Saturday, November 4, 2017

Trump is Not the Problem

I know a lot of my friends will disagree, but I believe that President Trump is not the fundamental problem we face today.

Trump is a symptom of the problem, a product rather than a cause.

The problem is us.

I know that we're fond of, and prone to, sweeping judgments about the state of our politics. Everyone has a take on what the "real" problem is, and on the whole I tend not to put much stock in such arguments. But there are, I believe, fundamental issues that drive all of the others. And on one of these issues, I think we are very, very wrong.

I was reminded recently of a book I read back in college, E.E. Schattschneider's The Semisovereign People. At the core of Schattschneider's argument was this observation: that what happens in politics isn't determined by the power of the opposing sides, or by what they choose to do. It's determined by what the conflict is about in the first place.

What we see on a day to day basis is a parade of different issues - health care, tax reform, immigration policy, Russian meddling in American elections, protests during football games, etc., etc. Although these are all very different issues, with different details and differential impacts on different parts of the American people, they all have a sameness. They feel like they are all the same argument.

We subject ourselves to this kind of Groundhog Day politics because the community of "America" is largely gone. Far too many of us no longer care about America - which means, we no longer care about our fellow Americans. We care only about a subset of them - those who look like us, talk like us, support the parties or candidates or symbols that we do.

When you only care about Your People, you will do anything it takes to win and to make sure the other side loses. It's OK to pressure, to strong-arm, to lie, to cheat, to steal, to kill. People inspired by ISIS kill pedestrians in NY. People inspired to Richard Spencer kill pedestrians in Charlottesville.

Years ago in writing my dissertation I stumbled on an insight: in any conflict, if one sides resorts to zero-sum thinking it will quickly drag the other side into the same morass. A Prisoner's Dilemma world moves from TFT-style mutual cooperation to mutual defection and conflict very quickly. It's not enough for some to want to be cooperative - both sides (all sides) have to agree, or the whole is dragged down to the lowest common denominator.

That's where we find ourselves today - the lowest common denominator of American politics. Richard Spencer and Milos Yiannopoulos wage a battle to "win" for their side, whatever the heck winning is, by cheating and abusing and pushing buttons and generally behaving in all sorts of barbarous ways our parents taught us not to.

The Trump Administration does the same, attacking anyone and everyone it disagrees with, disrespecting every institution and every rule it finds inconvenient, and generally acting like a bunch of barbarians.

The reason why the story about the agreement between the Clinton campaign and the DNC in 2015 has legs is that it fits this same narrative: do anything you have to in order to win. Republicans decry it as "crooked Hillary", but show me a Republican today who doesn't have that very same stain on their actions.

We are all becoming barbarians.

My research and writing over the years has helped me understand all of this, to see behind the surface to the next level of dynamics. But as author Noah benShea once put it, Reason explains the darkness - but it is not a light.

I don't know where the light is. There were times in the past when natural disasters and tragedies have brought us together as a people, at least for a little while. I remember the Mississippi floods of the 1990s, where for a time it seemed like Americans just came together as Americans and forgot our divisions. After Oklahoma City we saw how toxic a political cultural could become, and for a little while we turned our back on hatred and came together in honor of murdered children. I remember a time, too short a time, after 9/11 when we did the same. Even after Hurricane Katrina, though the Bush Administration took some abuse for its sluggish response, we all agreed that it was a tragedy and did what we could to help.

In the past two months we (the United States, we Americans) have been hit three times by major hurricanes. Where is the unity, the sense of shared purpose, the empathy? Still we squabble and argue and spit. Houston and Florida have been forgotten in the national conversation, while Puerto Rico is a sordid battlefield of childish insults and corrupt bargains.

I wrote a year ago, just before the Presidential election, that America is Dying. One year later, it has only gotten worse, and the trajectory has not changed. President Trump isn't helping, but neither is he the driver. We are destroying ourselves.

This will end when, and only when, we start to value our fellow Americans - all of them - more than we value our own selfish and tribal desires and wants. When we stop seeing every fight as an existential conflict which we must win or die. When we become willing to listen, and to bend, and to compromise because the relationships we have with one another are more important than the issues of the day. When winning matters less than people - than us.

To put it in theological terms: it will end when we learn to love each other again.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Iran Nuclear Agreement: Few Good Options

With President Trump apparently about to "de-certify" Iran's compliance with the agreement on its nuclear program, there will be a great deal of discussion about the details - what does de-certification mean, what does Congress have to do, what sanctions can be reimposed, what does this mean for US alliances, etc.

I want to step back from all of that and look at this from a broadly simple negotiation perspective. For all of his vaunted experience as a "dealmaker", it's not at all clear that the President understands negotiation at all, at least not in the international realm.

At issue is Iran's desire to develop, and possibly deploy, nuclear weapons. The incentives Iran has to do so are strong, perhaps overwhelmingly so:

1) The United States, the single most powerful military on the planet, has repeatedly declared the Iranian government to be an enemy.

2) The 2003 Iraq war demonstrated that the United States is quite capable of waging preemptive war, without reasonable pretext, against states it perceives as enemies. Iraq did not possess any significant WMD capability at the time, and the US knew this.

3) The ongoing crisis with North Korea shows a different outcome. North Korea, like Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, is more or less permanently on the US' list of enemies. But North Korea does possess nuclear weapons, and is rapidly developing the ability to deliver them widely. It also possesses a significant conventional deterrent against something the US cares about (South Korea).

4) Israel, Iran's most implacable foe, possesses nuclear weapons and has no significant powers in the region to deter it.

From Iran's point of view, the desire to possess a nuclear deterrent simply to insure the regime's survival is entirely understandable. It is also the case that regime survival tends to be at the top of every country's list of priorities - meaning there is nothing else as important as that goal.

In light of this, if the US goal is to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability what are the available options?

1) Preemptive war, a la Iraq 2003. This option is so costly as to border on the insane. Beyond Iran's ability to close the Strait of Hormuz (thereby shutting off 20% of the world's oil supply), the ability of the United States to successfully invade and overthrow the regime in Tehran is debatable. Iran is large, with a large and nationalistic population, and its geography is varied. It is not Iraq, which is flat, internally divided, and by 2003 had been weakened by 12 years of crippling and universal international sanctions. Oh, and Iran can inflict casualties in Israel and can engage in MUCH worse behavior with regard to terrorism than it currently does.

2) Sanctions. As Trump has pointed out in the case of North Korea, these don't work very well. Sanctions can serve to constrain a regime's resources, but you can't keep the regime from allocating the resources it does have. Iran's economy, even under sanctions, is vastly more robust than North Korea's (there is always a market for oil). There is no combination of economic or diplomatic sanctions which the United States can administer, especially unilaterally, which outweigh the strategic value of a nuclear deterrent to Iran. Hopes that sanctions will cause pain to the people, who might then pressure the regime to change its path, are likewise fantasies. The nuclear program enjoys widespread support among the Iranian population - they have reasons to dislike their government but this isn't one of them.

3) Diplomacy. The only remaining path is to reach an agreement with Iran whereby it agrees to voluntarily forego nuclear development, presumably with significant safeguards and verification of its behavior. In order for any such agreement to be viable, the Iranian regime must believe that the benefits of such an agreement outweigh the benefits of pursuing nuclear weapons. Trump keeps railing about how we "gave up too much" in the existing deal, but I don't know why he thinks we could have given them less and still had them agree to it. Perhaps he doesn't understand the concept of sovereignty, or the limits of the US ability to inflict punishment on the Iranian regime.

Those who are eager to scrap the existing deal either don't understand any of this, in which case they are likely to be very disappointed in the outcome of that action, or they are seeking something else entirely. There has been concern in the past that there are those within the US foreign policy establishment who would welcome a pretext to wage war with Iran, and who might therefore be interested in re-creating the 2003 formula. I can't say for sure what Trump thinks (if, indeed, he thinks anything at all). All I am sure of is that one of these two things must be true.

Talk about "denying Iran all paths to a nuclear weapon" are ludicrous. If North Korea can develop one, Iran certainly can. They have nuclear technology, generations of nuclear scientists and engineers, and the ability to obtain and refine fissile material - all without the help of Russia, which is likely to want to help, at least under the table. Claiming something does not make it so - something this administration seems disinclined to understand.

None of this bodes well for the region or the world. If the Trump Administration follows through on this course of action, we will likely end up with yet another nuclear standoff. Iran may well renounce the NPT altogether, as North Korea did some years ago. We may move closer to the re-creation of an Eastern Bloc, this one based not on Communist ideology but on a desire by a set of authoritarian regimes (Russia, Iran, China?) to band together to balance against the US. The world will not be more peaceful, and nobody will be safer or more secure. But this and future administrations will have yet another nuclear-armed bogeyman to use as a useful foil in domestic politics.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Lost Art of Listening

You know you are living in strange times when news anchors have to give warnings about offensive language before playing clips of the President of the United States giving a speech, and when the most important issue on the national stage seems to be whether professional athletes should stand during the national anthem.

By all measures and to all indications, the United States appears more polarized and factionalized today than at any point since the 1960s and early 1970s. Our national leadership - including but not limited to the aforementioned President - seems determined to add fuel to the fire rather than finding ways to put it out. The media (social, mainstream, and otherwise) have become amplifiers that increase the volume. Everywhere people are concerned, confused, frightened, angry.

There are, as always, no simple solutions. But there is a simple diagnosis: we have forgotten how to listen to each other.

I don't mean that we've become actually deaf. But there is a vast difference between hearing the words coming from someone else's mouth, and listening. Generally, we hear others' words either as confirmation of our own views or as fodder for snarky memes and late-night talk shows that make us feel better about ourselves and superior to Those Idiots Over There.

Listening assumes basic human empathy. To listen to someone, I must first believe that they are of value, that they deserve "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" just as much as I do, that they matter. This is no small thing, because it requires us to recognize that someone else's humanity is every bit as valuable as my own. It forces us to love others as we love ourselves. We long ago sanitized Jesus' command (love your neighbor as yourself) by referring to it simplistically as "the Golden Rule", and in so doing forgot how genuinely hard this is.

We begin our lives as intensively selfish creatures. It takes time before we become aware of the existence of other humans, still more time before we come to recognize them as humans instead of moving objects in our environment. And though empathy often develops quite young, so does selfishness - the desire to Look Out for Number 1, to put ourself ahead of others.

We resolve this tension in part by forming groups, which helps us to exercise empathy and altruism towards some other people while still discriminating against and rejecting others. Tribes are, in a sense, a more complex form of selfishness. Evolutionary philosophers like Jonathan Haidt have suggested that this is as far as we can go - that selfishness is simply built into who and what we are, so we always have to have an out-group.

And yet we strive to be better. The highest ideals of nearly every society, and certainly every major religion, include some version of what we so glibly call the Golden Rule. We are reminded to show hospitality to the stranger, to care for the weak and helpless, to put the needs of others ahead of our own. The stories that unite us, the ones we all cheer for despite party or race or nationality, are the stories of heroic self-sacrifice: the firefighters rescuing people from the burning building, the fishermen who drove down to Houston with their boats to rescue people from the flooding, the neighborhoods coming together to help each other recover from the hurricane or tornado. As divided and polarized as we are, these are the stories that we all agree represent the best of us. Greater love hath no man indeed.

The lost art of listening is really just empathy put into its simplest action. If I can listen to you, not with the intent to rebut or ridicule or mock or disagree, but simply to try to understand your point of view, then I am practicing empathy. I recognize you as a fellow human being, made in God's image as I am.

Most of our current troubles derive from a lack of listening. Very few in government listen to those outside their party or their support circle. The President spends much of his time actively discouraging the practice, calling people names and denigrating those who disagree with him. We used to argue that the President is a role model for the nation. I think that's true, and our current one is modeling the problem, not the solution. Leaders in Congress and the most common voices we see in the media are little better.

We also don't listen much to each other. I've written before about "bubbles" and the problem of fear. We don't listen to each other because we're afraid of each other - afraid of being demeaned, dismissed, or even attacked (verbally or physically). Like all abilities, the less we listen, the less good we get at it. In an atmosphere where no one is listening, many people will grow up never learning the skill at all.

There are others out there making this same point, though they are often faint voices (because conflict is louder by nature, and because those who run society's megaphones make more money from noise than from quiet conversation). A conservative friend of mine sent me this one from the Weekly Standard. The author makes a lot of excellent points and hits on exactly the same problem, although parts of his article are couched in the same kind of partisan snark that makes listening so difficult. Those habits die hard, but die they must.

I've watched the bizarre conflict over the NFL mostly with sadness. Those yelling at the players, including our President (who seemed to think it important to call them profanities and demand they be fired), aren't interested in listening to what those players have to say. They don't want to hear the concerns of African American men who are trying to speak up for their brothers and sisters who can't speak up for themselves.

Likewise, those who support those protests don't always stop to listen to what the booing fans in the stands are saying. In a polarized time, symbols of identity become critically important. For some, those include the flag and the national anthem, symbols that have a nearly sacred meaning to some (even as they have a different meaning, or no meaning, to others).

To listen to others is not necessarily to agree with any of them. I can understand that for some of my fellow Americans, the flag means more to them perhaps than means to me. That's OK. I don't ask that they adopt my meaning. I can also understand that some of my fellow Americans have an experience of discrimination that I don't have, and that because of that difference they feel differently about some institutions than I do. I don't ask that they adopt my feelings either.

I don't know what the "solution" to these issues is. Race relations, protests, free speech on university campuses, immigration - there's a long list of things about which we are seriously polarized. I don't know what the solution to any of them should be. What I do know is that there is only one way to get to a solution: listening. The longer we put off really listening to each other, the more pain there will be. The sooner we start listening, the better our chances of finding solutions.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Divider in Chief?

In every administration, there is talk about the need for the President to be the Uniter-in-Chief, to try to rise above the country's divisions and lead as if E Pluribus Unum were really true. Almost every President tries to fulfill this role, though none ever succeeds completely. The power of the Presidency comes tied to this tremendous responsibility. It is a simultaneously necessary and impossible task.

I say "almost every President", because the current occupant appears to have abandoned this role altogether. However one goes about uniting a divided and fractious country, nobody thinks that the best way to do it is for the President to pick a hot-button issue and then forcefully take one side, hurling vulgar insults at the other.

Apparently, the President thinks there are "good people" on both sides of the Charlottesville rallies, but not around the issue of the national anthem at football games?

If the Trump Administration has any beneficial impact on the United States, it will be to teach us - by force of necessity - how to rise to be our better selves despite what the President says or does. If this lasts a full four years, we may discover by 2020 that we don't really need the President anymore. We're on our own.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Wheaton and the Challenge of Modelling Christian Community in Higher Education

This story crosses two of my interests - higher education and Christianity:
Wheaton Gives Community Service to Players Facing Felony Charges
Wheaton is an avowedly Christian school. It advertises this widely, makes its identity clear on all of its communications from its website to the signs on its campus, and presumably recruits students for whom living in a Christian community is a part of what they want in a college. The college also has a code of student conduct rooted in Christian theology and ethics.

The behavior described in this article is thus doubly disturbing. This would be unacceptable on any campus, and at a state school would likely lead to suspensions from the football team if not expulsion from the university as a whole. Due process must be followed, of course, and it would be appropriate for any college or university to follow that process before deciding on consequences for the perpetrators.

It appears that Wheaton has already followed whatever on-campus process they are going to follow, and has chosen to mete out what looks on the surface to be a fairly minimal punishment: the students in question have been assigned to write an essay, and to some hours of community service. This seems pretty minor even in a secular context.

There are obviously a lot of details missing here, but the optics are terrible for an institution that claims to be an intentional Christian community. This kind of assault, in that context, is a fundamental violation of trust and a gross offense against any reasonable sense of Christian ethics. Because of the nature of the community, it is an offense not only against the assaulted individual but against the entire community. And it sends a signal to the rest of the world: those "Christians" over there aren't any different from anybody else. Their faith doesn't mean anything.

If you were particularly inclined to be uncharitable, you could conclude that they have revealed their true religion: football. In that sense, they're not very different from the rest of the world.

Here's another unfortunate comparison: some avowedly Christian colleges (not Wheaton, but schools with a similar identity) have been known to expel students for having (consensual) sex outside of marriage, or for declaring a different sexual identity. Those things are unacceptable, but kidnapping and assault is OK?

What would a Christian response look like? It's not so much about the punishment - if anything, a Christian response should leave far more room for forgiveness than the world usually wants. But it is about repentance, examination, and transformation. And since the offense was against the community, some parts of that should be visible to the whole community.

Administrators at Wheaton will undoubtedly cite FERPA and a range of other laws and regulations protecting privacy and due process. Those regulations are good things, but they are not the only thing.  What the college chooses to do in terms of its community process is up to it. At minimum, student offenders can be offered a choice: based on a finding of facts, participate in a process of repentance and reconciliation - one that is visible - or leave.

Sometimes, Christian communities come together and behave in ways that really do show the world that faith matters. Several years ago after a tragic shooting in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, the community came together and publicly forgave the perpetrator and his family. The process of that conversation was difficult but also moving. They did it in public, not because they cared about the publicity or what anyone else thinks of them (the Amish are famous for being indifferent to what we English think), but because it was the right thing to do.

I think Wheaton missed a real opportunity here to live out its faith in public. Perhaps they will reconsider, as I suspect they're going to be facing negative publicity for a while.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Denouncing Nazis is easy. Living together is hard.

Facebook reminded me that a year ago I posted a piece titled There Are No Enemies.

It's not the most popular piece I've ever published, not by a long shot. It did pretty well - a little over 200 hits - but nothing special.

Re-reading it today, I think it may be one of the most important and difficult things I've ever written. And it helped me codify something that's been bugging me ever since the violence in Charleston and the political fallout that ensued.

In the aftermath of the Charleston violence, nearly everybody took to the airwaves and social media to condemn the assortment of white supremacists, Nazis, and KKK types who instigated the violence. This was easy to do: their brandishing of hateful symbols, their chants against Jews, blacks, and others outside their tribe, their obvious anger and aggression - all these put them squarely against core American values.

President Trump, of course, took tremendous political flak for his response. He tried to lay blame for the violence on "many sides" and seemed to go out of his way to serve as an apologist for the white supremacy movement. They themselves clearly saw it that way, judging by their reactions, especially after his Tuesday press conference. For this, Trump was roundly criticized by pretty much everyone across the political spectrum. The few people in his own White House who didn't distance themselves from this view now no longer work there.

That's all a pretty pat and easy story: Nazis and white supremacists are bad, we're the good guys, etc. Trump aside, almost everyone else will jump on this bandwagon.

But then I come back to my piece from last year: there are no enemies. And I also recall a lesson learned from decades of studying conflicts: conflict only ends when the different sides learn to live with each other.

Yes, white supremacy is morally wrong, and yes, Nazism is a horrible set of ideas. But because we say these things, however forcefully we may say them and however many of us "stand up" to do so, we are stuck with two unavoidable realities:

1) Some people will continue to hold to these ideas, despite (or even because of) our efforts to shout them down.

2) Those people are still our fellow Americans. And, if you hold to the Gospel of Christ, they are still Children of God.

We sort of know these things, deep down, though we don't know what to do with them. These are the reason why so many supporters of Hillary Clinton cringed when she made her famous "basket of deplorables" gaffe. She said in public what we wanted emotionally to say but know is morally wrong: that there are groups of people who are bad people.

In the language of revivalist Christianity, we failed to separate the sin from the sinner.

The problem with that logic, of course, is the conclusion to which it leads. If there are people who are irreducibly bad, then they must be either eliminated from society, driven out, or contained. It is, in fact, exactly the same logic that white supremacists operate under. They're just more open about it.

Lots of political movements - from the Nazis to the Khmer Rouge to the Interahamwe to the founders of Republika Srpska - have taken this idea that those people need to be gotten rid of and tried to put it into action. Every single of one of them failed. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, "purifying" the nation - it never works. It creates a lot of pain and a lot of dead bodies, but in the end you still end up living in a diverse society, and you tend to end up poor and miserable to boot.

That's an easy argument to make when confronting Nazis. But we need to think beyond confrontation, because confrontation itself isn't going to resolve anything.

We thought we had gotten rid of Creationism, until we discovered in the 1990s that it never went away. Most of us read Inherit the Wind in high school and saw it as an historical tale about the last gasp of Young Earth Creationism. Creationists read it and saw it as inspiration. We didn't notice until they started to take over school boards again.

White supremacy isn't going to go away simply because we shout at it, and it isn't going to go away because it's wrong. People are quite capable of holding morally abhorrent beliefs for generations, as our own history with black slavery shows. That some of those beliefs are still in circulation should surprise no one.

So while I applaud people who stand up against Nazis, who show up in Boston to demonstrate that there are far more of us who believe in diversity than there are in them who don't, that's just a band-aid. If the rest of us are vociferous enough, or if we elect a President less inclined to say supportive things about white supremacy the next time around, they may go back into the shadows. But they'll still be there, living among us as fellow citizens.

If we really want to move beyond endless demonstrations - if we really want to seek peace - demonstrations and taking down statues won't get us there. At some point, we're going to have to talk to the people we think of as our enemies. That can't happen in large groups, it certainly can't happen while people are carrying torches and clubs and shields, and it probably can't happen in public with TV cameras rolling. But in the end, it's the only way.

Years ago in graduate school, I wanted to start an article with what I thought was a clever observation: "everyone wants peace, they just want it on their own terms." My advisor stopped me and argued that I should get rid of that sentence. Not everyone wants peace, he pointed out. And he was right.

It's easy to look at those who march with Nazi flags and say, they don't want peace. But do we? We are comfortable in our knowledge that we're right and they're wrong and there are more of us anyway - just as they are comfortable in their understanding that they are right and we are wrong, even though there are fewer of them. Moral righteousness is addictive.

None of this means that we have to "meet them halfway" or adjust our beliefs in a racist direction. That's a red herring. But it does mean that we have to take the time to listen to our fellow human beings, and hope that they in turn will listen to us.

I don't know how to go about that, because all sides prefer the conflict we have to an uncertain peace in the future. But I know that, for myself, we are missing a piece of the moral puzzle: the piece that recognizes the common humanity of our "enemies" and seeks the seemingly impossible task of reconciliation. We have to live with "those people", like it or not. We might as well try to live together well.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Violence in Charlottesville: The Dangers of Painting with a Broad Brush

The national conversation is filled with discussion of the violence in Charlottesville over the weekend. The death of one woman is both a tragedy and a crime, as is the injury of nearly two dozen others. Our justice system has much to do to address these terrible acts, and I have faith that it will.

As is often the case, I am more interested in the broader conversation and the conflict that it represents. I have a couple of points I want to make; because of the raw nature of recent events, we'll see how well I can make them.

First, the supporters of White Supremacy often like to wrap their political activities in the flag of Free Speech. The right to peaceably assemble is sacred to all, whether we agree with their views or not. This much is true.

But it is debatable whether "peaceable assembly" includes showing up with shields, helmets, body armor, and sticks. That's not a "peaceful" demonstration, it's intimidation and preparation for combat. So I'm not buying the "peaceful assembly" line. There was never any intention for this to be "peaceful". This is not a movement much interested in peace.

Second, at some point - probably already happened by now - some apologist for the marching racists will argue that it's not fair that they all be blamed for James Alex Fields' actions. He acted alone, they will say. You can't all paint us with the same brush just because of one violent man in our midst.


The entire White Supremacist movement relies on painting with broad brushes. All blacks, all Jews, all gays, all Muslims, all Latinos - "they" are all the same. This is the entirety of their "argument". They don't care about individuals, only about groups. All of "them" are always the same.

If you marched on Friday night, tiki torch in hand, and you don't think this describes you, get the heck out now. You have taken up with a violent movement. Perhaps the icons of knives and axes might give you a clue. Or the hardware your fellow marchers are carrying.

So fine. Your group - each and every one of you - is violent to the point of being murderous. And we, the rest of civilized society, are justified in rounding you up and prosecuting you under the law.

Finally, this is the really key thing that these White Supremacists, neo-Nazis, and various KKK hangers-on don't yet realize. They've already lost. The vast majority of American society - including whites - rejects them, rejects their ideas, and most especially rejects their murderous attachment to violence. To borrow Ronald Reagan's memorable phrase, they are already consigned to the Ash Heap of History.

They just aren't smart enough to know it yet.

Let us not forget that it was the forebears of these rampaging rage-monsters that slaughtered 168 Americans, including 19 preschool children, twenty-two years ago in Oklahoma City. The mix of rage, incoherent fear for their white identity, and rejection of government authority has killed before.

I hope that the death of Heather Heyer will serve the same purpose as the deaths of those many innocent victims in 1995: a wake-up call to the nation and the start of another effort to drive this kind of violent hatred back underground. Given the current occupant in the White House, I'm not holding my breath, but I hope at least that his fellow Republicans will see the Faustian bargain they have struck and repent.

Many people have been quoting MLK's "arc of history" line. In this case, he is absolutely correct. The men (and yes, they are mostly men) who have bought into this violent insanity have been brought out into the light. But they have already lost. The nation unites in horror against their dystopian rage. They cannot win, not even a little bit, anything that they hope to achieve. They can't even keep the statues they are so keen to protect standing in the public square. All they can do is shriek helplessly as the arc of history leaves them behind.

Or, they can repent and join the rest of us. I, for one, would be happy to have them back if they can find a way to set aside their rage, fear, anger, and hatred. We need people working together to build a more perfect union for all of us.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Missing the Key Issue on Affirmative Action

I wrote last week about the Department of Justice memo regarding a new effort to "crack down" on "reverse discrimination" against whites (and Asians) in college admissions. As I explained in that piece, this effort is entirely about symbolic politics, with little to no practical impact on either college admissions or on most people's lives. I urged my colleagues in higher education, most of whom are dedicated to the ideal of diversity, not to panic, because most of our universities aren't going to be affected no matter what DOJ does.

Since most people don't read my blog, however, the ongoing conversation has continued as one might expect. People of color and their allies are understandably concerned about any effort to "target" affirmative action, which they see as a step towards turning back the clock towards a more openly racist past. Given all of the other openly racist things that have happened in the last six months, this is a reasonable concern even if this particular effort is of no consequence.

I have a number of friends in this group, and it is to those friends that this post is addressed. My argument is simple: we're missing the boat. This DOJ initiative on "reverse discrimination" is distracting us from something much more important.

Affirmative action in higher education is a big deal for those who want to advance the cause of underrepresented minorities, because higher education has tremendous potential as a social equalizer. For folks who have been permanently stuck in the economic and social underclass, getting a college degree can be a ticket to a better job, a better neighborhood, a better life. It can break the cycle of poverty and put families on a completely different trajectory for generations to come.

I'm a big believer in the transformative power of higher education, which is why I've devoted my career to it. I've watched single mothers with little support system go on to become Vice Presidents at Fortune 500 companies. I've seen how exposure to educated African Americans and Latinos changes white attitudes about who belongs and who doesn't. Access to higher education is one of the most important tools we have to help people help themselves, and to lift our entire society in the process.

But here's the reality: the kind of "who gets in and who doesn't" arguments about affirmative action and college that the Right wants to fight about don't have an impact on the broader societal problems we want to solve. If you want to lift families of color out of the cycle of poverty, having a different set of rules about who gets into Harvard or Michigan isn't the way to do it.

What's the real barrier? Money.

The vast majority of college students in the United States attend public regional universities. These aren't the schools that the New York Times writes about, but they are where people actually go. In particular, they are the primary recipients of first-generation students who are the key to altering family trajectories.

These universities don't have an affirmative action issue. Most of them accept 90%-95% of their applicants, and those they don't accept aren't decided by race but by basic capability factors (generally, high school GPA and ACT or SAT score). The Wright States and Millersvilles and SW Missouri States and Wisconsin-Green Bays of the world will take any and all students they can get who qualify. They are truly race-blind in admissions.

(As an aside, this is also true of a lot of private schools, who struggle to get the number of students they need to keep themselves going. Even the University of Dayton, a very good Catholic research institution, admitted as much recently - if they get two applicants, one white, one black, both equally qualified, they'll take them both.)

What keeps minority students from attending regional public universities isn't that they can't get in. It's that they can't afford it. And while there are lots of arguments about what is driving the cost of higher education, for regional publics the primary barrier to affordability has been the long, slow, inexorable march by most state legislatures to defund their higher education systems.

Case in point: 25 or so years ago, Wright State (a very typical regional public institution) got $2 of subsidy from the state for every $1 they collected in tuition from their students. Students had "skin in the game", but the amount they had to pony up was significantly decreased by state investment. Today, that ratio has flipped: WSU now gets less than 50 cents from the state for every dollar they get in tuition.

If you believe in higher education as a pathway to success for families of color, this is the battle you need to be fighting. Forget about admissions rules and arguments about whether race can or can't be included in deciding who gets in to college. If you want to really move the needle on societal equality, and lift millions of disadvantaged people out of the poverty trap, get more public money put into higher education.

I don't for a minute believe that this is an easy task. But as folks are marshaling political resources for a mostly symbolic battle of little practical significance, I ask them to consider focusing those resources instead on the battle that has the greatest impact on people's lives. Don't fall for the bait of arguing about Harvard's admissions practices. Harvard isn't going to solve our problems. But more money in public higher education just might.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Affirmative Action in Universities: Don't Panic

There has been a lot of buzz in the last couple of days about an internal Justice Department memo seeking lawyers for a new initiative to go after universities for "reverse discrimination" in admissions. This is an old conservative argument that claims, to whit, that white students (they now add Asians to this group) are denied admission to universities in favor of less-qualified black or Latino applicants.

In a country with thousands of universities and millions of university students, I'm sure that there are a few cases where this can be credibly argued to have happened. It is hardly an epidemic, or even a problem of any significant size, judging by the racial profiles of pretty much every university (outside the HBCUs) in the nation. On its face, this is a non-problem.

The political utility of the argument, however, is easy to see. It feeds a broader narrative of tribal white resentment. It also plays well to the more conservative philosophical point of view that everything is about the individual, that the individual is sovereign, and that when the rights of a single individual are trampled that's a terrible thing (though that argument seldom gets extended to individuals of color...)

Setting aside whether this sort of initiative within the DoJ is a good or a bad thing - people can form their own opinions on that subject - I can say from inside higher education that this effort, if it ever gets off the ground, will be far less significant than it might appear. There are relatively few institutions vulnerable to this kind of investigation. Most universities will be ignored, because admissions works very differently in different kinds of places.

The wealthy private elite institutions - the kinds of places that the NY Times writes about whenever it talks about "higher education" - have long ago insulated themselves from this charge by adopting very complex wholistic admissions practices. Race is but one consideration among many, and so much of their process is subjective that being able to credibly argue that any given student was turned away primarily because she is white will be impossible. Yale, Harvard, Amherst and Williams turn away thousands of students every year who are just as qualified as the ones they admit - that's the nature of the game. No investigating lawyer is going to wade into that world, because there is no victory to be had there.

Over in the public university area, the vast majority of public institutions are regional and desperate for students. Two that I have worked for, Wright State and the University of Toledo, will take any and all qualified applicants. They and a host of similar schools - Youngstown State, SE Missouri State, Millersville University, most of the SUNY campuses, Central Florida, and a thousand more - are enrollment and tuition-driven. The notion of having to select some students over others on the basis of race - or anything else - is irrelevant to these schools. When you're admitting all qualified applicants (and often, many who are marginally so), there's no danger that you're discriminating against anyone. Keep in mind, too, that these schools are where the vast majority of university students in the United States go.

That leaves only two classes of schools - small second and third tier private schools, and public flagships. The former are unlikely to be targeted in part because they, too, tend to be enrollment and tuition driven and are therefore less selective than their elite counterparts, and in part because nobody outside of their immediate area has heard of them. Regardless of the merits or demerits of affirmative action processes, any investigative effort is going to want to go after universities or colleges with national name recognition, because they're trying to make a political point. No investigator is going to focus on Lebanon Valley College (sorry, LVC!) They and several hundred of their brethren can rest easy.

The for-profit sector, of course, is immune to this kind of charge for the same reason regional publics are - they'll take anybody who qualifies to get in and is willing to pay (or borrow). Phoenix doesn't have an affirmative action problem.

That leaves only the flagship public universities like Michigan and UT-Austin. It's no coincidence that the major affirmative action cases in the last two decades came from those two schools. These schools, and a handful of others around the country (Ohio State, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia, Florida or Florida State, Ole Miss, Penn State, Minnesota, UW-Madison, etc.) have enough cache and status that they get a lot more applicants than they can accept. They do care about diversity (which, according to the Supreme Court, they are allowed to do), and they do take race into account. Because of the Fisher case and others, all of them have long ago adopted admissions procedures that stay well within the boundaries of what the court says is Constitutionally permissible.

So we're really talking about a small handful of universities here - maybe 30 in all - that are potential targets of any kind of DoJ effort. And all of them have spent years making sure that their admissions processes can withstand legal challenges. They don't get caught up in the kind of accusation leveled against UT-Austin so many years ago.

In other words, this "effort" is unlikely to affect 99% of America's universities, and it is unlikely to actually change much even in the few that might be targeted. This is pure symbolic politics - sound and fury signifying nothing, to borrow from the Bard. To my colleagues in higher education: don't panic. This, too, shall pass.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Can We Ignore North Korea?

A good friend of mine posted this question to FB today. Since a decent answer requires more than should be put into a FB comment section, I'm writing out my thoughts here.

OK, honest question for the many people in my feed who are smarter about international stuff than I am. 
Hypothetically, what if the US were to just ignore North Korea? No threatening, no assisting, no engaging, nothing? Just maintain our relationship with South Korea and nothing else?
Would that still create an unacceptable risk for South Korea? Would it destabilize our relationship with China?
There are obvious humanitarian reasons not to follow this course, so I'm not advocating anything -- I just want to better understand how the cogs fit together. Smart people, please educate me.

Like all questions of foreign policy, answering this one depends very much on what your goals are. The Trump administration hasn't been very clear in articulating its goals towards North Korea, but my sense is that they haven't shifted very much from where past administrations have been. Those goals reasonably include, or could include, the following:

1) Avoid war in the Korean peninsula (which would be horrendously catastrophic for everybody, and would result in millions of deaths).

2) Prevent North Korea from attacking the United States with a nuclear weapon.

3) Prevent North Korea from developing a deployable nuclear weapon. Barring this, prevent it from developing such a weapon that can be delivered to the United States.

4) Bring about regime change in North Korea, with a possible eye towards reunifying the peninsula.

#4 is, for all intents and purposes, out of bounds. The Kim regime in Pyongyang desires its survival in power above all else, and it has had a credible conventional deterrent against Seoul and South Korea for decades. We may say we don't like their government very much, but no US administration has openly flirted with actively trying to change it - as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reinforced just yesterday.

#3 is also essentially off the table. We have tried under the past three presidential administrations (both Democrat and Republican) to use various carrots and sticks to get the North Koreans to forgo their quest for nukes. None of this has worked, largely because there are no sanctions or offers of aid big enough to eclipse the value the Kim regime sees in having a working nuclear deterrent to the United States. Anything more aggressive than what we have tried threatens to run afoul of #1, which nobody wants. So while nobody in the US government can admit it out loud, we're essentially stuck with a nuclear-armed North Korea with a limited strike capability against the United States.

That leaves us with Goals 1 and 2. These are indeed achievable using the same tool we've been using in Korea and elsewhere for the past three generations: deterrence. A basic deterrence posture does, in a sense, look a little like what my friend suggested: "ignoring" North Korea. They have weapons, we have weapons, we each make it clear to the other under what circumstances we will use them, and then we settle down and watch nothing happen. The Kim regime wants to deter an attack on its regime; we want to deter an attack on South Korea, Japan, and ourselves (the Chinese can take care of themselves). With both sides possessing a devastating strike capability, neither is likely to attack the other.

Of course, completely ignoring North Korea by  having essentially no relationship isn't really an option. There is always a need for contact to avoid misunderstandings, to facilitate basic interactions, to jointly govern the DMZ, and so on. Most of the time this kind of contact takes place well below the public's radar screen. Banning Americans from traveling to NK will probably help keep it there.

The longer-term danger which we, Seoul, and Beijing all recognize is: what happens if the North Korean system collapses economically? An internal crisis would likely spark a mass exodus of refugees, some of whom would be shot while fleeing but many of whom would wash up on South Korean and Chinese shores. A serious crisis could also lead to internal unrest, especially if the North Korean military begins to doubt the wisdom of backing Kim's rule or, worse, factionalizes. There is no viable political infrastructure or civil society in North Korea, so any crisis could lead to chaos for a long time before order is restored. And given the level of weaponry in the hands of the North Korean military, that chaos could lead to a lot of damage, both inside the country and in its neighbors.

Unfortunately, neither engagement nor disengagement can have much effect on the North's internal dynamics. If we see a food crisis coming, we can flood the country with food aid, which staves off the crisis at the expense of propping up the Kim regime. We should certainly maintain enough engagement to be able to see what's happening - any warning at all that a crisis is brewing is better than none.

In the absence of a serious internal crisis, North Korea is a significant priority for US foreign policy but probably not a very active one. Beyond deterrence and some level of engagement (in which we may want to follow the lead of our South Korean allies, since they bear the immediate consequences), there's really not a lot to be done. Even the Trump administration seems to have figured out that, while it's easy to criticize your predecessors for "not doing enough" on North Korea, the reality is that we don't have any other options and we do what we do because there is nothing else to be done.

Interestingly, China more or less shares our goals with regard to North Korea. They don't want war, they don't want an attack on the US (which would cause a war), and they would probably prefer that North Korea not have nukes. To the extent that we want to find areas to cooperate with China, North Korea is a promising field. But we should not suffer from the illusion that China can force the Kim regime to do things that we can't. If China squeezes North Korea by cutting off trade, that could well precipitate the kind of internal crisis that no one wants. In essence, the Kim regime has at least two forms of deterrence: it can cause unacceptable damage with its military, and it can also cause unacceptable damage by its own untimely death. It's a modern state version of a dead man's switch.

The best we can hope for, therefore, is a North Korea that is stable (if poor and a human rights disaster) and contained. There is actually a fifth goal, which we and China also share: preventing North Korea from sharing its nuclear or missile technology with other actors elsewhere in the world. That's an area where we can fruitfully cooperate. Export proliferation is also not a big priority for the Kim government, which cares for its own survival and not at all for anyone else in the world.

So the answer to the question of whether we can ignore North Korea is "yes, sort of". Energetic and engaged diplomacy is unlikely to change the Kim regime's behavior. Starving it (beyond the current levels of sanctions) could trigger a disaster. And so we sit, and wait, and hope to contain the damage when change eventually comes.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Expertise: The Knowledge of Things Unseen

I've written before about the value and importance of expertise. We used to believe, especially in the realm of science, that experts really did know more than the rest of us. Now, in a world of echo-chamber social media and fake news and "alternative facts", a lot of us (meaning here Americans) have chucked this notion out the window. Many of us now believe that we and our friends know the real truth, and that everybody else is either a dupe or a liar.

One reason why it's easy to fall into this trap is that we feel good about our echo chambers - they make us feel powerful and affirmed, a sort of antidote to the fear we've been taught is the proper response to the modern world. That part of the psychology that leads people to reject expertise and accept otherwise wacky ideas is pretty clear.

But there's another aspect to expertise that actually contributes to its widespread rejection. The nature of expertise is that people who are experts see things that non-experts can't see. They perceive things in the universe that are, quite literally, invisible to the rest of us.

This phenomenon has been well-documented in all sorts of arenas. Elite athletes, for example, have been studied extensively. It turns out that, while they tend to be in excellent health and have certain physical gifts, they're not especially more physically gifted in general than the rest of us. It's that the tens of thousands of hours of practice they put in have rewired their brains so they can perceive things other's can't. That's why the best hitters in professional baseball actually stand a good chance of hitting a baseball thrown by a professional pitcher, traveling at more than 95 miles per hour. He can see things about that ball that are invisible to the rest of us.

The same is true in medicine. An experienced doctor will see in a list of symptoms, or the way a patient answers a question, possible diagnoses that we know nothing about. Nor can we understand the connections between those little bits of information and the much larger issue. Doctors carry around a whole world of knowledge in their heads that is inaccessible to non-experts.

So it goes for nearly every field of human endeavor. Architects see things in buildings that the rest of us miss. Musicians hear things in music we can't hear. Engineers, lawyers, designers, auto mechanics - in almost any human endeavor involving expertise, experts are privy to a world out of reach of the rest of us.

Unfortunately, this makes it easy to dismiss expertise. It's easy to assume that everything you see is everything there is to see. We're pretty good at accounting for the data coming into our senses, but generally terrible about accounting for what's not there. Arthur Conan Doyle immortalized this in his story "Silver Blaze", in which Sherlock Holmes solves the otherwise unsolvable case by observing that a dog didn't bark.

I encounter this all the time in my own area of expertise - politics - because, as John Stewart Mill put it over 100 years ago, politics "is a subject which no one, however ignorant, thinks himself incompetent to discuss". In the political realm, we all think that we can see everything there is to see. And when "experts" come along and try to point out what we can't see, we often dismiss them because, well, we can't see what they're pointing at. We think they're just making it up.

There are two conclusions here. First, humility is not only a moral virtue, it's an intellectual necessity. We all need to know what we don't know (the height of Aristotle's wisdom). Second, we need to make an effort to determine where real expertise lies - not in who shouts the loudest or in who says things we want to believe, but in who has really put in the time and effort to establish a track record. Anybody can claim they're an expert - evaluate those claims carefully, especially when the supposed expert is simply confirming your own biases.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why "Fear for your Life" Isn't a Reasonable Standard

There's a lot of reaction this week to the verdict in the case of Philando Castile's shooting last year. Naturally, a lot of it has centered on race and the officer's defense that he was "afraid for his life".

As part of this conversation, a friend of mine posted a video to Facebook along with a request for thoughts. The video showed a white man resisting arrest by two police officers (both also white). The man, who is a pretty big guy, puts up quite a struggle, at one point seeming to reach for one of the officer's guns (though he does not obtain it). Eventually the police wrestle him to the ground and pin him. At no time did either officer reach for any of the weapons on his belt. While he was on the ground, they did not continue to strike him in punishment; they simply held him still.

Commentary attached to the video by the original poster suggested that this was evidence of white privilege, if not white dominance: that whites who struggle against police don't need to fear for their lives, while blacks who are compliant with police do. It was this contrast which my friend was seeking comment on.

In response, I wrote the following, more less as a stream of consciousness:

"Fear for your life" is a subjective state of mind. My fear is mine - it is based on the judgments and expectations I have in my own head about is going on around me. 

Juridical standards of "reasonable fear" assume that we can take an average of what
 "most people" would fear given a certain set of circumstances. In some cases, this is in fact "reasonable" - most people will fear if suddenly confronted with a rattlesnake, for example. Most people will also experience fear if a gun is pointed at them.

To believe that we can do this kind of "reasonable averaging" without taking race into account is folly. If I get pulled over, it would not be reasonable for me to fear that the police officer is going to shoot me. Were I black, it would be very reasonable to fear that outcome.

This isn't "White Supremacy", at least not in the sense that there is a conscious, guiding ideology that drives these differences. Rather, there are unconscious and semi-conscious biases that exist in people's heads. We tried to call these biases "racism", but that falters because most people think racism is a conscious thing, a set of beliefs I consciously hold.

We all make judgments in the face of ambiguous evidence. Those judgments are driven by our beliefs, our expectations, and our emotional responses to things around us. This is why negative media portrayals of black men, for example, are so problematic. TV shows don't turn people into conscious racists. But they build up in our mind unexamined expectations about how other people are likely to behave.

Our laws and judicial procedures were developed with an underlying assumption that all people are equal. And so we wish ourselves to be. But in our minds, we are NOT all equal to each other. To pretend otherwise is to deny reality.

The simple answer to this particular problem is rigorous, continuous, serious police training. You can train officers to respond the same to everyone, regardless of color. But you have to recognize that such training has to overcome the differences already existing in their own heads. It takes a lot of work, and a lot of practice, to overcome those mental differences. Some - I suspect many - police officers already have, and many have probably never been seriously tested on the street. I am surprised, in the light of these continuing tragedies, that no one is talking about how we support, train, and discipline our police forces, and what expectations we have for the way they do their jobs.

It seems to me that the legal question we keep asking in these cases - would a "reasonable person" be afraid for their life under a certain set of circumstances - is the wrong question, because there is no singular "reasonable" viewpoint. Our experiences, especially around race, are so vastly disparate that most of us cannot understand what "reasonable" looks like to someone who has a different race, a different background, a different set of experiences than we do.

We will never make progress in our national conversations until we recognize this basic truth: that "reasonable" is not an objective standard, and that fear is based on many things including prejudices. Just because someone is sincerely afraid does not make their actions in response to that fear reasonable.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Mourning Conservatism: The Loss of the "Coarsening of Culture" Argument

Conservatism - at least, as it was understood during my formative years in the 1970s and 1980s - is dead. This is not a new observation, but its passing has been largely ignored such that I think it worth at least a brief obituary.

Not all parts of conservatism, of course, have died. Ideologies don't die so much as evolve and change over time. But at some point that evolution proceeds so far from its ancestry that one could usefully talk of a "new species". In that regard, what passes for "conservative" today is fundamentally different from the conservatism of a few decades ago. The old species of conservative I used to know have mostly died out, at least on the public stage.

In particular there's one aspect of that older conservatism that I always found had some appeal. Conservatives used to be concerned about a problem they sometimes called the "coarsening of culture" - that is, the flouting of social norms and common values that, in their view, led us towards a less-civilized society.

Sometimes this argument took on somewhat shrill overtimes, like Robert Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah. (One can only imagine what Bork would make of Donald Trump.) But at its heart lies a fundamentally conservative, and sympathetic, idea: that the norms and cultural practices that bind us together in community should not be taken lightly. Sometimes these norms and practices are bad and need to be changed - much of the classic argument between liberals and conservatives (think Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke) was about how such change should be effected, and how quickly.

But many of the norms we take for granted are in fact good ones, and necessary to the functioning of a civil society. Among these are respect for the rule of law and respect for other individuals, including some level of tolerance of differences that inherently occur in all societies. At the root of all of this is the need to prevent diverse societies from devolving into anarchy, chaos, and violence - Hobbes' bellum omnium contra omnes, the war of all against all.

This is the sort of thing that conservatives used to worry about, comparatively more than liberals. Yet, except for a few pious words in the wake of last week's shooting of a Republican congressman on a baseball field, today's "conservatives" are by their actions apparently no longer interested in conserving the core civility that was once the hallmark of their brand.

A minor but telling case in point can be found in this story:
Threats For What She Didn't Say
Here is a classicist - a field once staunchly defended by conservatives as necessary for the promotion of "Western Civilization" - being attacked by avowed conservatives, in most un-civil ways. What concerns me about the story is not so much the reactions by white supremacist internet trolls, who are by and large keyboard cowards wrapped in their own dark fantasy worlds. We have come to understand that these are a byproduct of the information age, the empowerment of hate in the midst of change.

More troubling, from the standpoint of modern conservatism, is the eagerness with which seemingly respectable conservative publications like the National Review engage in bomb-throwing behavior that is decidedly un-conservative (at least, by previous standards). The National Review has ceased to be conservative in its behavior or its outlook, adopting instead a sort of hyperventilating tribalism in which anything that plays to a particular set of prejudices, or against another, should be framed so as to maximize its controversy. It's all about creating heat, not light.

I understand why this is: because heat sells, and light does not. A once-conservative publication is now perfectly happy to engage in reckless playing with fire, and will undoubtedly denounce anybody who tries to draw a connection between them and the internet trolls they are stoking. But in doing so they - like many others, on all sides of our ideological divides - have traded their soul for money.

Heat - that is, emotionally charged controversy - used to be seen as the byproduct of the process of producing light - that is, truth. Conservatives spent decades, even centuries, pointing out to liberal revolutionaries that the heat produced by attempts to produce light could often burn down the building we're all standing in. It was one of the best arguments conservatives ever had to hold the moral high ground.

Now, it appears that the modern conservative movement has become corrupted by the same thing they always accused liberals of: moral relativism. There is no point in trying to hold the moral high ground if there is, in fact, no more moral high ground. Everything is simply a power struggle, a clash between sides to produce winners and losers. Donald Trump is a product and symptom of this shift, which existed long before he came along.

Conservatives used to argue that there were fundamental moral principles of right and wrong on which we could all agree. Among these were the rule of law and the maintenance of social order against the forces of chaotic violence that hover just outside our gates, never very far away.

I miss those conservatives. I wonder what happened to them. Now that they're gone, I think they deserve at least a decent burial.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Pathology of "Terrorism"

In the last three days we have seen headlines for two horrific incidents of violence:
7 killed in London Bridge attack
Disgruntled ex-employee kills 5 in Orlando
Both are appalling reminders of the violence which individuals are capable of. Both have made national and/or international news. Both involved the deaths of innocent citizens going about their daily lives.

One attack was a "terrrorist" attack. The other was not. And our differential responses say a great deal about us and our tolerance for violence.

The London attack immediately became part of a larger narrative when the self-styled Islamic State claimed responsibility. In the minds of many, particularly politicians with self-serving agendas, this immediately made it part of a larger global "war on terrorism". Tweets were sent, heated words flew almost immediately as we rehashed yet again the now-tired argument (at least in the US) between tribal Republicans who decry "political correctness" and tribal Democrats who defend the value (or the reality) of a multicultural society.

The Orlando case, on the other hand, falls into a much more isolated narrative, the "disgruntled ex-employee". President Trump has not tweeted about the attack in Orlando, preferring apparently to argue with the Mayor of London. There will be no calls from national politicians to do anything in particular. The headline quote from the local sheriff after the incident was this:
“We have no indication that this subject is a participant in any type of terror organization,” Demings said during the news conference.
That's our main response: well, at least it wasn't terrorism.

If it were my spouse, my child, my parent killed in that business in Florida, I doubt that would come as any comfort at all. The very idea seems absurd. And yet, our public conversation treats the deaths of innocents completely differently based solely on who killed them. We can live with the deaths of innocents, so long as they're shot by disgruntled ex-employees rather than stabbed or run over by terrorists.

We have become pathologically obsessed with terrorism. In any given year, far more innocent Americans are killed by disgruntled ex-employees than by terrorists. That's not just statistics - it's lives ruined, communities wounded, productivity lost. Every one of those lost lives leaves an impact, a hole where a person used to be. They all hurt. They are all children of God.

And yet, we act as if only those lucky enough to have been killed by terrorists matter. Those deaths get the attention, the large public ceremonies with politicians and media attention and stern promises of "This bloodshed will end"!

No one will go to Orlando and console the survivors of that attack with promises of action and praise for how strong they are to go on living in the wake of tragedy. There will be no mass gatherings of funds for those families. I imagine the local community will gather around the wounded and the fallen, and that's as it should be. But for the rest of the nation - and in particular, for our public "leaders" - the lives of seven people in London are far more important than the lives of five people in Florida.

There was an attack in Orlando that garnered a great deal of attention - because the attacker could be described as a "terrorist". We all came together united in the wake of the nightclub shooting. Yet just a few years before, we tore each other apart over an incident in which 20 six and seven year olds were gunned down in their school. No unity there, just spite and hate (even people who want to deny that it ever happened.) Our own children don't even matter unless they're killed by terrorists.

I understand why all of this is. I get the politics, the use of narrative, the incentives that drive politicians to use events for their own ends, the tribalism that divides us from our common humanity, even our common national identity. I understand all of that far too well, having studied it for too many years.

What I can't shake is a fundamental conviction: that this is Wrong.

Many American politicians piously call themselves Christians (Vice President Pence has famously said that he is a "Christian first"). Under what reading of the Bible does one set of innocent deaths matter more than another? If you think your job as a public servant is to protect innocent lives, why do you lavish hundreds of billions of dollars to protect some and nothing to protect others?

In the years immediately following 9/11/2001, we had a national conversation - not a great one, but the best we could do - about what constitutes "winning" for terrorists. We told ourselves that if we allowed the terrorists to drive us into fear, to change us, to make us something we're not, then they would in fact have won. We argued about where exactly those boundaries were, but for a while we shared a general sense: as long as we go on being Americans, they have not prevailed.

We are now so enthralled, so bewitched, so addicted to the idea of "terrorism" that I begin to think that perhaps they have won. Not too many years back, it seemed that tragedy brought out the best in us. We came together after 9/11, but also when the Mississippi flooded its banks and inundated the midwest; when New Orleans disappeared under water; when Hurricane Andrew struck Florida. In between disasters we argued and bickered, but when the chips were really down we seemed to have each other's backs. That's probably a simplified version of the past - but if so, it's an aspirational one.

Now, each new tragedy divides. Terrorist attacks are simply grist for more division and arguing and spite, while other incidents - like this morning's attack in Orlando - are ignored.

As usual, I don't have any solutions - only a conviction that we have all of this badly wrong. And I am reminded of Mahatma Gandhi's famous saying:
What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?

Friday, June 2, 2017

Why I'm Still Not Afraid of President Trump

As we lurch from one bizarre episode in the Trump Administration to another (Russia! Twitter! Covfefe! Special Counsel! Ethics rules! Fire the FBI Director! Paris Climate Accord!), I am repeatedly brought back to something I wrote just a little over a year ago:
Why I'm Not Afraid of President Trump
This was written well before the election, and before Trump had technically sowed up the nomination (though by May it was pretty clear he would likely have it). One can quibble on a few details, but on the whole I think it's held up pretty well.

A significant part of my argument a year ago rested on this earlier piece, in which I pointed out that the US Presidency is in many ways a profoundly limited position. I think that the Trump Administration is actually providing a series of excellent illustrations of this point:

• Trump came out firing early with Executive Orders (long derided as "Presidential overreach" by suddenly-silent GOP Congressmen, but that's a topic for another day). But most of his Executive Orders have been words only. The one on "freedom of religion"? Actually changed almost nothing in practical terms. He's made two runs so far at trying to take unilateral action on immigration, only to have both of them blocked by the courts. Most of the stuff he's signed so far has been effective at generating a lot of press and buzz, but almost completely ineffective in actually changing anything (which isn't a bad description of Trump's career in show business).

• At the end of April, Congress faced a significant deadline to put together a budget for the remainder of FY17 for the Federal Government. The Trump Administration released a blueprint of what it thought Congress should do, including recommendations for massive cuts in a wide range of domestic programs and massive increases in defense spending. Though there was again a lot of press and public attention, in the end Congress pretty much ignored everything that Trump said and hammered out their own plan, which the President quietly signed. His impact on that process - perhaps the most important thing the US government does - was near zero. Early indications are that his FY18 budget proposal is going to get roughly the same treatment.

• His most recent action, on the Paris Climate Accord, is far less consequential than it appears for at least two reasons. First, "withdrawal" is not an instantaneous thing. By the terms of the Agreement, the US can't actually leave for three or four years - long enough to make this an issue in the next Presidential election cycle, and subject to being reversed by the next President. Second, the response from states, cities, and the corporate sector has been massively in the other direction. A great many entities that were going to have to take action under the Paris Accords are going to take those same actions anyway - up to and including giant oil companies, which are already coming under fire from their investors for not getting ready for a low-carbon future.

This is not to say that Trump's attempted actions don't matter. The most significant impact, as my colleague Dan Drezner has pointed out, may be that the US is largely abandoning leadership on the international stage to Europe and China. That's not the outcome that Trump or his supporters wanted, but it's the one we're getting. So I am not arguing that Trump's actions have no consequences.

I am, however, sticking to my pre-election conclusion: one man, no matter how ill-informed, arrogant, or unqualified, cannot destroy the United States or the world. The United States Presidency is far more limited in its scope and influence than we tend to give it credit for in our public discussions. Moreover, everything that Trump has done so far has had the effect of weakening the office still further, whether by appointing ill-prepared department heads who will spend their time fighting their own bureaucracies, taking extreme positions that mobilize resistance, or making policy proposals so absurd that he gets excluded from the important conversations. That's not the world I would like to see, but it's one I can live with.

I am often reminded of one of Fred Rogers' most famous quotes, worth repeating in this context:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."
Things look scary now. But there are many people out there who are helping. Look for them. If you can, be one of them.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Terrible Temptation of "Christianity and..."

Years ago, C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters warned against the dangers of what he called "Christianity and":
The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call "Christianity And". You know—Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring. 
My Facebook feed (because of a comment by a friend) served up a striking example of this phenomenon today - a graphic accompanied by the following text, posted by a FB group called "Our President and Savior":

Of all the sacred institutions upholding our democracy, none is as important as loyalty to the President. What better way to show your loyalty than by making a formal pledge in the sight of GOD, for all to know? Voluntarily pledging in the comments will demonstrate superior integrity than if you wait for the pledge to become mandatory. Don't delay; pledge your loyalty to President TRUMP today!

The Donald J. Trump Presidential Pledge of Loyalty:

"I swear to GOD this sacred pledge that to the President of the United States and people, Donald J. Trump, supreme commander in chief of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and that as a brave patriot I shall at all times be prepared to give my life for this pledge."

In the (unsurprisingly extensive) comments section came this particular addition from the poster of the original:
Our President and Savior ATTENTION LIBERALS: This is a CHRISTIAN page and foul language will NOT be tolerated. We permit you to be here for your own benefit, but cussing and profanity are strictly FORBIDDEN. You have been warned!
I am baffled. Under what reading of the Christian Bible does it become "mandatory" to pledge allegiance to an earthly ruler? What kind of theology allows you identify as a Christian and call Donald Trump (or any other President) "Savior"? Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light" - I'm pretty sure he didn't make mention of the President of the United States, or the Emperor of Rome, or the Governor of Syria, or Pilate, or anyone else.

I'm also not sure what understanding of "democracy" regards "loyalty to the President" as one of the "sacred institutions" that upholds the system. Our government was founded on disloyalty to a ruler, and is clearly designed to protect the rights of anyone who wants to speak out and oppose those elected to office.

Somewhere, Screwtape is laughing.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Ideological Purity and the Loss of Tolerance

I've written before (here and here) about the dangers of trying to create an ideologically "pure" environment. Our politics are problematic in part because there are some folks on both the Left and the Right who refuse to have anything to do with anything that smacks of the other side. These people are doomed to live frustrated lives, since they will never achieve what they seek.

In academia, the forces pulling in this same direction can be even stronger. There is something about academic training, about dedicating a large portion of your life to seeking truth in a particular area, that seems to engender in us the need to Be Right and to vanquish all of the Wrong Thinking in the world. Academics are not much known for humility.

In this context, the latest wave of opposition to campus speakers has become particularly fertile ground for this sort of quixotic quest for purity. In the minds of some, to host an outside speaker on campus is to allow anything and everything that person has ever said to taint you. The institution itself becomes unclean by their presence, requiring rituals of purification. You could write these sorts of strictures up in Leviticus and they would fit right in.

One of the latest of these incidents involves a kerfuffle surrounding an invitation extended to James Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist who, along with Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin, discovered and articulated the structure of DNA. He had a hand on one of the signature scientific achievements of the 20th century, on which a vast amount of biological and medical knowledge has been built. He is, as the saying goes, one of the giants in the field.

He has also, at various points, expressed some outdated views about race, gender, and other social issues. He has expressed concern that people in Africa are less intelligent than people in other parts of the world. He has said various things about women, about body types, and about homosexuality which most people these days don't agree with. He has also apparently been a supporter of eugenics, at least at the individual level. He is, from many points of view, on the wrong side of history on a number of social issues.

So here we have a man who has led a stellar scientific career, contributing to some of the most impactful scientific advances of the modern age, who also apparently holds some retrograde views on issues of race, gender, and sexuality - views not that uncommon, it should be noted, for white men born in the 1920s.

In other words, James Watson is a human. He has done things that are laudable, and he has done things that are condemnable. He has said things we wish he hasn't said, and he has done things we are extremely grateful for.

So when he is invited to give a talk about science - about the thing for which he clearly deserves praise - and then is disinvited because of things he has said unrelated to his scientific research, I not sure what the standard is. Can we only invite speakers who have led exemplary lives and have been saints since birth? Can we only host speakers who have never said anything that might offend someone's point of view? If so, our list of campus speakers will be very short indeed.

From a Christian point of view, this kind of intellectual purifying of the academy is nonsense. We are all sinners, and there is no coherent theological justification to suggest that some sins (racism, for example) are more egregious in the eyes of God than others (pride, or lust, or greed). People love to read the Beatitudes, but the rest of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 makes us profoundly uneasy (Cut off your hand! Tear out your eye!)

I am therefore a little perplexed when people write "I am ashamed to be faculty at Illinois" because some part of the university - which is a large, complex organization with many parts, not a unified whole - has decided to host Watson for a talk about his research. Such a person must be perpetually ashamed of many things, because we are all connected to institutions and social structures that do things that we find objectionable.

None of this is to defend racism, or sexism, or homophobia. When Watson argues that one "race" of people is inherently less intelligent than another, he is doing so on the basis of prejudice rather than careful scientific study. The bases of intelligence are complex and multifaceted, and it is entirely likely that his own intelligence is a result of the nurture of his upbringing and circumstances (of having "won the ovarian lottery", as Warren Buffet puts it) rather than what's in his genetic code. As we seek the roots of intelligence we find a very complex web indeed. We would also do well to carefully untangle judgments about intelligence from judgments about moral value, lest we fall into the trap of moral elitism - "smart" people do not have a greater inherent moral value than "dumb" ones.

But it is one thing to disagree with an argument or a point of view. It is another thing entirely to assert that, by inviting a speaker to talk on one topic, you are in some sense endorsing his views on others - an assertion that, when brought to light, is clearly silly. It is still another thing to claim that, by that person's presence on campus in some kind of invited capacity, the institution as a whole is morally tainted - a modern version of the Levitical code of purity.

Ultimately, I think our problem is that we are confused. We see ourselves as individual moral agents - as responsible for our own moral choices. Yet we also imbue our institutions - which are, after all, simply collections of individuals - with a sort of moral status of their own. In itself, this can be useful,  because we want to feel that we belong to and contribute to something greater than ourselves. But we are unclear about the moral rules surrounding our institutions. We seek to hold our institutions to the same standards as ourselves - forgetting that we are not alone, and that others may have different ideas about what is appropriate or inappropriate.

All of this, of course, is just a description of what it means to live in society. My concern is that we are forgetting this - we forget that one of the chief qualities that enables us to get along with each other and improve our individual and collective lives is tolerance for difference and ambiguity. The quest for purity is really just the reduction of the moral world to a zero-sum game: either I win, or you do. Either we are not racist, or we are. We are either a conservative place or a liberal place. Throughout the history of humanity, this approach has always led to suffering, and never to the victory that its adherents sought. Maybe we should step back and look for a better way to listen to each other without so much throwing of stones and slurs and signs.