Crossroads America

It’s election day.  Like many Americans, I voted early, and now all I have to do is sit back and wait.  That sounds relaxing, and it usually is, but this election is different.

I will not mince words.  The Trump administration is threatening the survival of our system of government, and the Republican congress has shown no appetite for constraining it.  If there is not substantial change in congress, it will be taken as vindication of Trump, and things will get worse.  I won’t try to justify these statements; there has been no shortage of essays analyzing, dicing, and slicing our current political situation.  Odds are that you have already made up your mind.

Vote.  It may have come to your attention that liberals like myself often urge people in general to vote, and do not try to suppress conservative votes.  The converse is true for conservatives, for whom voter suppression has become SOP.

That’s because, historically, large turnouts favor Democrats. That single fact should tell you something significant about American politics.

Vote.

True colors?

Some time ago, I wrote a piece on this blog about peace activists during the Vietnam war.  The gist of it was that whether or not to go into the military was a difficult decision back then, and that motivations varied from person to person regarding that decision.  Many activists were sincere in their opposition to the war, but many more were simply saving themselves, and got into the anti-war effort as a justification.  My own decision to join was similarly motivated by personal considerations.  I was not a believer in the cause either way, really; my parents had fled the Soviet Union and were no fans of communism, and I couldn’t bring myself to break their hearts.

Anyway, a friend of long standing took exception to something I said in the comments in response to a reader’s comment, expressing disappointment that I would say such a thing; what it was is not relevant to this post.  What is relevant is that our relationship has changed since then.  It got me to thinking about our default thinking about our fellow humans, perhaps even ourselves.

We seem to begin with the assumption that people are intrinsically bad, and while we’re willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, we accept the first bit of evidence, even the flimsiest at times, of their inherent wickedness.  Once done, there’s no going back.

It’s easy enough to see this as a reflection of the teachings of the dominant religions in the world; we are wicked, unworthy, and can only be saved by supernatural intervention.  If left to our own devices, we are condemned to eternal, horrifying anguish, and, what’s more, we deserve it.

It might be more insightful to turn this explanation around.  Religions are the reflections (and amplifications) of our natural tendencies.

Why on earth would that be a feature of our nature?  I think the evolution of our social co-dependency goes a long way toward explaining it, and the key to understanding it is that, conversely, we tend to resist thinking ill of our closest friends and relatives, no matter how much evidence there is for it.  The result is the coalescing of the core social group, while pushing outward those at the periphery.  In short, it’s not wise to trust someone you don’t know very well, and who might have an allegiance to another group.  Historically, or rather, prehistorically, I suppose, our welfare was intimately tied to the welfare of our core group.  When agriculture developed and spawned urban civilization, groups became much larger and intertwined in a complex way; it’s no accident that religion as we know it developed precisely then.  Originally, there was no distinction between religion and ideology, it all served the same purpose: as the glue that bound together these larger, more complex social groups.  It’s not surprising that the precepts and values under this new situation would be the same as those we had for the 2 or 3 million years of our existence as hunters and gatherers.  They represent the sow’s ear from which we fashioned our silk purses.

Have we outgrown the utility of such conventions?  No doubt, but there seems little we can do about it beyond just being aware of it.  Evolution is a matter of more generations than we’ve had to deal with all the changes we’ve wrought upon ourselves.

Born to be mild

It was a very nice restaurant up north in Michigan, kind of upscale but not nosebleed, that had a front wall that could be entirely removed for the warm summer months, providing all the benefits of outdoor eating from almost anywhere inside.  It was a Saturday evening in July, with temperatures hovering in the 70s, a perfect up north atmosphere.  We were enjoying a really nice beef-tenderloin-in-a-pastry thingie, when up from the stoplight a block away there arrived about two dozen or so bikers, riding slowly by, in a parade of their own.

Mind you, these were not Hell’s Angels types for the most part.  There were four or five scruffy desperados, but the rest were a diverse group: millennials with their millennial assortment of facial hair and slick heads, geriatric hippies, dentists with Harley-Davidson logos on the backs of their $500 leather jackets, middle management types bolt upright on their rides.  All had at least one thing in common: they had enough money to spare for high-end motorcycles.

Well, okay, they had two things in common.  They also loved to race their unmuffled engines as they rode slowly by.  Maybe you’ve heard the biker mantra, “loud pipes save lives”?  If it’s true, then enough lives were saved that evening to make Our Lady of Lourdes blush with envy.

Well, three things. This disparate collection of humanity loved nothing better than annoying anyone who thought they were above them, which, from their perspective, was anyone who was annoyed by them.

It worked to perfection. For the duration of the din, all conversation stopped, since it couldn’t be heard anyway.  Around the room, there were a few slow-burning stares, a smattering of giggles,  and some outright smiles, but most did what I did: sigh with resignation and wait the invasion out.

This episode strikes me as the perfect metaphor for current politics.  The bikers represent the loud Trumpist minority, and the rest  of us divided but generally unable or unwilling to stop them, many silently wishing that at least mufflers on motorcycles could become a thing.

If only our political malaise could be so easily cured.

My dear young people

It seems we Boomers will most likely be the last generation to live out their lives in a relatively comfortable habitat.

Nothing personal. We did it all for greed and convenience. Mostly convenience; nothing galls us more than having to move when we’ve settled in. Truth to tell, we didn’t even think very much about the consequences, except now, toward the end, when it’s no doubt too late. Even now, we expend far more of our energy shifting the blame to someone else than trying to fix things.

But don’t give us all the credit; we didn’t pull this off on our own. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, if we have destroyed more than others, it was only because we were standing on the shoulders of past generations. Even the earliest farmers, whom we find so idyllic in our post-modern romanticism, advanced by slash-and-burn, with a good dash of never-look-back thrown in at the end. Where humanity is concerned, it seems a kind of fever descends upon us at the first glint of personal advantage. Nothing can stop us. Not empathy, not self-interest, not religion or science. We easily slip in and out of all those noble sentiments we build our castles on.

On second thought, that’s not fair. We do not cast aside our values. We twist them around until they are only recognizable to ourselves, until they not only do not stand in the way of our acquisitiveness, but outright demand it.

You are understandably upset. We’re like the bigger kids who stole your lunch, then ate it right in front of you while your stomach growled. I do see that. But what you don’t understand is that you would have done the same, because you are made of us, you are us, spit and image. In fact, in the coming crisis, you will do the same. It has already begun. Our current president, Donald Trump, is, I grudgingly confess, one of us, but look at those faces at his hate fests; people of all generations are there, yours included. Their faces reflect the whole range of emotions from greed to anger to fear and back again.  They’re like a mighty mirror, too bright to look at for long, too huge to ignore.

In the end, though, it comes down to this. We have made a proper hash of things, as blind as God himself to the consequences.

We are so sorry. But we have to go now. There’s money to be made of the carnage.

Politics in the age of magical thinking.

It seems to be a human failing to think that trying times call for a redoubling of purity of principle. We see it time and again in history: the trial of Socrates after the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War, the Inquisition in response to the Protestant Reformation, the Self-strengthening Movement in the faltering Qing Dynasty China, the Cultural Revolution in the same country decades later, the list can go on ad infinitum.

And here and now in America, amidst the deepening political crisis, we hear calls to fundamentalist purity from the left.

It has never worked, throughout history, and it won’t now.

Let’s say you’ve got squirrels in the attic. They got there because your house has needed major renovations for quite a while, but you got by with stop-gap measures, because the renovations would involve temporarily opening up the house to the outdoors, and you have to live there while the work is going on.

Now you discover skunks have moved in under your deck.

Do you think it’s sensible to choose this moment to drop everything and start gutting the house?

Politics as usual?

With Trump in the presidency and Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, liberals, or progressives, if you prefer, are apparently in a rout. We’re certainly behaving that way, with Democrats quibbling over the direction the party has to take in order to win everything back by the next election, temporary Democrats back in their old roles as independents or third party provocateurs, and the legions of newly, if vaguely, defined remnant left posting stern lectures on social media.

The gist of these last is that Democrats have lost control because they have drifted too far from their principles, and what is needed is retrenchment, a purge of whatever the self-appointed Guardians of the Left consider apostasy. They point to the Tea Party as a Republican movement back to the fundamentalist right, and see this purge as the reason for the party’s success in last year’s election. It worked for them, they say, so we should do the same.  Yet how many of us engaged in this lofty debate have actually read the 2016 Democratic Party Platform?  Certainly not those people claiming that there’s no difference between the two parties, the two candidates.

But is it even true that Republicans prevailed because of a purification of ideology? The truth is that most people couldn’t care less about ideology, or if they do, they fear it.  They are political pragmatists, and this explains the otherwise incomprehensible shift of many voters from Obama to Trump.

Today’s Republican party is actually a loose coalition of theocrats, libertarians, corporatists, and outright fascists. These groups have very little in common except a fear and hatred of the left, yet they voted, all of them holding their noses, for Donald Trump, a man who not only lacks a coherent ideology, but very likely doesn’t even know what the word means. A demand for ideological purity by any one of these constituencies would have resulted in a rout of Republicans instead of Democrats.

Yet, we hear from the Sanders wing of the Democratic party that that is exactly what we must do in order to win in the future, that what we need is to purge all that is not leftist dogma. Throw out the doubters, the apostates, go with an unabashedly socialist program, and “the People” will rally round.

It is not at all clear why “the People,” who went in unexpected numbers for the Republican party, would suddenly decide socialism was a great idea. Fear of socialism, or what they thought was socialism, was pretty much the glue that held the right-wing coalition together long enough to vote. We love to cite the fact that Clinton got over 3 million more votes than Trump to show the bankruptcy of the system, but neglect the obvious conclusion that the Democratic coalition, yes, the current Democratic coalition so abused by leftist purists, was sufficient to beat Trump if the vote had not had to be filtered through the electoral college.

If the United States were a parliamentarian democracy, like the vast majority of European nations, retrenchment would make sense; go with a pure (and therefore exclusionary) message, get as many votes as you can, then join a coalition to have a share of the governing system. But we’re not. Like it or not, the US is a kind of hybrid beast, a republic in which the executive and legislative branches are elected separately.  The only possible result of a less than plurality vote is a loss, and therefore coalitions must be made before the elections, not after.  If we want to prevail in the next elections, we have to find ways to draw in as many of the electorate as possible, not ways to exclude as many as possible.  And we have to find a common denominator for decent people to rally around, a glue.  Donald Trump is doing his level best to give us that.  Not only are his actions so far unacceptable to most Americans, but he’s exposing Republican cadres as spineless sycophants.  Let’s not sacrifice this gift on the altar of ideological fundamentalism.

The king is dead! What king?

In 1478 BCE, give or take a year, Hatshepsut ascended to the throne of Egypt, her recently deceased husband, the Pharaoh Thutmose II, leaving as heir only his infant son, Thutmose III. Thutmose II, the son of Thutmose I by a secondary wife, married Hatshepsut, the daughter of the same Thutmose I (bear with me here) because she was T. I’s daughter by his primary wife, and thus had a stronger claim to the royal lineage. T.II thought, apparently, that this would cement his position permanently.

It worked, sort of. The only thing is, Hatshepsut was a much better leader than her husband, and when he died after a decade or so, she took control and refused to let go, even after T. III got old enough to rule on his own. I always thought of Thutmose III as being kind of like poor old Prince Charles, whose mom refuses to step down so he can be king.

In any case, Hatshepsut finally kicked the bucket around 1458 BCE, having had an illustrious career as only the second female pharaoh that the Egyptian chroniclers would admit to, and Thutmose III finally got his shot. But his Aunt Hattie’s reign must have stuck in his craw, because eventually either he or his son Thutmose IV (AKA Amenhotep II; are you still with me here?) set about obliterating as much of the record of her accomplishments as he could. This was no mean task, since royal memoirs in those days were literally carved in stone.

Which brings me to Donald Trump and the Republican Congress (nice transition, eh?). It will not do for a man of Trump’s boundless ego to succeed someone who, well, succeeded. So, in cahoots with the congress, which has been doing its level best to make Obama a failure, and failing at that, Trump will try to see to it that any vestige of Obama’s success be obliterated.

The process has already started with an executive order cancelling unspecified parts of the health care act, and will soon continue with more executive orders.

Care to take any bets the congress will suddenly stop whining about the “imperial presidency?”

We well might ask how effective this kind of exercise is. Did it work in ancient Egypt? Ironically, two and a half millennia later, Hatshepsut is not only remembered, but honored as one of the most effective pharaohs Egypt had.

I suspect Obama’s reputation will be restored much sooner than that.  His accomplishments may not be carved in stone, but I predict it won’t be long before people start pining for the good old days when he was in charge.