Tag Archives: America

Facts Are So Inconvenient

There’s what we believe, and there’s what is true. Sometimes those two things align; often, unfortunately, they don’t.

Most of us have yet to sink to Trumpian levels–in fact, it never ceases to amaze me that Trump can tweet out some nonsense, or make an idiotic statement at a news conference, then blandly deny that he said any such thing. It takes a certain type of mental illness to forget that there is actual evidence rebutting you.

We may not approach Trumpian levels, but most of us do cling to certain “truths” that we desperately want to believe. I’m no different–it took me a long time, well into adulthood, before I realized that my view of America’s past was seriously deficient–heavy on the Founders’ ideals, light on some of their slaveholding behaviors, and pretty much void of what was done to Native Americans, among other things.

Then there were my fond beliefs about America vis a vis other countries. Social mobility. Equality. Rule of law.

I now know–unfortunately–that our once-vaunted social mobility is worse than that of many countries. This helpful infographic shows us 27th--not dead last, but not exactly in bragging rights territory.

In the Age of Orange, I’m not even going to talk about the rule of law; as a concept, it’s  beyond Trump’s limited intellect, and as a principle, it has apparently been abandoned by the Mitch McConnell wing of the Supreme Court.

And then there’s equality.

Now, as I tell my students, there are a lot of different ways to think about equality: genuinely religious people will say that we are all equal in the eyes of God; our constitution  requires government to treat equally-situated people equally, irrespective of the color of their skin or the beliefs they embrace.

And clearly, we don’t come into the world equally talented or beautiful or intelligent…

But about civic equality as a goal: Another visualization I stumbled across recently–this one from Time Magazine– made me aware of just how unequal Americans are. It uses neighborhood data to pinpoint metropolitan areas with high and low levels of equal opportunity, by searching for areas with relatively small gaps between the highest- and lowest-ranked neighborhoods. (It didn’t help my frame of mind that my own city, Indianapolis, was represented by a dark red dot indicating highly unequal neighborhoods.)

As the text explained:

This information is useful because, even when places have the same opportunity level overall, actually living in those cities can be a very different experience. For example, Colorado Springs and Detroit both score an overall opportunity level of 55. But in Colorado Springs, a typical high-opportunity neighborhood scores an 87 and a typical low-opportunity one scores 24. That might seem like a huge gap. But Detroit’s high is 95 and its low is 2: a much less equal city.

The problem was, when we found areas with small gaps between neighborhoods, those cities tended to be racially homogenous. In other words, children in Provo, Utah, and Boise, Idaho, have access to comparatively equal opportunities, regardless of which neighborhoods they live in—but those cities are more than 80% white.

When combined, in all 100 metro areas covered by the study, neighborhoods where white children lived had a median score of 73. The median neighborhood score for Asian children was 72. It was 33 for Hispanic children and 24 for black children. Black and Hispanic kids live with considerably less opportunity than their white and Asian peers almost without exception.

The disparities are especially wide in certain parts of the country. Milwaukee and its surrounding area has the widest racial disparity in the U.S., despite having a high overall opportunity score. A white child there lives in a neighborhood with a median opportunity score of 85. For a black child, the median neighborhood score is 6.

Once this pandemic is over, there is a long “laundry list” of situations in our country requiring attention and repair. That list needs to be based on facts, not beliefs.

Add equalizing children’s prospects to that list–and put it near the top.

 

Tribes And Cults

American politics these days is a sociologist’s dream. Or nightmare.

The extreme polarization of the voting public has been noted, examined and explained from multiple perspectives: we have “sorted” ourselves geographically, economically and philosophically, and political scientists suggest that we increasingly revise our ideological commitments in order to conform to those of the “tribe” we have chosen to join, rather than joining a tribe based upon its compatibility with those commitments.

There may be thoughtful citizens among us who march–resolutely–to their own drums, analyzing issues and political trends and determining their positions and allegiances based solely upon the facts as they see them after doing dispassionate research. If these ideal citizens exist, I rarely encounter them–and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m probably not one of them, try as I might.

Let’s be honest; we are all products of our socialization. We are influenced by our friends and families, persuaded by the information sources we trust, predisposed by our religious beliefs, our educations and our life experiences. Those influences on our political perspectives have always been with us, and I have difficulty imagining a time when they won’t be.

There is a difference, however, between the predictable diversity of opinion that is an inevitable result of our varied backgrounds, beliefs and experiences, and what I have come to see as surrender to political cults. America’s increasing tribalism is worrisome enough; its growing political cultism is terrifying.

It is one thing to be a passionate Republican or Democrat. It is quite another to exhibit  behaviors indistinguishable from the members of Heaven’s Gate or The Branch Davidians.

What are those behaviors?

According to those who study cults, members tend to be excessively zealous; they show unquestioning commitment to their leaders. Anyone who raises questions about the actions or character or prospects of those leaders is vilified. Supporters display an extremely polarized us-versus-them mentality, and refuse to hold the leader accountable to rules or authorities–the leader is the final authority, by definition.

If damaging information about the leader emerges, it is “fake news.” If knowledgable people dispute the leader’s ability to make good on his promises, or the premises upon which he acts, they are part of the conspiracy working to bring him down. (The “deep state,” or the “elitists,” or–on the leftwing fringe–the DNC.)

Case in point: in August, Trump called himself “the chosen one.” Did any of the self-described “deeply religious followers of Jesus” in his base rebel? Nope.

 The far-right radio host Wayne Allyn Root called Trump “the second coming of God.” Then former Energy Secretary Rick Perry straight up affirmed Trump’s craziness, telling him, “You are here in this time because God ordained you.”

The question we face, in a theoretically democratic system, is: why? Why do some people on both sides of the political aisle suspend their capacities for judgment and attach themselves unconditionally to figures that others perceive as deeply flawed?

According to one explanation,

“Everyone is influenced and persuaded daily in various ways,” writes the late Margaret Singer, “but the vulnerability to influence varies. The ability to fend off persuaders is reduced when one is rushed, stressed, uncertain, lonely, indifferent, uninformed, distracted, or fatigued…. Also affecting vulnerability are the status and power of the persuader….

In a time of paradigm shift–when the world around us is changing rapidly and the challenges to our existing world-views are multiplying–large numbers of people are “rushed,” “stressed,” “fatigued”and vulnerable. It is tempting to put one’s faith in someone who is convinced that he has all the answers; if you just follow him, you don’t have to think for yourself. (And yes, I keep using “he” and “him” because in our patriarchal society, these “leaders” are almost always males.)

America was based upon a belief in “We the People,” not “he the savior.”

We the People need to realize that even the best leaders we can find will all be flawed human beings in need of our constant supervision and constructive criticism, not our unquestioning loyalty.

We the People have a lot of work to do if we are to rescue our government.  That work will require a lot less passionate intensity and a lot more reasoned analysis than we currently display.

 

Other Than Voting Blue, What Can Good People Do?

A recent article in The Guardian reminded me of a long-ago discussion with my mother.

The article was about a Japanese trader named Chiune Sugihara, who saved the lives of 6,000 Jews during the second World War.

Over six weeks in the summer of 1940, while serving as a diplomat in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara defied orders from his bosses in Tokyo, and issued several thousand visas for Jewish refugees to travel to Japan.

The discussion with my mother followed a television show about the Holocaust, and the German citizens who stayed silent while their Jewish neighbors were subjected, first, to official demonization, then required to wear yellow stars, then deprived of their businesses, and finally dragged from their homes and transported to death camps. My mother declared that she would not have been one of those who pretended not to see–that she would have resisted, even at the risk of her own life and the lives of her family. I remember responding that I wished I could be so sure that I would do the right thing.

At the time, of course, it was all hypothetical.

Suddenly, it isn’t.

We need to recognize that we’re at the beginning of what threatens to become a very dark time in America. Under Trump, we already see (brown) children in cages; we already see the deliberate encouragement of white nationalism, and the demonization of immigrants, Muslims, and “others”; we already see reckless and dangerous foreign adventurism; we already see disdain for–and noncompliance with– longstanding democratic norms and the rule of law; and we already see  concerted, persistent attacks on the media outlets that report these things.

We don’t face the equivalent of SS troops in the streets (although it is worth noting that a number of Trump supporters have threatened civil war should he lose in November), so the costs of activism are minuscule in comparison to the risks run by people like Sugahari or Schindler.

Several commenters to yesterday’s post made a valid point: the time for sharing dismay is over and the time for action is here.

The question is: what does that action look like?

I am assuming that most Americans appalled by what is happening are already working to get out the vote–volunteering for candidates, bringing lawsuits to counter the GOP’s constant efforts to disenfranchise people who might vote Democratic, calling their Senators and Representatives, writing letters to the editor and posting opinions on blogs and social media. I hope–but do not know–that marches and demonstrations are being planned; if they are, even old folks like me will participate.

Yet none of this seems adequate to the challenge.

I ended yesterday’s post with a question asking readers to characterize the last decade. I will end this one with a far more important question: what should we be doing that we aren’t doing? What additional, specific actions can ordinary people take that will be effective? 

Our current situation is the result of the deterioration of democratic practices and civic participation that has been going on “under the radar” for a number of years. But I am convinced that, once the Trump administration made the consequences of that deterioration too visible to ignore, most Americans have been appalled. I continue to believe that–no matter how unAmerican the behavior of our federal government , no matter how contrary to our ideals and self-image– the majority of Americans are good people who do not and will not endorse policies grounded in stupidity, hatred and bigotry.

The question is: What are the concrete steps those good people can take to ensure that “it can’t happen here”?

 

Goodby To The Decade Of —What?

As we head into the year 2020, it’s hard to know whether to be fearful or hopeful. (Despite it being “20/20” I’m not seeing very clearly.)

So far, the 21st Century has left a lot to be desired.

When I was young–many years ago–I imagined we’d make great progress by the 21st Century. My anticipation had less to do with flying cars and computers and more to do with things like world peace; in any event, I wasn’t prepared for the renewed tribalism and various bigotries that have grown more intractable in the years since 2000. (I was definitely not prepared for a President reckless enough to Wag the Dog.)

It’s hard to know whether the problems we face are truly worse than they have been, or whether–thanks to vastly improved communication technologies– we are just much more aware of them. In any event, as we turn the page on 2019, pundits and historians are proposing terms to describe the last decade.

 Washington Post opinion writers came up with six, one of which seems particularly fitting, at least to me: the Age of Unraveling.

“Unraveling” was the descriptor offered by Dana Milbank, one of the Post opinion writers offering their perspectives on the last ten years. I think Milbank got the decade right.

It began with the tea party, a rebellion nominally against taxes and government but really a revolt against the first African American president. At mid-decade came the election of Donald Trump, a backlash against both the black president and the first woman on a major party ticket.

Milbank attributes much of the ugliness of our time to the fury of white Christian men who realized that they were losing their hegemony. He saved some opprobrium for social media:

It gave rise to demagoguery, gave an edge to authoritarianism and its primary weapon, disinformation, and gave legitimacy and power to the most extreme, hate-filled and paranoid elements of society.

Molly Roberts had a somewhat different take; she characterized the decade as one of (over) sharing. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like have ushered in “full-frontal confessionalism to a country full of emotional voyeurs.” In the process of baring our souls, we also, inadvertently, shared a lot of private information.

To maximize our engagement, those platforms played on the preferences all our sharing revealed — which meant shoving inflammatory content in our faces and shoving us into silos. All that connection ended up dividing us.

Jennifer Rubin has been turning out a stream of perceptive columns the past couple of years, and her take on the decade didn’t disappoint: she dubbed it the Decade of Anxiety, “one in which we lost not simply a shared sense of purpose but a shared sense of reality.” Rubin, a classical conservative, is clear-eyed about what has happened to the GOP.

The Republican Party degenerated into a cult, converted cruelty into public policy and normalized racism. Internationally, U.S. retrenchment ushered in a heyday for authoritarian aggressors and a dismal period for international human rights and press freedom.

Christine Emba, with whom I am unfamiliar, characterized the period as a Decade of Dissonance–a period during which our reality and our expectations kept moving further and further apart.

For her part, Alexandra Petri called it the Decade of Ouroboros. I had to Google that one. Turns out it’s a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. (I’ll admit to some head-scratching; she either meant a time when we set about destroying–eating– ourselves, or a time when everything is ominous.)

The final offering, from the economist Robert Samuelson, struck me as appropriate, if depressing. He called it the Decade of Retreat.

It’s not just the end of the decade. It’s the end of the American century. When historians look back on the past 10 years, they may conclude this was the moment Americans tired of shaping the world order.

At my house, it has been a decade of civic disappointment–and exhaustion. (Persistent outrage really tires you out….)

How would you characterize the decade? And more to the point, where do you see America after another ten years?

 

Power to the People?

As Americans hold our collective breath watching an increasingly deranged Chief Executive (did you see that Cabinet meeting?), political scientists ponder the short- and long-term consequences of this unprecedented Presidency. How much damage will he do, and how long will it last?

Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution has a recent article speculating on what happens next: she describes the possibilities as 1)Trump learning and his presidency becoming more normal or at least adapting to what she delicately terms his “impulsiveness;” 2) the chaos continuing and power moving away from the presidency as a result; or 3) Trump being forced to leave office.

I suppose the good news is that any of these scenarios spells doom for Dick Cheney’s wet dream of a “unitary executive.”

If I were a gambling woman, I’d put my money on #2. The chaos will continue, and the federal government–at least the Executive Branch– will no longer be the center of domestic or international policy. Power abhors a vacuum.

As Kamarck writes,

The second model involves little learning and no adaptation. This is a model for continuing chaos, with the likely result that power will begin to drain from the White House towards other centers. For instance, power can move from the White House to the states and to the private sector. In the area of climate change, California Governor Jerry Brown has already stepped into a leadership role. It is likely that governors and corporate leaders may begin to take action regardless of what the White House thinks. Power can also move to Congress where possibilities for a limited tax bill and some infrastructure spending can move more or less without White House leadership. And internationally, power can move to the heads of Germany and France in Europe and also to China, as the United States pulls back from the world or offers leadership that is too unstable to count on. It’s unclear whether turning the presidency into a sideshow would be permanent or not. But continuing chaos from a Trump presidency could do it at least temporarily.

During the turbulent Sixties, “Power to the People” was a popular slogan, but the scenario painted in Kamarck’s second model is hardly benign. Despite Americans’ longstanding distrust of central authority, numerous aspects of our national life require a measure of uniformity if we are to remain the United States.

In normal times, we would expect Congress to step in to fill the power vacuum. That would certainly be the best-case scenario–if we had a functioning legislative branch. But we don’t. One result of the Republicans’ exceedingly thorough 2011 gerrymander was the election of what has appropriately been dubbed the “lunatic caucus,” reactionary ideologues and culture warriors uninterested in the nitty-gritty details of governance and unacquainted with the concepts of pluralism or the common good. They are “led”–to the limited extent they are tractable–by men who have elevated party over country and power over the rule of law.

Devolving power to the states can help to ameliorate some of the immediate damage being done to American institutions, but the only real solution I see is a “wave” election in 2018 that gives us a Democratic Congress capable of containing Trumpism.

The 64 Thousand Dollar Question is whether the Democrats can get their act together, recruit responsible and attractive candidates, and forgo their usual intra-party fratricide.

The whole world is watching….