Tuesday, August 30, 2016

There Are No Enemies

Back in July I wrote a post about "Enemies in Politics", taking what was a fairly easy shot at the pastor who said the invocational prayer at this summer's Republican National Convention. It's easy to call someone out for labelling members of the other party "enemies", and he was widely criticized for his remarks.

More recently, we've had another use of the word "enemies" in our political sphere, when the Maine Governor Paul LePage said this:
A bad guy is a bad guy. I don’t care what color he is. When you go to war, if you know the enemy, the enemy dresses in red and you dress in blue, you shoot at red. … You shoot at the enemy. You try to identify the enemy. And the enemy right now, the overwhelming majority of people coming in are people of color or people of Hispanic origin.
If you want to watch him say these things, you can see a video clip here.

Now, what Gov. LePage said was politically stupid - so much so that he is now considering resigning before the end of his term under a firestorm of protest. That's a pretty standard political story - say something stupid that angers a lot of people, pay a political price for it. His angry response to a state senator who called him out on it didn't help either.

But I want to make a much bigger point here. The point isn't just that Gov. LePage, or Pastor Burns from South Carolina, were wrong about who our enemies are. The point is that they are both wrong about whether there are any enemies at all.

Put another way: there are no enemies.

I'll say that again for emphasis: There are no enemies. "Enemies" are an illusion we create ourselves.

I'm hardly the first one to come up with this idea, though it's not common in the West. Morihei Ueshiba, founder of the art of Aikido and famous for his philosophy, had many variations on this theme:

  • To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.
  • There are no contests in the Art of Peace. A true warrior is invincible because he or she contests with nothing. Defeat means to defeat the mind of contention that we harbor within.
  • The real Art of Peace is not to sacrifice a single one of your warriors to defeat an enemyVanquish your foes by always keeping yourself in a safe and unassailable position; then no one will suffer any losses. The Way of a Warrior, the Art of Politics, is to stop trouble before it starts. It consists in defeating your adversaries spiritually by making them realize the folly of their actionsThe Way of a Warrior is to establish harmony.

Or this:
Opponents confront us continually, but actually there is no opponent there.
People will immediately object, of course. "What about ISIS?", they will ask. "What about Russia? China? Terrorists? Weren't the Nazis enemies?" (Because Godwin's Law).

We live in a culture defined by enemy narratives. Almost all of our stories, our movies, our TV shows revolve around the struggle with enemies, "good guys" vs. "bad guys", black hats and white hats. There are exceptions, of course, but they are relatively rare. The Enemy Narrative is one of the most recognizable stories we have.

The problem is, it's all wrong. Or, put another way, it's all made up - a constructed story we tell ourselves about the world that hides and obscures more than it illuminates. We believe that enemies are real, that they really exist, just like trees and oceans and clouds are real. But they're not. Enemies are just people with labels we attach to them.

But what about people who attack us? Aren't they our enemies? If someone tries to do me harm, I'm not making that up - doesn't that make someone my enemy?

Imagine this story: I go out for the evening with my brother (who would, for the record, never do this...). We have dinner, maybe hear some music, walk to a couple of bars. He's feeling down about things in his life. Over the course of the evening he drinks too much, thinks about the wrong things too much, grows angry. Soon he's consumed by his anger and rage, fueled by alcohol. He bumps into someone, starts scuffling. I step in to restrain him, and he turns his anger on me. He lashes out to hit me.

Is he my enemy? Of course not. He's misguided, confused, and mistaken. Yes, he's trying to do me harm. But he's still my brother. And I will respond to him as such.

Now, substitute the word "neighbor" for "brother" in that story and it's a short step over to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" Those familiar with the Christian gospels know where that question goes. We are all neighbors, brothers and sisters, to each other.

Why, then, do we lash out at each other? Because we are confused, mistaken, misguided. Most conflict - maybe all conflict - is invented in our heads.

Much has been written in the study of conflict about the impact of a scarcity of resources. If there's not enough food to go around, people will fight over it. We will become enemies of each other quickly, in what most people would think of as "real" conflict with "real" enemies.

But there is no scarcity of resources. There is enough food, energy, water, and material for everyone on the planet. Neo-Malthusian concerns aside, we're not anywhere near the carrying capacity of our world. And if you look around at the conflicts in the world today, they're not really about resources. They're about some people wanting to control other people, because of ideology, religion, or a lust for power (or some combination of these).

During the Cold War, we used to argue in International Relations about whether the conflict was "real" or not. We had categories we called "spiral conflict" and "aggressor-defender conflict", and we argued about whether the Soviets were motivated by their own security (making it a spiral) or by trying to take over the world (making them a "real enemy").

But the argument itself was an invention. Yes, Soviet motivations mattered tactically, because they determined how the USSR might respond to various stimuli in the short run. But labelling them an "aggressor" and then claiming that the aggression made them an "enemy" wasn't an argument, but a circle of labels. No one asked, "why"?

This is not an argument for complete pacifism (a topic I've dealt with previously). If my brother is attacking me, I'm going to resist. I may even use force against him. But because he is my brother, not my enemy, I will use the least force necessary. I will do everything I can to keep him whole and unharmed.

Likewise, if a terrorist group is planning to attack us we should attempt to stop them. But in doing so, we should remember that, however confused or mistaken they may be, they are still fellow human beings. When Jesus called on us to love our enemies, this is exactly what he meant. If you claim to be a Christian and yet want to lash out in anger and hatred at terrorists (or Mexicans, or "thugs", or anyone else), you've got a problem.

Gov. LePage will not be the last politician during this electoral season to label someone else "the enemy". Partisans on both sides will do so, because the Enemy Narrative is a great way to mobilize your tribe and get them to go out and do things. Every time we do so, we dehumanize each other a little bit more. LePage isn't the cause of the problem, he's a symptom.

This brings me back to a frequent theme during election years: why I don't like politics. I would rather spend my time searching for peace and building better relations among people than waste my energy creating enemies that don't exist and fighting imaginary battles. There are so many better things we could do with our time, our resources, and our creativity. What a shame to waste them all on something that doesn't exist.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Sweet Briar College - The Long, Lingering Twilight

You have to applaud the folks who have worked so hard over the past year+ to keep Sweet Briar College alive. When a previous administration and board thought they saw the writing on the wall and tried to close the institution with some dignity, a group of alumni and other supporters banded together, raised $22 million, hired a new administration and a new board, and vowed to bring the honorable but ailing school back to life.

Now comes this news:
Sweet Briar Budgets $20M in Donations for 2017
Note that their budget for this next year calls for $20 million in donated money to help fund a $33 million budget. That's right - roughly 2/3 of the budget will have to be donated by outsiders.

This comes a year after the enthusiastic backers of the school pulled out all the stops to raise $22 million in donated funding. There is a finite pool of people who have a connection to Sweet Briar or who would otherwise be interested in helping it stay alive, and those people have a finite pool of resources. Looking for another $20 million from the same pool from which you pulled $22 million just a year before is a nearly impossible task.

And if they manage to pull off the impossible, what then? Do they raise yet another $20 million the following year, and the year after that? The college has yet to hit enrollment targets since it reopened, and its discount rate remains a staggering 64%. None of this is surprising - parents and students are understandably reluctant to commit time and resources to a place that could very well cease to exist within the next four years. That same concern is even stronger for donors, who have many requests for their philanthropy and who generally want to make a lasting difference in the world.

I understand and appreciate the emotion that drives efforts like this. For those most committed to the cause, it is a labor of love. But sometimes, love is not enough. Passion is not a business model. I'm afraid that in another year or two, Sweet Briar will see yet another closure - the next one less dignified and graceful than the first.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Process vs. Outcome in Politics

I came across this article in yesterday's New York Times, which got me thinking about a lot of larger issues:
Inside the Conservative Push for States to Amend the Constitution
For most folks, this is an article about amending the Constitution to limit the size and scope of Federal government. Or it's an article about conservatives using their dominance of state legislatures to push a particular conservative agenda item, the Balanced Budget Amendment. People who identify as conservative may see this story as a hopeful one; people who identify as liberal or progressive will likely see it as a cause for alarm.

I see it as a story about the political process.

In conversation I will sometimes claim that there are "outcome people" and there are "process people", and that I'm a "process person". The dichotomy probably isn't perfect, and to the extent that these categories mean anything at all I suspect that there isn't a very even balance. I think a lot of people are "outcome people", and that "process people" are relatively rare.

There's a lot that's interesting in this story about how a process of amending the Constitution via the states would work. You can read this throughout the article linked above - these are interesting questions, largely since nobody's ever done it before.

But there's a part of this that really saddens me. My reaction doesn't come from the fact that the issue in question - the outcome - is a conservative issue. I believe most economists when they say that a balanced budget amendment would be a bad thing. But the prospect of a conservative "victory" in this arena is not what concerns me.

What does is the reminder that there are plenty of people in our political system who are unelected, extremely powerful, and willing to do absolutely anything short of murder to get their way. The Koch Brothers have become poster children for this problem, but at least they're visible about it. There's a lot of "dark money" floating around trying to influence political outcomes, money owned and controlled by very small numbers of people.

I find this distressing because for these people, democracy is simply one tool among many. If they can use their money, their influence, or their media savvy to obtain a policy outcome that most people don't really want, that's fine with them. They don't care if they have to lie, commit character assassination, distort the facts, make stuff up. They don't care what everyone else things. They don't care about convincing a majority of their fellow Americans. They think they have The Right Answer, and by God they're going to impose that answer on the rest of us come Hell or high water.

This phenomenon doesn't just exist on the right, of course. There are folks on the left who think the same way, who would be gleefully lie and cheat and play games to obtain the outcome they think is best. Trump and his minions have argued that the Clinton campaign will cheat, but the particular form of cheating they're afraid of - voter fraud - is ridiculous (or, as my friend Steve Saideman calls it, #voterfraudfraud). But that doesn't mean there aren't folks out there willing to lie and make stuff up across party or ideological lines. Witness the odd political bedfellows in the anti-vaccine movement.

It is this phenomenon, more than the prospect of this candidate or that candidate winning (yes, even Donald Trump - see this piece for my previous thoughts on that subject), that disturbs me. It's this willingness to put outcome over process - which really means putting outcome over people and relationships, because that's what process is.

There's been a lot of talk about how polarized our politics are, but I don't think there's much appreciation for what that really means. It's not just that we move closer or farther apart on some linear spectrum of policy preferences. Polarization goes beyond disagreement; at a certain level it becomes demonization. We come to see the people on the other side as Evil, as Traitors, as Monsters. We crossed that line a long time ago, and have gotten steadily farther and farther away from it since. Donald Trump's campaign actively encourages this movement; visit a Trump rally and see the t-shirts that people are wearing, listen to the things they are chanting in the crowd.

This is why Trump's "second amendment" comment shocked so many. At minimum, he was flirting with inciting violence against his political opponents - suggesting that people with guns could use those guns against candidates or judges they don't like. The choice of violence over democratic process is the ultimate betrayal of the political system, the Original Sin of politics.

There are many steps short of violence, of course. There are the lies, the distortions, the character assassinations ("Hillary is terminally ill!") People like to say that "politics is a contact sport", as if using a bad metaphor excuses the morally indefensible.

For all that people talk about the intersection between religion and politics (and in our country, particularly Christianity and politics), here is a viewpoint I almost never see. The reason I find all of this so saddening is that this kind of "politics" - the kind that will do anything, slander anyone, commit any sin in order to "win" - fundamentally contradicts the basics of Christianity as I understand them.

In my faith tradition, we are taught that humans are created in the image and likeness of God. That we have a responsibility to respect the dignity of every human being. That God so loved the world that he sacrificed himself for us. That the greatest commandment given by God is love.

There are lots of reasonable discussions about the details and niceties of how one best loves one's neighbor. But all of those discussions are light years away from what happens in our politics. The campaign to amend the Constitution isn't about love, it's about Winning. It's about Being Right. We have an entire presidential campaign that, so far as I have been able to tell, has not one drop of love in it. It is fueled entirely by hate, anger, fear. The other campaign is better, but only by contrast. Not much love there either.

The thing is that in politics, we think that the Outcomes are the most important thing. What policy we have, what law gets passed, what regulations are created or repealed - these are of the highest political priority. But these hardly matter at all to anyone who takes the basic tenets of Christianity seriously. Laws will change, policies will change, regulations will change. Obamacare was created, and it has not brought about the end of the world. If next year a Republican President and a Republican Congress replace it with a new health care system, that won't end the world either.

What does matter, if we take the Gospels at all seriously, is how we treat each other. Indeed, the Gospels scarcely speak of anything else. Jesus' sole foray into the political arena was to tell his followers, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's". Focus on what's really important.

This is why I'm a Process person. Because process is all about how we treat each other, how we work together, how we agree and disagree and discuss and argue. Process is where Love lives. Outcomes, like the grass, wither and pass away; only Love endures.

This is why I am so uncomfortable with political campaigns and electoral cycles. They drive all of the love from the public square and replace it with anger, hatred, fear, greed - the whole range of human sin. They tempt us to replace our faith with what C.S. Lewis called "Christianity and".

When November comes, I will vote. Between now and then, I will look for signs of love.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Presidential Races: Who Do I Really Want to Be?

I've written recently about why I hate watching politics in Presidential election years. Now that we've gotten past both major party conventions, I expect things to get worse, not better. Choosing a President every four years brings out the worst in us.

I won't make comparisons to past years, or suggest that this is getting worse over time, because I really don't know. I have a general gut sense that every election cycle is worse than the one before it, but I can't tell if that's really true or not. I don't trust my memory of past elections, because I know I will remember the parts that fit the narrative I want to tell. So I'll leave it to someone else to see if there's a trend line here.

As I've been assiduously avoiding the conventions, I've been trying to figure out what it is about this whole mess that bothers me so much. I think I may have stumbled on an answer. I'll probably come up with a better one in future years, but this is the best I have right now.

Let me start with a basic premise: the experiences we undergo, the things we invite into our lives, the streams of information and conversation we pay attention to, all have a tendency to take us either closer to or further away from our "best selves". I know this concept has been cliched and corporatized, even mocked Stuart Smalley-style, but the basic idea is there. We all have, to borrow Lincoln's phrase, "better angels of our nature". We also have demons. Nearly every culture across human history has some way of expressing this basic truth, whether it's through Yin and Yang, or Paul's struggle against himself ("I do the things I don't want to do"), or the Tao, or the inner Jihad of Mohammed.

So let me begin from this point: the things I do, the choices I make, the conversations I have, should push me towards being a better person rather than a worse one. If I'm lucky, those same conversations and choices will help those around me be better, too - not to become better people (certainly not to be more like me!) but to tend towards better versions of themselves.

What does a better version of me look like? This should not be a surprise. Virtue suggests we should talk less and listen more. We should be more sympathetic towards others, not less. The virtues of justice, patience, kindness, humility - these are not new inventions. In the words of the Colossians, we are to "seek the things that are above." (3:1)

Here I begin to see why this year's Presidential campaign is so difficult for me, and why I am avoiding it as much as possible. And since I'm talking out myself here, I'm going to frame this in the Christian tradition, which is the one I'm most familiar with and the one in which my faith lies.

In their letter to the Colossians, Paul and Timothy lay out what "seeking the things that are above" means:
But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. (3:8-9)
Or this from the Gospel of Luke:
 ‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (6:27-28)
Does this sound like politics today?

These are not obscure, cherry-picked verses from odd corners of Scripture. They are, as almost all clergy will agree, at the heart of the Christian gospel. To reject these things is to reject Christ.

Both major candidates claim the mantle of Christianity, as do a great many of their followers, supporters, and staff. Yet anger, malice, slander, and abusive language are everywhere. No one wants to do good to those who hate them.

Trump stood in front of microphones the other day and claimed that he wanted to hit speakers who criticized him. How this man can claim to be a Christian I have no idea.

When someone stands in front of a microphone (whatever the color of their skin) and yells "All Lives Matter!", that's not meant as a philosophical statement. It's meant with anger and malice, which is why the crowd roared. It was not delivered in love, but in hate.

Political operatives will say, too bad - this is the way the world works, this is what it takes to win elections. I'm not an expert in political tactics, so I can't say whether that's true or not. What I can say is that, for me at least, the process of experiencing an election makes me a worse person. I would go so far as to say that it has that effect on a lot of people, perhaps on all of us. If that is true, then we are degrading ourselves as a people every four years (to say nothing of what happens in between), and doing so with great gusto and delight. It's not clear that there is any political outcome in the near term worth such degradation.

People will say, "this is necessary," but all that really means is, "I can't imagine it being any other way". Leadership does not have to be divisive, and we don't have to reward the loudest and angriest voices. What would a different kind of conversation look like? I recently came across this interview, which offered interesting insights:
Trump: Tribune of Poor White People
This is from a source and a point of view I wouldn't ordinarily listen to, or even hear of. It's not a perfect piece, but it's a good reminder that the "other" people out there are people who think of themselves as good, who are trying to make it as best they can in the world, and who need to be listened to and taken seriously - especially because they are poor. Most of Jesus' ministry was directed at the poor and the powerless; we should do no less.

This kind of cross-boundary dialogue is not typical. What I see instead are liberal friends insulting conservatives as morons, idiots, and racists, and conservative friends insulting liberals as traitors, liars, and thieves. I see everyone issuing existential threats about what terrible things will happen if "they" win - as if "they" were an alien invasion, not a fellow group of human beings. Elections are not opportunities for discussion or even debate, but simply shouting matches where we remind people on our side of all the great reasons we have to hate the people on the other side. As the subject of the interview linked above puts it, "The November election strikes me as little more than a referendum on whose tribe is bigger".

After the election, though, we all still need to live together. We aren't voting on whether to divide up like Slovakia and the Czech Republic, where we get to go our separate ways. If we want any of the things we claim to want - peace, prosperity, justice, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness - we have to work together to secure these things. Yet our process of transitioning from one government to the next makes working together impossible. Small wonder that we're not getting what we want.

Conservatives: the answer to the brokenness of politics isn't "defeat all the Liberals".

Liberals: the answer to the brokenness of politics isn't "defeat all the Conservatives".

The only real answer to all conflicts is the hardest road. As Abraham Lincoln reminded us, the best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend. Or perhaps we should remember the words of Lao Tzu many centuries earlier:
When two great forces oppose each other,the victory will goto the one that knows how to yield. (Tao Te Ching, Ch. 69)
So there it is: I hate watching politics because the more of it I experience, the worse I become. I strongly suspect that is true of most of us. This is not to say that I can't make distinctions among candidates, or that when the time comes I won't cast my vote. But I can wait until November to do so. In the meantime, if I really want to make the world a better place there are so very many other things to do than pay attention to, much less engage with, the sewer that is our political process.