Category Archives: Random Blogging

This Is Our Challenge

Charles Blow is one of the very few columnists who almost always cuts to the very heart of an issue.  His clarity was particularly pronounced in his January 11th column, “The Lowest White Man.”

He began with a description of Donald Trump that mirrored what most sentient Americans already know:

I guess Donald Trump was eager to counter the impression in Michael Wolff’s book that he is irascible, mentally small and possibly insane. On Tuesday, he allowed a bipartisan session in the White House about immigration to be televised for nearly an hour.

Surely, he thought that he would be able to demonstrate to the world his lucidity and acumen, his grasp of the issues and his relish for rapprochement with his political adversaries.

But instead what came through was the image of a man who had absolutely no idea what he was talking about; a man who says things that are 180 degrees from the things he has said before; a man who has no clear line of reasoning; a man who is clearly out of his depth and willing to do and say anything to please the people in front of him.

Blow acknowleged Trump’s antipathy  to people who are not white, but refused to attribute his intransigence about the wall to anything as coherent as bigotry, reminding readers that the original idea of building a wall and making Mexico pay for it was just a cheap campaign stunt. (Trump doesn’t have actual policy positions; that would require reading more than the chyron running on the screen beneath Fox and Friends.)

The column then asks and answers the real question, the one I’ve heard a million times–from family, from friends, from colleagues: why can’t his base see what we all see? How can anyone still support this pathetic buffoon?

That is because Trump is man-as-message, man-as-messiah. Trump support isn’t philosophical but theological.

Trumpism is a religion founded on patriarchy and white supremacy.

It is the belief that even the least qualified man is a better choice than the most qualified woman and a belief that the most vile, anti-intellectual, scandal-plagued simpleton of a white man is sufficient to follow in the presidential footsteps of the best educated, most eloquent, most affable black man.

As President Lyndon B. Johnson saidin the 1960s to a young Bill Moyers: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

Trump’s supporters are saying to us, screaming to us, that although he may be the “lowest white man,” he is still better than Barack Obama, the “best colored man.”

There is, of course, a copious history that prompted Johnson’s observation. Poor whites in the post Civil War South were kept compliant by reassurances that–no matter how wretched they were–they were better than those black people, and entitled to their superior status.

There are too many white guys, north and south, who still cling to the comforting belief that their skin color and male genitals make them better than those “others”–women, Jews, gays, immigrants, and even (as we have recently seen) Native Americans. But consistently and especially, black people.

They found Obama’s Presidency intolerable, and they are Trump’s committed base.

No matter how much of an embarrassment and a failure Trump proves to be, his exploits must be judged a success. He must be deemed a correction to Barack Obama and a superior choice to Hillary Clinton. White supremacy demands it. Patriarchy demands it. Trump’s supporters demand it.

That belief, ultimately, is what the resistance is about. That is the worldview that absolutely must be left in the dustbin of history.

Consider The Metric

One thing about living in tumultuous times….

Questions that are rarely asked when things are calm and going well– about the purpose of government, the proper operation of the economy, and the nature of citizens’ obligations to each other– get revisited.

Take the economy. Ever since Milton Friedman preached that the bottom line consists only of the bottom line–that success is measured by profit and shareholder return–businesses have adopted the measure as dogma. But as David Brooks has reminded readers, keeping shareholders happy at the expense of other stakeholders is a relatively recent phenomenon (not to mention shortsighted).

In a healthy society, people try to balance a whole bunch of different priorities: economic, social, moral, familial. Somehow over the past 40 years economic priorities took the top spot and obliterated everything else. As a matter of policy, we privileged economics and then eventually no longer could even see that there could be other priorities.

For example, there’s been a striking shift in how corporations see themselves. In normal times, corporations serve a lot of stakeholders — customers, employees, the towns in which they are located. But these days corporations see themselves as serving one purpose and one stakeholder — maximizing shareholder value. Activist investors demand that every company ruthlessly cut the cost of its employees and ruthlessly screw its hometown if it will raise the short-term stock price.

We turned off the moral lens.

I know that reaction to Brooks is mixed, but in this column, he makes some good points. The most important is his closing:

The crucial question is not: How can we have a good economy? It’s: How can we have a good society? How can we have a society in which it’s easier to be a good person?

America seems to have lost sight of the fact that economic systems should be judged on whether they enable what Aristotle called human flourishing. Citizens don’t exist for the economy; the economy exists to support a healthy society. The single-minded pursuit of shareholder profit elevates the wrong goals and creates perverse incentives.

And that brings me to another article.

Scientists and social scientists can confirm that what and how you measure something matters. We all know that school teachers spend more time on subjects that are tested, and that employers who reward employees on the basis of speed rather than quality will get more speed and less quality. When the metric for evaluating economic performance is GDP, which measures the dollar value of goods produced, the result tells us little or nothing about the well-being of citizens or the health of the society.

As the Sarasota Institute points out in the referenced article,

GDP growth says nothing about how the benefits of higher growth are distributed. We can imagine high GDP growth with the poor becoming poorer and the rich becoming richer. Only if GDP growth produces income growth for everyone could we say that the general welfare has been increased.

GDP growth does not say anything about the composition or quality of the output. GDP will grow with higher cigarette and alcohol consumption and more guns sold but this says little about well-being growth. In addition, GDP would grow even if the average quality of goods declined.

GDP growth ignores the costs that have been incurred in achieving that growth. Consider that more GDP probably increases air and water pollution and more traffic congestion. Consider that GDP growth could be the result of more people working longer hours and having less leisure time.

The article references Bhutan’s approach: the Gross Happiness Index.

My husband and I were intrigued by that metric when we visited that small country several years ago. (Evidently others were equally intrigued; several countries are experimenting with a similar approach.) The four pillars of GNH were:  sustainable development; preservation and promotion of cultural values; conservation of the natural environment; and establishment of good governance.

The index rests on the assumption that a person is likely to be happier if the economy grows, if cultural values are satisfying, if the natural environment is pleasurable, and if the government operates in the interests of the citizens.

There are other proposed indexes as well: the Human Development Indicator would shift the focus from national income to people centered policy. (This index started to gain momentum when– between 2002 and 2006–personal income in United States fell but GDP continued to increase); a Social Progress Index focused on social and environmental needs; and recently, a Happy Planet Index, measuring whether people are happier, if they live longer lives, if the income distribution is only moderately skewed, and if people have a low carbon footprint.

All of these proposed indexes recognize that you get what you measure.

Metrics matter.

“Mother” Has Many Meanings…

More from the theocrats…

By this time, most politically-aware Americans have read about Karen Pence’s new job.

“Mother” is once again teaching at the Washington, D.C. school where she worked when Mike Pence was in Congress. The Huffington Post describes that school, noting that everyone isn’t welcome there.

In a “parent agreement” posted online, the school says it will refuse admission to students who participate in or condone homosexual activity, HuffPost learned through an investigation into discriminatory admissions policies. The 2018 employment application also makes candidates sign a pledge not to engage in homosexual activity or violate the “unique roles of male and female.” …

The application says that the school believes “marriage unites one man and one woman” and that “a wife is commanded to submit to her husband as the church submits to Christ.” The application asks potential employees to explain their view of the “creation/evolution debate.”

Not only did Mrs. Pence (aka “mother”) previously teach at the school for 12 years, the Pence’s daughter Charlotte attended, according to the school’s website.

JoeDee Winterhof, who is a senior Vice President for policy at the Human Rights Campaign,  had an excellent response.

“Why not teach at a school that welcomes everyone, instead of choosing one that won’t serve LGBTQ kids, kids of LGBTQ parents? The Pences never seem to miss an opportunity to show their public service only extends to some.”

Mrs. Pence is certainly entitled to believe that gay people are sinners, that women should submit to men and that there is actually a “debate” about evolution. (Although–forgive the snarky aside–according to people who worked in the statehouse when Mike Pence was governor, she doesn’t seem to obey that “submission” directive. Quite the contrary.) The fact that a Congressman’s wife chose to work at a school with this philosophy might raise eyebrows, but there are a lot of Congressmen and a lot of wives, and so far as I know, their choice of employment is rarely seen as sending a political message.

The spouses of Presidents and Vice-Presidents, however, are judged by a different standard; at least they were  before this disastrous and embarrassing administration.

When the wife of a Vice President–even an accidental and smarmy Vice President–chooses to work for an institution that labels a significant  proportion of Americans sinful and unworthy, that’s not only a statement of her values, it’s a deliberate message of exclusion that is directly at odds with important American principles.

That message is underlined by its hypocrisy.

If “mother” and Pastor Pence really disapproved of all the forms of sexual immorality described by the school, they wouldn’t even enter the same room with Donald Trump. Since they agreed to be part of the Trump Administration, it’s pretty obvious that they are willing to be selective about the sorts of “immoral” sexual behavior they condemn.

Pussy-grabbing and other assaults on unwilling women, serial infidelity, and consorting with prostitutes–those things are evidently minor transgressions. What must be condemned are relations between people of the same sex who love each other–and who may even be married to each other.

This is bigotry (barely) masquerading as piety, and it’s nauseating.

These people are vile.

 

“Those People”

A recent, fascinating article in the New York Times focused on the growing divisions between Israeli and American Jews. The differences between them are real, and the implications of those differences for American foreign policy and Middle East peace deserve examination–but I took a somewhat different lesson from the “schism” being scrutinized.

That lesson has two parts: national cultures matter, and stereotypes rest on a profound misunderstanding of the relative influences of biology and culture.

It isn’t only bigots who ascribe certain behaviors to discrete groups of people; even folks who would never impose a quota or paint a swastika on a synagogue wall often stereotype marginalized groups, believing that all Jews–or gays, or blacks, or “Polacks” or other identifiable populations– have particular, inborn characteristics. How many times have you heard someone refer to a minority group as “those people”?

To the extent that minority groups do have observable “markers” of attitude or behavior, those characteristics are almost always the result of history and culture rather than genetic traits. (In an echo of the old nature/nurture debate, it’s hard to disentangle, for example, the emphasis Jews have placed on education from a history that highlighted the value of an asset you could take with you when the powers-that-be confiscated your property and ran you out of the country.)

Marginalized groups develop coping mechanisms that observers often assume are inborn characteristics of “those people.”

Jews who live in Israel, where they are the majority, occupy a very different culture than we American Jews. The threats they face from hostile countries on their borders, the requirement that almost everyone serve in the military, and the theocratic elements of Israel’s governance combine to provide an environment that is dramatically different from the environment experienced by American Jews.

It shouldn’t surprise us that different national cultures shape different perspectives and behaviors, even among people who share a long history. Scholars tell us that the worldviews of the cultures into which we are socialized are enormously consequential.

The truth of the matter is that all groups composed of “those people” are the products of a specific history, time and place. Any group of people who shared that particular history, time and place would be likely to exhibit similar behaviors and attitudes.

Stereotypes are based upon the assumption that certain identifiable groups are monolithic, that all of its members have recognizable, inherited similarities.

The differences that have emerged between Israeli and American Jews should remind us that humans are a mixture of genetics and culture–of nature and nurture–and efforts to cram our differences into silos marked “those people”–or simply “us” and “them”–aren’t simply pernicious.

They’re wildly inaccurate.

 

 

Misogyny Over Racism?

In the January/February issue of the Atlantic, Peter Beinart attributes the global move to authoritarianism to misogyny.

After noting the current roster of bullies in power in various countries–he calls them ‘Trumpists’– and noting the very different political and economic environments of those countries, he points to the one threat they all share: women.

But the more you examine global Trumpism, the more it challenges the story lines that dominate conversation in the United States. Ask commentators to explain the earthquake that has hit American politics since 2016, and they’ll likely say one of two things. First, that it’s a scream of rage from a working class made downwardly mobile by globalization. Second, that it’s a backlash by white Christians who fear losing power to immigrants and racial and religious minorities.

Yet these theories don’t travel well. Downward mobility? As Anne Applebaum pointed out in this magazinejust a few months ago, “Poland’s economy has been the most consistently successful in Europe over the past quarter century. Even after the global financial collapse in 2008, the country saw no recession.” In the years leading up to Duterte’s surprise 2016 victory, the Philippines experienced what the scholar Nicole Curato has called “phenomenal economic growth.” The racial-and-religious-backlash theory leaves a lot unexplained, too. Immigration played little role in Duterte’s ascent, or in Bolsonaro’s. Despite his history of anti-black comments, preelection polls showed Bolsonaro winning among black and mixed-race Brazilians. Racism has been even less central to Duterte’s appeal.

The problem with both American-born story lines is that authoritarian nationalism is rising in a diverse set of countries. Some are mired in recession; others are booming. Some are consumed by fears of immigration; others are not. But besides their hostility to liberal democracy, the right-wing autocrats taking power across the world share one big thing, which often goes unrecognized in the U.S.: They all want to subordinate women.

Beinart quotes Valerie M. Hudson, a political scientist at Texas A&M, who reminds us that  for most of human history, leaders and their male subjects agreed that men would be ruled by other men in return for all men ruling over women. Since this hierarchy mirrored that of the home, it seemed natural. As a result, Hudson says, men, and many women, have associated male dominance with political legitimacy. Women’s empowerment disrupts this order.

The article mines history to illustrate the ways revolutionaries have used “the specter of women’s power” to discredit the regime they sought to overthrow.

French revolutionaries made Marie Antoinette a symbol of the immorality of the ancien régime and that Iranian revolutionaries did the same to Princess Ashraf, the “unveiled and powerful” sister of the shah. After toppling the monarchy, the French revolutionaries banned women from holding senior teaching positions and inheriting property. Ayatollah Khamenei made it a crime for women to speak on the radio or appear unveiled in public….

When the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi replaced the longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Morsi quickly announced that he would abolish the quota guaranteeing women’s seats in parliament, overturn a ban on female circumcision, and make it harder for women to divorce an abusive husband. After Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster, the first law that Libya’s new government repealed was the one banning polygamy.

Beinart draws a comparison to Trump, whose attitudes toward women were shared by supporters whose hatred of Hillary was blatantly–even exuberantly– sexist. The misogyny theory even explains Trump’s improbable support among Evangelicals.

Commentators sometimes describe Trump’s alliance with the Christian rightas incongruous given his libertine history. But whatever their differences when it comes to the proper behavior of men, Trump and his evangelical backers are united by a common desire to constrain the behavior of women.

The article is lengthy, and filled with concrete examples. It’s persuasive, and well worth reading in its entirety. Assuming the accuracy of the analysis, it’s hard to disagree with this observation near the end of the essay:

Over the long term, defeating the new authoritarians requires more than empowering women politically. It requires normalizing their empowerment so autocrats can’t turn women leaders and protesters into symbols of political perversity. And that requires confronting the underlying reason many men—and some women—view women’s political power as unnatural: because it subverts the hierarchy they see in the home.

It would seem that the personal really is the political; misogyny evidently begins at home.