Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Queens Touch, Bullshit as a Life Strategy: An Essay for More Serious Minds

He should worry that there are tapes.
He might fire Mueller. (N.B., he might)
I'll let you know.
Just like Sessions said, it's the "general strategic concept of the possibility."

It's interesting how many people seem to find Trump's words and actions baffling or incomprehensible. Too many pundits take these questions seriously. Is it because they need TV ratings? Many dissect the words for truth or try to point out the seriousness of inconsistency or fakery. But this is more than is required to understand what it going on. It's not easy to tell ya' this, but it's all a pieca'cake.

Trump is a bullshitter. They are easy to spot and they are nothing if not consistent. As self-aggrandizing, bullying egomaniacs they are know it alls that aren't quite know-nothings, except when they are. As leaders they confidently take you where they feel your impulses and emotions want to go. Their own emotions are momentary and real but never lasting or deep. This is why they can fake sympathy but walk away feeling nothing. Then, when things go wrong, it's always someone else's fault and it's time to change the story. That could be only seconds away. Bullshitters are quick to change even when you know they aren't having an easy time of it. They want you to think they are. Nothing is hard for them except everything that requires seriousness. Think of seriousness as the opposite of bullshit.

I assure you that Trump is far more confused than he is labyrinthine. He is incapable of being a serious person but this lack of real gravitas is not required to perform bullshit. "Serious" persons think, admit nuance, allow uncertainty and ambivalence into complex worlds, etc. None of this happens when you _are_ a Bullshitter, which is different than indulging in bullshit. You don't have to read books like Obama to be Serious but you have to have a capacity for genuine substance, even if it's stupid substance like you see in Ayn Rand's boyfriend aka Eddie Munster Ryan. There is a touch of gravity even if the "serious" thinking is really lame.

For the Genuine Bullshiter, like Trump, it's a full time job: he thinks he's being funny or just talkin', trash talking, meaning something else, something _more_ than what he's actually saying. When you are _with_ him, you get that more he wants, the way Republican dupes feel about his obvious bullshit. When you call it out, you get dismissed or just hated. Trump is always looking for the laugh when he's not trying to command, to scare you into submission, or win your approval. He wants you to gang up and let him lead the gang. This is why allowing a Genuine Bullshitter lead a democracy is like asking for fascism.

Bullshitters aren't stupid but neither are they hard to solve: they aren't deep, but can bullshit you into believing they are. It can require a keen eye because bullshitting is as much method as substance; it's something you _do_ even if it's not the whole person. Trump _is_ whole, and nothing but a bullshitter, so for him it's not a tactic or an imitation. These types have an uncanny way of bringing people along with them, showing them how it's done. Sessions straddles the lines between using it and being it, 'cause yesterday he did a fine job of both and so did that irksome jape Cotton from Arkansas. Neither of these good ol' boys have the Queens Touch (that's "borough of," not "ER [crown]") but what you saw them do was take a page from the Bullshitter's Handbook. (If you use your other hand it will feel like someone else is doin' it.) You gotta hand it to them, they are learning from the best.

"Professional Wrestling" (an oxymoron not unlike "Spring Semester" in Rochester, New York...I mean, have you ever been here in March?), this, this was a great fit for Trump. It's not that it's easy nor are the players not getting really hurt or applying real muscle. It's that it's based on bullshitting. This can be deadly and often tragic but it is not the same as serious, deep, or "really real." Pro Wrestling bullshitting is a kind of honest bullshitting 'cause everyone knows it is. This is how it sells to midwestern nice people too. Some find it entertaining (really, they do) but it lacks the formality of boxing, the sheer dangerousness of some sort of cage reality fighting, and it's _nothing_ like the real horrors of real war because it wants to bypass the byways that go straight to the heart.

It's not that bullshit is not happening or is just fake, rather it means to use illusion to keep you away from the facts, like the magician sawing the woman in half. To compare, Penn & Teller play a far more complex game of bullshitting because they imply that they are keen to the bullshit, you are baffled as entertainment, and everyone is invited to like it, no harm, no foul, it's genuinely hard to do. Trump is neither Penn nor Teller. For him bullshit is what he thinks life _is_: life is a show, not showing up for the hard stuff but putting one on, it's putting one over people all of the time, and then moving on to the next one.

Yesterday on the Senate Intelligence Committee the serious people in the room, looking to ask serious questions and get honest answers were thwarted, frustrated, angered, and disregarded, Team Bullshit did it's job. Add some derision, outright misogyny directed to the very smart woman Senator, insouciant disdain for the truth, and straight faced lies and you have Bullshit Salsa as the condiment.

The grumpy old white men like McCain don't like bullshit much but like bullshitters they too can be in over their heads. They hate that. The genuine war hero McCain can't _hear_ someone like Kamala Harris because she is a woman, her sentences are complex, and grumpy old men don't like being overwhelmed. Bullshitters, on the contrary, are far more easily overwhelmed and usually in over their heads but never, ever show it. McCain made his tell. He interrupted and sounded angry and serious. The Bullshitters either didn't speak (this is their version of dismissal) or then spoke in perfect non sequiturs, the opposite of taking anything seriously. Bullshit is the response meant as the alternative fact. That's called lying with a straight face.

I know there is a good philosophy book about bullshit and someone will reference it below. But it doesn't require solid academics to nail it when you see it. You just gotta know that you're getting hammered. Everyone is part of the mess it makes, no matter how hip you are to the tell.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

"But what do we do? How do we fight this?" It's a Long Road Ahead

This week James Comey proved the President of the United States to be a pathological liar. Is that a crime? So what's next? There are still 1318 days until Trump's first term ends. While it is hard to believe it has only been this long and harder still to fathom that the republic can take much more of this, I think we are in for the long ride. There will be no impeachment, that kind of talk needs perspective. This week's events have added important features to the story.
Let's think it over.

1. Constitutional Tribalism
This is the newest feature of the story. We should take it as a given that the Republican Congress and leadership will tolerate anything that Trump does. They have so far, their own behavior this week in the more "reasonable" Senate proved they will provide cover and deflection. Don't let the President's non-allies (Graham, McCain, Collins, mislead you. They all believe that _anything_ is better than Democrats. The House, far more corrupt and divided, would have to bring impeachment proceedings. Not. Going. To. Happen. Impeachment is a political act that requires consensus and integrity. The Republicans have quite enough consensus both in their Party and in their voters to look the other way no matter what the Trump Administration does. If you disagree with this point, ask yourself what more could he do that would turn them against him? There's somehow counterevidence to these assumptions?

Here's where this week's events matter even more. We are divided as a country not only on ideologies and values, but on the very interpretation of the Constitution. Enter the new Constitutional Tribalism. Lawyers on both sides, with irreconcilable differences of opinion. Much depends on Robert Mueller, but Constitutional crisis awaits us and _legal opinion_ is divided. This is the crucial new issue to consider: How much power does the executive have? Could he fire the Special Counsel? How much power does the Executive Branch have? Dershowitz argues that all Justice Department investigations are legally subject to the president's whims. Can a President be indicted? Let us be realists that the House will not indict the President for obstruction of justice, no matter the evidence, on the basis of our new Constitutional Tribalism. The Federalist Society and the Right see power differently and the law is not clear. If you watched or have read these arguments, it might come down to either Trump ignoring a Supreme Court ruling or, given the Gorsuch factor, simply getting the ruling he wants regarding executive power. Does Constitutional crisis await us too? Don't believe your own bias, there are two sides to every argument and the Republicans have Court majority.

2. Executive Order
The Congress may be incapable of immigration, healthcare, or tax reform. Let us pray. But the damage done by Executive Order can be nearly incalculable. This is what Republicans thought too when President Obama arranged not to vigorous pursue immigrants or when he applied pressure to the banking industry under Dodd-Frank. All that and more will go away: the environment, the sabotage of Obamacare, give aways to industry, banking, and kleptocrats is fully under way. These matters can be undone but that would require winning the Presidency.

3. Paralyzed Majority and Incompetent Presidency
This is good news: Republicans will not likely pass any meaningful legislation before their summer recess, which may mean nothing this year. They control three branches and cannot govern because they are held hostage to their right wing and their more "moderate" elements fear their voters. With so many vacancies and so few people willing to fill them, the Trump Administration is slow, inept, quarrelsome, and incompetent. All good news. Stifle, thwart, delay whenever possible, make their lives utterly more miserable.

3. Motivated Electorate
June 20th is the Ossoff election and before that a primary in Virginia. The left will argue that moderates are losers and may split off again for the sake of their ideological purity. Democrats are brilliant at stealing defeat from the jaws of victory. There is nothing like winning to motivate people. Need I remind you that Republicans win even when they divide among themselves?

4. Blue America: 500 Counties and 64% of the Economics
Here is one very bright spot if you think that the slow demise of the republic is already underway. The 500 counties won by HRC constitute 64% of the country's economic activity. Trump's 2600 counties just 34%. This means that Blue States, counties, and cities are prospering and living in ways that do not depend on Red cooperation at the more local levels. Whatever politics we can control the Blues must act, as California and New York have acted to counter, create alternative, and thwart the Red state influence and policy. Keep an eye on Illinois where divided government and big bills are sending the State into disarray. Blue government must be responsible and competent government 'cause otherwise we have no bulwark against the madness of Kansas and the rest. But here, in the 500 counties, where most of the people live, America's divide will prove the difference. We may yet be 50 little entities that function together only in the vaguest ways as the federal government continues to fail. Let us hope for less crisis and war because Trump could use both to make his Constitutional crises go away.

5. Elections and Lasting Damage
Gerrymandering is no small matter, voter suppression is real despite some good court rulings, and Republicans will do _anything_ to stay in power. If there ever is a Trump budget then the fact that Blue America hands Trump America $300 billion more in tax revenues than they pay works to further the divide. States will have to tax to save schools, infrastructure, and working government but Blue is where the money is and Red will be poorer and poorer still. In big states like Texas the demographic changes are too slow to make much difference in 2018. Expect an R controlled House and even gains in the Senate in 2018. If there is an anti-Trump backlash vote it will depend on who leads the D ticket in 2020. Democrats are divided but I think it's suburban Republicans who hold the keys. They may not be winnable for Democrats but they may be losable for Republicans. How do Democrats win? Put up candidates that are sane, passionate, and who understand just how far Republicans will go to win at any cost. Someone has to be appear to be the adult in a room of crazy. Americans hate taxes more than they care to understand the benefits of government: that is the key to purple voters.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Keepin' it Literal and Exaggerated, or How the "Truth" Works to Maintain Republican Power

The Comey hearings drew out Republican strategy that should be familiar to anyone who understands how they win elections. And plan on continuing to win. They don't need the majority, they need their voters to vote.

So here's what they do. They use explicitness---words _said_ that allow them to direct their agenda. Selective literalness may not be elegant but it describes the situation. This requires using words with focus and intent in order to push their narrative wherever they need it to go. Codes, dogwhistles, you name it, are inside these words but the Republicans deny that and seize the literal as obfuscation. This allows the President to say that he did not obstruct justice and that Comey is a "leaker."

The further complexity comes when they also use metalanguage or, more commonly, exaggeration and falsity _deliberately_ to create a metaphoric umbrella. This is what Trump voters mean when they say the literal truth doesn't matter. In these situations they _want_ the code, the sense, the encompassing meaning they are after. And it doesn't matter if their voters can explain this exercise, they totally get it.

To make the point about literal use and explicitness, I will quote from the WaPo: "At Thursday’s Senate hearing, Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) sought former FBI director James B. Comey’s agreement that President Trump did not tell him to drop his investigation of fired national security adviser Michael Flynn: “He did not direct you to let it go.” Comey agreed, “Not in his words, no.” Risch pressed his point: “He did not order you to let it go?” Comey concurred: “Again, those words are not an order.” Yet later in the hearing, in response to Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) asking whether the president’s words were “a directive,” Comey said, “Yes.”"

Republicans can then ignore Democrats demanding that Comey's receiving a "directive" _really_ meant obstruction, which Comey wholly understood and wanted to imply without getting into the prosecutorial weeds. Trump the mob boss meaning, "take care of this and you'll keep your job," can be ignored even though it's plain enough. Meaning in context, seemingly indisputable implication, none of this matters when the literal meanings of words will suffice to meet the Republican requirement. This allows them to seize on their talking point, redirect the conversation elsewhere, and use the explicit comment to nurture their misleading or half-baked narrative. But this isn't the end of it, only the half.

When the language turns to their metaphoric forest, Republicans are happy to remind their voters that everyone _really_ knows what's meaningful and important. Obama doesn't need to _really be_ a Muslim to make that point that otherness is to be despised. Infowars readers don't need Pizzagate to be real (it was real enough to provoke one of their loons to "investigate" with a gun) to know that Democrats have secret plans to undermine democracy. Sessions can talk about voter fraud and the racism within it is the emotionally satisfying feature for their voters. The wilder fantasies and gross exaggerations can be ignored by suburban whites and the kinds of Republicans you may know in your own family ---people you don't think of as stupid but willing. But why?

The exaggeration, hyperbole, and nonsense feeds a kind of nihilism. The fear, anger, and hatred serves an emotional need that doesn't have to be rationally examined. Let me be plain here: these are scared white people who understand that their ascendency is over, that culture has changed and so people unlike them, women, and others historically oppressed have will opportunity that "cuts in line" and undermines their entitlement, superiority, and power.

These Republican voters aren't just poor, rural, and undereducated ---though the majority are. They are the people in midwestern suburbs and towns that gave Trump the election. They reelect Paul Ryan and elect Republicans because the narrative is simple: Republicans hate taxes, Democrats raise them; Republicans want things how they used to be, Democrats advocate _real_ change that threatens their power. These middle class Republicans voted for "change" at any cost because they knew _more_ change would follow Hillary, just beginning with _her_. And they just want things "the way they were" because once it was just all better than it is now. Their version of change, their "draining the swamp," means getting rid of change in the form of anyone who rejects their implicit narrative of white ascendency.

But if you can't have it your way, then the world is already gone, so what more is there to lose? This is nihilism. So the game of explicitness and exaggerated falsity is the strategy to maintain power and feed their emotional need to adjust to change (and loss of power), which they detest. You don't have to be Freud to figure this one out.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Republican Fundamentalist's Religion

Why Republicans Will Never Impeach Trump and
Fundamentalism's Grasp of "Truth"

The crux of the Republican agenda is to appropriate not only the followers of dogmatic, authoritarian religions but to act like one. Their followers follow suit. That they realized some decades ago and what we see today is the result. To resist is to see that equation transparently. The Republican Party appeals to fundamentalists because it acts like a fundamentalist religion. This does not mean it admits no other positions than its own (who holds an opinion that they don’t think is true?) but rather because it refuses to question its own arguments on the basis of the thorough review of evidence. It is the incapacity to reflect on the argument and revise positions: there is only correctness and opposition (i.e., everything not correct is opposed).

So how do you counter that? First, you might have to start with the fact that people's impressions, assumptions, and values may not be moveable. Religion is not only like addiction, it is like being born and socialized into an addiction. This makes it three times as hard to intervene because intervention must begin with the addict's desire to change. Again, think about how Trump supporters and Republican leadership behaves and ask if they are willing even to engage these ideas or their opponents. This is an argument we can't win because it's not an argument.

Next, after the opposition realizes that you are talking to a wall they need to think about how to inspire their opposition to oppose. In America that means voting. If we ever win our job is to do better by them than they would ever do by us---and to keep their power to the margins.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Two Minutes On the Word "Religion" and Our Politics of Delusion

The Word "Religion" Comes from the Latin Root that Means "Keep it Together" and That's the Problem, Now Isn't It?

I have taught the study of religion for 30 years in the same University job and studied the subject my entire adult life. It's what I do, for better and worse. What I have to say here doesn't require any of those qualifications.

The American Right has is a clear understanding of the power of religion. Nearly all of them profess a religion and, in fact, need to do as much in order to participate in the Republican Religion. Religions demand fealty, they coerce and manipulate to commit their believers to do their bidding, they discourage the fundamental elements of critical inquiry by refusing the question "how could I know if I were mistaken?" In short, what they demand is perfectly well understood by their believers: compliance is the reply to criticality, there must be no argument, just faith.

Facts are irrelevant in a post-truth world when all one need do is appeal to the lowest denominator of feelings and manipulation. It's not just politics, and that's important to notice. In America at least 62 million can't understand the stakes, the idea or arguments, for the most part, can't read, think, or assess anything past a 6th grade level. Republicans have only one objective: win. They sort it out (or not, thank goodness) afterwards. Our opposition---not particularly adept at understanding the relationship between thinking and pragmatic realities--- spends at least half its time ripping itself to shreds with purity and ideological litmus tests and instead of working to compromise so we can _oppose_ what is immeasurably worse than our differences, we divide and they win again. Religion does that: it knows how to win.  We, on the contrary, take as much pleasure in destroying each other as we do those who would ruin the future. It's not at all this simple, but some part of the equation that has given us the catastrophe of the modern Republican Party and may well be what ends America.

The alternative to this kind of religion requires an education. It demands we use facts and create methods of learning, value expert advice, analysis and debate, or look to provenance to help us value those who have done the work of learning. But for the American Right it is believe, but don't think. The Republican Party is a religion, in all the worst possible ways. There are other possibilities for religion but we don't need one to be moral, to find the truth, or be truthful. We need to be honest about what we can learn and about learning how to think in a world that promises no answers but allows us to create better questions and deeper considerations of a shared humanity.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Short Note: The Rules of Funny and the Power Free Speech

The other night Bill Maher crossed a line that he should know better than to have crossed. He used the n-word in ways that violate every boundary of good taste.  More importantly, he broke the Rules of Funny.  Comedians are required to know the Rules of Funny. Yup, funny has rules too. Maher broke the two most critical rules of funny: (1) don't mock people less powerful than you are and (2) always tell the truth.
Now, I'm no fan of Senator Ben Sasse who is, in most respects, a genuine jackass on every possible vote of policy for the good of America but in the aftermath of the n-word scenario he said: "I’m a 1st Amendment absolutist. Comedians get latitude to cross hard lines." Well, I too am a 1st Amendment absolutist. This distinguishes the American Experiment. It is damn difficult to restrict speech. Thank goodness. So you can slander and be slandered. You can try to hurt good people with words, skewed and edited to suit you, but the truth, that will endure in the real tests of character. Speech in America is free but freedom comes with costs and consequences. When we shape ourselves around those ideas, well, then words mean something more.

On the Power of Virtual Community

Most people have jobs that don't allow them to read, write, and think all day. Most people don't _want_ that job. Reared on manual typewriters the size of Godzilla and more noisy than Mothra, I write so furiously that the keys of computers literally wear through. I would take a screen shot of that if I could. No one ever accuses me of too few words.

Not that anyone should care but I am deeply immersed in a _lot_ more than what appears as long political rants, commentary on the history of religions, and social criticism. Most of what I really do isn't hard to talk about, it's just hard to translate in ways that make others care. And no one should mistake their own curiosities for others' sense of wonder and bemusement. So let me make a real point here:

Living in an age of world media at our fingertips is too often abused, misused, and neglected. Neglected, I say? Yes, for the power of ideas and the creation of community that indeed can happen when we use the wonders of social media for true human purpose. If I may be so presumptuous, we humans in a global world need more than our local communities to survive and flourish. Think of what Trump did this week, isolating, diminishing, and changing the course of history in ways we have not yet fully experienced--- there is catastrophe ahead, and we _know_ it. But we must use our words, stake our claims, and foster our relationships with respect for these amazing technologies of communication. We are, I submit, largely failing at that too. Like most of our culture, we lack or are afraid of, or have been taught to distrust seriousness.

I'm not decrying postings about puppies, babies, celebrations, or sunsets. I'm merely pleading for +more+ content, more willingness to use this media to create, to build, to engage in the serious work of communication and community. I believe that that is possible. I believe that we are doing a lot of that and can do more. "Rajanaka" is a community that has never once "met" in its entirety anywhere and likely never will. We have no grand gatherings, and while we gather for seminars and travel together to India, "we" are virtual _but no less real_ as friends and partners in conversation. "Rajanaka" is community because communities are about healthy conversations, the sort that take the value of conversation to heart. FB is a means to that end and there are multiple others. What is at stake is our authenticity and integrity and that we can only know by taking the time to learn more about each other's ideas and choices.

I'm flattered when criticized for being a relentless critic. I'm less flattered when I'm called "verbose" or "prolix," but anyone who has the wit to call me "prolix" or, better yet, "prosaic," has already won my good humor and admiration. It is in our willingness to test our ideas, place them before one another with as much clarity and argument as possible that causes us to challenge our own character.

No one loves myth or poetry more than I, because in these forms of language communication it is not the argumentative clarity of the language but its evocative powers that remeasure our hearts. Of course, all good writing touches heart _and_ mind and so too flows through the body. I think this is what creates "spirit," the sense that what we feel and understand both are features of the truest sense of self. I'm a hard sell, a tough critic, I don't like to be bamboozled and, being a kid from New Jersey, you learn that it's good know there are a lot of things you don't know. Humility is like criticism, it needs to be part of every worthwhile endeavor.

I mean to do a part, play some part, in advancing the value of community in these media. It can be done when we decide to step up, not to be mere spectators or witnesses. Come and play. Don't be shy to say what you think. Courage is what you need to claim any virtue. And virtue is too an underrated and too often diminished value in our world. Just by expressing yourself with all your heart, honest to the truth, then you do good. We need more of that because, in America, we being led to believe that the truth doesn't matter. Speak truth, as best you can, and with that know it may not be rewarded or regarded, but you will know what you did and said. Write on.

Being in the Trenches and Circling Above

When Dysfunction is the new Hope
(Metaphors When That's Almost All We Got?)
We'd like to believe that we're some kind of holding pattern, flying around what we think is America or was America below us. That when this nightmare flight with more turbulence, storm, and sheer terror finally lands, there will be something familiar to which we can return. We know there will be real rebuilding because on the ground the storm rages. Thank goodness for that.
When we took off things were rough on the ground but slowly improving for some devastated by the last time Republicans crashed the economy and sent us into meaningless wars, while millions of poor people who'd never had health insurance got some. The rich were doing splendidly but the system always seems to take care of them just fine. Their intention not to get richer but to take everything was, during the last flight, in its own holding pattern. Nothing about any of these things was anywhere near perfect, but we had some Hope. I remember that poster well and I think I still have one at home, in the basement.
To land the plane, to make a better world, we have to improve, we have to _function_ together, we have to fly with a plan, arrive somewhere, and do it again. Not everyone we fly with is our best pal ---to say the least--- but we're all on the same flight. Not everyone wants to go to the same place, but we try to get somewhere near enough. To be bipartisan is to have two wings and then some. Don't expect that anytime soon. Correction: don't ever expect that and some kind of deal, some day might be made.
What we need to understand is that any hope for that kind of bipartisan flying is over ---at least for the foreseeable future. Worse, have to come to terrifying realization that the earth may be too burnt or too flooded to land anywhere. How the climate nihilists have taken over from science and international cooperation and consensus is as absurd as the fact that our best hope is to keep flying. There's no place to land right now and we have to wonder if there will be any place when it might be possible again. 
Once after a very rough flight into O'Hare I was looking green in the gills, standing on line for a Starbucks. A pilot in front of me asked me if I was feeling poorly. I replied, "it was a rough landing." He said, "You know what we pilots call a 'good' landing?" "What's that?" "Landing."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell praised effusively America's withdrawal from the Paris Accords lying so brazenly but with such familiarity that we don't even gasp for breath any longer when he repeats them. McConnell said, "By withdrawing from this unattainable mandate, President Trump has reiterated his commitment to protecting middle class families across the country and workers throughout coal country from higher energy prices and potential job loss."
When McConnell makes these kinds of statements we don't know whether he believes them or not but we can be certain that they serve his _sole_ purpose: to keep Republicans in complete control on the ground while the rest of us circle. Power is the only Republican test of "truth." With Trump, well, it doesn't actually matter what he believes because his emotional instability demands something else: it requires him to feel whatever he needs when he says whatever he says. This is the only measure of his conviction and the true core of his rancid, incurable pathology.
So how does hope fly and what happens when we land? Correction: if we land. The dim lights below occasionally reveal how the dysfunctional may yet slow down the devastation on the ground. McConnell has recently said of the repeal of Obamacare, “I don’t know how we get to 50.” And every time he has to say that, on whatever vote the Senate must take, is hope and a win and a chance to do something else once the flight stops circling. That people on Obamacare need help _now_ with premiums, options, and other issues is a sad fact that accompanies our scorched earth America. They will have to hold on below and fly above too. Republicans promise only more nihilism.
To continue our current flight to nowhere ---really among our best hopes--- we have to believe that some things on the ground, like Robert Mueller, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the professional government do their job to keep the Republicans extra busy with their dysfunction. If there is enough storm on the ground for the Republicans, there might be a landing for us sometime in November 2018. For that to happen people flying around, hoping to land someday, have to hope for _more_ Republican dysfunction, especially Trump Trauma. I know that's asking a lot but that's the deal. Be sure to stay woke while we circle, we may not have much power on the ground, in the halls of government, but we are all part of the same storm. Stay in the trenches too. Keep giving them all they deserve for the horror they are making for the all of us.

Friday, June 2, 2017

On The Trump Problem, the Perils of Simplistic Binaries, and How Human Complexity Invites More Constructive Rage.

David Brooks in today's NYTimes (June 2nd, 2017) writes eloquently about how Trump poisons the world.  I cannot disagree.  But Brooks's eloquence and pointed criticism of Trump, for all its merits, is also typically reductive.  It's a feature of David's thinking that the human world is rooted in some sort of metaphysical moral either/or, and Trump and company fail this test.  If we start with this premise then can admit the argument is valid.  But it's far too simple to be true.  Sorry, I also wish it were otherwise.  The Trump Problem cuts deeper.

Like other ersatz-moral philosophers, David fancies human beings not enough like the rest of the natural world and so exceptional for our moral capacities.  He's right to say that we are born for a moral nature because that's how we, in our collective altruism, have gained our advantage in nature. We cooperate because we need to, because it's built into us.  But this doesn't mean that our selfishness is the true poison.

It is the failure to appreciate just how complex we truly are that makes The Trump Problem more serious and David Brooks's analysis noble but less helpful. Maybe we need explanations this simplistic because the alternative is complexity, and we humans don't _like_ that.  Americans in particular like bullet points, bottom lines, and plenty of "that's the way it is."  Binaries R' Us, like good and evil, bound and free, because, well, figuring out life is way harder than that is hard and we'd like it not to be.

So let me land the plane because we really can get lost in ourselves--- complexity is real and that's often confusing.

What poisons our humanity is our inability to admit that our complexity is our task.  We are as selfish as we are altruistic, understanding the value of "selfishness" is important to self-invention, and every act of altruism, however brightly it burns, casts some shadow.  Even our altruism is regrettably far more complex when we would prefer it not to be.  We are always acting for ourselves and we are wholly capable of acting for others with the most wholesome intentions.

Wouldn't it be grand if our nature were selfish _or_ altruistic, poisoned or moral?  It might be even better if we were somehow _really_ altruistic, downright good-by-nature, or even possessed blissful, perfect innermost selves.  These are religious claims that might suit you.  And if that's what motivates your goodness to act, I'm only interested in the results because I don't need to share these claims about intrinsic goodness to be moral.  I can be a good person knowing that I am selfish _and_ altruistic and that the complexity, the conflict, the _situtation_ of being human demands more from us.  This is the core of The Trump Problem: there is no demand for more from us because the world can be reduced to any simple binary.  David Brooks's piece makes us feel good about  contrasting superior morality with selfishness but it's Brooks's own simple binary that also doesn't quite grasp The Trump Problem.  So let's turn to that. (

He writes, "George Marshall was no idealistic patsy. He understood that America extends its power when it offers a cooperative hand and volunteers for common service toward a great ideal. Realists reverse that formula. They assume strife and so arouse a volley of strife against themselves."

Let's leave aside of his unfortunate use of the word "Realist."  In fact, let us assume strife because this is the heart of the error in David Brooks's argument.  Instead may we indeed assume strife and selfishness are as natural, as real, and as wholly part of us as our commendable cooperation and deep moral motivations?  The human world is not a binary, David, it's made of the strange third commingling that invites us to understand the terms of our existence and the choices before us.  Every moral choice places a restriction upon us that we affirm to have value.  Every selfish act causes us to question our relationships, and should.  We are all selfish, we are all driven by our need for deep moral collectivities.  We are complex beings, and this is what Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Obama have understood.

Trump has demonstrated the worst of humanity because the unexamined self may well become selfishness unleashed.  We may learn ---or be indoctrinated with goodness as our "truest" nature and unleash our altruism upon the world.  It's hard to argue that would be worse.  But here's the point: we need a leader who understands that humans are capable of greatness, capable of moral collectivity, and _need_ this as much as they need to contemplate the value of their selfishness.  To see the world without such nuance leads either to righteous domination, which appears in claims to American Exceptionalism (the sort that David Brooks makes), or to Trump's Poisoned Selfishness.  But the poison is not only our selfishness, rather it is our inability to see that claims to moral superiority are another selfishness unexamined.

Trump is incapable of that more complex self-examination, not merely inept.  The best Presidents and leaders know that our selfishness is not always a vice and that our altruism is more than just virtue.  They know too that we must err on the side of selflessness in a world that tests our abilities to fathom its asymmetries.  Trump and his followers have abandoned the conversation about our humanity for something akin to Rand's claims for domination as superior morality.  This sounds all too complex, and I'm sorry for that.  But it might just be that the Ugly American is real because we refuse a more serious conversation about our human nature.  We are creatures of for better and for worse.  We must choose our disequilibrium to be better.

Trump is a symptom of our American failure because McMaster and Cohn and 62 million others see the world from the same tragically simplistic point of view.  David Brooks is right here: in their view, selfishness wins.  That may not be a false worldview but it will likely destroy the world.   And we must decide that will not be our conversation or understanding.  But are we prepared to have a more serious conversation about our light and shadow?  Rage On and Keep Calm.  That's a good place to start.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Politics is Always Religion and Vice Versa A Note on Paris and Tomorrow

Politics is Always Religion and Vice Versa
A Note on Paris and Tomorrow
When you study religion for a living you know that people are not rational, that they are susceptible to the most bizarre confidence games (in fact, the more bizarre, the more likely), and that their need for social consolations and their individual insecurities will keep them in groups and believing long after the abuse is understood. People are not merely swayed by the power of imagination, for better and for worse, they are made of it. We humans have to imagine even the most natural facts of the world. We're made to invent ourselves and to invent the worlds in which we live.
This means that when the stakes are high, really high, we have to agree on facts _as if_ they _are_ more than our imaginings. Of course, we _invent_ the world in which we live. But does anyone here think that a fact like, say, radioactivity is somehow all just in _your_ mind? Or that our current climate change is not human made? Or that our collective human existence isn't on an unsustainable course because it is expending the resources of our planet in ways that are utterly destroying our environment? Will God save us? You see, facts matter and human beings must agree to act. Like religion, like politics.
Any fact may be irrelevant to you after you are dead but to make that the benchmark of meaning might make you want to consider your inner narcissist nihilist (n.b., we all have one). In sum, people need their stories and can't live in the world without them. People need each other and, in a global world in which our collective acts effect us all, we need to learn to agree on basic facts. We need to use our collective imaginations to make our world livable. Owls, even whales and elephants, already know their stories because nature has made them more complete. Animals know about how to be themselves but cannot change themselves or their behavior in ways comparable to our human invention. We save ourselves from disease, blow each other up for religion or politics or money, and say it all has meaning. It is our incompleteness that confers upon us all of our advantages and creates our every peril. It is that we invent worlds that makes this technology I'm using right now real enough to reach into your story. But what I can do or you can do is nothing like what _we_ can do.
This too is why the stories we tell are so very important. With Trump on the verge of rejecting the Paris Climate Accords, with America on the verge of becoming an outlier state in the community of nations, one with the intention and the military and economic power to alter the fate of all others, where are _we_? What will _we_ do? Who _are_ we that we have come to this place where we are so irreconcilably divided that we cannot even agree that there are facts? We are losing the only advantage we have as human beings. The advantage to take life into our own hands and change the course of events. Our record of taking such actions for the better is more than a little mixed, but it is really our only hope. Let us hope we survive this regime and make a new America that doesn't cavort with tragic ignorance. If you love life and treasure our planet's gracious gifts, will you rise up to resist? Will you vote? Do you understand what will happen if the current regime reaches its goals? 
We are in a battle for human values, not merely America. We must not allow this fakery, cronyism, grifting, and imbecility to become our shared world. We must remember the brave souls who acted on the train in Portland, that we are _all_ better than this, that we will create a world of values, in which there is room for difference and shared action. The kind of world that respects fact and demands more from our humanity.

From Inside Trump's Mind, Or Why the Intellectual Smoke is Emotional Fire

From Inside Trump's Mind,
Or Why the Intellectual Smoke is Emotional Fire

It's crucial to understand that our resistance is defined in important ways by that which we resist. We cannot presume that our efforts are outside the context of our opposition. We're not some noble project acting in a vacuum. So we must fathom Trump from the inside out to create meaningful opposition. I know, I know. But stay with me here.

Trump-speech demands at least two things from his followers. First and foremost, Trump is a test of loyalty to the boundaries of sycophancy and allegiance autocratic domination. Trump followers want the world to be simpler and look for the help they need to find the emotional satisfactions that come when doubt or difference is no longer in play. Think Spicer-Conway Syndrome. It can infect to the level of McMaster, but it's all of a piece. It doesn't matter what he says, it is your job as his supporter to cheer and die for the cause, or else. (Once again, we should draw our attentions to confluence of religion and politics here. To believe is to interpret _as true_ whatever the "god" says.) To make America great again is to be _with him_ because everything else is against. The emotional need to believe is vital because the transparencies of disbelief may get you fired. Trump knows disbelief when he sees it because he is only capable of comprehending what are, in fact, his own needs.

Second, Trump needs _distractions_ and _lies_ the way the rest of us need air, and this defines the boundaries of his words and actions. Trump distractions and lies need to be seen as made of the same purpose, these are different but connected purposes.

---He needs distractions because, like air, this is how he survives, this is how he deals with a world that demands more attention span than his capacity. He is intellectually and emotionally incapable of sustained thought or emotional self-management. He can't do better or more, it's not merely that he won't do it. We are subject to his limitations, which his followers have been taught to deny or reject (perhaps because it reflects their own low-information abilities).

---He needs lies because they provide the ceaseless affirmation his fragile intellect and underdeveloped emotional condition demands. The content of those lies is changeable because they never needed to be anything but emotionally satisfying at the time. The lies are far less important than the emotional response he requires from them. In the moment, the lie will be deemed to be true because that too is a requirement of his emotional needs. For his followers, they will tell us not to take him literally. They are correct. They want the same emotional satisfaction that Trump seeks: they want to _feel_ their truths, not test them. Trump gets a pass because the truth is merely how you want to feel. This should frighten any reasonable person but don't mistake people for being reasonable. A more reasonable response is to understand that people's emotional needs always come first.

And lest we forget, those who fail the litmus tests of sycophancy or contest by replying with facts are enemies, losers, and other. You are with him or against him. This is what makes his followers so dangerous. They are far more the problem than Trump because they are enablers of his mental illness. Yes, I called it an illness. Sue me for restating the obvious. We who resist didn't create this paradigm but we are subject to it, from Trump, his Republican Party, and, most importantly, their voters.