Audacious things to say out loud (ten years out)

“Left and Right have become mirror images of each other. There are stories of conspiracy, of America being hijacked by an evil cabal … Their purpose is not to persuade the other side but to keep their bases agitated … to beat the other side into submission … what has been lost in the process … are those shared assumptions – that quality of trust and fellow feeling … [This is politics, but] there is another story … millions of Americans who are going about their business every day … [All] those ordinary citizens … who have found a way – in their own lives, at least – to make peace with their neighbors … are out there, waiting for Democrats and Republicans to catch up with them.”

“Any attempt by Democrats to pursue a more sharply partisan and ideological strategy misapprehends the moment we’re in … keeps us locked in either/or thinking.”

“I’ve never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe … I reject politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally.”

“I believe in free speech, whether politically correct or politically incorrect.”

(click images for links)

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Out on a Limb: Sexual Harassment, Race, and the Unsinkable Mr. Trump

Mixed feelings on sexual harassment in the news stories of the day. It’s good to see those who routinely harass getting caught and going down in greater numbers. But I do worry about a loss of perspective. If there are 50 million married couples in the US, and you asked how many started with (a) venturing a kiss in the hopes that it would be reciprocal, or (b) asking permission for a kiss, I’m guessing that at least 49 million would say (a). By today’s standards, that means 49 million marriages started with an act of sexual harrassment. Similarly, by the standards of California’s “yes means yes” law, I believe every sex act I’ve ever had would be a rape, since I never explicitly asked or received a verbal permission. In fact, since I align with 1960s feminists (who proclaim for women equal strength and agency with men) more than with current feminists (who more often risk infantilizing women for political gain), I’d have to say every sex act was a mutual rape, since I also did not explicitly say “yes, it’s OK” before the act. This is what I mean by a loss of perspective. I am not sure of my position because tides and definitions change so quickly on the topic, so I’m open to feedback. It’s been too long, anyway, since we’ve allowed each other to air out unfinished thoughts openly in the public sphere without triggering the hegemonic machinery of shame and condemnation. So for all those who would like to see a little more tolerance and openness, maybe even a little more play and freewheeling chaos, in the greater communal idea exchange, I’ll go out on that limb.

Now to turn from sexual harassment to “rape culture,” here too it’s good to see rapists nailed as often as we can nail them, and forcible rape should be “one strike you’re out” with no hope of parole. But blaming it on “rape culture” gives me pause. I didn’t grow up thinking rape was OK until someone taught me otherwise. I think most men are horrified by the thought of rape without having to be “taught” that it is wrong. Those who need to be “taught” that harming innocent people is wrong may already be hopeless. This doesn’t mean I’m against educating people – and boys in particular – about where the line is or how certain behaviors make women feel – but keep it in perspective. Blaming “rape culture” or Western culture in general is like blaming black culture when a black man commits a crime or Islamic culture when an Islamic terrorist strikes. Broadening the blame so widely takes the focus off of the criminal, and elides all laws and social forces aligned to punish rapists and other criminals without broad-brushing the rest of the group with guilt by association. And there’s also the problem of blurring categories. It seems in the media that “rape culture” is a vague umbrella under which crude jokers and clumsy suitors are more or less lumped in with brutal rapists, which may not be the best way to focus the efforts of a wide range of people.  I sympathize with the goal of calling attention to and clamping down on sexual assault, but I’m not yet convinced that the broad brush of “rape culture” is the right tool.

While I’m out on that precarious limb, I fear a similar loss of perspective on race. Per the Black Lives Matter focus on cops and black suspects, I am glad there’s a watchdog to insure an investigation when a suspect is killed. Given our history, it makes sense to have a watchdog group with a particular eye on black suspects who are killed. A demand that an investigation take place, and evidence be gathered and presented in court, is totally fair. A demand for a guilty verdict before a trial takes place seems a bridge too far, but it seems a bridge many routinely cross nowadays.  I’m reluctant to use an individual criminal case as a venue to redress social problems. I have friends both liberal and conservative who seem more eager than I am to take sides up front based on preconceived notions about race relations. But even if those preconceived notions are correct, not every white cop is a racist and not every young black man is a thug. With individual lives at stake, specific cases should not be prejudged on political grounds. At least that seems a good general rule. As political currents shift, grand juries and juries of peers seem a safer long-term bet than guilt assigned and convictions demanded before investigations take place.

Tiptoeing still further out on my limb, I will say that I think in the wake of Trump’s election, some of my liberal brothers and sisters have generally taken their eye off the ball on how to address persistent racial inequality. I think this stems from a misreading of Trump’s supporters. Sure, the hard-core racists who never vote Democrat voted Trump, but my theory (coming from a conservative part of the country where probably 40% of my friends and family voted Trump) is that most people who voted for Trump did so because (a) they always vote Republican regardless of the name of the ballot, or (b) they were sick of Democrats and Republicans and political correctness, and Trump seemed to them an outsider who would cut through the crap. In the case of the white working class, they were sick of being told by liberals that they were racist, sexist dolts who were overloaded with unearned privileges. I think voting for Trump was a mistake, but one that is explicable without appeal to racist, sexist xenophobia.

Once Trump votes were marked as a simple indicator of widespread racism and misogyny, the damage was done to the liberal mindset. In facing persistent racial inequities, focus on schools and economic opportunity in specific areas seems to have shifted to a focus on a vast conspiracy of white supremacists. In a word, liberals went back to fighting the battle of the 1960s. As unpopular as it sounds, white people’s hatred and prejudice against black people is not the biggest inhibitor to racial equity today. Although there is some of that, and it has perhaps been hardened in recent years by an unfortunate backlash against a relentlessly race-conscious identity politics, there are still few actual white supremacists. The big national call for a white supremacist gathering in Tennessee a few weeks ago brought in a total of 300 people from around the country. These knuckleheads have been increasingly marginalized since the 60s. As Charles Barkley said, if ignored, these 300 idiots gathered from around the country could talk stupid to each other for a couple of hours and then go home with no one ever noticing. Our new crop of liberals raised on identity politics, though, have vastly enhanced the prestige of those 300 idiots, telling them that America in general is a white supremacist nation that has their back. I fear that today’s liberals are rapidly reversing the gains in consciousness we made in the wake of the 1960s Civil Rights and hippie movements. By the end of the 70s, I’d say very few white people I knew really thought whites were genetically superior to blacks, and even those few would not admit it in public. Yes, there are still inequities that need to be addressed, yes there are still pockets of racial prejudice, but overall we’d gone a very long way toward marginalizing KKK thinking. (As Professor Cornel West once said on a talk show appearance while seated next to some klan members, “The KKK doesn’t represent white people; they represent morons.”) Sadly, the new liberal idea that everyone is a white supremacist moves in the other direction, giving those few KKK idiots an enormous microphone. The unpopular truth is that most corporate entities are eager to recruit women and minorities, if for no other reason than the edge it gives them when seeking big government contracts and major clients. The major obstacle for these corporate entities is finding enough women or minorities who have been well-prepared for board seats or top-level positions. We need to work on getting women and minorities well-educated from the ground level, well-prepared professionally – schools, mentoring, and economic conditions on the streets – this will serve better than marching against the till recently quite marginalized idiots of the KKK.

So let’s take the spotlight off the idiots, and off of the supposedly entrenched demographic differences that falsely present us as enemies, and see each other anew. Obama, in 2008, probably gave the best speech since Martin Luther King on the issue of race:

“I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren. This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people.”

It’s hard to tell whether Obama is schooling prospective Trump voters or identity politics liberals in this appeal, but let’s hope it’s a little of both. We need to stop the nonsense, see the good in each other, and get to work. Forget about all the theoretical divisiveness and do what it takes to make this school or that neighborhood better with an eye not on the past but on the immediate future.

Trump’s charisma

Donald Trump’s rise shows a nation woefully descending into a “cult-of-personality” politics that prefers “charisma” over “policy substance.” So says Wall Street Journal columnist, Bret Stephens (8/31/15). It is true that a good chunk of the electorate, especially in the GOP, fed up with politicians and unacquainted with policy nuance, finds Trump’s brash style and showy disregard for political correctness sufficient grounds for support. I don’t know if that counts as “charisma,” but if it does, Stephens shouldn’t be surprised. We’ve always put charisma over ideas. That’s why we can flip-flop from Reagan to Clinton to Geo. W. Bush to Obama. The common thread is clearly not ideology. But Obama had charisma over McCain and Romney, Bush looked charismatic with his guy-next-door grin beside the wooden Gore or feckless Kerry. Reagan had charisma in spades over his much smarter opponents. And Clinton’s “aw shucks” swagger could charm the pants off … well, you get the point. This charisma fetish may apply to any democracy without a universally educated populace but is perhaps increasingly acute in the America of reality TV and radio demagoguery, where a good education (if you can still afford it) will get you scarlet lettered as “cultural elite” and cost you that one big break you might have had on the Jerry Springer show.

Russell Brand and Me

Dear Russell,

I meant what I said in my recent kudo review of Revolution. If you’ll permit a near-certain misuse of a UK idiom, balls up to your social vision, politics, and witty delivery. I agree with you that late capitalism is nearing its end, as the exponential growth of consumption upon which it depends is now hitting its ecological limits. I’d like to play devil’s advocate though, if only to diversity our intellectual resources for the coming paradigm shift. I’ll start with your pet peeve, voting. I hate to bring up the voting thing, since it really is a small part of your overall vision, and the media has magnified it as if it were your core point and not just a corollary, but I can’t help it. It’s an interesting nugget. I understand your rationale for not voting – Establishment “democracies,” which serve only their corporate masters, are rapidly destroying social and ecological equilibrium, and voting only gives them the mass “buy-in” they need to extend their program of annihilating planetary resources to serve the 1%. Good point, but I can think of three pressures pushing me the opposite way, toward voting.

  • Long-term/short-term goals. In my favorite slave autobiography, that of Olaudah Equiano, Olaudah’s first move after gaining his freedom is to go into a plantation venture with one of his former masters, on the condition that he be assigned the task of picking slaves from the slave ships. Although his long-term goal was abolition, his short-term goal was to guarantee that some of these unfortunates – and especially his own countrymen – would be treated well. Perhaps I too would not want my long-term vision, remarkably like yours, to scuttle my short-term goals. I’m not as confident as you that the past six years under Obama are no different than they would have been under another George W. Bush. I think that lives are being affected presently and that something is to be gained short term. And I’m not willing to sacrifice that for a still far-from-certain mirage of revolution. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t condemn your position. I think you should hold to your position and I to mine. We have to acknowledge – even celebrate – our differences openly, knowing that in the big picture we’re all on this ride together.
  • Maybe I’m just older than you, which makes me (for better or for worse) more patient. You note that the revolution must begin subjectively, as a revolution in human sensibility. I agree and am perhaps even more concerned than you that if the objective forces of revolution get ahead of the subjective changes, we are in danger of a hijacking by less than idealistic factions (something The Beatles and The Who sang of during our archival hippie revolution). I believe it is this fear – that the objective forces of revolution outstrip the inner revolution – that caused Gandhi to go on a fast and call off the non-cooperation movement when his own supporters responded to violence with violence in the Chauri Chaura incident.
  • Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, argues that if we opt out, the big corporations and lobbyists will not, which means their influence will be even more unfettered, creating damage that even the Russell Revolution might not be able to reverse. I’m torn because I see your point, Russell, but Robert Reich’s position does give me pause before I forego voting.

I suppose I should be forthright and lay my vision of what may come past the next horizon line against yours for comparison/contrast. OK, since you asked, I will do so in a forthcoming piece. Like your vision, mine combines Age of Aquarius thinking with a little extra anarchy, so watch for the manifesto on this exciting and newly minted socio-political order, Aquarianarchy.

Your post-nationalist countryman,

Gary

The Case for Impeachment

Ronald Reagan famously asked in his 1980 presidential campaign, “Are you better off now than you were” when the incumbent, Jimmy Carter, took office. Sometimes the comparison is so stark that you simply need to impeach. Consider how things have changed between January 2009 when Obama took office and today:

  1. The economy was shrinking at an alarming 5.4%; now it’s growing at about 4%.
  2. The stock market had lost 40% of its value and was free-falling; now it has regained all of its value and gone on to record highs.
  3. We were losing 800,000 jobs per month; now we’re gaining 200,000 per month.
  4. The housing market was in crisis; now it’s stabilized.
  5. The auto industry was about to go bankrupt and crater the economy; now it’s running healthy profits.
  6. Young Americans were regularly coming home in body bags from foreign wars; now our combat units are out.
  7. We’ve eliminated Osama bin Laden, the Somali pirates who kidnapped Americans, the head of al-Shabaab (per Kenyan mall attack), and captured the guy behind the Benghazi attacks.
  8. After five presidents tried and failed at health care reform, the ACA (Obamacare) puts us one step closer to the affordable, universal health care that the rest of the West enjoys.
  9. Big banks had free reign; Obama pushed through Wall St regulations and credit card reforms mandating transparency in fees and rate increases.
  10. Pushed for a market-based cap on carbon and increased renewables such that wind capacity has tripled and solar capacity increased 16-fold.

We need to impeach the integrity of the media outlets that continually scream a false narrative about how this president had led us in the wrong direction.

Compromise and pluralism

Whereas the two major political parties in the U.S. used to have different agendas with reality as a common reference point, they’re now moving toward different realities, with nothing as a common reference point. This tendency may be with us for some time, given current deployments in communications technology, and it will eventually make democratic governance impossible. To avoid that, we must reclaim the virtues of compromise and pluralism. I’d go so far as to say that compromise is the first precondition of democracy. Any political party that rejects compromise as broadly as John Boehner seemed to do in the famous December 2010 interview on 60 Minutes betrays a preference for fascism – i.e., my party is right, all other parties are wrong, all compromise is unethical, and we will bring all our power to bear accordingly. In today’s Congress, Republicans are far and away the most intransigent in their scorn for compromise (and Boehner is by no means the worst offender). Perhaps Republicans rightly fear that part of their base that has become so rabid that the slightest gesture across the aisle can derail a re-election. So they go against President Obama on even obvious things like the START treaty renewal. So Mitt Romney says he would not agree to a deficit reduction deal that rolls back upper tier tax cuts, even if Democrats were to offer $10 in reduced spending for every $1 in new tax revenue. This kind of inflexibility does not bode well for those who would govern. But read on for some measure of criticism of my liberal allies.

My keynote, again, is that for democracy to function at all, you need different groups to come to the table and compromise and implement policies. When you leave the table, the objective is NOT to win everyone over to your side and curse everyone who still disagrees. You want everyone to have a clearer understanding of a plurality of positions, to have figured out ways of compromising and moving forward, and to leave still holding a plurality of viewpoints that can be brought to bear on the next problem. A table with diversified points of view is likelier in the long run to generate more lasting, more generally acceptable, and more creative policy decisions. But a spirit of compromise is prerequisite.

Now to critique my liberal brethren. Although in the public sphere of DC today, Democrats are more willing than Republicans to accept the value of compromise and pluralism, in the private sphere of late night discussions in kitchens and bars, the culprits are more evenly divided. Many of my liberal friends have that little fascist streak that says, “I’m right, the conservatives in this discussion are wrong, and at the end of the day I need to convince them or write them off as idiots.” To them also I say that if you want a healthy body politic, you’d better recognize that you debate politics with friends not always to win them over but to refine various political orientations that can be brought to bear later. If everyone leaves the table with your opinion, the discussion was only superficially a success.  You want plural views to prosper, although you want them to evolve and become more refined through the dialectic.

Did you build your own business?

Rarely does a phrase hit that conservatives and liberals can both seize as a rallying cry. Elizabeth Warren’s statement that “Nobody in this country got rich on his own,” reiterated less tactfully by Obama, is such a meme.

To conservatives, this shows the destructive socialist kernel in liberalism, denying individual effort and ingenuity in order to take from the producers and give to the non-producers. To liberals, it is a simple reminder that every successful capitalist venture makes material use of pre-existing social formations.

The funny thing is that the logic of this meme is built upon propositions that everyone can agree upon:

  1. Individual effort is a valuable driver in any business venture.
  2. Entrepreneurs who so drive the venture deserve ample recompense.
  3. Entrepreneurs draw upon existing social formations in building their business.
    (a) The entrepreneur was educated (through schooling and apprenticeship) by and within a social formation.
    (b) The entrepreneur’s workers were educated (through schooling and apprenticeship) by and within a social formation.
    (c) The entrepreneur drew upon and continues to draw upon existing technologies and infrastructure (transportation, communications, policing and judicial, trained work force, consumer base, etc.).
    (d) If the business has more than one employee, the profits of the business depend in part upon the labor of the employees.

No reasonable person on either side can dispute these propositions – a successful business depends in part upon the efforts and ingenuity of the entrepreneur and in part upon a pre-existing infrastructure. The real dispute comes down to a matter of emphasis. Rational conservatives will admit that social infrastructure plays a role, but assign that role a minor value compared to individual initiative. Rational liberals will admit the value of individual initiative, but emphasize the individual’s obligation to give back to the social infrastructure from which he or she so heavily drew.

Given these premises, most would agree that the successful businessperson with a number of employees should feed something back into the infrastructure through taxes. The only real dispute is what amount is a fair amount.

I could stop here, and leave this as a non-partisan analysis of the meme to see if both sides could agree to this much. But my conservative friends know me better than that, so I’ll follow up with my liberal conclusions. Like most Democrats, I believe that the owner of such a venture, or the CEO in the case of larger businesses, can in all fairness make 10, 20, 30 times as much as the average employee. If you have a dozen employees averaging $30,000 a year and you’re taking home a half million, good for you. Contrary to popular opinion, liberals are not out to soak the rich. But let’s face it, the wealthier you are, the more you are making from investments (and from the productivity of your work force) rather than from your personal productivity. Liberals say that you and I and Oprah should pay the same tax rates on our first $250,000, and that you and I and Oprah should pay a slightly higher rate on our income that falls over that line. In a country with huge income inequality, where the rich are fabulously rich, where the middle class is stagnant, and where the poor are hard-pressed to break out of poverty, that doesn’t seem too much to ask. We do all live and die, flourish and falter, within the same social infrastructure, and the wealthier you are, like it or not, the more you have gained from that infrastructure. To liberals, it’s just a matter of getting the investing elite to put a little bit of the surplus back into the infrastructure that supports the worker bees of productivity.