Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Good Faculty Governance: The Power of the Policy Wonk

My last blog post, "In Defense of the Dark Side," set off a lot of good conversation among friends across academia. One common refrain: there are indeed terrible administrators who make poor (usually unilateral) decisions that have seriously bad consequences for the faculty, and (more importantly) for the universities where they work and the students they serve.

This led to other side conversations about the selection processes that go into picking administrators, the benefits of "cross-cultural marriages" (faculty married to administrators), and other such things. This is what happens when you get a lot of well-educated people talking about stuff they care about.

One question that occurred to me as I read through the various threads: given the common occurrence of "bad administration", what can faculty do about it? "Shared governance" is supposed to provide a bulwark against excesses of power, but it often doesn't. Besides complaining (or snarking) on the internet, what can be done?

In answer, I want to trumpet the value of the often-underappreciated oddball: the policy wonk. A true policy wonk is someone who doesn't just care about the policy outcomes; they immerse themselves in the rich details of how policies are made. Unlike most, they really do want to see (in Bismark's words) how the sausage is made.

Why do policy wonks matter? Because the chief problem that faculty everywhere are trying to solve is, How do we hold administrators accountable? The reason why this is so difficult to do most of the time is that there is no good answer for the question, accountable for what?

Usually, faculty want to hold an administrator accountable after the fact for a decision they feel was a bad one - that is, for a policy outcome. But whether decisions are truly good or bad in their effects is often not known until significantly later. Prior to that, people can express opinions but it's hard to hold someone accountable because they have an opinion different from yours.

Much better if you can hold administrators accountable for how decisions are made - that is, for the process rather than the outcome. The reason why this is a more promising field is that process can be agreed upon ahead of time. We can't necessarily agree with the Dean on what decisions she will make next year, because we don't know what those decisions will be or even what they will entail. But we can agree on the rules by which those decisions will get made.

This is where the policy wonk comes in. Policy wonks love process, and in particular they love to codify process in policies and procedures. They are the folks who will delve into the details of your university's policy manual (which no one else ever reads).

The keys to accountability are simple: agree ahead of time on the process by which decisions will be made, and write those agreements down. That seems really boring when you're doing it, but it comes in great handy later on.

Take an example one of my friends brought up: a senior administrator decides to break a College of Arts & Sciences up into multiple units (a College of Science and one or more Colleges of Other not-Science Stuff). If there is no policy written down about how such a decision should be made, then the administrator is unconstrained. You may not like the idea of breaking up the college, but how do you hold someone accountable just because you disagree?

This was actually a problem for my current employer in the past. Colleges were broken up, renamed, and recombined with astonishing rapidity. The running joke was that you had to check in every morning to see who you were working for that day. Faculty, unsurprisingly, were not amused, especially because they were often not consulted.

In response, we (the administration and faculty together) wrote a policy that guides decisions about recreating or changing academic units - everything from renaming an academic department to restructuring colleges. The policy provides for thorough consultation at every level, including all affected faculty as well as all relevant administrators. This consultation has to proceed in order, starting with the faculty in the affected department(s). Only when all of the steps of the process have been followed can a proposal move forward.

It's not a perfect policy - a Provost determined to cram change down the faculty's throats could still do so. But she would first have to listen to everyone's objections, and document them. You can't walk in tomorrow to find you're in a different college or department without knowing about it. And if the process isn't followed, faculty have a set of rules in writing - rules which the administration agreed to - to which administrators can be held accountable.

It's not necessary that all faculty become policy wonks. But they should identify, and value, the wonks among their number, and use their wonk powers in the service of accountability. A reasonable administration will welcome such an effort. And if the administration resists, you will at least have shifted the conflict to a far more important set of questions.

Go forth and wonk!

Monday, April 16, 2018

In Defense of the Dark Side (Academic Administration)

Since I have spent my entire career in higher education across six different institutions, I have many friends in many places. Since I built most of that network as a faculty member, and continue to attend faculty conferences, many (most?) of those friends are faculty. One of the constants of having a broad network: there are always at least a few institutions in my circle of friends where faculty-administration relations are terrible.

These situations are always worse when budgets are bad, when cuts are happening, and/or when a new contract is at stake. Given the condition of higher education these days, some confluence of these circumstances is pretty common. Why this is true is the subject of another day (or of previous posts - see here and here for examples).

What I'm interested in today is the kind of tribal circling of the wagons that these conflicts create - and how that behavior makes finding solutions harder. Recently I have witnessed a significant amount of internet chatter among friends (at an institution other than my current employer) complaining about their university in the midst of both budget-cutting and negotiating a new contract. Many of these comments are laced with snark aimed at various generic vice presidents and associate provosts and senior executive VPs who want to fire half the faculty and take away the printers from the other half.

This is an old trope in faculty circles - that universities hire too many high-salary administrators and not enough faculty to actually teach the students. It feels good for faculty to repeat this narrative, in much the same way that it feels good for Rush Limbaugh dittoheads to fulminate about "libtards" who want to destroy the American way of life.

The comparison is intentionally aggressive. In both cases, the purpose of the name-calling is not to make an argument for why one is right, but to feel good in the company of others of one's own ilk. We are comforted in knowing that we are members of the tribe, different from Those Evil Ones over there who would destroy us. We feel righteous and secure at the same time.

In both cases it is also true that the accusations being flung about are based largely on ignorance. In most cases, those sharing the snark do not actually know the people on "the other side", nor do they understand much about their motives. Malice is assumed, not on the basis of objective evidence, but because it feels right.

This tendency to rally the troops around snark has a couple of unfortunate consequences. First, in this age of broadband communications very few messages only reach their target audience. Hyperbolic statements meant primarily for internal consumption can become external positions in public. If you've been denigrating the other side in full view of everyone, it's much harder to compromise with them when compromise would create a solution.

The second and more lasting problem is that snark becomes a cultural habit. Long after the new contract has been negotiated, after the finances are righted and the budget cuts stop and faculty hiring resumes, faculty who engage in anti-administration snark will be left with a lingering feeling that "they" can't be trusted, they are evil, they have malicious motives. That emotional poison takes a long time to work its way out of the system. And long before it can, another conflict will come along to reinvigorate it, perpetuating the cycle.

I am not about to argue that all administrators are flawless and of pure intent. I have seen (and suffered under) some truly terrible ones in my career, just as I have encountered lazy and malicious faculty. But to seize on the bad examples and assume this must be true for the entire class is intellectual and ethical nonsense. Moreover, it's counterproductive nonsense because it generates conflict where there need be none.

Faculty who look around and wonder why the environment at their university is so toxic need to include self-examination in that mix. Yes, Presidents and Provosts have a lot of power and influence. But the average length of service of a tenure-track faculty member is FAR longer than that of the average administrator, and there are far more of the former than the latter. Who has the greater influence on the culture, the many who are there for decades or the few who are there for a half dozen years?

By all means, hold administrators accountable - especially the bad ones. But retire the snark. It's not doing you any good, and in the end makes things worse for everyone. If you want things to be better, help make them better. You may be surprised at how much you can do.

A Syrian Escalation Ladder?

Amidst the long run-up to last week's somewhat anti-climactic missile strikes against Syria, a few folks raised a concerning specter: could a US bombing campaign lead American into a wider war?

For all the talk of a "new Cold War" between the US and Russia, we're nowhere near that point. The Syria case illustrates this nicely, and helps understand why Syria is unlikely to be the flashpoint for World War III.

First, even with the end of the Cold War in 1991 the United States and Russia remain strategic nuclear-capable states, meaning that each possesses the capability to threaten the existence of the other as a functioning society, and indeed to threaten life on the planet. Strategic nuclear arsenals have declined from their peak in the early 1980s, but both sides retain plenty of capacity to effectively annihilate the other.

What has changed since the Cold War is that the US and Russia no longer seek to actively destroy or overthrow the other. Putin enjoys messing with the West, but largely because he wants to create some breathing space within what he regards as Russia's sphere of influence so he can do what he wants. Today's Russia, unlike Stalin's USSR, has no grand ideology for taking over the world. Putin may be a local megalomaniac, but a global megalomaniac he is not.

Because of this shift, the US is no longer nearly as concerned as we once were that Moscow could try to destroy us at any moment. This used to be a real, if debated, concern, but there is no equivalent to the Committee on the Present Danger today - no more talk of Nuclear Vulnerability Windows and Strategic First Strike capabilities and the other sorts of things we used to worry about.

All of this is to say that, compared to the 1970s and early 1980s, the global superpower stakes are a LOT lower. If anybody wants to replace the US as global hegemon, it's China, and they seem content to focus on economics as a tool for doing so. They also have the good sense to stay the heck out of Syria, and indeed the Middle East as a whole.

So what does all of this mean for the US involvement in Syria? In the short term, we got through the strikes over the weekend without any obvious escalation. Trump, despite his proclaimed aversion to telling people what he's going to do, had telegraphed the attack for a week, so everyone had time to prepare. The US military also had plenty of opportunity to warn the Russians, who do have personnel and equipment on the ground in Syria. That warning was undoubtedly passed on to the Syrian regime, possibly lessening the impact of the strikes, but the whole thing was mostly symbolic anyway.

The fact that the US military can warn the Russian military directly in a theater of operations shows how far the two sides have gone to avoid direct confrontation, which neither of them wants. Syria isn't important enough to either side to consider risking a broader crisis, and unlike the Cold War era there's no "domino theory" today that would link a conflict in a minor regional state to an existential threat to the US.

There are only two things the US can do in Syria that could provoke a significant Russian military response. The first is to kill actual Russian soldiers (not mercenaries, whom all sides agree are on their own - the whole point of those forces, on both sides, is plausible deniability). If the US were to target a Russian facility and kill uniformed Russian forces, particularly in significant numbers, Russia would almost certainly feel compelled to respond in some way. Ongoing communication between US and Russian commanders in the area is a way to keep this from happening by accident, which so far has worked well.

The other thing that could produce a significant Russian reaction would be to directly threaten the survival of the Assad regime. Were to US to launch a truly massive bombing campaign, possibly combined with ground forces, that threatened to overthrow Assad and replace him with a more pro-Western alternative, we would be forcing Russia to make a choice: risk war with the US in order to protect their ally, or abandon their alliance and retreat. That's a difficult choice, given all that Russia has invested in the Syrian regime.

Luckily, it's a choice that Russia will almost certainly never have to make. Current US foreign policy, taken collectively, doesn't care nearly enough about Syria to try to alter the outcome of the Syrian civil war. Trump himself dislikes the whole thing and, now that ISIS is mostly defeated, wants to get the heck out. Others in the administration may have other views, but together they haven't been able to come up with a coherent Syria policy. In the absence of consensus on Syria, and given Trump's indifference to its future, it is extremely unlikely that the US will do anything that might push the situation towards a Russian response.

So much, then, for starting World War III. The other escalation axis people have been watching is Israel-Iran, but this too probably isn't going anywhere. Iran's support for Syria, while significant, is mostly through weapons and money, not Iranian forces on the ground. Iran doesn't like it when Israel bombs things in Syria, but there's not much the Iranians can do about it. Iran lacks a counter-deterrent to Israel's nuclear arsenal, and it lacks any other significant capacity to strike Israel except through terrorist proxies. As many scholars in my field have pointed out, proximity is a major factor in the likelihood of war, and Israel and Iran are not near each other.

Syria is a good example of how the most powerful state in the system doesn't always get its way. In this case that's because the US, despite its significant military advantages over all competitors, doesn't care as much as others do about the outcome. The American body politic is extremely unwilling to suffer any serious costs over Syria - Trump may be able to shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose voters but if he gets a couple thousand Americans killed fighting in Syria he may see his support cut in half. There's no agreement in Washington among foreign policy elites (of any party) as to what to do either. And so we dither and muddle along, while those with clearer goals and greater commitment forge ahead.

This is unlikely to change any time soon, and the end result is likely Assad remaining in charge of a significantly damaged Syria. On the way to that outcome, we can at least rest assured that this war is unlikely to spiral outward into a wider one.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Laws, Norms, and War: We Have Met the Enemy (again)...

As President Trump continues to flirt with the idea of hitting Syria with missiles, some in Washington have started asking whether the President has the legal authority to do so. This question makes little sense to most Americans, who have long assumed that Presidents (whom we refer to as "Commander-in-Chief" more often than by any other title) can do whatever the heck they want with the US military.

But the question does bear consideration. Lame-duck Speaker Paul Ryan opined today that the President doesn't need any legal authority beyond the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress in the wake of 9/11. Others have pointed out that that particular AUMF is a little long in the tooth (nearly 17 years), and it's stretching the original meaning well past any reasonable interpretation of the original intent to suggest that an authorization to go after al Qaeda and its affiliates somehow covers military strikes on the Syrian government, which hates AQ and its ilk.

The Framers of the Constitution never intended the President to be the one to decide whether the US goes to war. The power to declare war is listed under the Enumerated Powers of Congress (Article I, Section 8). That same section also gives Congress the power to create (or not) an Army and a Navy. For all that conservatives in the vein of the late Antonin Scalia like to talk about the Doctrine of Original Intent, none have ever felt any qualms about the complete abandonment of the obvious intent of the Framers on this issue.

That being said, here we are. The US Congress has not declared war since December 1941, and appears unlikely ever to do so again, even though the United States has been involved (often heavily involved) in a great many wars since the end of WWII. Sometimes, in a salve to the Constitution, they pass an AUMF as a way of saying, "See! We still have a say!" But often, even that doesn't happen.

My friend Vaughn Shannon pointed out recently that, while President Obama came under a lot of criticism for not striking Syria militarily back in 2013 when the question of chemical weapons first came up, this is not nearly the whole story. President Obama believed that, in order to strike a sovereign government in Syria, he would need (at minimum) authorization from Congress. That Congress, controlled by Republicans disinclined to given Obama anything that might benefit him politically and still stinging from the Iraq debacle, declined. Under the rules as he understood them, therefore, President Obama could not strike Syria. The fault was not his, it was Congress'.

All of this is to say nothing, of course, of international law. The UN Charter expressly forbids an attack on a sovereign member state except in self-defense or under the authorization of the Security Council. Most Americans have long since forgotten that the United States wrote those rules, though we have long ignored them. (Bonus points for anyone who can name the two incidents in history where the UNSC actually did authorize war.)

Usually, the way to settle questions of law is to go to court. But US courts have long declared that they have no intention of touching this question with a 10-foot pole, so there's no help there.

Congress, of course, only exercises the war power when they feel like it politically, and when the President feels like asking them to. This has devolved into a situation where the President is given broad leeway, and where people support or oppose acts of war based on which party they belong to. So much for politics ending at the water's edge...

How did we get here? Like a great many bad decisions, the roots lie in fear. After the Cold War, we very quickly became afraid of a resurgent Soviet Union and the global Communist menace. In that fear, we allowed successive Presidents to commit US forces to various and sundry military adventures, including the Vietnam debacle now memorialized by over 50,000 names carved in black stone in Washington.

The problem with using law as a guide to the US' use of force is that the law must be interpreted first. As another friend of mine, Steve Saideman, pointed out recently, everyone in Washington has their own lawyers. The White House has lawyers, the Pentagon has lawyers (both in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and in the Joint Staff, which serves the military side), the State Department has lawyers, Congress has lawyers. Lawyers generally come up with arguments explaining how whatever their masters want is on the right side of the law - witness the infamous "torture memos" drawn up in the George W. Bush administration by John Yoo and his colleagues.

So the original question - does the President have the authority to launch strikes on Syria - isn't actually a legal question at all. It's a political question. And how we answer it turns very much on how we understand both the rules supposedly enshrined in law, as well as the norms underlying those rules.

In general, laws only function when people accept their legitimacy - that is, when they buy into behavioral norms that underpin the laws. Take those norms away, and the law becomes merely a rhetorical device, a talking point for pundits to argue about. The very idea of being a "nation of laws" rests on our willingness to actually behave as if the laws matter more than what we happen to want to do at any one moment.

As Steve Saideman and others have pointed out, this is where the Trump Administration has done perhaps more damage than in any other area. Norms have been eroding for years, of course, and any reference to a "golden age" of norms in the past is probably mythical. But Trump, who more than any other President is the embodiment of his own administration, actively rejects all norms. He doesn't think they exist, or if they do they only exist for suckers and losers. He believes himself to be unconstrained by any rules - laws, norms, social understandings of shame, you name it.

And so in the coming days, the Trump Administration may attack Syria with missiles or bombs. Such an attack will likely accomplish nothing, as I have argued elsewhere. But as it will come with neither blessing from the UN nor authorization from Congress, it will be one more erosion of the norms that once governed US military force, however imperfectly. In so doing, we model the behavior that the rest of the world will emulate. We are creating the world we claim we don't want, and then blaming everyone else for it. Perhaps we, like our President, need to grow up and face the world like adults.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Syria and Deterrence: A Depressing Primer

So here we are again. The Syrian regime has once again used chemical weapons against civilians, and the US is again faced with the decision of what to do about it. Same old, same old.

First, to give the current administration its due: complaints about the deal reached during the Obama administration to supposedly rid Syria of its chemical weapons are legit. That deal obviously didn't work, and I suspect that most of those involved in negotiating it at the time knew it wouldn't. Without verifiability and serious Russian backing, there was no way Syria would disarm. There was obviously no penalty for Assad to cheat, and so he cheated.

That said, whining about the past isn't a foreign policy. Trump owns this problem now, just as he owned it a year ago. Last year, faced with the same situation, he lambasted Obama's foreign policy and then proceeded to lob a few missiles at Syria. He declared victory and called it a day.

And here we are again.

To be clear, there are indications from those who know the situation that this recent attack is not an isolated incident. Syria has been using chemicals a lot. It just doesn't make the news very often, probably because most of the country is unreachable by outside media - it's just too dangerous, and Assad's forces aren't interested in press coverage of their war.

If this is the case, then the Trump administration's attempts to deter further chemical weapons use by the Assad government have failed. That certainly seems to be the case with this latest attack, even if we accept former Ambassador Ford's contention that this incident is unrelated to Trump's comment last week that he wants to get out of Syria.

The failure of US deterrence efforts was easy to foresee. Deterrence is remarkably straightforward, and rests on imposing costs significant enough to override all other concerns (cognitive or affective). For all that I tend to see emotion as the primary motivating factor much of the time, there are times when facts impose their will on the situation.

The basic deterrence equation is simple. I declare the behavior that I want my opponent to not do. In this case, the US government wants Syria to not use chemical weapons. This had been a fairly robust international norm in general, but we can see that norms alone don't influence Syrian behavior.

Once I've made it clear what I don't want you to do, I then issue a threat: if you do that thing, I will inflict punishment on you. That punishment has to have at least two characteristics to work:

1) It has to be sufficiently severe that it overshadows the gains you might get from doing the thing I want you not to do.

2) You have to believe that I will actually carry out the threat - that punishment is certain if you cross the line.

The Trump administration's deterrence efforts have failed on both counts. Previous rounds of military strikes have been relatively mild, a small price to pay if Assad thinks that chemical weapons use will help him win his long-running civil war. And we haven't been consistent in applying those punishments. If the Syrian regime thinks there's a chance it won't get punished at all (based on past experience), that increases the chances they'll cross the line again.

At this point, a year into the Trump Presidency, he's dug himself a pretty serious hole in terms of deterring Assad. The only way to get out of that hole would be to reestablish both of the criteria above, swiftly and decisively and above all consistently over time.

In practice, this would mean a sustained campaign of airstrikes against a wide range of Syrian targets, sufficient in both quantity and importance that they threaten Syria's increasingly-certain victory in its internal war. Assad is willing to trade punishment in exchange for victory - in order for a punishment to be strong enough (condition 1), it needs to put that victory in doubt. And in order for him to change his belief that he can just wait it out (condition 2), such strikes would have to be carried out over a long period of time, for months not weeks or days.

It's not clear that the US government (Trump's emotional volatility aside) has the stomach for such an undertaking. It would be enormously expensive, even if (or especially if) we keep pilots out of harm's way by using cruise missiles and other strike-at-a-distance technologies. Deploying the forces necessary would put a strain on US military efforts elsewhere (Korea, anyone?) Innocent civilians will die, which will create international pressure to cease and desist. And Russia, of course, will object, and may engage in further bad behavior aimed at us or our interests.

So Trump will bluster, as he always does. There may well be some limited strikes, which Trump will praise as the "big price to pay" that he promised. Assad will quit with the chemicals for a few weeks, and everyone will forget about it. Then he'll go back to doing what he wants.

This is lousy foreign policy, not least because it makes the United States look like a paper tiger. But bluster and Twitter rants aside, it's not clear that there are any good options here. A Hillary Clinton administration would likely be stuck in the same situation, with the same lousy choices and the same calculations. The Obama administration did face this same situation, tried things a different way, and failed, just as Trump is failing now.

In addition to the tragedy within Syria (which is horrific for the Syrian people caught in the fighting), the longer-range problem is that Syria, with active Russian and Iranian backing, is largely dismantling the international norm against chemical weapons that we spent decades constructing during the Cold War. It's not clear that there has ever been a point, post-1991, where the United States could have stopped that erosion, or what exactly we would have done to change that path. But it does mean that future use of chemical weapons is more likely by the day, and that future efforts to deter that use will be even less effective than they are now.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Emotional Lure of Trade Wars

I've made a claim several times over of the course of this blog, including recently: that we are not nearly as rational as we think we are. This is not only a philosophical claim, it is actually at the center of my current research agenda with my good friend and award-winning blogger Pete Trumbore (whose stuff you should go read).

What Pete and I are exploring, in the particular context of violent conflict, is essentially the notion that our general understanding of human behavior is wrong. In the social sciences (political science and economics in particular), we have built a lot of explanations on the foundation that people are fundamentally rational - that is, that we weigh costs and benefits and choose the course of action that maximizes our gains and minimizes our costs.

To actually do this well requires a lot of thinking and analysis, which is why over the years folks (Simon, Kahneman & Tversky) have pointed out that we can't really be completely rational, because we don't have the brainpower. We can't consider all of the possible alternatives, we don't do probability math well in our head, we take shortcuts. But at heart, we think we're still basically rational, in that we try to make decisions cognitively - we look at information and select among the options that we think are the best.

There is probably some truth to this, more so in some contexts than others. But for too long we have ignored the role of emotions. Life is filled with examples of people making decisions, not because they thought it was the best option, but because they felt like it. Feelings are very often (maybe almost always) in the driver's seat.

This doesn't just apply to emotionally-charged arenas like civil war. The brewing conflict with China over trade is an excellent example. President Trump's core argument is that the current status of trade with China is "unfair" and "losing" and "out of control". His argument isn't an "argument" at all (an argument, after all, is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition). It's just a bunch of emotional assertions claiming that things are bad.

Most economists - people who spend their time studying economics as rationally and scientifically as possible - don't agree. But that doesn't matter, because for the administration this isn't about who is right in the sense of facts and truth. It's about what feels right. And Donald Trump has long made his feelings on China known.

The spiral of actions and counter-actions, threats and counter-threats, that have emerged in the last few weeks fall into this pattern. If you feel that the trade deficit with China is bad, then it feels right to "punish" China with tariffs. This is not an option chosen out of a menu of options because it is most likely to reduce the trade deficit at the lowest cost. There are many other options, most of which will cost the US economy less and many of which have a higher chance of success. But "punishment" feels right, and so that's the course we take.

China, of course, responds in kind. There has been much talk about China needing to "save face", which is really a different cultural framing of the role of emotion. You can construct an argument for why "saving face" is the rational thing to do, but it's a bit like modeling the solar system with the earth at the center - it's possible, but the math gets really messy, really fast.

Some time ago, Pete Trumbore blogged about a conversation he had with a Trump supporter. The foundation of this man's support for Trump was entirely, 100% emotional. It wasn't about policy positions, or Supreme Court picks, or anything else. The man supported Trump because it felt right. And because the things Trump does feel right.

The brewing trade war with China is very much a part of this larger puzzle. I would contend that our policy choices - including international policy, long thought to be the rationalist haven of "hawks, doves, and owls" - has always been more driven by emotion than we would care to admit. The present administration has stripped away any presence to rationality and laid bare the emotive foundations of what's really driving decisions.

If we think this is problematic - and I certainly do - the answer isn't to reject emotions and become Vulcan (as if we could). Instead, we need to think about our emotional responses. We can choose how we feel about things, and find more positive emotional paths. Being angry with the Chinese, or afraid of their economy, is probably a bad choice. It's certainly going to lead to bad policy. But if we want to change that policy, we need to get beyond trying to argue with facts. Facts don't matter here. How we feel does. That's the discussion we need to be having.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Border Security: The Fear Problem in Action

Yesterday I wrote about fear and its destructive effects on our politics and our lives together as a community. All of that was really just a restatement of things I have written many times before.

What does this look like in real life? If we take seriously the notion that we should not be afraid, how does that apply to the concrete world around us?

This this example from the recent news:
US would consider more than 4,000 national guard troops at border
Even since the President made an off-hand comment about sending "the military" to patrol the southern border of the US, people have been running around gathering information demonstrating that such a move is unnecessary. Both NPR and Forbes (perceived as "liberal" and "conservative" publications respectively) ran stories as far back as last December on how border crossings have actually been falling for decades, and are at a low not seen since 1971.

These facts, of course, don't matter. Deploying US national guard troops to the southern border isn't about facts. It isn't a rational response to a solve a particular problem. It's about fear.

In this case, I don't believe that it is driven by Donald Trump's fear - at least, I don't think that he's actually afraid of central American migrants. But he does very much want us to be afraid of these migrants. He's been harping on how scary they are for three years now. Sending "the military" to the southern border is just another symbolic way of saying, "Those people are scary. You should be afraid of them. Only I can save you!"

What would happen if we refused to be afraid? If we resisted the siren call of fear? Migration across the southern border is at its lowest net point in a generation or more. All of the facts point to the conclusion that migrants are a net positive to the US economy and to the communities in which they settle, whether they came legally or illegally. Any rational, fact-based effort to determine what we should be afraid of - meaning, what has the greatest chance of doing us harm - would put migrants way, way down on the list.

If we refuse to fear what our President wants us to fear, then we see government action in a new light: not as policy (right or wrong) in response to a problem, but as symbolic manipulation whose chief purpose is to manipulate our emotions. If we refuse to be afraid, it will be a wasted effort.

It should be noted that this is not the first time US military forces have been deployed to the southern border in support of anti-illegal migration efforts. The photo above was taken from a 2012 operation conducted during the Obama Administration. You can read about that operation, which involved actual Army forces, here. Essentially, the military saw it as a valuable training exercise. The difference, of course, is that the government wasn't trying to scare anybody - just trying to do their jobs a little better. A lack of fear makes all the difference.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Fear is the Mind-Killer

Last fall, nearly a year after the 2016 Presidential election, I wrote that Donald Trump is not the problem facing America today. A year earlier, I had written that America is dying as a nation. Sure, these were clickbait titles. But the basic point was the same: we are tearing ourselves apart as a nation. Trump is a symptom and an accelerant, but he is not the cause. Remove him from office tomorrow, and things will not get better.

A lot of people blame social media and the rise of "Fake News" - the stories that get circulated, the information bubbles that get created by Facebook's algorithms, the online tendency to interact primarily with people who agree with you (and to scream at those who don't). But technology isn't at fault, either. We're the ones who use it. In-groups and socially exclusive networks existed long before Mark Zuckerberg was even born. Bring down Facebook and Twitter tomorrow, and things will not get better either.

The problem is very much us - our behavior, our attitudes, our responses to the world around us. All of which are completely under our control. We can choose what information to receive, and what to believe. We can choose how we react, respond, or even reach out to, other people. We can choose to use kind words or harsh ones.

It might be closer to the truth to blame a host of elites - elected politicians and media infotainment figures. Politicians have found that it's very easy to mobilize people on the basis of fear. Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Glen Beck, and now Alex Jones make millions of dollars off of that fear. Make people afraid, and they will do what you want, vote the way you want, give you their money, buy your books and your guns and whatever else you're selling.

As many of my smarter friends have pointed out that this is a recipe for outbidding. Outbidding occurs when the next leader, the next figurehead, the next pundit comes along and takes away the spotlight by being more extreme than the last one. There's no clear end to this cycle, which leads to more and more extreme positions.

But while it's easy to blame the outbidders, it's still on us. We listen to them. We allow them into our homes, into our public discourse. We worry, we fret, we explain, we argue, we pontificate. And we fear.

Fear is powerful because it is the emotional response that drives behavior. We're not nearly as rational as we like to think. We don't think through our goals and issue positions, and then compare those to different parties and politicians, and then carefully select among the available options. We fear first, and that fear drives our perceptions, our judgments, and ultimately our actions.

But fear is also a choice. We are capable of accepting, or rejecting, fear. We aren't usually conscious of this choice - we usually feel that we have to fear, that we are forced to be afraid by the world around us. But we aren't. The world doesn't force us to feel a certain way about it. We choose that for ourselves.

The moment we understand this, everything changes. Conflicts - most of which are made up in our heads - evaporate. Problems don't go away, but they suddenly become fundamentally different problems. My "opponent" - someone perhaps still mired in fear - because not a monster to destroy, but a fellow person to be helped, if I can, and to be treated with as much kindness as possible even if I can't.

Decades ago, Frank Herbert wrote a fictional, fantastical science fiction world in which wisdom revolved around understanding a simple truth:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
People think of sci-fi as escapism, but Herbert was fundamentally right. Fear kills our minds, and our hearts. Ultimately, it destroys us, both individually and (especially) collectively.

If you think that things aren't good, there is one thing you can do about it. Don't be afraid. And convince as many others as you can to do the same.