Monday, January 30, 2017

Gaslighting on Terrorism and Immigration

This weekend has seen a mass of confusion, protest, anger, and dismay at a hastily-constructed executive order that brought an immediate halt to certain kinds of immigration and travel, and an indefinite halt to others (specifically, refugees from Syria). People marched, court orders were issued (and apparently ignored), statements were made, contradicted, and clarified. Things are still far from certain as of the start of the week.

Lost in the shuffle of all of these important issues is an underlying reality: we as a nation have been effectively "gaslighted" on terrorism and immigration. The Trump forces have told the lie that we are unsafe and vulnerable to attack by terrorists traveling from overseas so often that we all now take it for granted - even Democratic Senators otherwise opposed to the executive order.

As a security studies scholar, let me put this in clear terms: there is not a shred of evidence that the United States is any more vulnerable to terrorist attacks from abroad than it ever has been, and plenty to suggest that we are safer than at any point in our history. There is also no way of defending the assertion that Islamic terrorism represents an existential threat to the United States, or that it even ought to be on the list of top US national security priorities. We are afraid of terrorism only because we've been told we should be.

The easiest way to see the truth, of course, is to look at the statistics. Violence of any kind - never mind terrorist violence - doesn't even make the top 15 list of causes of death in the US, and has been in long-term secular decline (as have death rates in general). Any given American's odds of being killed or injured by a terrorist are almost infinitesimally small, and the odds of a terrorist attack of any kind happening on US soil on any given day - or even in any given month - are likewise extremely small. The list of things you are more likely to encounter than a terrorist is vast.

The few high-profile cases we've had in recent years (San Bernadino and, if you really want to stretch, Orlando) were committed by US citizens. The only recent case that might conceivably have been stopped by the rules recently put in place was a knife-wielding Somali at Ohio State, which while regrettable and tragic didn't lead to any loss of life (other than the attacker's) and which represented only the tiniest of dangers even to the people of Columbus, OH. Dylann Roof did more damage in South Carolina that this student did in Columbus.

The fact is that, of things that threaten Americans' lives and way of life, terrorism just doesn't make the list. It is, in reality, just not that important. Are we 100% free of terrorist risk? Of course not - and we never will be. There is no set of rules, no border restrictions, no "extreme vetting" procedures that will ever eliminate that risk. And at this point, the risk is so low that any efforts to improve procedures - however well-considered and well-implemented - will only lower the risk level by an almost immeasurably small amount. When you're that close to zero, it's hard to get closer.

Why, then, are so many Americans concerned about terrorism? Why are even Senate Democrats unwilling to question the underlying logic of Trump's executive order, which amounts to "desperate times call for desperate measures"? Because we have all been gaslit on this. The lie has been repeated so many times that it has become the truth.

This is not a problem that goes away with one administration, however disliked or incompetent. This is now baked into the system, the result of 15 years of steady drumbeats that long predate Trump and his people. No politician, Democrat or Republican, will challenge the conventional wisdom, and a great many of them will find it useful as cover to do what they want to do, whether it be restricting economic activity or discriminating against certain groups or simply getting reelected on the basis of blind fear. The "War on Terror" is, indeed, the never-ending war, because we have enshrined it on a pedestal in our heads.

I wish I could be less bleak about this, but I don't see a way forward. We have largely lost the capacity for hope in our politics, especially as concerns "national security" issues. 25 years ago we dreamed of a world in which we felt secure. Since then we have allowed our "leaders" to make sure that we will never feel secure again, whatever the real world is doing. As usual, Walt Kelly said it best: we have met the enemy, and He is Us.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Trump's Zero-Sum Universe

There are plenty of things to respond to in President Trump's inaugural address last Friday. Having read the text of every inaugural since Harry Truman (all easily available online), some simple observations jump out:

• It was remarkably short.

• It was not particularly uplifting nor inspiring. This is obviously something of a judgment call, but I have read inaugural addresses by Presidents whom I liked and agreed with and by Presidents I disliked and disagreed with strongly. Pretty much all of them were good pieces of inspirational rhetoric, whether I liked the President or not. This one wasn't.

• The phrase "American carnage" was bizarre. The America that Trump describes is not one that most Americans experience.

• I had no idea that schools are "flush with cash" but leave "our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge." My local public schools, which my kids attend, do an excellent job of transmitting a lot of knowledge to my kids, and even though we live in a pretty affluent area even our schools aren't "flush with cash". I don't think his description fits a single school district in the country, much less the entire system.

• "America first" has a ring to it that troubles some folks. What I found far more disturbing was this statement:
At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America
Calling for total allegiance to the state is positively totalitarian and certainly un-American. I can't imagine where this came from, or what purpose it serves.

But beyond all of this, what I found fascinating about the address is the extent to which it illuminates Trump's fundamental view of the world. Trump's world is all about competition, all the time. All interactions, for Trump, involve winners and losers. Everything to him is zero-sum.

This is both inaccurate and profoundly amoral. Let me elaborate a bit on both.

There are indeed some human interactions that are zero-sum, at least on some dimensions. Negotiation over the price of a car or a house is inevitably this way, at least so far as that issue is concerned: every dollar I give up (as a buyer) is a dollar gained (by the seller). Of course, this works primarily for single-issue interactions, because as soon as I introduce multiple values I introduce the possibility of tradeoffs in which both sides can get some, or even all, of what they want or need. This is negotiation theory 101, and the fact that Trump (who claims to have written a book about bargaining) doesn't understand this says a lot about his worldview as well as his intellectual breadth.

More broadly speaking, the defining characteristic of human civilization is cooperation that produces greater benefit for all, rather than competition that takes from one to give to another. The creation of wealth, the functioning of markets, the social interactions that produce what we call "civilized society" are all predicated on the notion that we do things that benefit not only ourselves, but others as well. If we were all about competition, we would barely have descended from the trees.

It is true that many these interactions have both relative and absolute gains within them. Trump is clearly a "relative gains" kind of guy - if the other side is gaining more, even if he himself is objectively better off, he feels that he's "getting screwed".

Relative gains thinking always leaves everybody worse off. It was behind the wave of protectionist tariffs and trade barriers in the 1930's (Smoot-Hawley in the US) that drove the world economy further into depression. It was in response to this disaster that after WWII, American policymakers put forward the Marshall Plan and the reconstruction of Japan - arrangements designed to enrich Europe and Japan more than the United States, because that was the smart thing to do. The result was massive worldwide economic expansion that improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people. No people has ever gotten prosperous on the basis of protection.

In Prisoner's Dilemma, relative gains thinking on both sides leads to very poor outcomes - both lose. Absolute gains thinking leads to mutual cooperation and better outcomes for both. This is, to a substantial degree, a matter of mindset. The winning strategy in PD is Tit for Tat, which assumes that cooperation is possible and starts every interaction cooperatively. Trump apparently hasn't read Axelrod.

In addition to being a lousy understanding of human interaction, Trump's worldview is also deeply disturbing from a moral standpoint. If everything is about winners and losers, then there are no real limits. Ultimately any behavior is justified, if only it helps you or your side win. Restraints on behavior are for suckers, and each side should be expected to do everything in its power to "win" (whatever that means in context). Winning, in turn, is its own moral justification. Might (achieved through winning) really does make right.

There are philosophical systems that have argued this point in the past, but they are profoundly un-American. They are also deeply anti-Christian. President Trump obviously has only the most tenuous connection to the Gospel, despite throwing in a few awkward God references in his inaugural address, but his zero-sum mentality makes it clear that he has no real relationship with Christianity.

The direction of the Christian gospel is pretty clear on this point. "Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." "Love one another as I have loved you." "Blessed are the merciful, for they will have mercy." "Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other also." "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

The list goes on and on, of course. Even "us first" nationalism is difficult to sustain in the face of Scripture. At the beginnings of the Abrahamic story God promises that "in you all nations of the earth will be blessed", and Peter understood that "God shows no partiality".

I keep being confronted with the same question: for those of us who claim to be Christians, do we take this stuff seriously or don't we? Forget the Supreme Court, or LGBT rights, or abortion, or any of the other issues that Christians sometimes hold up as being "the" issue that justifies their choices. All of this is under Screwtape's "Christianity and..." - things we attach to God that become God. They are idols.

To view the world as Us vs. Them, to reduce every human interaction and every issue to a struggle to produce winners and losers, is an utter and complete repudiation of the Gospel of Christ. To follow a man who walks that path is to reject the injunction of Jesus' own prayer to God: Thy will be done. God's will is not for a world of conflict and strife. Why would we follow someone who wants to make it more so?

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Taking Goldhagen Seriously

A great deal of my FB feed of late is taken up with a steady stream of articles, memes, and statements around one argument: that Donald Trump is politically akin to Adolf Hitler, so much so that we should be worried about the United States slipping from democracy to fascism or some other form of nationalist authoritarianism.

Like all historical analogies (and especially like all instances of Godwin's Law), this one tends towards confirmation bias - people see the similarities and discount the differences. It seems material, for example, that Adolf Hitler had by the early 1930's a thoroughly developed political ideology, which he had written out in book form, whereas Donald Trump appears to have no coherent ideology and has never written a book on his own in his life. The former was an ascetic vegetarian, the latter a sybarite with enormous appetites.

While this exercise is intellectually interesting, it doesn't get at the important question: how likely is the United States to change from a functioning democracy to an authoritarian regime of some sort? Focusing on the election of a particular leader is one piece of the puzzle, but it misses other important variables.

If we are insistent on using Hitler's Nazi Germany as the yardstick, then we need to look seriously at that case and not merely at simplified versions of it. In particular, I think we need to take seriously the argument put forward some twenty years ago by Daniel Goldhagen in his book, Hitler's Willing Executioners.

Goldhagen's work should be required reading for anybody who wants to use Nazi Germany as an analogy, not because he is necessarily right (he may be) but because he tells a very different story about how the Nazi regime worked. Our simplified American story is that Hitler and a small group of fanatically committed followers were able to take over the German political system and turn it the Nazi regime we know today by a combination of repression, intimidation, and keeping people in the dark. The "cause" of Nazi Germany is reduced to Hitler and his immediate inner circle, which absolves the rest of the population of responsibility. This story also raises the specter of the same thing happening here against our (the people's) will.

Goldhagen's book turns this story on its head. He argues that the Nazi regime succeeded because, and only because, a large majority of the German population actually agreed with its aims (in particular, the racial purification of the country) - hence the title, "Willing Executioners". In his work, Goldhagen casts serious doubt on parts of our standard story, in particular that Germans were kept in the dark about the Holocaust and didn't know what was going on.

Goldhagen's work raises a serious question: to what extent is the acquiescence if not enthusiastic participation of the population a necessary condition to a nationalist authoritarian regime? Leaving aside the details of Goldhagen's argument, this is the fundamental issue - are the feelings of the population a relevant variable in enabling a fascist government?

I think that the answer to this question must be "yes". Authoritarian governments have maintained their status through power and intimidation, against the will of the population - East Germany and North Korea come to mind - but these cases tend to be governments established in time of war, when force of arms was sufficient to shape a new political order. The Nazi example is so compelling to us precisely because Hitler didn't conquer Germany, he got elected (albeit by 1/3 of the population, at least initially).

There is no reasonable scenario under which the US government will be overthrown by force and our new political order established by military might. For all of its lumps, our current structure of government is our starting point. And if Goldhagen's hypothesis holds any water, it will be very difficult - perhaps even impossible - to turn that structure into an authoritarian one, whatever an elected leader may say.

It is clear that at this point that there is no ideology that commands the loyalty of the majority of Americans, largely because we are mostly tribal and post-ideological in our politics. Donald Trump has, as of this moment, a 40% approval rating - lower by 1/3 than George W. Bush's at the same point relative to his inauguration in 2001, and that was after the most contentious election in modern US history.

Because the internet has provided a megaphone to anyone who wants one, we can easily confuse volume and shrillness for strength. Our enemies (on whichever side we think they may be) seem large and terrifying. But if you're looking for a constituency ready to support a Trump authoritarianism, I suspect that (despite their loudness and shrillness) you're not looking at very many people.

I've argued before that Presidents aren't Gods. We ascribe far too much importance, and far greater power, to the office than it actually has, even in modern times as successive Presidents have used a dysfunctional Congress to expand the Executive reach. Donald Trump cannot turn the United States into a fascist country. Only we can do that. And I don't see any indications that Americans are willing to do so.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Bubbles, Reason, and Fear

Like many Americans, I watched President Obama's farewell address on TV last night. And like many, I found it to be moving and inspirational at many points. People may disagree with his policies and his results - heck, I disagree with some of his policies and his results - but I hope that there is a broad agreement that he has, on balance, been good for the office of the Presidency.

I know this sounds naive in the face of the rampant and irrational partisanship of our age. So be it. Lots of people think Obama is the antiChrist - not much we can do there. I prefer to ignore them. They're likely not reading this anyway.

Among many excellent points made in the speech (you can read the entire prepared text here), two stood out to me: his argument about the need for reason and his concern about "bubbles", especially social media bubbles.

I have been thinking a lot about both of these of late. My own social media bubble has been overrun for the past month with anxiety and fear. And because the fears are of the future - of things that haven't yet happened, but are imagined as likely or going to happen - they run unchecked. No appeal to reason can assuage them. Many of my friends are terrified, depressed, or both.

Some are also distraught and angry, and are seeking to channel that anger into action towards what they regard as better outcomes. That is all to the good - President Obama's call for everyone to be involved, at all levels, was well and sincerely made, and we will all be better off if more folks get involved in arguing, organizing, and pushing for what they think is right.

It's the fear and depression that I find more concerning. The tendency, it seems, is to swell political issues and problems to the size of existential crises, so that they sweep away all other concerns, thoughts, and values. Our lives are so much more than national politics - indeed, on a day-to-day basis national politics play only a tiny part in our time and attention. But because of the bubble effect, our politics have come to take over our lives. I believe this is very unhealthy, and does us far more harm than good. I also believe we have a choice in the matter.

I could argue (and have) that what we are facing is not an existential crisis. An existential crisis, politically speaking, is Somalia or Libya - a complete breakdown in all governing structures and "government" by warlords. There is no road from where we are that leads there.

We're not even facing the "Dirty War" years of Argentina, when a totalitarian government seized power from an elected one and proceeded to torture and "disappear" people by the tens of thousands for the better part of a decade. We are light years away from that kind of political and cultural collapse.

This helps lend a little perspective. We are facing the next few years of politics that a majority of Americans, often for very good reason, won't like. Civil rights may get harder to defend, discrimination may rise, racism and hate may be more out in the open. The rich may well get richer at the expense of the rest of us (although, in all fairness, that's been happening for the last 8 years, and the 8 years before that...) The US government may screw up some international relationships, and as a result crises will have worse outcomes for US interests and we may lose power and influence around the world. Millions might lose health insurance. Lots of bad stuff may well (probably will) happen.

But here's the thing. When we spend our days and evenings reading post after post, op-ed after op-ed, mostly from politically biased and emotionally charged sources, that talk about how all of these bad things will happen, that all of this is just around the corner - it begins to take over our view of the world. If all you ever read is bad news - in this case, the anticipation of bad news - then everything starts to look bad. Just as with our bodies, "you are what you eat", our minds are the same. To borrow from Nietzsche, the longer we stare into the abyss, the more the abyss stares back into us.

Politics at the national level are important. But they are not everything. Most of what matters in our lives happens far away from Washington. The nature of our job, whether our boss is decent person or not, our relationship with our spouse, how our kids are doing in school, traffic on our local roads, the quality of life in our communities - these and hundreds of other things all go on being and changing regardless of who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. What the federal government does can have an impact, usually at the margins, but lots of other things matter more. They're just not on CNN or our social media feeds.

"But what about...?" There are a thousand "but what abouts". Yes, there are serious things with serious consequences. Yes, global warming is real and having an incoming administration that doesn't seem to take it seriously is bad. I am not calling, in any way, shape, or form, for us to simply ignore all the bad stuff and pretend it isn't there. I stand with President Obama: we all have a duty to be involved in trying to make our nation and the world a better place, which means facing challenges squarely.

What I refuse to do is let the bad stuff own me. The world is more than the bad stuff. There is nobility, and grace, and kindness, and simple acts of goodness all around us, every day. For every racist fool whose video-recorded tirade goes viral on YouTube, there are a million decent people who held a door open for a harried mom, who helped a man in a wheelchair reach an item on the top shelf, who took the time to smile back at a child. For every five minutes we spend reading some toxic spew on the internet, there are hours we spend with our kids, our parents, our spouse, our friends, our dog.

Beyond this - which is hopefully accessible to anybody - I want to offer a perspective that likely only some of my readers will share. A part of my identity, as my friends know, is as a Christian. I was raised in the Episcopalian tradition, have spent time in wonderful Lutheran churches, and am currently active in an Episcopal congregation. My faith perspective is similar - though by no means identical - to those of many other Christians, both Protestant and Catholic.

When I look at this through the lens of my Christianity, I am immediately faced with a stark question: Do I take my faith seriously, or don't I? A core of Christian belief is that God created humanity and seeks relationship with the Created, and that the basis of that relationship is intended to be what we call Good: justice, peace, righteousness. We may argue around the margins about what exactly these mean, but the basic point is clear.

Christians also believe that God works - in ways that we often do not understand - in and through Creation to achieve that relationship. We believe that the fulcrum and culmination of that work was in a particular time and place and person, and that the death and resurrection of that person has (to borrow my rector's phrase) "already and not yet" restored Creation to what God wants it to be.

Christians believe, as MLK Jr. put it, that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice". That God is working his purpose out towards not just a more perfect Creation, but towards the perfect Creation. We believe that, though there will be "wars and rumors of wars", that in the end God's will shall prevail and all shall be well. And we profess that, despite all the troubles and travails of this world, "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God".

I look at all of this - a fairly plan, ordinary, basic description of the Christian faith - and I am challenged: Do I believe these things or don't I? Because if I do, then all of the "existential crisis/end of the world as we know it" concern that flows through Facebook and Twitter and indeed much of our national conversation, doesn't look very scary. Yes, bad things are happening now. But I am confident about how the story ends. There's no suspense. I already know the outcome.

Many Christians know (but easily forget) that the most oft-repeated commandment in the Bible is this: "Be not afraid". If I'm not supposed to be afraid in the face of God, why on earth should I be afraid of Donald Trump? The whole thing becomes simply ridiculous.

I don't know that any of this will convince anybody, and I don't expect it to. I only know that my path and my responsibilities will be the same on January 21 as they are on January 19, as they were last year and the year before and the year before that. Love God and love my neighbor. Do what little I can, with what little I have, to make the world a better place. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. And leave the rest to God.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Thoughts on Trump and the International Environment (Cross-Posting)

Earlier this week I published a piece over at Relations International about the potential implications of a Trump administration on the international system. It's mostly a means of reminding ourselves that the world is how it is in large part because of the United States, and that no dominant world power has ever walked away from its role before - so, as my friend Peter Trumbore pointed out, a lot of hypotheses will be tested in the next couple of years.

You can go check out my piece here.