Thursday, January 19, 2017

On Being Humane in Inhumane Times

At noon Friday, Donald Trump becomes the president of the United States.

It’s a prospect that I can barely wrap my head around. At times, it enrages me. Many of my liberal friends have spent the last couple of months giving voice to that rage, breaking off relationships with Trump-voting family and friends. I’ve sought to resist that path, which at times has seemed to incur further rage from my liberal friends. But I understand the temptation to offer a hearty “fuck you” to some people that, in all other cases, I have cared dearly about for years or even decades.

So far, I’ve been able to resist the temptation. I’ve had to remind myself of a truth that I’ve discovered as I’ve gotten older: Almost everybody I’ve ever thought of as my “enemy” – and there have been exceptions — has, over time, also showed me grace I never expected from them. The people I disagree with are not devils. They have their own sets of fears and hopes. They are human, with all the complexity that involves.

This may even be true of Donald Trump.

So. How to be humane in seemingly inhumane times?

To answer the question, let me first express what the goal isn’t: I’m not interested in political surrender, or in coddling people who have “deplorable” beliefs and motives. Justice must be the foundation and object of everything we do. But I do want to leave open the door to reconciliation with people who don’t conform to my sense of justice.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center has “Six Steps of Nonviolent Social Change” on its website. Here’s Step Six:
“Nonviolence seeks friendship and understanding with the opponent. Nonviolence does not seek to defeat the opponent. Nonviolence is directed against evil systems, forces, oppressive policies, unjust acts, but not against persons. Through reasoned compromise, both sides resolve the injustice with a plan of action. Each act of reconciliation is one step close to the 'Beloved Community.’”
And this is part of Step Four: “Do not seek to humiliate the opponent but to call forth the good in the opponent. “

Reconciliation isn’t the opposite of justice, in other words. It’s an essential component of arriving at justice. I’m pretty sure most of my friends —most of whom laud MLK — don’t have much interest or belief in “calling forth the good” in our opponents. (This assumes there is some good to be called forth; I think that’s generally the case — the real Hitlers in our society are few and far between, I’m convinced. But perhaps this is wishful thinking.)

So. How to be humane in seemingly inhumane times?

These are the answers I have today. I hope that this list will evolve over time. For now….

RESTRICT MY SOCIAL MEDIA ACCESS: I’ve written before how Facebook saved me from total despair and loneliness while I was in the hospital. I don’t believe social media is totally a bad thing. But when attended to obsessively — and here I plead guilty — it shortens my attention span and puts me in the mind of responding to news and opinions glibly, quickly, and with a minimum of actual contemplation. Right now, I’m going to try to limit my Twitter access to 20 minutes a day. That should be more than enough to dip my toes in the currents, right? It helps that I’ve got browser settings that limit my online access to the site; my phone is programmed to deny me access entirely.

I NEED TO KEEP BREAKING OUT OF MY BUBBLE: My relationships with non-liberal friends have grown brittle in recent months. I don’t think that’s entirely my fault, but: I need to keep listening to them. Moreover, I need to stay in touch with outlooks that are going to make me scream in anger regularly. Sites like The Federalist, National Review and others can drive me batty sometimes, making me long for the soft warm bath of like-mindedness. But that bubble isn’t real — or, at least, isn’t the whole picture. Frustrating as it may be, I think being humane includes not allowing myself the convenience of caricaturing those I disagree with, or dismissing them out of hand. Even though I really, really want to sometimes. 

ART, ART, ART: “Beautiful, or subversive.” A wise suggestion from a friend. The most amazing moment I had at the Philadelphia Museum of Art — and I had more than a few — was during a visit where I found works by Langston Hughes, Gordon Parks, and Aaron Douglas placed together. All black men, all Kansans who had fled the state for the Harlem Renaissance. I don’t know if the curator placed those works together with that connection in mind; seeing them together made me weep. At its best, art puts us in touch with our most humane selves. 

TRY TO LISTEN MORE INSTEAD OF WINNING ARGUMENTS: Winning arguments is easy, or at least convincing yourself that you’ve won the argument is easy. It’s not necessarily a path to truth, justice, or reconciliation. As Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote, in a quote that has been memeified in the years since: “If your chief goal, as a thinking person, is to find a path to making yourself right, you may never amount to much of a thinking person, but you can never be disappointed." I need to try to win arguments less often. 

I’ve not done a good job contributing to my community in ways that stretch me beyond the office or church. That needs to change. I’ll update you on my efforts soon, I hope. 

AGAIN, ALWAYS, AIM FOR HUMILITY: The trick is being firm and confident in one’s beliefs while balancing that with A) acknowledging that there’s a possibility you’re wrong and B) being open to changing our minds when the evidence calls for it. Humans aren’t really good at this; I’ll not claim to be any better. And yet: It’s a hedge against the kind of self-righteousness that leads to the kind of inhumanity I want to avoid. What’s more: There really is a possibility of being wrong.

Your mileage may vary on these ideas. You may even think the aim is incorrect — that resistance, resistance, resistance should be the name of the game now. And it should be! But that resistance should be in the service of ideas that are truer, better, and more humane. That means the practice of being humane is needed, by me at least, more than ever.

Lord, Hear My Prayer

A few months ago, in the face of one of 2016's many disasters, I posted a prayer to Facebook and Twitter — seeking to be quiet, to listen, and to understand rather than spout off about why the disaster proved me right on some political point or another.

The nice folks at the Kansas Leadership Council spotted it and asked A) to publish it and B) for me to write about it. I did. An excerpt.

The Prayer of St. Francis – “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace” – provided a good but incomplete starting point. I wanted to remind myself that other people deserved to be heard, despite their different fears and different solutions. I wanted to remind myself that people, even when they are at odds with you, usually have the best intentions. I wanted to remind myself that listening is more of a virtue than talking. 
Sometimes, though, the best thing to do is shut up. At least for a little while.

Let me confess: I'm inconsistent about living up to my own advice here. If you want to call me a hypocrite, I have no defense. But I still think the advice, and prayer, are essentially correct. I just need to try harder.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Movie Queue: "Singin' In The Rain"

Three thoughts about "Singin' in the Rain" just as soon as I dry off....

1. I've seen this movie countless times over the years — for awhile, when he was a toddler, it was my son's favorite — but today was the first time I'd ever seen it on the big screen. Even in this era of gigantic home entertainment systems, there's STILL nothing like seeing a movie on the big screen.

2. A lot of the songs in this movie were used previously in the 1928 Best Picture-winning "Broadway Melody" which ... doesn't hold up well. A lot of the jokes about the rise of the the "talkie" era of movies probably came from the earlier production, I'm guessing — Arthur Freed was involved in both flicks.

3. Gene Kelly stomping through the water is as pure an expression of joy as has ever been put on film.

I don't know how to deal with the paradoxes of Donald Trump. (Part 1)

I believe that ever-hardening polarization between the parties in America helped Donald Trump ascend to the presidency, yet his ascension to the presidency seems to mean that now is precisely the wrong moment to try to make nice.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Why John Brascia is the secret hero of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas."

Just finished the annual family viewing of "White Christmas." So good. And the movie's secret weapon? John Brascia.

Who's that? This guy dancing with Vera-Ellen:

Here's my theory: John Brascia's role in this movie makes no sense at all. Danny Kaye is Vera-Ellen's love interest in the movie. He should be, by the usual logic of Hollywood storytelling, her duet partner in all her big dances. Indeed, Kaye and Vera-Ellen have a lovely dance early in the movie:

After that, though, it's Brascia — who utters no lines in the movie — who is the main dance partner. It's aided by the show-within-a-show conceit of the movie: They're practicing for an upcoming musical, you see. But again, this doesn't make a whole lotta sense...

...unless you consider this possibility: Brascia, and not Kaye, was the only dancer on set who could keep up with Vera-Ellen.

Yes, Kaye was enormously gifted as a dancer. But he was already in his early 40s when "White Christmas" was made. Brascia is a good 21 years younger. And Vera-Ellen is a hell of a dancer.

Watch this. Watch Brascia's feet, especially.

Love me some Danny Kaye. But he's not keeping up with Vera-Ellen there. John Brascia is.

It's OK! That's not a knock on Kaye. Vera-Ellen's vocals were dubbed by Rosemary Clooney. This movie knew what it's performers strengths and weaknesses were and adjusted accordingly. More than 60 years later, it's still a hell of a watch. And John Brascia, whose name I bet you didn't know, is one big reason why.

More evidence that Trump's support didn't come from the "white working class."

National Review detects something interesting in the exit polls:

The 2016 CNN Exit Poll found, for instance, that Trump won among married voters, winning 52 percent, but lost decisively among the unmarried (see table below). The 26-point marriage gap in the 2016 electorate is large. (The marriage gap is calculated by taking the difference between the two candidates for the married and adding it to the difference between the two candidates for the unmarried.) In fact, it surpasses the 24-point gender gap also found in the CNN Exit Poll of the 2016 electorate.
Who is married? It isn't the white working class — at least, not as much as it used to be.

Over the last few decades, members of the white working class have also become less likely to be married. As this chart from economists Shelly Lundberg and Robert A. Pollak shows, marriage rates have fallen for whites without a college degree. About 55 percent of white men and 60 percent of women with no more than a high school diploma are married, compared to about 70 percent of men and women with four-year college degrees.
More about the "marriage gap" here. What's interesting is that divorce rates for college graduates has fallen back to about where they were in the 1960s, before the rise of no-fault divorce. It's the working class that's increasingly full of broken and never-been marriages.

And the point here is not to sneer at that. But given the overlap between elites and marriage, National Review's discovery suggests maybe that "white working class" narrative about Trump's victory has some holes in it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Remember when Republicans complained Obama's policies created uncertainty?


That style, including his opaque personal financial dealings and his sudden shots at certain companies, has helped unnerve a corporate America that traditionally craves stability. Some business leaders and economists have worried whether executives can speak their minds about the president-elect or his policies without fear of facing Trump’s rage.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Why does Barack Obama think he's black?

An article at Carolina Journal suggests Barack Obama could've offered more racial healing to the U.S. if he'd identified as bi-racial instead of black:
Much of the Left imposes racial conformity — especially on those it considers its own. You need solid attachment to a demographic group, and not consider yourself different, an individual or, perhaps even worse, part of America’s old-fashioned melting pot. To lead that group there are expectations about what you should think, the language you should use, and how you should characterize others. It’s hardly the stuff of national unity.

Oh how I hate this piece. For a very simple reason.

It decries "the left's" tendency to force people to attach themselves to an ethnic group, rather than America,without mentioning or grappling with the historic reality and cultural (nevermind legal) power of the "one-drop rule."

Obama's decision to present himself as anything but a black man probably wasn't, for much and I'd say most of his life, a decision that really was his to make. Many Americans would've seen him as "black" no matter how complicated the reality of his genetics and upbringing.

Is this still salient? Yes:
The centuries-old “one-drop rule” assigning minority status to mixed-race individuals appears to live on in our modern-day perception and categorization of people like Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, and Halle Berry. 
So say Harvard University psychologists, who’ve found that we still tend to see biracials not as equal members of both parent groups, but as belonging more to their minority parent group. The research appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

People forget how recent the worst of our history was. Obama was born before the Civil Rights Act was passed. He was born before the Voting Rights Act was passed. He was born well before Loving v. Virginia was decided. And as the Harvard piece mentions, it was as recently as 1985 "when a Louisiana court ruled that a woman with a black great-great-great-great-grandmother could not identify herself as “white” on her passport."

And, not to throw anybody under the bus: I was told growing up — by people who encouraged me to see Martin Luther King Jr. as a hero — that marrying a black woman would be wrong. Because to make biracial babies would be a disservice to those children.

The past is never dead. It's not even the past.

Our societal effort to celebrate biracial children — to acknowledge the fullness of their histories instead of stamping them with the "minority" label — is both welcome and a relatively new thing. It still gets pushback. I don't know how widespread it really is.

Given that, and given all the history, it's not really remarkable that Obama thinks of himself as black. It's also true that he's never, ever hidden his white ancestry — in fact, has spoken of it prominently and proudly but also sometimes too honestly for white critics to forgive. 

So Obama thinks of himself as black? Sure. Most Americans would've thought of him that way, too, even if he'd self-conciously tried to identify otherwise. To pin any blame for America's racial problems on a decision that was compelled by America's racial culture is ... silly.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

One last comment about Obama's "apology tour."

Rebecca Heinrichs writes that President Trump is poised to up-end Obama's "apology tour."

While certainly more a realist than idealist, more than anything, President-elect Trump has shown a desire to return prudence to the forefront of American national security and foreign policy, with an unapologetic commitment to American sovereignty and a recognition of American exceptionalism. He ran a campaign promoting the idea that America is unlike other nations. It is better. Unlike his predecessor, he will not highlight or apologize for her imperfections, because her imperfections still pale in comparison to what she is and the standards she holds herself to.
This is a standard for acceptable behavior that applies in almost no other realm of living that I'm aware of. "He has high ideals, so his failure to live up to those ideals means he shouldn't apologize for that failure." It's a standard that eliminates entirely the consequences of actual actions.

It's not a tenable standard. It's not one that Rebecca (who I think I can call a friend) would apply otherwise.

A nation isn't a person, though, so maybe there's an excuse in international relations for unremitting pride, but I can't think of it. Yes, the country has largely been a force for good in the world. Whole portions of the globe are free in large part due to America's actions. But the country has done ugly, wrong, nasty things along the way — both domestically and internationally. There's nothing wrong with pride as long as it's tempered with realism and, yes, the occasional apology.

Maybe you have to be, as President Obama has been, a black man in America to have a mature sense of both pride in one's country and a visceral understanding of its sins — and an understanding of why "we're awesome" isn't really the right response to those sins being acknowledged. Obama's about to leave the presidency, so maybe we won't have to have this argument for awhile. In any case, Rebecca's right: President Trump is unlikely to apologize, ever, for any American action taken on his watch. I wonder what the payoff to that attitude will be.

Reader email: The Electoral College

A reader:
seems to me a popular vote for president elect would never give your state a say in who it would be. No city in your state has enough population to sway the popular vote.

As it stands, no candidate ever comes to entice the votes of Kansans during the general election anyway: Everybody knows the state's electoral votes are in the bag. So we are ignored entirely, our wants and needs never pandered to.

That might change in a popular vote situation: States would cease to matter, but individual votes would be more meaningful. All those hundreds of thousands of Kansans who vote, fruitlessly, for Democrats, every four years would suddenly find their votes meaningful. Given the closeness of so many of our recent elections, a smart candidate might then be inclined to mine votes where he or she previously hadn't: An extra thousand votes in Western Kansas might suddenly make a difference they never had before.

Popular vote has its weaknesses, no doubt. But the Electoral College isn't exactly providing Kansas with a bounty of presidential attention.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

What is empathy anyway? And do we need it in an age of Trump?

NYT's Amanda Hess doesn't seem to have much use for it.
Empathy, after all, is not sympathy. Sympathy encourages a close affinity with other people: You feel their pain. Empathy suggests something more technical — a dispassionate approach to understanding the emotions of others. And these days, it often seems to mean understanding their pain just enough to get something out of it — to manipulate political, technological and consumerist outcomes in our own favor.
I don't know if I think empathy, properly understood, is "dispassionate" or necessarily as manipulative as Hess suggests it is. My own take is that empathy is an attempt to walk (in one's imagination, at least) a mile in the proverbial shoes of somebody whose life and experiences are unlike one's own. That requires not just to dispassionately understand another's emotions, but to attempt to understand what it feels like to be that other person — to take seriously their fears, their joys, etc. That requires some emotional spadework, and a bit of humility. And that, in turn, raises the possibility you'll be changed by the act of empathy.

Since the election, I've argued against liberals writing off Trump voters. Some of my friends have mocked that approach — they understand everything they need to know about Trump voters because they voted for Trump, and, well, screw them. No need to try and get in touch with a Trumpista's feelings. And I get that: One's intentions rarely matter as much as one's actions when you're on the receiving end of those actions. If you're a person of color who — reasonably — believes that Trump's policies are going to make your life more difficult, painful, and scary, then I don't entirely blame you for consigning Trump voters to the "racist" bin.

Intent isn't meaningless either. And if every single person reading this manages to always match their good intentions with good actions — and has never accidentally hurt somebody along the way to doing something meant well — well, you're a much better person, morally, than I am.

What's more: In examining intent — using, yes, empathy — perhaps we can find what we need to change actions.

Here's where the humility part comes in. Why am I — privileged white guy that I am — so sure that I'd never be the kind of person who votes for Trump? What makes me different from that person? The answers I see from my liberal friends: We're smarter. We're better. We're more moral.*

*(Maybe that's a stereotype, too. Maybe I need to be more empathetic to my liberal friends.)

That's too easy. That's self-congratulatory. If the answer to your moral question is "I'm awesome," stop and ask yourself the question again, because you almost certainly arrived at the wrong answer. Empathy, as Hess suggests, might be an act of self-understanding ... but at its best, that self-understanding shaped by empathy is something like: I'm not the center of the universe. I can make wrong decisions. I can make decisions that, in other context, I'd find abhorrent. Because these things are possible, I should lean toward treating people with respect even when I disagree vehemently with them, because who's to say what I might do were I in their shoes?

So you look at the Trump voter and ask: What motivated them? Are they, say, terrified of people of color or terrified of terrorism? The latter is more understandable, and it might even look like the former. That's where a lot of us will want to wash our hands and retreat to our circle of Facebook friends.

But: If it is the latter, then liberals can look at the issue, devise solutions, and see if those solutions appeal to that voter. That's not unreasonable. That's what our politics is for.

If it is the former, well, there are limits to empathy. We're not required to endlessly try to understand simple wrongness.

Here's the thing, though: I keep coming back to Martin Luther King Jr. in all of this. If racist people are racist people and never shall their minds be changed — if we should write them off entirely — then it's unlikely the United States ever advances beyond the dark ages of Jim Crow. The non-violent Civil Rights movement was, in large part, an appeal to the empathy of many whites who otherwise might've been on the fence, or worse, regarding the rights of black folks. Empathy is not something merely to give, but also to receive and to elicit in others, in creating a better world .

All of this suggests that empathy is merely a political tool, something used to make other people conform to our standards. As Hess also suggests: That's kind of icky. Empathy is good and useful because it involves humility, because it involves an attempt at true understanding, because it involves (at its foundation) kind intent.

At its root, empathy requires humans to recognize that other people are also humans — with the same complicated mix of motivations, emotions, and obstacles we experience in our own lives.

Those elements are good in and of themselves. If it also means we get a better president, awesome.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Keep generals out of the State Department

Some of the names being bandied about for Secretary of State: Mitt Romney. John Bolton. David Petraeus. John F. Kelly.

The last two? Former generals — Petraeus from the Army, Kelly from the Marines. And maybe it's worth asking: Why do we keep putting military men in charge of our diplomacy?

Since World War II — and, roughly, the advent of the modern Department of Defense — former generals have served as the nation's top diplomat several times: George C. Marshall, Alexander Haig, Colin Powell. The latter two, it's fair to say, didn't exactly have distinguished tenures.

That's not necessarily due to their military backgrounds. On the other hand — correct me if I'm wrong — nobody from America's diplomatic ranks has been named to run the Defense Department.

It's a sign of American militarization that we have a tendency to think the skills of warfighting should be transferrable to conducting America's non-warfighting business abroad. More likely: It means the president's foreign policy is being run by somebody who already has a militarized outlook — something he can already get from, you know, the military.

I don't expect Donald Trump to build a team of rivals, believe me. But it's an ongoing issue. If you put warfighters in charge of warfighting and diplomacy, I suspect what you get is more war.

How Columbia Journalism Review gave government an excuse to crack down on reporters

Ari Fleischer makes the case that Trump is justified in treating the White House press corps like an unruly child:
The press hasn’t been kind to Donald Trump—and that isn’t its job. That job is to cover the news in a fair manner. But as the Columbia Journalism Review reported in October, campaign-finance disclosures show that those who work in journalism gave $396,000 to the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Mr. Trump, with more than 96% going to Mrs. Clinton.
I hated the CJR report when it came out and still do. First, $396,000 is barely a drop in the campaign finance bucket. On its own, it sounds like a big number. Relative to the actual number of journalists, it's microscopic. So CJR's headline on the original piece — "Journalists shower Hillary Clinton with campaign cash" — is the kind of clickbaity sensationalism CJR might well criticize in other circumstances.

But let's take a closer look at the report itself.

NEW YORKER TELEVISION CRITIC EMILY NUSSBAUM, a Pulitzer Prize winner, spent the Republican National Convention pen-pricking presidential nominee Donald Trump as a misogynist shyster running an “ugly and xenophobic campaign.”
What Nussbaum didn’t disclose: she contributed $250 to Democrat Hillary Clinton in April.
Oh no! A television critic donated to the campaign!

Nussbaum should've disclosed her donation when writing about Trump (and did in a later column for the New Yorker) but holding TV critics to the conflict-of-interest ethical standards that apply to political reporters is silly and pointless.

Other examples from the CJR report:

• Orange County Register restaurant critic Brad Johnson in California this year made dozens of small-dollar contributions to Clinton’s campaign totaling more than $750. 
• Fox Sports spokesman Erik Arneson, responding to questions about three current and former employees who gave Clinton money, said the network “supports employees’ personal involvement in the political process as long as it is compliant with applicable laws.” 
• At ESPN, baseball news editor Claire Smith has made numerous small-dollar contributions to Clinton’s campaign that add up to almost $600. Smith, who in a tweet last week described Trump as a “would-be dictator & sexual predator,” did not return requests for comment, and ESPN spokesman Ben Cafardo declined to comment. 
• Lauren Goode, editor of tech and culture news outlet The Verge, explained that her $500 contribution in February to the Clinton campaign wasn’t about supporting Clinton’s candidacy—Goode just wanted, for reporting purposes, to get inside a fundraising event in Silicon Valley.

So. Lots of people whose jobs have nothing remotely to do with covering federal government — or even local government — are swept into this CJR database. That's ... obtuse.

What doesn't seem to be included in the database: People who actually covered the White House, or the Trump or Clinton campaigns, for a living.

That doesn't stop Fleischer from marshaling CJR's report as evidence of a biased White House press corps, though. CJR's standards for the database didn't reflect good sense or sensible distinctions, but it's made a handy cudgel for those who reflexively like to bash the press.

Tweet of the day

Adam Serwer: