Modern Life Works Against Community & Trust

This past Sunday, the Washington Post had an interesting piece by Bill Bishop. If you don’t know Bishop, and you have an interest in understanding American’s current social and political problems, then I suggest you pick up his book The Big Sort. It really is one of the best books I’ve read in the past 10 years. It’s was a fascinating read.

In this past Sunday’s piece, Bishop looks at why our trust in institutions is at such a low level. In 1964 roughly 75% of the American public trusted their government to do the right thing. By 1976 that trust level was down to 33%. A big swing in 12 years. Now, during that period we had the assassination of 2 major national figures, civil rights unrest, a major political realignment, an unpopular war, and the resignation of Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal. But while all of these things may have added to a decline in trusting government, they aren’t, Bishop argues, the real story here.

Bishop points to two big trends in recent history. First, the decline in people trusting their government parallels a “falling trust in nearly ever institution,” both public and private. So it’s not just the government we’re talking about here, we need to be clear on that. Second, this trust deficit, though maybe not as bad as it is in the U.S., is a trend across most industrial democracies. So it’s not just America either.

Americans may have less trust in their government, but they’re also walking away (no longer trusting or wanting to be involved with) from organized religion and many other civic associations that use to serve in helping unify us. Bishop sees expanding diversity, the welfare state, and rising wealth as social engines that have brought about an “Enlightenment Individuality” in our society, which in many ways is inimical to the maintenance of community and trust. More than ever people are “artists of their own lives,” shedding traditions and cultural norms. While this is liberating in many ways, it’s also, when taken in the large, socially disrupting because it weakens social cohesion.

The interesting point, from a historical perspective, is that this trend is something much older than we think. Where ever there is an intersection of commerce, wealth, culture and diversity, you will have this pull toward “negation.”

As far back as the 1600s, travelers confronted by new cultures and novel deities began to question their own societies’ rules and institutions. “Not a tradition which escapes challenge, not an idea, however familiar, which is not assailed; not an authority that is allowed to stand,” historian Paul Hazard wrote. “Institutions of every kind are demolished, and negation is the order of the day.” This was the Enlightenment, a turning away from tradition and an anointing of reason, scientific inquiry and individualism.

And so while some people may point to Donald Trump as the personification of a movement against the so called “establishment,” it’s far more accurate to say he’s simply riding a wave, a historical trend that has little to do with him at all.

Bishop finishes his piece by saying there really isn’t anything we can do about this. Personally I think he’s wrong on that point. It will take, as William Hazlitt said, “a lot of fine writing,” strong leadership, good will and good government, all things in very short supply right now, to push this long term trend in another direction. But it can be done.

My Thoughts on the Presidential Election

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The morning after the catastrophe election on November 8th, I jogged to the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall of Washington DC. I entered the memorial, where the statue of Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president is located, and stood there in meditative thought. Out of the profound silence, I thought I heard the whisper of Lincoln’s ghostly voice: “Holy shit, you’re kidding me.” I turned and stared out across the National Mall toward Capitol Hill and wondered the same myself.

I’ll admit I have a bias against people like Donald Trump. I prefer leaders who act magnanimously toward their rivals and those they disagree with. I prefer leaders who can speak intelligently, responsibly, and realize that words really do matter—because, believe me, they do. I prefer leaders who’ve done their homework, actually understand the issues, taken the time to study them in-depth, and can talk intelligently about those issues. I prefer people who don’t abuse their status or celebrity and instead act with graciousness and kindness toward those less fortunate than them. And I definitely prefer leaders without an elaborate and well attested history of immoral behavior. I guess, in brief, I prefer leaders who’ve consistently demonstrated a spirit of nobility and excellence instead of the very opposite qualities. So naturally I find people like Donald Trump an anathema in positions of public leadership. To me—an a very large swath of America—Donald Trump may be the most unfit man to ascend to the Presidency in our nation’s history.

But now the deed is done and we’ll have to suffer through it. I’m doubtful that Donald Trump or those around him will ultimately be able to help most Americans—especially the working class—improve their lives much. The same trickle-down economic policies the Trump team (and GOP Congress) are currently batting around are the very policies that caused the stagnation of the middle-class and decline of the working class over the past few decades. Another big consideration is that a number of the problems in working class communities are self-inflicted and not amenable by government policy. In short, there are cultural problems that have to be resolved or dealt with within those communities before any outside assistance can help.

I suspect we’ll see mostly policies that favor the Donald Trump’s of the world (his family’s wealth and prosperity), while many of the programs and investments in the middle-class and working class are cut in order to provide more corporate largesse and tax breaks for the rich—who don’t need them and we can’t afford to give them. It’s really about math, and many of us will likely be on the losing side of the equation with this administration and this congress. And so the march toward a bigger, even stronger, more powerful oligarchy resumes.

But prove me wrong! Believe me, that would be fine by me. I like pleasant surprises.

Britain’s Decision to Leave the EU

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Yesterday most of Europe, and the financial markets, were unnerved by the British people’s decision to leave the European Union (EU). The Brexit referendum was close, but those wanting to leave the EU ultimately triumphed over those wanting to “Remain.” And so the divorce notice has been served. Like all divorces, there’s a chance this will be messy and expensive—especially in the near term for the Brits.

What I found rather amusing, and yet totally unsurprising, was that after the polls had closed in Britain, Google Trends reported a high volume of searches related to questions about the Brexit referendum, containing phrases like “What is Brexit? or “Why should we stay in the EU?” These searches were being, as The Washington Post described it, “frantically” queried by the Brits.

This is humorous in a Saturday Night Live sort of way. It’s also just pathetic. I suspect that a lot of Brits didn’t really grasp the complex implications of their vote. Like many Americans, they probably listened to media pundits, rabid partisans, and rank propagandists, and didn’t take to time to read widely what the experts had to say and then try to determine how the outcome might serve or not serve their true interests.

This was a complex matter. The decision to leave or remain, in my view, shouldn’t have been decided by popular referendum. It should have been a decision of the ruling government. We elect representatives, called MPs or Members of Parliament in Britain, to examine these complex matters, confer with the experts and their constituents and then take a vote. That’s their job.

If an MP’s constituents don’t like the vote their MP has taken, they can remove the MP (or party) in the next election and install someone who supports their views. That’s the way representative governments work. The average voter, in complex matters like this, simply doesn’t have enough time (or background knowledge) in their busy lives to properly calibrate.

Personally I can respect and understand both positions, whether one voted to leave or remain. There are valid—though not equally persuasive—arguments to be made on both sides of the decision. Either way, the stakes were high. The opposing arguments both came with various consequences and implications for the political, social, and economic viability of Great Britain going forward.

In the short term this is likely to have negative impacts on the British economy. If Brexit leads to a break up of the EU entirely, we could see tremendous economic shock waves across the world that may cripple most of the European economies, especially Britain’s, for years. And we all know what long term economic problems cause politically: the rise of radicals high on rhetoric and emotions and short on real and lasting solutions.

Gun Violence & A Broken Congress

At a recent PBS News Hour town hall meeting, President Obama was asked a question about his position on gun control.

As you’ll see in the video above, the President’s response is as thoughtful, and responsible, as you’re going to get on this issue. We study public safety problems all the time to find ways to mitigate the harmful, and often deadly, effects. The President gave a perfect example with how we reduced traffic fatalities. We studied the matter and used that knowledge to push public policy that has saved a countless number of men, women, and children from terrible injuries or death.

But we currently have a Congress that blocks the study of gun violence! It’s true. The President rightfully points this out. Think about that. As a public official, your official response to a problem is to avoid allowing any government studies that show how you can respond to the problem. Remember, we have by far the most mass shootings and gun related deaths of any nation in the western world. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that’s a real public safety concern that should be a priority for our elected officials.

If public safety, if protecting our citizens from violent death, is a priority (and it certainly is) then where are our public officials is doing something about it!….besides just offering their “thoughts and prayers” over and over again, year after year. That’s nice, but how about actually taking a good, honest look at the problem and mustering the courage to actually do something about it even if it costs you your seat in Congress. If this matter cost a member his or her seat it was worth it!

The tragic reality is some members of Congress seem to be doing everything they can to avoid and systematically block any attempts at doing anything about this big problem.

There is strong, broad support for a number of common sense gun control measures. We rarely have a proposal, for example, that gets upwards of 85% public support in the polls. We did with a bipartisan measure for 100% background checks. But nay. The public’s overwhelming support (and collective will) were thwarted by special interest lobbies in the Senate. This frames the entire problem with Congress currently. A club of mostly partisan ideologues no longer accountable to the demos.

I’m a strong supporter of the 2nd amendment, but I’m also a supporter of common sense gun control laws. I feel confident reasonable changes to our gun laws are coming, it’s just a matter of time. Eventually the votes will be there (the nation is evolving) and the American public will finally see some common sense prevail on this issue.

Commencement Speakers & Student Protests

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Typically during this time of year, we hear about some college students protesting a controversial speaker invited to speak at their commencement address. The students typically interrupt the speaker with verbal protests or some other form of protest like holding up signs. The intention is to confront the speaker. Some of the students find the speaker’s views obnoxious or anti-social or fascist or racist or whatever, and they decide the best course of action is to try and shut the speaker down. It has become a regular event throughout the school year. I’ve had more than a few discussions with some good friends, who cry foul incessantly about this very topic.

My conservative leaning friends—and the conservative media—take the position that these liberal student protestors (and liberals in general really) are hypocrites: they bemoan and belittle conservatives for being “intolerant” of other groups of people and then liberal college students demonstrate open intolerance for conservative speakers and their ideas. Well, as it relates to the classroom or lecture hall, I think conservatives have a fair point about a lack of tolerance by students who protest controversial speakers. However, while I agree with them to a point, I do think there is a time when students should protest the invitation of a speaker. Let me explain.

The university classroom should be a place for debate. Universities and their campuses are places of learning. We learn by exercising our minds through analysis, synthesis, and creativity. Real intellectual growth comes from an open minded engagement with ideas, including those we vehemently disagree with. Learning can be painful. Comfortable and long held assumptions can sometimes be destroyed, revised, or totally thrown into doubt when we’re truly getting educated. This is something ideologues on the political right and the left struggle with. They come to a discussion with preset ideas and caked prejudices that aren’t open to revision…regardless of the evidence or good argument to the contrary. A problem with epistemic closure and an outright refusal to be convinced becomes a stone wall to any genuine learning or growth. 

So when a professor or student group invites a guest speaker they should be allowed to speak uninterrupted. There should be no protests. The speaker, controversial or not, is a guest of the university and the students should mind their manners, act like proper scholars, and allow the speaker, regardless of how much the students may disagree with him or her, to make their presentation. Afterward, however, the speaker should be prepared for tough questions by the students in attendance. Students should show respect, but speakers should also be told that as a provision of speaking at the school the speaker must be willing answer questions from the audience. The give and take of learning requires this.

So when a controversial speaker is schedule to speak, students should read up on them and prepare hard questions. If you disagree with someone what better way “to protest” than to politely and respectfully ask a tough question that reveals the deep and obvious problems with a speaker’s beliefs or ideas. What better Youtube material can you ask for?

Now, what I said in the preceding refers to speakers invited to speak or lecture on a topic during the academic school year.

I take a somewhat different position as it relates to guest speakers for commencement day. Commencement day is strictly about the graduates. It’s their day. They have spent years writing papers, taking tests, debating, and arguing and now it’s time to celebrate and be inspired. It’s not a day for controversy or for inviting speakers who knowingly generate it. So I have no problem with graduating students protesting the invitation of a commencement speaker.

I think the names of guest speakers should be made available in advance as soon a possible. If some students feel strongly enough and want to protest then they should do so. It’s up to the faculty to decide what to do. If the school goes ahead and allows the controversial speaker to deliver their address, then I think the graduates should remain respectful for the sake of all present. At that point, protesting would be disrespectful and rude, not so much to the speaker, but to all the other graduates, guests and parents in attendance. 

So in the classroom and lecture hall I encourage students to protest by listening respectfully and then posing good, tough questions to controversial guest speakers. Don’t shut them down with open protests, challenge their views and ideas with intelligent questions!

But as it relates to commencement speakers, I encourage students to make their feelings known to the faculty and commencement organizers as soon as possible. Protesting the speaker’s invitation is certainly something they have a right to do before commencement day. If the protests are strong enough and broad enough then hopefully the school will listen and move on to inviting another speaker instead.

There are people who think that students should just accept the invitation of a controversial speaker, regardless of whether the graduating students want to hear from them or not on commencement day. I disagree entirely. Graduating students have earned and paid for the right to have a say in this celebration of their accomplishment. Controversy can wait for another time. That day is for coming together and celebrating.