Tag Archives: politics

I Don’t Wanna Be Anyone’s Wrapping Paper

This piece from Quillette Magazine hit home with me in so many ways, but more than anything it articulated why I’ve never registered with any political party: I simply don’t want to identified by the labels attached to the parties. Here are some excerpts that will, hopefully, outline what I mean:

Labels suck.

Conservative, liberal, progressive, libertarian, green. These words have come to mean nothing about the folk that embody them. In our era of career politicians, it would be like saying a quarterback drafted by the Oakland Raiders is irresistibly  —  unequivocally  —  a “Raider” in his style of play. He’s not; he’s just a guy throwing a ball whilst wearing their black jersey…

As a corollary, political labels seem not just irrelevant but also treacherous. The wrapping paper of your Christmas gift may delight you… it still doesn’t tell you what’s inside the box. And that, matter-of-factly, is the gift with which you’re bequeathed; the wrapping paper soon squeezed and discarded. To think, and vote, using labels grants us a false sense of security and prohibits the unmasking of (most) politicians for what they are: virtue-signalers to their base, peddling false and reductive narratives  —  often devoid of context and policy. It’s a cunning sleight of hand, abetted by the mainstream media, that leaves a great number of us agreeing with people with whom we would otherwise disagree. And the principal reason why this occurs is because of labels.

It’s not only the politicians  —  as a system  —  that are to blame for this upside-down world. It’s us all, callous bearers of that almost archaic duty: citizenship. Too often we favour the collective over the individual, group think over free thought, headlines over trends. We reflexively embrace our fellow [insert your label] without examining how we ever wound up ascribing to their “ideology” or “party.” In the practice of political faith, no matter the denomination, we are either fundamentalists or atheists. We subscribe to all the commandments or none at all. When is the last time you met a Democrat in favor of the Second Amendment or a Republican supporting abortion? Religion was once described by Christopher Hitchens as “a surrender of the mind.” Increasingly, so is political partisanship. Truth and sense, historical perspective and systemic thinking, matter less than jersey colour. We relish the chance to define and affirm our sense of self in proclaiming, say, our liberal credentials or conservative pedigree. Politics shifts from a practice (“what”) to an identity (“who”).

You don’t have to work hard to test this theory. Simply post a hot-button political story on your Facebook timeline and watch your friends react exactly as you’d expect them to based on their labels, i.e. their party affiliations. It’s truly remarkable.

kellyanne-conway-accused-of-disrespecting-the-oval-office-1

Picture linked from Piximus.net. Attributed to Brendan Smailowski/AFP

A silly non-consequential example that appeared on Facebook this week was related to the picture of Kellyanne Conway sitting on a couch in the Oval Office (see above) in what some people thought was an inappropriate way. Of course many “liberal” friends jumped all over it and then many “conservative” friends accused them of overreacting, and in the midst of that came this comment from a “conservative” that to me defined irony: “Why? Because liberals believe every photo/meme that they see on facebook is the gospel truth. That’s why.” This from a member of a group of people that spent eight years gleefully sharing every idiotic anti-Obama (including Michelle) meme you can imagine.

Here’s the thing: I have no idea if that particular “conservative” friend ever shared one of those anti-Obama memes, but she has identified herself as a member of that tribe so by default I’m assuming she did. That’s what happens when you identify yourself closely with a political party – you give people permission to assume that you believe whatever line that party is spouting. You can claim you’re an independent thinker all day long, but by raising your hand and saying “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a Democrat” you’re giving the world permission to assume that you believe everything that party espouses until you can prove otherwise. That’s why you’ll never see me join a party; I’m certain I’ll disagree with at least 25-50% of the policy positions that any party takes so I’m just not going to have my name associated with it.

As for the argument that people turn off their brains and just toe the party line, I’m pretty sure that if you asked anyone whether that’s true they would say, “Absolutely it’s true, especially with members of <insert opposite party name here>. Of course some members of <insert good guy party name here> do that too, but mostly the hard core nutjobs. Me and my friends aren’t like that.” Then they’ll fire up Facebook and start sharing idiotic memes as soon as your conversation is over.

A Glimmer

One test of a leader is her willingness to do something that may displease her fans/followers if she thinks it’s the right thing to do. Sen. Elizabeth Warren did just that when she voted in favor of Ben Carson for HUD Secretary. Even better, she utilized her Facebook page to explain why. Here’s an excerpt:

Yes, I have serious, deep, profound concerns about Dr. Carson’s inexperience to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Yes, I adamantly disagree with many of the outrageous things that Dr. Carson said during his presidential campaign. Yes, he is not the nominee I wanted.

But “the nominee I wanted” is not the test.

Millions of American families depend on HUD programs, including tens of thousands of families in Massachusetts. For many of them, HUD assistance is the difference between a safe, stable home and life on the street. As someone who has spent a lot of time working on housing policy in this country, my focus is on helping these families – and the countless others who could benefit from a stronger agency.

During the nomination process, I sent Dr. Carson a nine-page letter with detailed questions on a whole range of issues: Section 8 housing assistance; lead exposure in public housing; programs to prevent and end homelessness; programs to help victims of domestic violence; fighting housing discrimination; HUD’s role in preparing for and recovering from natural disasters; and, more broadly, the standards he will use for managing the department, including the steps he will take to protect the rights of LGBT Americans.

Dr. Carson’s answers weren’t perfect. But at his hearing, he committed to track and report on conflicts of interest at the agency. In his written responses to me, he made good, detailed promises, on everything from protecting anti-homelessness programs to enforcing fair housing laws. Promises that – if they’re honored – would help a lot of working families…

If Dr. Carson doesn’t follow through on his commitments, I will be the very first person he hears from – loudly and clearly and frequently. I didn’t hesitate to criticize past HUD Secretaries when they fell short, and I won’t hesitate with Dr. Carson – not for one minute.

That, my friends, is the first glimmer of light I’ve seen during a very dark period in Washington. I’m not saying I agree with her vote, but I am saying I’m glad to see someone finally showing some guts and exhibiting a little leadership.

Inauguration Got You Down? This Probably Won’t Help

Harper’s Weekly Review is usually a compilation of single sentence summaries of the previous weeks news made humorous by their juxtapositions to one another and usually totaling three or four long-ish paragraphs. This week’s was a single, very long, paragraph about Donald Trump titled Tower of Babble and it’s worth spending a couple of minutes reading it. Here’s a taste:

Donald J. Trump, a reality-television star erecting a mausoleum for himself behind the first-hole tee of a golf course he owns in New Jersey, first declared his candidacy for president of the United States in the atrium of Trump Tower, which he built in the 1980s with labor provided by hundreds of undocumented Polish workers and concrete purchased at an inflated price from the Gambino and Genovese crime families. “The American dream is dead,” Trump said to the audience members, each of whom he paid $50 to attend…

Trump said that his book The Art of the Deal was second in quality only to the Bible and that he never explicitly asked God for forgiveness. At a church in Iowa, he placed a few dollar bills into a bowl filled with sacramental bread, which he has referred to as “my little cracker.” Trump, who once dumped a glass of wine on a journalist who wrote a story he didn’t like, told his supporters that journalists were “liars,” the “lowest form of humanity,” and “enemies,” but that he did not approve of killing them. “I’m a very sane person,” said Trump, who once hosted a radio show in which he discussed the development of hair-cloning technology, the creation of a vaccine for obesity, the number of men a gay man thinks about having sex with on his morning commute, and the dangers of giving free Viagra to rapists…

Trump said that he doesn’t pay employees who don’t “do a good job,” after a review of the more than 3,500 lawsuits filed against Trump found that he has been accused of stiffing a painter and a dishwasher in Florida, a glass company in New Jersey, dozens of hourly hospitality workers, and some of the lawyers who represented him. “I’m a fighter,” said Trump, who body-slammed the WWE chairman at WrestleMania 23 in 2007, and who attended WrestleMania IV with Robert LiButti, an Atlantic City gambler with alleged mafia ties, who told Trump he’d “fucking pull your balls from your legs” if Trump didn’t stop trying to seduce his daughter. Trump, whose first wife, Ivana, accused him in divorce filings of rape, and whose special council later said rape within a marriage was not possible, said “no one respects women more than I do.”

There’s more. Much, much more. This piece should be considered a contribution to the public good and Harper’s is to be commended for running it.

A Letter to Some of My Recently Smug Conservative Friends

Dear Recently Smug Conservative Friends,

I get it. You’re feeling pretty satisfied. After eight years under the reign of progressive terror that defined the Obama era your time has come. The progressive agenda, what with its political correctness, high taxation, misguided health care reform and redistribution of wealth to the seemingly lazy and undeserving is finally being confronted by reality. Almost as importantly, those friends and family who for almost a decade have smugly derided your conservative values as antiquated and out of touch now have to face the reality that there are a LOT of people out there who think like you do. Together you’ve elected the most improbable candidate ever, Donald Trump, to the office of the President of the United States, and on top of that have returned a Republican House and Senate and an almost unbelievable number of state legislatures and governors office to the red side of the aisle. Yep, your side has spoken and loudly proclaimed that conservatism is thriving in these United States.

You’re elated and, yes, feeling a little smug. After suffering through ten years of liberal policies and holier-than-thou attitude, the place you call home suddenly feels more like your own neighborhood. And honestly how can the liberals seem so surprised that Trump would win after putting forward a candidate who lies, deceives and acts so,so, so pompous? Yes, I get it. In fact I’m more than sympathetic because I too got tired of being told by progressives that they knew better than me, that their policies were the One Way to make our country great. I can only imagine how tempting it must be to turn up your nose at them and declare that this country has spoken and it’s gonna be run your way and they can just stick their ideas where the sun don’t shine.

But here’s the problem. Many of you are making a grievous mistake by thinking that the election of a highly flawed, and I would argue dangerous, candidate is a free pass to completely dismiss the more liberal citizens in our midst. I’m not talking about your Facebook posts deriding liberals for backing “Killary” (which by the way is pretty juvenile), or your insistence that liberals just accept Clinton’s loss and stop whining about it after you spent eight years whining about Obama, or your calls to put protesters in jail. Those displays of public disagreement are as American as apple pie and a cherished right we should always defend.

What I’m talking about is your knee jerk reaction to those who voted for Clinton. You call them socialists, free loaders, hippies and idiots. You seem to think they all belong to some monochromatic blob of citizens incapable of critical thought or having nuanced belief systems. That argument would hold much more water if it weren’t for the fact that so many people DID vote for Clinton. There’s just no way that many people can hold the same worldviews; there just aren’t that many people who are card-carrying members of the ACLU or other rights groups, attend the same community organizations or read the same magazines. But, it’s safe to say that all of those people had one thing in common  and that is that they felt that, for whatever reason, electing Donald Trump was the worst choice they could make to better our country.

And there lies the rub for you, my smug conservative friends. You can’t come to terms with the fact that so many people probably voted for Clinton not because they liked her, but because they really thought Trump would be the ruin of this country. You can’t seem to understand that they truly believe his rhetoric is inflaming already tense relations between people of different races and creeds, that his stated policy positions could assault our civil rights in previously unimaginable ways and that his temperament could threaten our international relations, and that for those reasons and more he is not the change agent we need in Washington. And, tragically, you fail to empathize with those people and instead judge them in a way that you rightfully reject when liberals judge and label your and your fellow conservatives.

So my request of you, my conservative friends, is this. Please harness your smugness and glee and use that energy to work towards effecting change that truly helps our society. Rather than sitting and passing judgment on those who voted for Clinton, in part because they weren’t offered a better choice by your side, try to understand why they voted for her and how you can work with them to find ways to address those issues. Please note that I’m not talking about the fringe elements who aren’t interested in dialogue, but rather the group of people who likely live right next door or are related to you.

So why am I writing to your my conservative friends, and not my liberal friends? I have a whole other set of arguments for them which I will make in a separate letter. So feel free to enjoy your win at the polls, but please be the bigger person by refraining from sitting in judgment and find a way to bridge the divide with the liberals in your life. That will be the first step in curing what ails us.

Best regards,
Jon

A Letter to Some of My Pissed Off Liberal Friends

Dear Pissed Off Liberal Friend,

I get it. You can’t believe your fellow citizens have somehow managed to elect Donald Trump to the office of President of the United States. Sure, you’ve been disappointed by their misguided decisions and beliefs in the past, but nothing on this scale. How could they do it? How could they not see what a morally depraved, narcissistic and dangerous man he is? How could they possibly think it’s a good idea to elect him to the most powerful office in the world? Put simply, how could they be so wrong?

You’re angry and scared, and understandably so. You feel like your country has been taken from you, that the place you call home has become dangerous and no longer reflects your values. Yes, I get it. In fact I’m more than sympathetic because I too believe we’ve elected the most unqualified and dangerous man for the office in my lifetime and probably the history of the country, but since I’m not a historian I can’t say that confidently.

But here’s the problem. Many of you are actually making the problem worse by not exhibiting any understanding for the views of those who voted for Trump. I’m not talking about protesting outside of Trump’s buildings, or booing our VP-elect at a play, or shining a “F*&k Trump” display on the side of a building (although I do think that’s sophomoric and counterproductive). Those displays of public disagreement are as American as apple pie and a cherished right we should always defend.

What I’m talking about is your knee jerk reaction to those who voted for Trump. You call them racist, misogynistic, homophobic and idiotic. You seem to think they all belong to some monochromatic blob of citizens incapable of critical thought or having nuanced belief systems. That argument would hold much more water if it weren’t for the fact that so many people DID vote for Trump.There’s just no way that many people can hold the exact same worldviews; there just aren’t that many people who are card-carrying members of the KKK or other hate groups, attend the same churches, or read the same magazines. But, it’s safe to say that all of those people had one thing in common and that is that they felt that, for whatever reason, electing Donald Trump was the best choice they could make to better our country.

And there lies the rub for you, my pissed off liberal friends. You can’t come to terms with the fact that so many people probably voted for Trump not because they liked him, but because they felt that despite his deplorable behavior he still offered the best chance to change a system they see as not addressing their needs. You can’t seem to understand that they believe he, a nasty, thin-skinned purported billionaire, is the closest thing we have to a populist candidate who can begin addressing the needs of the middle class. You refuse to accept that someone who voted for Trump isn’t a knuckle-dragging-white-supremacist-wife-beater, but is actually someone who wants to shake up the powers-that-be enough that they might do something to help them. And, tragically, you fail to empathize with those people and instead judge them in a way that you rightfully reject when conservatives judge and label you and your fellow liberals/progressives.

So my request of you, my liberal friends, is this. Please harness your anger and use that energy to work towards effecting change that truly helps our society. Rather than sitting and passing judgment on those who voted for Trump, in part because they weren’t offered a better choice by your side, try to understand why they voted for him and how you can work with them to find ways to address those issues. Please note that I’m not talking about the deplorables who are certainly part of his base – the racists, fascists, anti-Semites who have latched onto his campaign – but rather the very large group of people who likely live right next door or are related to you.

So why am I writing to you my liberal friends, and not my conservative friends? Well, for one I have a whole other set of arguments for them which I will make in a separate letter. For another I have listened to you preach acceptance, open mindedness and civility and so I implore you to practice that preaching. Feel free to be angry, but be the bigger person by refraining from sitting in judgment and find a way to begin to bridge the divide with the conservatives in your life. That will be the first step in curing what ails us.

Best regards,
Jon

 

You Can’t Find the Truth

Remember Jack Nicholson’s infamous dialogue from A Few Good Men? You know when Tom Cruise is grilling him on the witness stand and says, “I want the truth” and Nicholson’s reply is, “You can’t handle the truth!” That’s what pops to mind when reading this article titled The rise of the American conspiracy theory at The Week, expect instead of “You can’t handle the truth” it’s “You can’t find the truth.”

The article is basically about modern politics and how over the past generation there’s been a concerted effort by political conservatives to destroy the credibility of liberal institutions that were the gatekeepers of what we can call capital-t “Truth.” You know, institutions like the liberal media, the liberal government, the liberal faculty at fill-in-the-blank university, etc. Unfortunately instead of acting as a counterbalance to the liberal biases of those institutions – and yes they often were biased – or insisting on more objectivity, they simply cut them off at the knees. In essence they threw the objective baby out with the liberal bathwater.  Let’s let the article’s author describe what’s resulted:

Now how about this: We know that greenhouse gases are producing destabilizing changes in the Earth’s climate. And that human beings evolved from other species over millions of years. And that Barack Obama is a Christian. And that Hillary Clinton had nothing to do with the death of Vince Foster.

Large numbers of Americans deny those and many other assertions. Why? Because the trustworthiness of the authorities that make the claims has been under direct and continuous attack for the past several decades — and because the internet has given a voice to every kook who makes a contrary assertion. What we’re left with is a chaos of competing claims, none of which has the authority to dispel the others as untrue.

That sounds like a recipe for relativism — and it is, but only (metaphorically speaking) for a moment, as a preparatory stage toward a new form of absolutism. Confronted by the destabilizing swirl of contradictory assertions, many people end up latching onto whichever source of information confirms the beliefs they held before opening their web browser. Instead of relativistic skepticism they’re left with some of the most impenetrable dogmas ever affirmed.

One of the reasons it’s been so troubling to see traditional media implode the way it has is that we’ve lost the whole concept of the Fourth Estate. Of course there was always bias in the media, but there was also a great deal of effort put into trying to be as objective as possible. There was pride taken in holding the powers-that-be accountable no matter which party they belonged to. Unfortunately in order for a media outlet to be successful these days it has to pick a side, to be affiliated with one of the teams, and thus lose any chance of being considered an objective source of information.

And that’s just the media. When all institutions are undermined, when facts are successfully slain by articles of faith, we lose a most critical element of a functioning society – the belief that our institutions, as flawed as they might be, are in place to promote the common good. That in general our institutions can be trusted to eventually do what is right and best for our society.  Unfortunately our current political environment has killed that belief. As the author says:

This is what happens when the principle of democratic egalitarianism is applied to questions of knowledge and truth — when instead of working to reform institutions devoted to upholding norms of objectivity and verifiable evidence, critics turn them into a target for destruction altogether, transforming public life into an epistemological free-for-all in the process.

That things have degraded so badly is troubling. But it’s nowhere near as troubling as the realization that we haven’t got the foggiest clue how to reverse the damage.

 

 

The Today Show President

If Donald Trump becomes POTUS you can give The Today Show a lot of credit, or blame, for it. If you turned on the show on any given week over the last year, roughly the amount of time since Trump announced his candidacy, you almost certainly saw a segment with him being interviewed, discussed or profiled. Of course he’s gotten a lot of play from other networks as well, but The Today Show has ridden him like the ratings pony he is and as a result he’s gotten enough free media attention to negate any fundraising or operational advantage that the more traditional candidates enjoyed.

Interestingly, an article in today’s Wall Street Journal points out that a tactic Trump employed in the 90s to save his businesses has morphed into a winning campaign strategy. From the article:

His success at creating a luxury brand stemmed from building his own celebrity as much as Trump Tower’s fine marble. With Ivana, a former model, by his side, he flaunted his flashy lifestyle and surrounded himself with the rich and famous…

Mr. Trump acknowledged his business was “overleveraged” but blamed falling property values for his financial woes. By then, the U.S. economy was in a tailspin and Mr. Trump couldn’t make debt payments…

Mr. Trump didn’t repay his personal debts to the bank group until 1995. But he proclaimed his comeback as early as 1992 to the media. That year, he told New Jersey gaming regulators his net worth was $437 million to $1.6 billion.

His new business model: He could do deals without taking on more debt by selling his brand and marketing skills.

It was a more conservative strategy that foreshadowed a bare-bones primary campaign relying more on free publicity than fundraising and staff. “Having built a great name and a great reputation and a great brand I guess was good,” Mr. Trump said. “And I get very high ratings…That’s a tremendous advantage. No politician ever had that.”

So there you have it. Trump may seem to be a blustering buffoon, but if nothing else he’s proven the value of a brand and he’s literally taking it to the bank. And to TV, which is where The Today Show comes in.

This morning (July 21, 2016) the show ran a segment about how many times Trump has appeared on the show since the early 80s. It was meant as a lighthearted affair, with comments about how much Matt Lauer’s hair had changed while Trump’s hadn’t, but it inadvertently drove home the point that, to date, the show has had as much to do with Trump’s campaign success as anything else. It also can’t be a coincidence that it’s the flagship show of the network that aired Trump’s greatest branding coup, aka The Apprentice.

While it’s not The Today Show’s job to play gatekeeper of the presidency – after all, this is a show that will transition from a serious news story directly to a segment about celebrity hairstyles – it is one of the most watched shows in the country on a daily basis so it provides a seriously influential platform to anyone who appears. You take away Trump’s appearances on the show over the last year and I’m willing to bet his vote count would have been cut by 10% or more. That’s a BHAG (big hairy as guess) on my part, but I’m sure the number would be significant.

What does this mean for the country? In the short term, it means we have the weirdest race for POTUS in modern history. In the long term, not much. There just aren’t the many orange-haired narcissists who have a personal brand they can utilize at a unique point in history when an angry electorate has on the kind of beer goggles that make that kinda guy look attractive.