Progressive Identity

One of my favorite things I heard Jon Stewart say was that “be reasonable” just doesn’t make a good chant at a protest.  And the people who are most fervently behind the desire for our governing officials to be reasonable are the same people who are most likely to pick mowing the lawn over rabble-rousing.

The liberals have spent a long time holding on to the Stephen Colbert quote: Reality has a well-known liberal bias.  We tend to trust the lessons of history, the evidence, science, logic, and those items which are verifiable.  When examining economic policy, we look at the individual states as test-beds.  What works?  Jindall ran Louisiana into the ground based on his ideology: tax breaks good, government spending bad.  Not that Louisiana was at the top of the heap in terms of states achieving great things, but it is at the bottom now.  Walker in Wisconsin.  Sam Brownback in Kansas.  All solid test cases for GOP/Conservative/Small Government ideology.

How is that working out?  Not so well.

And progressives think that should count for something.  That ideology should interact with reality at some point and that ideas taken as an article of faith should adjust themselves when proven false in the real world.  We point at the ‘repeal and replace’ argument around the ACA, and (rightly) note that they’ve been squawking repeal and replace for six years and no one thought of something to come up with to fill in the ‘replace’ part of that equation?  How does that not make the argument ridiculous?

So far, certainly since Newt Gingrich in the 1990’s, we’ve been getting progressively more reliant on the evidence, to no avail.  We’ve told ourselves that we’re taking the high road, while we seek consensus, make compromise, and function as the adults in the room.  We attempt to persuade with logic, with evidence, with the facts as they are known and understood by a body of experts larger than one guy in a tinfoil hat.  Every time, we stand around with this faith in human decency and reason, pointing at the dastardly behavior ever pushing the boundaries of absurd, expecting the general public to give a shit.

The general public doesn’t give a shit.  The evidence only matters because we say it matters (and also: those people in Louisiana with the raw sewage bubbling up in their back yards).  In other words, the evidence matters to us but to no one else.

So what do we do going forward?  Some would have the Dems become as obstructionist and petulant as the GOP.  There is talk of a Brietbart for the Left.

What would Lefty Brietbart look like?  Righty Brietbart talks about birth control making women ugly and annoying.  What is the equivalent?  I suppose you could reach into the darker corners of hard-core feminist philosophy and discover an article about how men who masturbate to porn are more prone to domestic violence therefore masturbation automatically leads to assault and battery.  Or something like that, except the flip side of the argument doesn’t work, because the evidence thing is built into our philosophical DNA.  Somehow, Progressive notions are already radical, like acknowledging that it isn’t an accident that our prison population has exploded, or that a disproportionate number of our prisoners are of color, and that those prisoners are disenfranchised upon release and subject to slave wages while in Prison.  Hmm.  Plantation becomes prison…   And following the cause to effect is already a radical notion because the Brietbart Righty call us Social Justice Warriors, as if that is a bad thing.

So we have Adbusters.  And Mother Jones.  And all of that rabid lefty talk has produced people who … are still expecting evidence, still want measured reasonable action that takes into account second and third order effects,  and still look for consensus and alternative view points.

We aren’t going to win this by out temper-tantruming the GOP.  We might make some progress by quitting the game playing.  Or starting a new game where we are transparent, we tell the whole truth in plain language, we go out and listen, and we stop spending all our time in fundraising and go back to writing our own laws.  Laws in plain English.  Clear laws.  And pulling obsolete laws off of the books.  A sense of humor might help.  Stop worrying about test audiences and McCarthy witch hunts into Socialists invading the Democrats.  And stop thinking that we’re playing the same game as the GOP.  It is obvious to anyone paying attention that the only ideology that counts is power and cash.  Nothing else about the GOP guiding philosophy is sacrosanct.  They want to win and they want to reward the wealthy with more wealth for the achievement of being born wealthy.  That’s it.  They’ll offer up a healthy dose of racial resentment to the poor huddled masses, a finger to point in some other direction, and a long speech on the right to life, so long as you’ve never been disconnected from the umbilical cord.  But what they care about is shoveling more money up the economic ladder.

God, could you imagine if the Koch brothers (and all the other doners) just put all their lobbying funds into the general tax fund?

Anyway…  Going forward, I think we need to be ruthless, but not in the same way as the GOP.  If we are ruthlessly committed to speaking plainly, articulating the principles that aren’t negotiable, and re-claiming the authenticity credential…  We might get somewhere.  Right now, the conversation is defined by the Don and the GOP’s talking points.  We aren’t getting anywhere by spending all of our time debunking the metric shit ton of bullshit that gets lobbed at the public on a daily basis, so maybe it is time to stop chasing the GOP tail and start moving forward.

Progressive Identity

Baseline Propositions

Stay with me on this…  Government does, or can do the following:
  1. Establish and maintain national defense – intelligence gathering, war fighting, maintaining a fighting force, supporting that fighting force after the fact.
  2. Serve as a counterweight to the forces of paleocapitalism – where the people with the most money want to consolidate and build empires no matter the cost to society as a whole, government is theoretically the bully to bully the bullies back.
  3. maintain social order, which facilitates regular, predictable interactions in the public sphere, whether they be financial transactions, establishes a mechanism to protect people from grievous harm…  really, this is another way of looking at the bully to out-bully the bullies argument, except this time applied to black markets and criminal enterprises.
  4. organize large projects for the common good that could not be accomplished by individuals acting alone: infrastructure, public parks, and the like.
Each of these roles plays up against the other – sometimes the fourth and the second inform each other, in the case of preventing oil companies from pouring their toxic byproducts directly into a river, for example.
Some of these functions can only be accomplished by a federal government: you wouldn’t necessarily want North and South Dakota to develop intelligence capabilities against each other, or to develop their own armies in case of resource scarcity or invasion.  And what is South Dakota going to do against a Russian hacking incident?  The efficiencies of scale dictate that, in this application, we’re best to have this function organized for everyone vs. having 50 different methodologies for providing national defense.  Similarly, when corporations operate across all 50 states, it helps to have a single bully to counteract the less noble tendencies of ever-man-for-himself capitalism.
But for the most part, the arguments between conservatives and liberals used to be about what the right balance was between order and chaos.  The conservative faction has argued for greater chaos in the public sphere (commerce, environment, trade) and more order in the private sphere (sexuality/identity, personal responsibility, recreational drug use, protecting belief-based discrimination, so long as the belief is Christian).
An interjection of inconvenient evidence: the argument for personal order and public chaos is largely ideological rather than pragmatic – the historical record is pretty clear that chaos in the public sphere brings us greater income inequality, more social unrest, and poor economic outcomes.  Both the Great Depression and the Great Recession are tied to Republican sweeps of the Senate, the House, and the White House.  States where the leaders have had great faith in the notion of public-sphere chaos bringing prosperity have tangible evidence to suggest that this article of faith is baseless.  Check Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Kansas.
On the other hand, the liberal position is for greater order in the public sphere (regulation of banks, regulation for environmental impact, more investment in projects that benefit everyone) and greater chaos in the personal sphere (bodily integrity for women, collective responsibility, a live-and-let-live approach to sexuality and identity, deregulation of some recreational substances coupled with science-based support to individuals with addictions).
These originating propositions have long-since been obscured by emotional manipulation. But who cares what you believe and which political proposition you align yourself with?  Let’s start with a true or false proposition: money is the major driver behind society’s big gears – policy, politics, etc.
The next true/false proposition: Companies have a vested interest in individuals’ political and commercial behavior.
If you think companies (as a whole) are enlightened entities out to serve the common good, I’m not sure we can have this conversation.
If you believe that commercial concerns – Exxon, Walmart, McDonalds – are primarily driven by the desire to generate profit…  then do those companies have incentive to support political behavior that furthers their ability to generate profit?  How is that best accomplished? I would propose that fear is one of the most effective sales tools imaginable.
Which brings us to this: what are you afraid of, and who is profiting from that fear?
Baseline Propositions

The Most Dangerous Idea

Question your fears.

I’m not saying give them up.  I’m saying sit with them for a second and ask them questions…  First and foremost, who benefits from this fear?  What increases this fear?  What behavior comes from this fear?  Who gains the most from this fear?  Is the thing I’m afraid of real?  Is that corroborated by people who don’t agree with me?  What is the evidence?  What comes along with this fear?  Is the fear helping me live a better life?
Those who are the least afraid are the hardest to manipulate.  The individual who cannot be manipulated is the biggest threat to the forces that seek to keep us afraid, seeking permission, and consuming.
The Most Dangerous Idea

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

The quote goes back to Aesop, this notion that familiarity breeds contempt.  (For the record, he also said this: We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.)  Vice published a piece about the Military’s support for Trump – some at the leadership level, most among those who end up getting deployed.  Trump fans in the Military talked about drawing back on our intervention in the world, the fact that Trump appears to be decisive (I can’t, in any seriousness, call him decisive.)

What they don’t talk about is how Trump’s anti-Islam message resonates with those who have spent time in the Islamic world.  

Let’s start with this: I’m speaking in generalities.  What I am about to say isn’t going to apply to everyone, but it is a decent starting point.  The religion and the culture are intertwined in the minds of those who grew up in it.  Most westerners can talk about their religion in one silo and their culture in another, and their family in a third.  Most westerners can talk critically about one aspect or the other without feeling the whole edifice is about to crumble. It gets much harder to tease out the threads when you’re talking about the Muslim world.  

My expertise on this is as follows:  I married a Muslim man.  We divorced.  I have worked around former military, lived with and loved an Officer who deployed “downrange,” had a long term relationship with another former officer who also undertook multiple deployments.  And I can say with a high level of confidence that familiarity breeds contempt.  Skipping over the salacious bits (I imagine if you spend some time googling night vision videos from Iraq, you’ll find stuff you can never un-see), let’s talk about why that might be.  

First, the world we first think of as Muslim – North Africa, the Middle East – has a culture that cannot be understood academically.  Which means that our governmental approach to it is doomed from the beginning because there is nothing in an American’s education, culture, approach, or experience that prepares us to understand this culture.  We are the distillation of Western culture down to its bluntest components.  We are direct.  We strive to mean what we say and say what we mean.  We value consistency and authenticity.  We don’t respect sensitivity, particularly if it stands in the way of progress.  We take others at their word.  

None of which works in this world.  

Meaning is conveyed in the subtlest of shades.  Go to a paint store and consider all of the different colors that look white to you.  That’s how little difference there is between different shades of meaning in this world, but each of those shades conveys something specific, and important, and different.  Are you frustrated already, just thinking about it?  Most Americans (and even more American men) are going to throw their hands up and storm off saying “I don’t give a shit which white you choose, just leave me out of it.”  We don’t have the patience for nuance that microscopic.  (Which, incidentally, I am behind 100%.  I don’t see the value in 2,000 shades of white either.  50 shades of grey is at least 45 too many.)

Pride counts for more than having something to be proud of.  God help you if you miss one of those cues that came in 2,000 shades of white paint chips, because you will have damaged your compatriots pride so irrevocably that there is no going back.  Ever.  Why do you think there are honor killings?  Because pride is valued at a higher level than a daughter’s life.  Doesn’t make sense, does it?  You can say the words and nod, but that’s academic.  It’s like reading about mermaids and unicorns.  You can understand the words, they fit together, but on some level it doesn’t compute.  It will never compute.  And anything is on the table in service of pride.  Anything.  Pride is valued above honesty.  It is valued above authenticity.  It is valued above progress.  

Children are not chastised with bad (don’t do that, it’s bad), they are chastised with shame (don’t do that, it is shameful.)

There is the inside world and the outside world.  Inside is for family.  Women are inside.  Outside is for the men.  What is said outside may only have the thinnest tie to the truth, but it isn’t considered shameful to lie.  What would be more shameful would be to admit something that is true, but unflattering.  You tell the truth inside, but then maybe only to the men.  And probably not even to the men.  Maybe to your father.  Maybe.  And honesty with yourself about yourself… fuggetaboutit.  

Honestly, I don’t know how anyone functions.  

Our cultures are oil and water.  And that doesn’t mean that we are at war with each other, it simply means that in the venn diagram, we think that the place where the circles overlap is bigger than it is.  Because we’re American.  We’re optimistic.  We’re direct.  We can do anything.  But only the Americans who have tried to get anything done in that sliver of overlap know exactly how small it is.  Find a soldier who has deployed and ask him or her about Islam.  Chances are they met some extraordinary people of courage.  Fellow soldiers.  Police officers in training.  Interpreters.  Leaders.  People they could speak with directly, trust completely, and work with effectively.  But overall?  I’d put money that their experience led them to believe that the whole thing was a clusterfuck from the start and we had no business getting involved because we didn’t know the terrain, human or cultural, and we had no clear objective.  Spreading democracy, incidentally, is not a clear objective.  Democracy isn’t smallpox.  

And I’d hazard a guess that most soldiers aren’t fans of Islamic culture, which gets shorthanded into Muslim people.  

This isn’t about religion.  Personally, I think organized religion is 99% bullshit.  Believe what you want to believe, connect with the divine in the way you see fit, and leave me alone to do the same.  The state of my soul has nothing to do with the state of your soul.  I don’t see how you can reasonably make the argument that religion isn’t its own culture.  In America, the national culture and the religious culture grow further apart every day.  I think this is to the good.  In the middle east, the culture and the religion cling to each other so hard we can only hope they suffocate each other entirely.  

Ooh.  Inflammatory.  I know I’m not supposed to say this.  I know I’m at odds with my basic liberalism which has no problem with democratic socialism, government regulation, socialized health care, mourning Bernie, end the war on drugs, etc., etc.

Of course, I’m American.  I would think this, but I’m firmly behind the notion that a culture should be judged by its outcomes.  By that measure, Western culture isn’t perfect.  There’s still too much racial bigotry, not enough logic (just listen to the people defending assault weapons), and too much religion trying to take over the public sphere.  However.  With all of its flaws, Western culture has demonstrably better outcomes for the vast majority of its citizens.  

You could call that relative, and question my measures.  Well, my measure are things like literacy; life expectancy; poverty;  transparency in government; equality under the law for men and women; the absence of child soldiers, child brides, and child factory workers; the absence of honor killings and feminine genital mutilation (we could legitimately get rid of circumcision here, just for the record); freedom of speech; and freedom of (and from) religion.

Perhaps if you were looking at social cohesion, then Islamic culture would come out on top.  Maybe for the fantastical architecture?  The sense of poetic despair?  Rumi?  The debt of gratitude we owe the Islamic world for hanging on to the world’s intellectual treasures while we the west went through the dark ages?  All of that is great.  But at what price for those who don’t fit in?  At what cost for the LGBTQ community?  The Saudi girl who wants to be an engineer?  The Somali girl who doesn’t want to marry the man her parents picked?  The Afghan girl who just wants to learn how to read?   Should they all be sacrificed for social cohesion or tradition?  And even then, the wars rage on between people who believe things that can only be differentiated by a few shades of white.  So much for social cohesion.  

Does Islam, by definition, prohibit female engineers, or girls who go to school, or homosexuals who live safely and openly in society?  Certainly no more than Christianity does.  But is the culture prohibitive of all of the above?  Absolutely.  

So yes.  By the measures described, Western culture is superior.  I don’t think anyone should die over this.  I don’t think we should drop bombs to stamp out a religion or a culture.  I don’t think anyone should be ostracized or excluded.  I’m not for a ban or a wall or profiling. The “don’t be an asshole” rule always applies.  But that doesn’t change the fact that our foreign policy in the middle east is hampered by our lack of visceral understanding of the culture we’re working with.  And it doesn’t change the fact that western culture produces better outcomes for a larger percentage of its population.

And if the Military has feelings that align with Donald Trump about how immigration from the Middle East should be handled, perhaps their feelings should be understood as having a foundation in experience that goes beyond bigotry and racism.

Okay, let the yelling begin.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Armchair Operatives

War. Torture.  Espionage.

So the Trumpster has had something to say about waterboarding.  In classic double-speak, “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  Gets its own acronym and everything: EIT.  We’re going to do all that, and more.  This is a man who knows his audience: all around the country, armchair operatives cheer and then carry on with all the things that they would do were they in charge; were they combatants; were they younger, fitter, or remotely acceptable to the CIA’s applicant screening process.

It’s so easy to know what you’d do, how you’d react, and how wildly successful you would be, just as long as you can keep your tired ass settled into that comfortable chair of yours.  Easy to talk about winning, doing whatever it takes to win, including torture or letting India and Pakistan nuke each other.  

So what if the extensive study of the data shows that information extracted under duress is unreliable.  So what if we jeopardize our own people by walking away from international standards.  There is an ache in that place where testosterone used to flow that can only be filled by this fantasy of a world in which inflicting pain on another human being is satisfying.  Justified.  Reasonable.  Defensible.  Without negative consequence.

My father.  Love him to death, but he’s an armchair operative.  He wishes he’d been able to go to Vietnam.  He thinks another life where he was a sniper, offing people who needed to be offed, would have brought him a different kind of satisfaction.  He thinks he could have taken an “enemy” life and come out of it unscathed.  We don’t argue this point, because … why?  The point is moot.  He’s one vote, one man, one Fox News consumer, and the truth is that he doesn’t own a gun, isn’t a sharp-shooter, never made it to Vietnam…  He can believe what he wants to believe, fantasize all he wants about what it might feel like to wake up in a Clive Cussler novel, break a man’s arm for information, then execute him anyway, because that’s what the morally ambiguous good guy does in the books.  

Thing is, how many killers do you know?  Accidental, convicted, pre-meditated, secret, soldier, spy…  Here’s what is missing from the conversation: forget about the suicide bombing mastermind who lived to plan the next attack and got caught.  That isn’t a humanity that I’m particularly interested in.  The argument against armchair operatives isn’t because said mastermind is defensible.  The argument is about what these acts do to the soldier who isn’t in the armchair fantasizing, but is patrolling the halls of a military prison?  What impact does inflicting significant pain on another human have, not on the prisoner, but on the person wielding the power?

An individual who can take another’s life without remorse, without empathy, is someone with a pathology.  Those without empathy may come out of such situations no different than they were when they started.  Everyone else, those who sign up for military life out of patriotism, need for structure, desperation, ambition, or a sense of adventure…  what do acts that counter empathy do to those people?

How many real life killers have you talked to?  I’ve interacted with three.  One might have been borderline sociopath, but that might have also been an aftermath instead of an original condition.  Not one of them came away unscathed from an interaction that left one of the two participants dead.  

These armchair operatives, warmongering politicians first and foremost, don’t know what it costs.  Forget international law.  Forget morality.  What does it do to the individual inflicting pain?  What does killing do to the killer?  Killers live with it, forever.  It is the psychic equivalent of the Roman torture where a corpse was lashed to a living human until the decay of the corpse ate into the flesh of the live victim.  They carry that shit around.  Anyone with any capacity to feel empathy carries the memories around: the broken cries, the smell of fresh blood, the literal deadweight of a body no longer animated by spirit.  And that memory eats away at literally everything.  

My uncle killed his first man in the Battle of the Bulge as a 16 year old.  Hand-to-hand combat and he was the one to survive.  60+ years later, he told me the story, his memory as perfectly formed as if the whole event had been caught from multiple angles in high definition video.  He killed a German soldier, vomited, and then took the dead man’s coat so he could keep on with the mission.  

A friend and once-upon-a-time lover wouldn’t talk about it, but every year around the anniversary, he inevitably disappeared into a black hole of self-loathing.  And that’s how he described it.  

An acquaintance who talked about how those soldiers who couldn’t handle “the life” were pussies, the further he got from “the life,” the harder he worked to stay distant from himself.  The men from his unit were categorically unable to form lasting bonds with anyone but themselves.  They lied compulsively, hurt those who dared to love them, drank heavily and dangerously…  The acquaintance was not a happy man, his friends were not well-balanced people.

You can’t expect good people to commit violent acts and come out of the exchange unscathed.  Nevermind what we do to those who plan suicide bombings or massacres.  My empathy and concern is first absorbed by what we do to ourselves in the process of dealing with the monsters of the world.  You do not eliminate monsters by creating new monsters.

And any armchair operative who thinks that killing or torture is without consequence, so long as you aren’t the one being killed or tortured…  I don’t recommend gaining the experience just to find out how wrong you can be.  Ghosts are only a fiction if you have a very narrow definition of what makes a ghost.  

Armchair Operatives


Another e-mail exchange with Katherine Otto, another resulting blog post.  

Here in the US, we complain about Government.  Big government vs. limited government, government overreach, government oversight…  What is the right size, what is the right role…  A recent Vox article pointed out that all this anger that we’re hearing about, the justification for the left’s support of Bernie Sanders and the right’s support of Donald Trump, isn’t anger stemming from economic pain, but anger at politics.  So let’s unpack the things that make up the government and talk for a minute about what we are complaining about when we complain about government.  

First, there are two components of Government: the Branches (executive, legislative, and judicial) and the Bureaucracy.  For those of us for whom civics lessons are in the far distant past, the Executive Branch of government is the President.  The Legislative Branch is Congress, and the Judicial Branch is the Supreme Court.  The Branches of government are primarily political in nature – populated by politicians (defined as people who campaign to get elected to office) and people who are appointed by politicians.  

And then there is the Bureaucracy…  The thousands of men and women who write policy, order supplies, count beans, interpret Congressional or Presidential mandate, hire people, push papers around, order IT services, etc.  The Bureaucracy is, in most ways, at the mercy of the Branches.  Congress makes laws, allocates spending, sets priorities, and tells the Bureaucracy what to do.  For example, Congress writes the No Child Left Behind Act and the bureaucrats at the Department of Education start taking a complex law and unpacking it into guidance, policy, and programs that meet the intent of the law.  More or less.  Further, each of the departments in the Federal Government is likely headed up by a political appointee, someone who is only there for 4 years or the whim of the President, and doesn’t necessarily know, understand, or respect the organization they are suddenly in charge of.  

There may be no legitimate defense of the Branches, or at least the people who populate the branches.  It seems that we don’t send our best and brightest to legislate, we send our most craven and narcissistic.  That is by design.  First, we pick the bastards.  We don’t go for the politician who tells us that we can’t have it all, or that religion really doesn’t belong in our government, or that the founding fathers weren’t fundamentalists, or that everything costs something, or that taxes are a small price to pay for being an American with all the protections and privileges that affords.  Those aren’t the people we hire, by and large.  We send the ones who tell us what we want to hear and confirm our biases.  And then they get there and they gerrymander the system so that they can cherry-pick their voters to stay in the halls of power.

Similarly, the Bureaucracy is less than perfect.  No one makes decisions because they are afraid of failure, which means a choice place on the front page of the Washington Post and the unenviable experience of testifying before Congress.  The outrage machine combined with a crippling dose of risk aversion means that there are policies layered upon policies.  The Bureaucracy creaks under the weight of over 200 years of someone’s dumbass mistake or corruption turned into a policy to prevent *that* from ever happening again, except people can always be relied upon to come up with some fresh way of being stupid.  So another layer of policy goes on top of the previous policies until it is a wonder that anything gets accomplished.  

Everyone ends up frustrated.  

Except.  Always the except.  This Government, warts and all, has to serve each citizen equally.  Which sometimes turns into pissing off each citizen equally.  Whatever gets done by Government tends to get done slowly.  Yes, this keeps us from dazzling progress, but it also protects us from good ideas that sound good in theory and work out disastrously in practice.  The Bureaucracy measures six times, sharpens the saw, measures another three times for good measure, calls a committee, conducts a study, measures again, and then *maybe* progresses to a cut.  Maybe.  

Is that a bad thing?  I don’t know.  It is certainly a frustrating thing for many people.  But is it *bad* that we can’t conceive of one answer and only one answer and go after it singlemindedly to accomplish an end in a time span that can be measured in days instead of years?  I don’t think so.  Because you’d have to trust that the people calling for that plan know what they’re doing and have adequately prepared for third- and fourth-order effects.  You’d have to trust that the decision-makers, our legislators, were operating off of evidence instead of ideology.  You’d want to make sure you weren’t one of the people on the minority side of the issue.  And you for damn sure wouldn’t want to be in the middle of a rough patch or a slice of bad luck.