13 November 2016

Boiling oil on the gates

I have been trying to reduce down Trump-ism to its essential ingredients. I am not quite sure I have a handle on them yet. But some thoughts anyway.

Borders matter, damnit! 

This is a version of nationalism. I am an anti-nationalist, or a globalist, and a humanist. I don't really care that much about games of nation-states and their claims of awesomeness. I am very much a child of the post-Cold war, where there was no great evil to savage in contests of ideology, war, science, and even athletics, and where the only advantage to be sought out was the betterment of ourselves and the protection of those who were still growing and vulnerable, both in our society and without. I sense in our modern conflicts a demand to feed a more ancient sense of conflict and competition with a dreaded "other", to justify ourselves as a more savage and wild or untamed beast of a nation. There have not been peer great power states with which to compete since the fall of the Soviet Union however. That left only the project of defining what American hegemony was and should be to other nations. To the extent I embrace realist international tendencies and theories, I do like the idea of American hegemonic power, but only so far as it is used successfully to promote the peaceful flourishing and security of all nations and people under its dominion. That it may provide an example of a functioning liberal democratic state, with Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment ideals for other nations to aspire toward (as we ourselves try), and that it maintain peace or order lightly, and without a casual or brutal violence when not necessary. Unlike the nationalist, I want to know that our country actually serves useful ends and is admirable, rather than claim the right to demand admiration through our strength. I prefer American hegemony to Russian or Chinese dominions mostly for the types of countries that are historically aligned within it, and any beneficent effects upon the people within them. And not because it has the word America in it and branded on symbols and hats. I think, as a great power hegemony, this has gone pretty well for America and most Americans for nearly seven decades, and that Americans were a curious and respected people, while their country was a curious and respected experiment long before that. Nationalists should not be so quick to dismiss this history.  Neither should globalists.

I do have some respect for the idea of patriotism. In people wanting to see their country, and their countrymen, prosper, flourish, and improve because we care about the place in which we live. Accordingly, that we care about the ideas or principles we believe that place should strive to exemplify. Policies which promote those ideas and principles, advance them, and defend them, are to be used. Policies which work, from a consequential mindset of actually achieving these high minded and vague sets of things pragmatically, are also to be favored. Policies which do not work, or which advance more dangerous ideas and principles that we should not aspire to, should not.

I suspect I find Trump-ism abhorrent in part because I recognize nationalism as a dark and very much more difficult way to get people to hope and live up to those ideals, where it is more dangerous and more apt to be weaponized for destructive purposes. It is that place I saw us carrying into during the dark days after 9-11 and the Iraq War, and now again, on 11-9, and whatever sad disaster comes of it. Trump has himself provided some semblance of this already where the idea of the game of nations is a zero sum game, where there are only winners and losers, and destruction and authority are the tools of power. History does not bode well for those varieties of nations and hegemonic powers based upon primarily the application of strength, particularly through violence. This is not a principle I feel has been or should be an exemplary function of the American polity and nation-state, even as our history has many marks of conquest and warfare against other nations. Not simply because it does not align with the values I find most admirable in my country of birth, but because it has had little chance of success historically to apply brute strength and have it be unresisted and unconquered in turn. It does not work. It does not make us stronger. It should not be our path now. I fear it will start swaying back this route under Trump, and there may not be time to arrest our fall.

Trump-ism applies this brute function through trade, which he tends to oppose, or claims we have "failed" to make work for ourselves, with the intention of extracting clear benefits for Americans at the expense of other nations (which is... not what trade is). And through conflict, through the bluster of threats toward our enemies, and cold and unfriendly or harsh demands made to our allies. And through the strict control of borders, to police what is "American" in ethnic and nationalist terminology. And through bluster and respect for authoritarian strength. These qualities when possessed among American Presidents and political figures in our history (Andrew Jackson or Huey Long in particular, less renowned characters like Millard Fillmore or Father Coughlin could be included as well) have generally been looked upon by myself as disdainful black marks on our history. I cannot find it an admirable theory of what America should look like. Trump pushes it further in foreign policy through a demand for colonialist domination, or tribute through strength. Conquests should not be of high-minded liberation. If that were where his views stopped, that is an argument I might find appealing given that they are fairly unlikely to prevail in that way historically. But instead, his basis for conflict and conquest is for the provision of resources for ourselves at the expense of the weak and vanquished. This was an argument as a vision for the nation-state which ultimately led to two massive and bloody wars in the last century. It did not work out well for any of the nations which held it (Germany, France, UK, Italy, Japan, and eventually, the Soviet Union).

Trade is a far cheaper way to attain that provision of resources and prosperity than warfare. Gold is always cheaper than blood. Diplomacy and knowledge may be cheaper still. Paper is cheaper than gold. Most of these other great powers from the last century have learned this lesson (Germany and Japan far more successfully than the others, while Russia appears not to have learned it at all). This is a flaw common across Trump-ism, it calls for a universe of ideas that have largely been discredited by history or left behind by progress as functional ways to organise a society. The ideas he sells to absolve people of their fears or anxieties do not and will work, certainly not to help people who are struggling to adapt to a world, an America, that has rapidly changed.

To combat this method of thought. Patriotic duties should be reclaimed and reforged. Rather than using rank nationalism, a philosophy which if left undiluted which possesses immense dangers in a world with powerful weapons capable of annihilating cities. This still leaves questions of "what does it mean to be an American?". In what can we take pride in? What America will we leave for our children and grandchildren to take pride in and succeed in? High-minded liberal ideals espoused in the Constitution modestly and inconsistently practised domestically and exported around the world peacefully, and being an global economic superpower are all well-and-good, but Trump appears to have tapped into something else that these things do not connect to. A simpler question. Namely: what does any of that mean for normal Americans and their lives. He does not propose a good answer, but we should treat this question seriously.

The American dream, as a nightmare

"The American dream" has always been a flawed vision, denied to millions of its own citizens. Sometimes deliberately and maliciously. Sometimes with neglect and indifference. For example. It is reasonable to point out that free trade, while enriching most Americans with efficiently produced goods from abroad and increased business opportunities, still provides a massive sense of uncertainty for millions of them. As does relatively free immigration, as was the case throughout the 19th century and which globalists (like myself), favor still.

Indeed, one of the core problems of Trump-ism is that for over a century, Americans managed to exist with few meaningful obstacles on who could be "American". Without even a clear sense of what our borders were as a nation. We expanded, and grew, often ruthlessly absorbing territory and cultures. Vast numbers of immigrants fled here and eventually became heavily integrated into the story of who and what was America in spite of hostile receptions on arrival. Vast numbers of natives were killed or displaced. Vast numbers of Africans were enslaved, sold, and wars fought to expand the economic opportunities they provided wealthy land owners. (I did not say it was a virginal purity story that makes up the American dream). And for decades in that time, men and their families wished to own property, to farm or ranch upon that land, marry well, and produce and raise children to whom they could pass on what wealth they created through trade and hard work, and who would absorb these lessons and help care for their elders when they could no longer care for themselves. Or at least that is the optimistic narrative thread of what we might presume we wish to be true about ourselves. Adopted to the mid 20th century, the aspirations and the pathways of success were little different. A decent job in an office or a factory and a suburban home instead of a farm.

These fruits have dispersed erratically. They always have. The process of creative destruction in a free and open economy, intersecting with our abilities, laws, regulations, and competition from abroad or from our friends and neighbours, does not reward all alike. It aspires to be meritocratic, but does not always achieve it. It also firmly rejects the Marxian axioms about each to their need and often leaves some in want or destitution, and provides all with an incentive to better themselves in competition. We have made some progress in assuring no one will fall too far behind, that indigents might find help and the freedom to try again, but the basic elements of a meritocratic society remain the central story of America. Here people come and live to make themselves better, to have better lives and opportunities than they have experienced in some other land.

In the later 20th century, and today, these fruits have begun to shift to allow women far greater access. To allow ethnic minorities more access. Immigrants have always had access to this, but our laws and regulations have shifted back from a stiffer and less welcoming world, that of the mid-20th century which was often constrained to political dissidents and refugees from favored states, to a more accepting and open one. A world which takes in people from Cambodia and Somalia and Germany alike and gives them each a chance or a stake to compete. Not merely by moving here and adopting the ethos of Americans, but by existing at all. There is far greater competition for success, respect, tolerance, and well-being for someone who came up in a world where being a white male of modest education (completing high school, and maybe eventually college), and merely being born in America, was a recipe for a pretty comfortable life.

To a globalist this is all well and good. To a meritocratic vision it is also fine. We should expect to have to compete not simply because we were born here be handed a world on a platter. To a normal person, it might seem terrifying. I imagine many people contemplating what impact automation has had on the economy so far, and what impacts it is liable to have moving forward will likewise find much consternation and confusion just as these questions about how a global economy impacts Americans, or Egyptians, or Filipinos appears to do. Globalists and most ethicists will see no problem with mining and manufacturing, historically often dangerous manual labour jobs, being done by disposable machines instead of hordes of disposable people. But as with the agricultural revolution, there is a question of what happens to those people now that the industrial revolution has ended and a knowledge economy has replaced it. What do they do now. It's not like they can suddenly become successful bankers or salesmen on a whim (Iceland attempted to do this, and many of the bankers went back to being fishermen when their financial sector imploded).

Most of the people for whom Trump-ism has had its greatest appeal appear to be older, over 60, mostly white, more likely to be male, and living in middle-sized cities or smaller towns. Many of their concerns are not limited to economic anxieties about themselves or their futures, or those of their grandchildren. There are sizeable correlations with support for Trump and xenophobic fears of foreigners, or of people coming here with funny religious views. Or of an America that is darker skinned rather than a white majority, or retrograde views about the role of women and the type of treatment men should be allowed to perform. These are cultural fears about what it means to be an American. These fears are mostly not shared by their children and grandchildren. I regard this as a good thing. Perhaps in time some of them will as well. That it is not a big deal to have a Muslim man as a neighbour or friend, or to have a woman as a doctor, or as a boss. This type of fear is a broad cross section of Trump-ism. It intersects with the question of nationalism. What does it mean to be an American. And they don't like what they think it now means on these and other questions. This is a question and a response that dangerously flirts with racism, sexism, and xenophobia, sometimes rushing in to embrace these things fully.

Liberals and progressives, or even plain people who are mostly tolerant of these changes, find this appalling. I believe we should find it appalling, an instinct that we should resist, and should resist when it attempts to influence and create policy changes. But a huge number of people found it appalling and voted for Trump anyway. I have been trying to explore why that could happen. And what I think I am settling on is they often do not understand how our society will have a place for people like themselves even to compete. Jobs increasingly demand high skilled education and licensure from the state. Simple and menial tasks that were once treated with middle class aplomb are automated or shipped off to foreign countries, or backbreakingly performed by low skilled migrant workers from other countries. The call "we don't make anything in this country" is patently false. We build a ton of stuff. It produces more economic value than ever before. But a lot of it is assembled by robots, purchased on computers, and may soon be delivered by robots. We aren't going back to a world with legions of factory workers who work the same job for 40 years. That world was dead 50 years ago. It will not be resurrected.

Trump-ism has sold a message that pretends that we will be able to do so as a balm for this anxiety about what happens next. I think a better message would be to offer people an actual hope, something that could actually happen. An economic and social system for people having purposeful jobs that they can perform with minimal levels of training, and have easier access to get, and learn to excel at to move up the economic ladder, or which have basic skills that can be translated to other careers. Late in the Obama years, there were numerous reports, both from government and from economists and think tanks, calling out the problem of extensive and still expanding occupational licensure, frequently now used as a needless barrier to job growth and economic opportunity rather than as a necessary function to protect consumers. One of the flaws with the sales pitch of the ACA was that it was not made clear how to make health care portable, rather than tied to our employers such that we might feel stuck to a job we no longer find fulfillment in, but need so that our children have access to medical care. These are practical steps to give the economy a breathing room space to let people try things and figure out their own path forward, and to show others how it can be done. I did not hear them getting discussed much. Mostly a lot of media coverage about emails and sexism. One can imagine why the public seems to have eventually tuned this out.

I believe what happened, for many Trump voters, is they saw Clinton selling more of the same. And they did not connect this to see how it would help people like themselves (nor did she help them to do so), only that it would probably help people not like themselves, under their perceptions that that is what has been happening for a long time. Some of them found this offensive for highly offensive reasons. In some cases, a lot of them did so; for instance, on the Syrian or Muslim refugee question. But most people if they don't think a candidate is speaking about them, speaking to them, and listening to them, will find somewhere else to go with their vote. Trump promised them restorative change. Therefore that's where they went. Trump isn't actually offering restorative change, at least not on any of these issues that matter, he merely promised it. He doesn't appear to know how to create such changes, and most of the things he does know how to offer are dangerous, boorish, and downright offensive or stupid. But if that's the only thing people think they have to get, that's what they will take.

Clinton appears to have run a campaign based on the idea that things are fine, and getting better, which they are in most ways. Violent crime is near historical lows for the last half century. Abortion rates, teen pregnancy, and divorce have been declining. Terrorism is rare and sporadic, and often fomented and conducted by various ideological loners rather than representing a systematic or existential threat to a peaceful or prosperous American life. The US military, while partly bogged down in largely ineffective and pointless conflicts, is still powerful enough to deter any rival power from threatening us and our interests or allies and then some, granting immense safety from armed conflict that American civilians have enjoyed for almost two centuries (with the exception of a couple of prominent attacks rather than sustained, destructive conflict on American territory as is occurring in Ukraine or Syria, and has ravaged all of Europe and Asia in the recent past). The economy and wages are finally growing, albeit haltingly and slowly. Inflation is low. Corporate profits are high. American scientists and researchers and inventors are exploring the universe and the world, and making advances in technology and leisure with benefits that can be quickly dispersed to people all over the world. These are promising messages. Most people are unaware of them, or find them highly dubious because they are told something else is happening without verification of facts. Voter ignorance is a crushing problem to effective democracy, but it is not overcome by ignoring it and not bothering to confront it. And recognizing that the world is not on fire, and seems to be getting better in many ways, even if those ways do not always benefit ourselves, is a good start to acknowledging and defending progress and opportunities created and capitalised on as a consequence of our values and institutions as a nation.

What appears to have happened instead of offering these features and finding ways to expand them as opportunities to people who were afraid was a campaign that hammers on the fact that Trump was an unacceptable demagogue, peddling lies and false narratives, offensive speech and nonsense. This is all well and good, because it has the virtue of being true. Most people agreed with this message. That he was openly sexist or misogynistic in the things he said or did. That he was being racist in how he spoke about immigrants or minorities. That he was selling fear or xenophobia on the question of terrorism or crime. And even that he wasn't trustworthy and was running a con to enrich himself at the expense of voters. And still some of them voted for him anyway. It is not that they did not care. They simply evaluated these faults as less important than some other consideration. Some of them voted on the basis of amplified fear over abortion, or gun rights, or Obamacare, or immigrants, or terrorists. The campaign should have been doing what is possible to reduce those fears, because they have become unhinged from what is possible, or what is actually happening. As fear is often capable of doing. Fear, as a national emotion, is something to be avoided also. It paralyzes us, and prevents useful action and trust. It burns and destroys bridges and builds walls in the rubble. The world Trump-ism describes is a world with barbarians at the gates, and calls for reactionary politicians to man the walls ready with boiling oil to save us from this new and twisted evil. This is not the world in which we live in. But nobody seems to have bothered to explain this.

I would have some sympathy for Bernie Sanders fans running around complaining that if only Democrats had nominated him, this national nightmare would not have happened. Some of them are doing so in some really bizarre ways, such as complaining about the DNC "rigging" the primary process, and in so doing, annoying me when they pop up in threads discussing what to do about the attitudes and issues unfurled by a Trump/Republican victory to defend civil rights, or to protect women or minorities. I'm still not sure Sanders would have won, as there are some structural weaknesses to his campaign, and on a few points, not enough difference between himself, and his fans, and those of Trump. What this rests upon is the idea that the appropriate response to a right-wing populist/nationalist demagogue is left-wing populism, which in turn rests upon an idea that the appropriate way to turn out votes is to focus on being as distinctive as possible from your rivals to encourage your supporters with a clear vision. I agree a clearer and coherent vision would have helped the Clinton team. I do not think it is clear a farther left vision would have. Large numbers of voters were not happy with Clinton as the perception was she was too liberal. I think on the merits it was accurate she was liberal, more so than Obama. This does not point to an idea that Sanders would have benefited. Where he benefits is on the message of requiring some form of radical/restorative change. This seemed to be the broad segment of Trump's base and their demand was for someone to promise them change and the impression that they could deliver it.

I think Clinton's supporters were able to rest upon the idea that she cared about them. Her opponents did not think this was the case at all, because she offered little succor and clarity about how she would fight for their interests. Her record in office suggests she very much does fight for people's interests and liberal causes. Perhaps not always the most vibrant and important ones on the front lines (gay marriage most prominently), but in ways that would benefit the people she served in office. I regarded much of the opposition to her candidacy as grounded in some very strange, often conspiratorial ideas about how she practiced the use of power for domestic goals. Where I think this missed is that some of the opposition was that she wasn't ambitious enough about offering a robust agenda that people could get behind. There was no clear and cohesive view that was apparent to her observers of how and for what purpose she would exercise power. Trump-ism offered pretty clear ideas about what that would be, if offensive and self-destructive. So did Sanders. Reams of policy proposals and white papers suggested mainly that Clinton's agenda was "government for government's sake", if there was anything at all to it. Sanders or Trump at least suggested there would be a purpose of their own massive expansionary positions.

Much of my skepticism of Sanders' chances I think rests on the idea that he, like Trump, was mostly selling a lot of ideas that I do not see how they will be all that helpful. If anything, I regard significant minimum wage increases and "free college", key pillars of his agenda (and later Clinton's), as liable to increase and accelerate the problems posed by income and economic inequalities, along with his reflexive opposition to trade and sketchy positions on immigration. I felt that among these three candidates, Clinton on policy grounds probably offered the least harmful set of ideas and policy proposals (at least until she moved farther left on economic policies during the primaries), and that Sanders was only less harmful than Trump by dint of not being as belligerent and clumsy with American diplomacy, something he seemed to care little about, and less hostile to the idea that Americans have Constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties and should have those rights protected by government, not infringed. Overall, he offered an agenda I saw as dangerous by being largely economically illiterate and harmful. I do not want candidates who put forward ideas in the lineage of "we need to do something, this is something, let's do it". If we must have bold transformative ideas, I would like to see some idea that we might come away afterward with a better world. Sanders did not offer that. Trump certainly does not. Clinton's problem in this space was she lacked an idea, a justification around which to rally. A dream to sell other people on walking in. Trump literally promised people all of their dreams would come true. All the time. Even if some of those dreams are nightmares for others.

But Sanders and Trump suggested they would man the gates and pour the oil on someone, anyone. Maybe even lighting it on fire after. And that seemed to be something a big chunk of voters want. They don't know what the American dream is, or is going to be. So they'll settle for a nightmarish version of it. Trump supporters will have to contend not only that they picked a strange and probably counterproductive message around which to resonate, but that they picked a horrible messenger. Someone who was crude and offensive to most Americans and whose effects or policies may be dangerous to the security or safety of many. This too is a feature of Trump-ism.

Tell it like it is!

Which is to say, it is not a particularly appealing feature of Trump. Telling large portions of Trump's voters that they are racist, sexist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, or whatever, has little or no effect. I'm not sure it is a useful exercise. Some of them pride themselves on this, on being offensive for the purpose of being offensive. Most however do not understand how their views have become interpreted this way, or do not understand that the things that may have outraged them are not considered that outrageous by others (or even as existing as real in the first place). Or that they are in fact considered reprehensible. There are not clear norms for interpreting and applying liberal or progressive values if one is conservative. Partly because these are still shifting, sometimes dramatically in the last decade. The cultural norms on speech and behavior relating to women alone have shifted radically in the last 50 years, and in even the last 15-20 years. These are voters who often grew up before that time, and whose children and even grandchildren may have internalized certain habits of how men talk that it should be "excused". For the most part, this view was not held by most voters in the country. It wasn't even held by most Trump voters. But things like "grab em by the pussy" were regarded as "just locker room talk" by a large number of people. Including women.

The difficulty many liberals have with interpreting this is that it comes from a political party and movement which has claimed for itself a mantle of "the moral majority". And then appears to have given a huge pass to someone who has crudely violated most of the norms and values they claimed to stand for. These are the same people who are often quite disturbed by the shifts in values or norms regarding language, sexuality, or violence in media and society. While some of them are thrown in a panic every December when a clerk says "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas", most are offended at the idea of publicly objectifying women on at least some level.

This is a dimension of Trump's appeal that I have the least comfort with and least understanding of. But what I think, partly, is going on is anecdotes about college speech codes and media flirtations with "hate speech" as though it should be a legal concept, combined with perceptions that traditional symbols and institutions are not respected by liberals (like religion or the flag or the military or the police), has created a sense that these values are under threat and that people won't be allowed to voice their opinions in the future. I don't much care for some opinions. I don't think most people express themselves very well (Trump included, he does not have the "best words"). But I do think people can and should be allowed to try. Where I have difficulty is in understanding how "but people don't like my opinions!" is treated as an issue of free speech. The chilling effect of having bad opinions called out by others, or poorly expressing them, is not the same as being legally prevented from speaking. The use of others right to protest and assemble having the impact of denying speech or assembly by others I believe is unwise as a use of those rights, but it does not seem to be something we should trouble ourselves over as a legal function either. Where the use or threat of violence exists, we should intercede. Where people are merely very annoying and disruptive, we should counsel against it. Where people are lying or dissembling extraordinary events into existence, we should demand better evidence.

The basic problem with this is that I don't have a good sense of whether this is a new or extreme threat to the institutional value of free speech. Or if it's just some wacky professors and college kids and a few people who manage to get editorials written. There isn't very much public engagement with the civic value of speech as a right, and its legal implications, versus the social norms about how people should use speech in public and what they can or cannot say in polite company. Assessing the actual damage done to the concepts like freedom of speech is also difficult. I do worry about how people choose to use the rights they have. There are not laws, or should not be laws, against being an asshole. But it shouldn't be our first choice in most circumstances either.

Running alongside these narratives about speech codes, these seem to be some number of people who are much offended by the use of the word "pussy" or "vagina", but not much offended by crude stereotypes and antiquated traditions about women and men's opinions of women. I don't know how to square that circle. I also see no reason to extend much respect to bad or bigoted ideas that are being held and espoused, or that egregious threats and strength through bullying to quiet others should be tolerated. Or to pretend that these methods of opposition to the polite discourse of ideas are hardly limited to a handful of wacky leftists, and are quite common and endorsed by Trump himself, and some of his most ardent fans. Unlike leftist professors, Trump is also in a position of legal authority to strip others of their basic civil rights. This is a serious threat to American civil liberties and the public exercise of them by its citizens. Not merely of the freedom of speech or freedom of religion. I do not think this is a serious danger that the majority of white Christian males are about to lose the privilege of talking and saying any ridiculous or offensive thing that comes into mind, or that Trump needed to be elected in order to restore that to being the case. As I and others have pointed out, a lot of whining about PC speech codes comes down to not being able to be a dick without having that pointed out (in making the mistake of reading internet comments, I saw this very much on evidence over the last few days. It was not wholly limited to right-wing nutters complaining they were being called homophobic for thinking gay men are gross and therefore that they shouldn't be allowed to get married to each other or have binding contracts enforced by the state. But there was a lot of that going on too).

Where I do find some more comfort in understanding this perspective is on another front. These are people who are mostly, if not overwhelmingly, white, and white Christians at that. And to be sure they will often have some antiquated views about women, race, and other subjects. This bothers me such that I don't plan on inviting very many people to BBQs or out for beers for sure (not that I do this with very many people anyway). What they also have is a vague sense that "they" are being somehow excluded by the political functions of identity politics. So some poor white kid in Arkansas trying to get a college degree and become a chemical engineer, say, does not get the same kind of assistance as some poor black kid in Chicago, or a Mexican immigrant's daughter (legally a citizen), to do the same thing. I'm not sure this happens that often, but I don't doubt that many families have internalized a sense that it does. Where it does occur, this violates a basic moral sense of fairness or equity. There are some good historical reasons why Americans should seek to provide aid to historically oppressed ethnic minorities (and also women) to a modest degree to help attend to the questions of economic mobility, and college admissions is an easier equalizer than shuffling large sums of money around through tax policy. Still. I would agree our sense of fairness, for something like college admissions, should focus mostly on the question of poverty first, and identity politics second as a result. I don't have strong feelings about it either way as long as it isn't used to exclude and discriminate against others.

One reason for this would be that poverty as a foremost concern would still mostly focus on the problems of ethnic minorities and class mobility. So we'd still be able to address this as a societal concern. But the other is that better educating a bunch of ultra religious rural/red state poorer kids in science or philosophy seems like a necessity anyway in order to shift the American polity in a somewhat more helpful direction politically on a few important issues. It should not be that the US is the only industrialized country with a major political party which takes so many basic anti-science stances. Such as global warming denialism. Or has so many people who are not sufficiently understanding of science and its methods and operations that they will deny the merits of evolutionary theory. These have rather negative impacts upon our policies in scientifically informed issues (carbon taxes, vaccines, antibiotic resistance, among others). To put it mildly we cannot afford to leave behind that half of the country. We can't easily fix rural or red state public schools at the K-12 level to spread empirical reasoning and critical thinking far and wide. One of the easiest ways to fix that is to make sure to admit some smart, poorer white folks from Arkansas and Louisiana and Montana into a pretty good university once in a while. I wouldn't suggest doing it at the exclusion of other smart and poor non-white kids from Chicago or Las Vegas or Los Angeles. But if the system is supposed to look like a meritocracy, giving people the same kind of shot based on some objective criteria (like wealth or income inequality) isn't a terrible idea.

All that said. There are talking points going past each other. To presume that a white population, with a declining life expectancy and troubles with alcoholism, opiate addiction and abuse, and mental health and suicide, and comprising a large body of undereducated people living in smaller cities and towns who may not be finding easy employment in future economic states as automation and globalisation increases and thus is in need of some kind of societal attention is not the same as concluding that our conflicts over the inequalities caused by race or gender or sexuality should be set aside, abandoned, or neglected either. We can do both. We also don't have to put up with intolerance and bigotry along the way simply because some people haven't figured out how to be kind to one another.


So...what now?

As for how to combat this. Americans in the 40s and 50s and even into the 60s appeared in the rose-coloured glasses of history to have had a sense of common purpose as a people and nation. Rhetoric defending and exemplifying civil rights and civil liberties as anchors of individual and social freedom used to be common, even as the country often failed to live up to those high-minded ideals. Investment in science and science education, and celebrating the achievements of those who took to it and made advances and discoveries and inventions, was seen as a patriotic necessity. I do not think it so that this era was populated by people any more noble or any wiser or better educated than ours today that they better understood these values, or struggled less with how to uphold them. The distinction seems to be that we do not have some idea that these things, these inalienable rights, are a part of what it means to be American and are worth celebrating in our civic life, and worth trying to uphold and live up to. We have just elected someone who openly proclaimed an intention to ignore most of these values, and appears to have little interest in examining the things he does not understand, and has no history of exhorting others to live up to these values privately or publicly to this date, nor of surrounding himself with capable people who know things that he needs to know. This is a serious problem. It appears in part to have happened because elites took some things for granted. But also because people really hated elites, and didn't care what we get instead of the status quo. We are divided by ideology, or political party, just as we are along religion (or its absence), and by race. To the point that we no longer argue over principles and ideals, but over fealty to this identity and damn anyone who belongs to the other side. And that toxic mixture of fear, hate, and ignorance has boiled over.

This has happened before. The antebellum period leading up to the Civil war was filled with incidents of division and strife, eventually culminating in a bloody and disastrous war between brothers and states. The 1960s and early 70s unleashed a long saga of civil rights struggles and chaos here and abroad which even engulfed the President and other instruments of governance in a corruption that was exposed and took down an entire administration. We recovered. We can recover this as well. But we have to have something else to replace it with, something to shoot for, instead of each other. More or less together, setting aside the differences and fear across the partisan din. Before violence and mayhem sets in and the truncheon or the Molotov or the bullet replaces a conversation.

There was a dream that was America. Make us believe in it again. As the line goes.


Post a Comment