change and what (if anything) to do about it. We're not talking about major technological trends (in energy and elsewhere) that will change the way we live. We're not talking about relations between groups (black & white, gay & straight, and so many other divisions) and how to make them better so we can have a more just society. We're not talking about how we want our economy to work and who should benefit from what. We're not talking about how our resources should be distributed, and what our top priorities should be. Instead, we're talking about an obnoxious bully with a bad hairpiece.

This will sound counterintuitive, for a political scientist, but if I have one request it is this: stop paying attention to the Presidential campaign. Spend a little bit of time picking your favorite candidate and then shut the rest of it out. It is a waste of time, it is imparting enormous amounts of negativity across the country, and it isn't producing anything of value. Find a way to have a conversation about something else with your friends, your neighbors, your coworkers, online. When the time comes, go and vote and then forget about it.

It is elementary that we only achieve things that matter when we decide to focus on the things that matter. Maybe later this year, the Presidential campaign will reach that stage. For now, I'm going to find something else to think about.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Oregon Occupation: What Kind of Politics Do We Want?

Now that the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by a band of armed anti-government protesters appears to be mostly over, we can step back and see if there's anything to be learned from the whole mess. The answer may be "not much," insofar as the whole thing was a bit of a farce (and widely treated as such) from the beginning, but I think there are some significant points to consider.

The chief question, one raised every time a group of citizens finds itself opposed to a government policy, is: how is opposition to be legitimately expressed? If I don't like a government policy, what should (or shouldn't) I try to do about it, and what are the limits to my opposition?

To talk of limits to opposition seems almost countercultural in these days of open political-tribal warfare in which politicians and political organizations have done almost everything short of direct violence against each other. Certainly the rhetoric of most politics, whether in campaigns for office or in the constant, ongoing "debates" over this or that policy issue, does not admit to any limits. The mantra is, we are right and they are wrong and we must do whatever it takes to prevail.

This is great for getting masses riled up (and, as the proverb has it, separating fools from their money), but what does it really mean? The Bundys and their followers apparently took this rhetoric seriously. They had a particular view on government policy towards federally-owned lands, and they chose to arm themselves, occupy a (remote) set of federal buildings, and issue demands until they were met.

Setting aside their views on the particular issues of federal land management and ownership, their strategy was both ridiculous and doomed to failure from the start. It was ridiculous in that no government and no society can function if the means of opposition is to take up arms and issue demands. If groups did this every time they didn't like a policy decision, we would quickly become a country of armed camps. It's an absurd way to conduct politics.

No government, of any kind, is going to give in to demands under such circumstances. To do otherwise would set a precedent in which groups would know that if they want to win on their pet issue, they need to arm themselves and find some federal building (or set of employees) to take hostage. The idea of any government - democratic, authoritarian, or anything else - meeting such a demand is extremely difficult to entertain.

What the Bundy boys did was not just misunderstand the law, or the Constitution. They misunderstood politics fundamentally. In any society, there is ultimately a choice to be made about how resources will be allocated and distributed and how rules will be established and maintained. Either there is a process for establishing those rules that involves consultation and assent from some (or all) of the population, or the rules are established and enforced by whoever has the most and biggest guns. Law and violence are the basic choices here. Either we agree on something, or we fight it out.

The Bundys seemed to want to have it both ways. They made an argument based on their interpretation of law, yet they denied our entire system of government designed to set up and maintain laws. They tried to use force (of a sort) to get the government to agree with their interpretation of the law. They broke the law in order to try to change it.

Some sympathizers have taken this logic to equate the Bundy movement with MLK and the civil rights marchers. The equation is of course absurd. MLK understood that when you break the law, you face the consequences. He voluntarily went to jail to prove a point, to shock the conscience of the nation. He didn't break the law and then hide behind a gun, daring the government to arrest him. His strategy was clear: he wanted through action and example to convince a majority of Americans that his cause was right and his preferred laws and policies were good ones. In this he succeeded to a substantial degree.

So changing policy through force and demand is out. No matter what political system you operate under, it doesn't work and it doesn't make any sense. Small wonder the occupiers in Oregon have garnered such widespread scorn.

In our current political climate, however, this does leave the rest of us wondering how politics should be conducted. We have seen a decades-long escalation of rhetoric calling for all-or-nothing solutions. Promises to "take back America". Strategies to create a "permanent majority". These things don't involve guns or shooting, but they do call into question what kind of society we want.

If your approach to politics is predicated on achieving some ideal future in which everybody agrees with you, I have bad news for you: there will always be people who disagree. Sometimes there will be more people who disagree with you than agree with you. Sometimes you will be on the winning side, sometimes on the losing side. If you want to participate in society and in politics, you have to accept that. You also might want to consider that you could work with people of differing views to get things done that you both can agree on.

In the end, we forget a key truth: the process is far more important than any particular outcome. There will always be another issue, another policy, another law that we want or hate. But the way we handle and deal with each other in reaching those outcomes, day after day, is in the end what defines us.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

We Have Met the Enemy

A lot of time slipped by in November and December. It was almost a full two months between my last blog post of 2015 and my first one of 2016. What follows was going to be the first of this year, but a tragedy occurred down the road from where I live and I responded to that instead.

A lot happened during those two months of silence. Radicalized civilians shot up an office party in California. In Paris, terrorists affiliated with the Daesh/Islamic State movement attacked a series of targets across the city, killing many. Donald Trump surged to the top of the headlines with calls to ban Muslims from entering the US, making favorable references to the Japanese-American internment camps of the 1940s. Tensions between black communities and police continued to flare with new revelations about unarmed young black men gunned down by police officers.

Behind all of this there is a lot of anger, fueled by a lot of fear. In the United States, the flames of fear are being fanned by politicians of all stripes, by the media (fear sells!), and by our own collective sense of angst. We don't agree on much, but we do agree that things aren't right.

I don't have solutions to offer to fix everything. I can't point to a candidate and say, "If only that person becomes President, everything will be great!" (and if you believe this about any candidate, please stop - the world doesn't work that way). Most blogging and op-ed writing identifies problems, and some suggest (usually simplified) solutions. I have nothing to add on either front.

Instead, I want to offer a different view. FDR once famously said, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He said this in his first inaugural address in 1933, at a time when Americans were in the depth of the Great Recession, the United States was far weaker and more vulnerable in the world than it is today, and systematic racial violence was still the order of the day in much of the country. Despite those dreadful facts, he was right. Fear exists in the mind.

Contrast the start of FDR's presidency to our own day. The US economy is the largest it's ever been and the largest and wealthiest in the world. More broadly, the global economy taken as a whole has never before produced this much wealth. The combined total of economic production for the world, per person, has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. Never before have humanity in general, or Americans in particular, had as much prosperity as we do today.

Similarly, we have never been less threatened by war. Despite the terrible headlines (and terrible realities) in Syria, Libya, and a few other spots, war (measured by how many people it kills) is a smaller problem now than at any point in the past 75 or more years.

We can see similar trends in violent crime within the US (which has been declining since the early-mid 1990s, and is now back to levels not seen since the 1960s when the population was 50% less than today), terrorist attacks against the United States, and on a number of other fronts. In the major categories of things humanity is afraid of (being killed suddenly and starving to death over time), we have never been better off than we are today.

I make this point because the gap between the macro-level facts and our fears is enormous and seems to be growing larger. Contrast this to past periods in history when people were legitimately frightened of important things. In the early 1800s, for example, there was a worldwide epidemic of crop failures and famines (caused, as it turns out, by a massive volcanic eruption in the South Pacific that was barely noticed at the time). Thousands died of starvation, millions became refugees, and the political and cultural landscape of much of the world was rewritten. In Europe, authoritarianism made a comeback against the early revolutionary gains of the Enlightenment as people decided that freedom could be sacrificed for food and safety.

Compare that world to our time - and then to the rhetoric we hear every day. Donald Trump and Daesh do share something in common - they have found ways to elevate people's fears, to paint a picture of a world gone not just wrong but horribly wrong, so wrong that radical and formerly unthinkable action must be taken. These dystopian views are so far removed from reality that those of us who don't share them are left shaking our heads at the insanity of it all.

Which brings us back to FDR. The core reality - the real problem, if you will - is not Mexican immigration, or Daesh, or vaccines, or impending poverty, or anything else. It is fear. The problem is not with the world, it is how we see and respond to the world.

To be clear, there are real problems. The water in Flint, Michigan really is poisoned. The young black man in South Chicago really does have cause to fear both his neighbors and the police. Syrians really do live in fear of their lives, so much so that perilous voyages on the sea may seem reasonably better than staying put. The distribution of wealth is changing in ways that advantage a very few and disadvantage nearly everybody else. We do not live in Utopia.

But notice what all of these problems have in common: they are created by us. We have the technology and the ability to provide clean water to the residents of Flint, just as we do in nearly every other community in the US. Our economic problems are not because we don't have enough wealth to go around, they are because we have created systems in our societies that distribute that wealth in poor ways. Where people are dying violent deaths, it is not over scarce resources needed to survive but over twisted ideas about what the world should be like and how we should bring about a better future.

The most pithy wisdom I can think of these days comes not from a political leader, but from Walt Kelly, one of the greatest cartoonists of the 20th century. In 1970 Kelly famously took an old 19th century historical phrase ("We have met the enemy and they are ours") and turned it on its head: "We have met the enemy, and he is us". Used originally for Earth Day and the environment, this bit of wisdom can be applied to almost all of the problems we face today - problems that are not nearly as large as our "leaders" would have us believe, and problems that all have solutions if we can only sit down together and figure them out.

If we want things to get better - whatever those things are - there are really only two things we need to keep in mind:

1) "We" is everybody.
2) Fear is one thing we can each control.

Everything else is details.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Guns and the Very Real Tragedy of the Security Dilemma

This is a sad way to start a blogging year, but so be it. I've got a longer piece rattling around in my head, which I hope to find time to write down sometime soon.

Given all that I've written about guns and self-defense, this story (sadly, one of far too many) jumped out at me:
Ohio man fatally shoots teen son he mistook for an intruder
I've written before, in more theoretical terms, about the security dilemma, the nature of guns as an offense-dominant technology, and the impact that has on civilian self-defense situations. In short, what we have known for decades as political scientists tells us that relying on guns for self-defense in interpersonal situations is likely to lead to all sorts of tragedies of unnecessary escalation, just as tends to happen internationally.

The story referenced above, just down the road from where I live, shows exactly how this works in real life. The important things to understand here are the details that are not discussed in the story, but which can be easily inferred.

We know that the father in the story went down to his basement upon hearing a noise. He went down expecting to encounter an intruder, or at least with the thought that this was a real possibility. That speaks to both the man's mindset and, possibly, to the neighborhood he lives in. Given the importance of mental preparedness in self-defense, this in and of itself is not a mistake.

We are then told that the father opened a door, the son appeared suddenly, and the father shot him. The shooting is referred to as "accidental", which is one sense it was - the father clearly did not intend to shoot his son. It's the nature of that "accident", however, that needs to be examined.

In order for this story to be true - and we have no reason to believe it is not - a few things must also be true:

- The father had the gun in his hand, with his finger on the trigger, when his son appeared.
- The barrel of the gun would likely have been brought to bear, i.e. pointing forward towards a potential target, prior to his opening the door.
- At the level of muscular response and control, the father almost certainly meant to pull the trigger. Modern guns do not "accidentally" go off on their own; they fire only when the trigger is pulled, an action which takes a small but non-trivial amount of force applied in a particular way.

It seems certain that the muscular response of pulling the trigger on a weapon already brought to bear on a potential target occurred before the father had a chance to ascertain whether the human figure who suddenly appeared before him was his son or a stranger. This, of course, is the crux of the "accident" - that the father, through muscle reflex or miscalculation, fired the weapon before determining the nature of the target. The mistake was in adopting a posture in which the decision to fire would be taken before he had time to determine what the target was.

It is possible that being startled by the sudden appearance of a person, especially at close range, could have contributed to the firing. By itself, I find this a less-than-satisfying explanation - the instinctive human reaction to being startled is to open the hand, not to squeeze it tighter. This is why startled people tend to drop things. It's certainly true that such a reflex could be overridden with practice - but that would involve deliberate effort on the father's part to change his reflexes so as to fire faster in a startle situation, which suggests a form of culpability as well.

So this is what an "offense-dominant security dilemma" looks like in real life. A father, fearing for himself and his home, adopts a hair-trigger posture and fires at the first sign of possible danger, without taking the second or two needed to ascertain the nature of the threat. He appears not to have made any attempt to establish verbal contact with the possible intruder, or to warn any potential intruders that he was armed. Doing so could have saved the son's life and averted tragedy, but would probably have seemed at the time to the father as putting him at unnecessary risk.

This is exactly why, in security dilemmas, there is no "better safe than sorry". All choices have the potential for disaster. My long-running problem with the most ardent advocates of guns as the "ultimate" in self-defense is that they ignore this reality completely and treat guns as a magic talisman that can ward off all evils.

If you keep a gun for self-defense, by all means train yourself. This has nothing to do with going to a firing range - in this example, the father was apparently quite an effective shot. This means training yourself in scenario thinking under pressure, the mental discipline of being able to maintain control of your options and apply force judiciously - including not applying force when it's not necessary. No CCW course in the land will teach you this, but you absolutely need to learn it anyway. Lives depend on it.

My personal alternative, of course, is to both engage in such training and to rely on less offense-dominated self-defense strategies. These are widely available and can be very effective - and they have the added benefit that you don't need to worry about whether your family will end up victims of your own weapon in your own home.