We Hang Together Or We’ll All Hang Separately

After signing the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin summed up the colonists’ situation:“We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Those who were intent upon positive change–in that case, separation from England–needed to stick together, or they’d get picked off one by one.

I thought about Franklin’s quote when I attended the Women’s March in Indianapolis on Saturday.

The March began with a rally, and throughout the hour or so of speeches, women–and a considerable number of men–continued to pour into the American Legion Mall. It’s a huge space, but it filled up. There were great signs (my favorites: “We, not Me” and “Haven’t we taken this ‘anyone can be President’ thing a bit too far?”). Most of the speeches were good–if some were a bit long and not entirely relevant. But the weather cooperated, the crowd was large and enthusiastic and the causes being highlighted were all important.

There was one unfortunate discordant note.

The first speech was given by two very young co-presenters representing Black Lives Matter, and they delivered a full-blown attack on the women in attendance–women who were virtually all there as allies. (They reminded me of those pastors who deliver sermons criticizing people who don’t come to church– to the people sitting in church.)

What was so distressing about their diatribe was that most of the points they were making were valid, and could have been made in a way that brought people together rather than dividing and offending them. As my son said, halfway through their very lengthy diatribe, the message should be “let’s all fight White Supremacy,” not “All you white women are White Supremacists.” (And that was before they told an overwhelmingly Democratic crowd that Hillary Clinton was corrupt, privileged and racist, and deserved to lose.)

This is the sort of counterproductive behavior that makes me worry about November.

I have been very critical of the GOP (with good reason), but honesty compels me to recognize that a portion of the Democratic party is also composed of zealots who would rather be right than win elections–who prefer assuming postures of moral superiority to the hard work of coalition-building and persuasion. If theirs are the voices that voters hear–if their tirades drown out the voices of those who are equally passionate but less strident and self-righteous–Democrats could approach November splintered and unable to catch the wave that seems to be building.

Let me make this clear: there are all kinds of injustices that Americans absolutely need to address. There is an ugly history we need to recognize, especially when it comes to the treatment of people of color–African-Americans, Native Americans, immigrants. These issues are critically important–but they will not be addressed, let alone remedied, if Republicans are still in control after the midterms.

You don’t win elections by unnecessarily alienating your friends and allies.

Democrats need to ask themselves what they want: to set themselves apart, cloaked in self-satisfied moral superiority? or to win and be in a position to make things better?

I think we should listen to Ben Franklin.

Random Thoughts/Observations On Government Shutdown

Partisans are playing the blame game–pointing fingers and accusing the “other guy” of being responsible for the government’s inability to function.

It seems fairly obvious to me that those in charge–those in power– are most culpable; with the GOP dominating all three branches of Government, trying to lay the blame at the doorstep of the emasculated Dems reminds me of the divorce lawyer who told the judge that her client’s wife was so annoying, she caused  him to beat her. (That’s a true story, by the way.)

A few scattered observations–

  • it is absolutely unconscionable to use children as bargaining chips and hostages. Republicans’ willingness to keep the “Dreamers” in limbo and hold out funding for children’s health in order to play political games is simply despicable. (It’s also stupid: 87% of Americans want DACA reinstated.)
  • Republicans (and a few Democrats) who were willing to ignore the ongoing anguish of 800,000 DACA children in order to fund government for another couple of weeks were either naive (GOP promises to “get to” DACA “soon” were transparent bullshit–especially since Trump’s uninformed demands change daily) or more concerned about perceived political optics than justice for children who depend upon them.
  • Indiana Senator Donnelly was one of those Democrats. Donnelly has been a constant disappointment: he was willing to defund Planned Parenthood (he evidently believes his religious beliefs deserve government support but mine don’t), and he was willing to screw over the Dreamers, presumably because he is (theoretically) a Democrat running for re-election in a red state. Perhaps I’m the one being naive, but I think voters–red or blue–are more likely to reward principled behavior than political pandering. That said, I will vote for Donnelly in November because–acute disappointment though he is–he will cast his first vote to eject Mitch McConnell (aka the most evil man in America) from leadership, and because the Republican Trumpers who want to oppose him are even worse–and in Indiana, a vote for a third-party candidate is a vote for the Republican. This will be a “lesser of two evils” choice.
  • If there is a bright spot to the shutdown, it should mean that–at least while government isn’t open for business–the demolition crew that Trump has installed in lieu of competent administrators won’t be able to work on destroying their agencies.

And finally….If we needed any more evidence that the federal government is broken, and that Republicans are disinterested in fixing it, or for that matter, doing anything other than enrich their donors, I think this last year–culminating in this Keystone Kos episode–should provide it.

I know it’s morning, but excuse me while I go pour myself a stiff drink.

 

About Those Dire Predictions…

Today is the second annual Women’s March.

The first one was followed by an eventful year for women–from #metoo to vastly increased civic activism to record numbers of women running for political office. Those activities haven’t been universally applauded, but that’s nothing new. Every time we women assert ourselves, we are met with the usual warnings: children will be neglected or traumatized, marriages will fail, society will suffer, we women will enter old age embittered and alone.

I know the defenders of patriarchy will be disappointed, but it really doesn’t work that way.

A couple of weeks ago, I referenced Stephanie Coontz’ book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, in which–among other things–Coontz reminded us that “Leave it to Beaver” wasn’t a documentary. In 2016, she updated the book, and the Council on Contemporary Families, a research institute she heads, issued a report on some of the data that would be part of the revision. That data just goes to show how often all those dire predictions about the effects of social change turn out to be wrong.

A few examples:

In the early 1990s, there was much hand-wringing about “scarlet women” and rising out-of-wedlock births; the warning was that the children would become juvenile “super predators,” morally-impoverished and violent.

But between 1993 and 2010, sexual assaults and intimate partner violence dropped by more than 60 percent. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, the murder rate in 2013 was lower than at any time since the records began in 1960. Since 1994, juvenile crime rates have plummeted by more than 60 percent, even though the proportion of children born out of wedlock has risen to 40 percent.

We were warned that women who were selfish enough to pursue both motherhood and careers would inevitably “outsource” our maternal responsibilities and/or neglect our children. We can skip the guilt. (Now they tell me!)

Today, both single and working moms spend more time with their children than married homemaker mothers did back in 1965. And, according to David Cotter, Joan Hermsen, and Paula England’s brief report on Moms and Jobs, educated professionals – the women most likely to work outside the home – spend many more hours in child care than their less-educated counterparts.

Remember when pundits and scolds warned that no-fault divorce laws spelled the end of the American family?

In each state that adopted no-fault, the next five years saw an eight to 16 percent decline in suicide rate of wives and a 30 percent drop in domestic violence. Although no-fault divorce is now universal, divorce rates are actually falling.

Well–so maybe no-fault divorce didn’t destroy the institution of marriage, but legal recognition of same-sex marriage will surely do it; for one thing, it will never be accepted by the American public; for another, think of the children!

As late as 1996, 65 percent of Americans opposed same sex marriage, with just 27 percent in favor. Yet by 2011, 53 percent favored same-sex marriage, paving the way for its legalization in 2015. Definitive, long-term studies now show that children raised by two parents of the same sex turn out fine.

There’s much more, but you all get the drift. Bottom line: keeping marriage and the unequal relations between the sexes “the way they always were” is neither necessary nor desirable.

Ironically, although the public has adapted, politicians and government haven’t.

Since 1993, the federal government has made no substantive progress toward policies that help women and men reconcile work and family obligations, while other countries have leapt ahead. In 1993 the Family and Medical Leave Act gave workers in large companies up to 12 weeks unpaid job-protected leave. But 23 years later, only 13 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave, and 44 percent don’t even have the right to unpaid leave. By contrast, every other wealthy country now guarantees more than 12 weeks of paid leave to new mothers, limits the maximum length of the work week, and mandates paid annual vacations. Most also offer paid leave to fathers. The result? American workers express higher levels of work-family conflict than their European counterparts. And the U.S. has fallen from 6th to 17th place in female labor participation among 22 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development since 1990. The one exception to this backwardness? The Pentagon, which runs the best affordable and universal childcare system in the country and just instituted 12 weeks paid maternity leave.

Other things that haven’t improved in the past quarter-century? Women’s reproductive rights and wage inequality. And as the #metoo movement has illustrated, sexual harassment.

In her speech at the Golden Globes, Oprah predicted that “change is coming.” As far as I’m concerned, it can’t come soon enough.

Meanwhile, I’m going to the March.

What Is WRONG With These People?

I don’t know why I constantly ask that question–I know what’s wrong with them. They are greedy and unethical, none too bright, and they lack both human empathy and any concept of justice. The better question is why are they this way? (There used to be a theory about punitive toilet training…)

Are you wondering what has set me off this time?

The Hill reports that

The GOP bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, introduced by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) on Friday, would eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which erases student debt for those who work for qualifying employers after making payments for 10 years.

The qualifying employers include government organizations and nonprofits, according to the federal student aid website. Those who volunteer for the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps are also eligible.

God forbid we should offer people an incentive to enter into (underpaid) public service! No, we should reserve government positions for people who are able to take advantage of the opportunities–people who can use those positions to line their already-overflowing pockets.

People like Betsy Devos.

The Washington Post reports that DeVos recently awarded her department’s debt-collection contracts to two firms, one of which she had invested in shortly before becoming Secretary of Education.

A company that once had financial ties to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was one of two firms selected Thursday by the Education Department to help the agency collect overdue student loans. The deal could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Previously, the Department has used as many as seventeen companies to collect overdue student debt. Suddenly, they need just two.

DeVos presumably divested her stake in the successful bidder as a condition of her appointment, but of course, once she leaves, she will be perfectly free to reinvest or engage in other business dealings with a company that now owes her big time.

What makes this “deal” worth hundreds of millions of dollars–and what makes me so livid–is that DeVos is methodically engaging in a process of overturning Obama-era regulations that were–by any measure–efforts to be fair to the students DOE presumably is there to serve.

It was DeVos who proposed eliminating the Public Service Loan provision. It is DeVos who has reversed the Obama Administration’s decision to forgive loan indebtedness from students who were defrauded by predatory for-profit “universities.”

CNBC took a look at some of the DeVos policy changes, noting that terminating the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program would “drastically impact public servants who have made significant financial and career decisions based on PSLF provisions.”

CNBC also reported that

Under the Obama administration, the Department of Education was incentivized to award Federal Student Aid contracts to debt collection companies with the strongest records of helping borrowers and the lowest rates of loan defaults.

One of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ first major moves was to revoke this policy, making it more likely for the government to award Federal Student Aid contracts to companies that sell their services for the lowest price. These low-cost collection companies often offer riskier loans and provide less support to individuals trying to navigate the student loan maze.

Betsy DeVos is a poster child for an administration in which absolutely no one has the slightest concept of “the public good”– or, for that matter, ethical governance.

Communicating In The Age Of The Bubble

This is the speech I gave yesterday to the Public Relations Club of Indianapolis.

Democracies require ongoing discussions by participants who share a reality. Thanks to social media, conspiracy theories, “fake news,” and political polarization, Americans today occupy alternative realities. We talk past each other, not to each other, a problem exacerbated by distressingly low levels of civic literacy.

Most people have heard Daniel Moynihan’s famous quote to the effect that we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. Less famous, but equally true, is this quote from the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick: “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”  I think Neil DeGrasse Tyson said something like “Reality doesn’t care whether you believe it or not.”

The problem is, without a shared belief in a shared reality, productive public discourse becomes impossible. When it comes to the exercise of democratic self-government, we also need a shared understanding of the basic premises upon which our system was built. People don’t need to be constitutional scholars, but they do need to know the philosophy of our system, what I call “America’s foundational values.” We don’t even have to agree with the principles and values the founders incorporated in our constituent documents:  we just need to know what they were, and how 200+ years of jurisprudence have changed and enlarged them.

People who know me know that civic literacy has been an obsession of mine for years. I’m not going to belabor it for my entire talk, I promise, but I do want you to understand what I mean when I say that civic ignorance is preventing informed civic participation by too many Americans.

For a number of years, it has been clear that what I call “civic literacy”—knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, the basics of American history, at least a nodding acquaintance with what is meant by the Rule of Law—has been in very short supply.

Let me just share some statistics that illuminate the extent of the problem. (There’s a lot more depressing research on IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy website.) A few years ago, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs asked high school seniors in that state some simple questions about government. Here are a few of those questions and the percentages of students who answered them correctly—and let me also assure you that there are dozens of studies confirming that, unfortunately, Oklahoma isn’t an outlier:

What is the supreme law of the land? 28%

What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution? 26%

What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress? 27%

How many justices are there on the Supreme Court? 10%

Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? 14%

What are the two major political parties in the United States? 43%

We elect a U.S. senator for how many years? 11%

Who was the first President of the United States? 23%

A recent survey found only 24 percent of Americans could name the three branches of government—that’s down from that same survey’s result of a pathetic 36% just a few years ago. Fewer than half of 12th graders can describe federalism. Only 35% can identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. Only five percent of high school seniors can identify or explain checks on presidential power.

Americans are equally uninformed about important current events and issues: a survey taken during the widely publicized effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act found that a full third of Americans didn’t know that the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare are the same thing. Another survey found that only 47% of Trump voters know that Frederick Douglass is dead.  Closer to home, Indiana had the lowest voter turnout in the nation in 2014; when the Center for Civic Literacy fielded a survey asking why, 20% of the Hoosiers who didn’t show up at the polls said they didn’t vote because they didn’t know enough about the candidates or the issues.

One obvious problem with civic ignorance is that citizens who don’t know what the Constitution requires don’t recognize when proposed laws would violate it.  Here in Indiana, we have a legislature in which a number of lawmakers can’t tell the difference; As I’m sure you’ve seen in the news, both local and national, Milo Smith, a Republican from Columbus, has proposed a law that would require the owners of the Colts to refund ticket prices to attendees “offended” by athletes “taking a knee”– that is, by athletes exercising their First Amendment rights. (We can discuss the constitutional defects of that suggestion during Q and A, if they aren’t immediately apparent.) This proposal has generated national scorn, and made Indiana look like a backwater. Again.

Here’s my premise: Legislators and informed citizens should be able to recognize the difference between a policy they disagree with and one that is unconstitutional.

There is another “small d democratic” electoral problem with our dismal lack of civic knowledge; citizens can’t evaluate the performance of their elected officials if they’re unaware of the standards to which those officials should be held.

The ability of citizens to determine what constitutes accurate information—not just about our Constitution and legal system, but about science, about history, about economics, and about what happened yesterday—is critically important. Right now, even thoughtful people are unsure of who and what to believe.

That insecurity leads to distrust, and when people don’t trust their social and governmental institutions, society doesn’t function. Government doesn’t function.

Don’t kill this messenger, but the Public Relations profession bears a disproportionate responsibility both for the loss of trust and for people’s inability to sort the wheat from the chaff. I’m not talking about “puffery”—anyone who ever sold anything in the marketplace has been guilty of that, probably from the time of the Roman agora. I’m thinking of the far more sophisticated cultivation of purposeful distrust, that started really being socially problematic with its use by big tobacco. As I’m sure you all know, when science confirmed the health hazards of smoking, tobacco companies hit on a brilliant strategy: rather than debating the science, rather than responding with the dubious “findings” of their own shell “institutes,” they insisted that the jury was still out. No one really knows whether smoking is the cause of X, Y or Z.

The “who knows” tactic worked for Big Tobacco for a long time—if it hadn’t been for some industry whistleblowers, it might still be working. Today, that approach has been adopted by other industries that pose a threat to public health, most notably, the fossil fuels industry. Oil, gas and coal producers rarely argue anymore that climate change isn’t real; they say the science of causation is unsettled, that we don’t “really know” whether the changes that have become too obvious to miss are due to carbon warming the atmosphere, or whether they might be part of natural fluctuations, or something we have yet to identify. (What do 97% of climate scientists know, anyway?)

Then these profit-motive encouragements of uncertainty met the Internet, where conspiracy theories and political spin and propaganda intensified mistrust. These days, sane people don’t know what to believe; crazy people—whose ranks seem to be growing—believe all sorts of bizarre shit. Hillary Clinton is running a child sex ring out of the basement of a pizza parlor. Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and someone, somehow managed to get his birth announcement published contemporaneously with his birth in Hawaii because they knew he’d be President someday. Right.

I tell my students, if you want to believe that aliens landed in Roswell, I can find you five websites with pictures of the aliens’ bodies on them…

Rightwing and Left wing “news” sites constantly pump out propaganda that then is circulated through Right and Left social media bubbles. And to return to that horse I keep beating, if you are ignorant of how government works, if you can’t tell the difference between science and religion, if you don’t know the definition of “fascism” “socialism” or “capitalism”—you have no yardstick to apply, no way to evaluate the credibility of what your friends are posting, or the President is tweeting.

Words are the stock in trade of your profession, so it should really worry you that words are losing their meaning. If “socialist” is an epithet, rather than a description of a particular economic system, we can’t communicate. And you probably shouldn’t get me started on “liberal” and “conservative.” I think the GOP’s support of Donald Trump is pretty conclusive evidence that the party is not conservative—certainly not in the sense of political philosophy.

I’m a good illustration of how empty the words “conservative” and “liberal” have become—and how far the political pendulum has swung. In 1980, I was a Republican candidate for Congress. I was pro-choice and pro-gay-rights, and I won the GOP primary; when I lost the general election to Andy Jacobs, multiple people—most of them Republican– told me they couldn’t vote for me because I was “just too conservative.”  I have changed my positions on a couple of issues—issues where the “facts on the ground” have shifted, or I’ve learned more about them—but my basic political philosophy is the same as it was in 1980, and I have old position papers to prove it. Yet today, I am routinely accused of being a pinko leftwing socialist elitist.

The point of all this is: words matter. Facts matter. Trust matters. When words cease to have content, when facts become matters of personal preference, the communication that builds trust becomes impossible.

And without a basis of trust, democracy is impossible.

I don’t know how we fix the fix we’re in right now, but I know we’d better figure it out, and soon.

 

Thank you.