The nobility of imperfection: toiling in flawed human institutions

I read your post (of course)…

You mostly talk about Sanders and Clinton as individuals subject to public pressure by their supporters. But underneath that, I think we’re really talking about institutions. And one fraught institution in particular: the Democratic Party.

Heaven knows, the Democratic Party is easy to trash. But, if it sucks… compared to what? What’s a party for? What should, could it be doing? Why doesn’t it do better?** These are complex and subtle questions that deserve far deeper thought than they usually get. For instance: if the Democratic Party is compromised by money and corporate power, why? If lots of people vote in ways that seem (to us) to be against their own economic interests, why? For that matter, when the Democratic Party, or the Obama administration, does something importantly right, how on earth did that happen?

IMO, anyone who thinks these questions have obvious, simple, or conspiratorial answers isn’t thinking hard enough (or very hard at all).

Across the pond, the UK will vote Thursday on whether to “Remain” in, or “Leave” the European Union. As you probably know, “Brexit” has been a vicious campaign. The UKIP’s Nigel Farage (their Trump, roughly speaking) is running a Trumpian “make England great again” anti-immigrant campaign of fear. Maybe you’ve seen his poster:

breaking point

The other day, a local far-right white supremacist (who’d been in contact with America’s neo-Nazis) murdered a young Labour member of Parliament. As he fired his shots, he shouted: “Britain First.”

I mention this because I wanted to share something J.K. Rowling just wrote about the Brexit debate:

No, I don’t think the EU’s perfect. Which human union couldn’t use improvement? From friendships, marriages, families and workplaces, all the way up to political parties, governments and cultural economic unions, there will be flaws and disagreements. Because we’re human. Because we’re imperfect. So why bother building these ambitious alliances and communities? Because they protect and empower us, because they enable bigger and better achievements than we can manage alone. We should be proud of our enduring desire to join together, seeking better, safer, fairer lives, for ourselves and for millions of others.

I think that says it. There’s a deep nobility in coming together as imperfect people in imperfect institutions, and trying to make them more perfect (as America’s founders so eloquently put it in the Preamble.)

One great tragedy of our time is that we’ve forgotten this. We see “institutions” as belonging to other people, not to ourselves. (Some do, but many could be ours if we cared enough.)

We assume total corruption without even asking questions. We don’t want to consider the possibility that we’re only looking at ordinary people doing the best they can with the realities they see and the complex mixtures of self-interested and principled disagreements they must navigate. We instinctively throw obstacles in their way, as if that were noble. It hardly ever occurs to us that it’s our responsibility to do the hard work of making things better.

The irony is: we all know that the only route to fulfillment is to do something bigger than ourselves. To do that, you have to work with other people. Nowadays, we tend to glorify transient teams that self-organize around a given task and then come apart as soon as that task is (or isn’t) successfully completed. Teams are the quintessential form of organization for people who don’t want to commit irrevocably to anything.

But teams aren’t adequate to the really big things we need to accomplish: things that take years, decades, lifetimes. Maybe a few rare people can help accomplish those big things by writing on their own, alone, in a garret. But for most of us, if you want to be part of something big, important, and lasting, you need to be part of an institution.

And that means subordinating part of yourself to that institution, with all its attendant forces and constraints. It means constantly figuring out what compromises you can accept and which are a bridge too far. It means trying to revitalize institutions against the entropy, heartache, thousand natural shocks that human things are heir to (sorry, Will). Sometimes it means building entirely new institutions. But whenever you’re talking about the forces that make society possible — whether it’s Putnam’s bowling leagues, Tocqueville’s voluntary civic associations, or even the non-voluntary Social Security system — strong institutions are indispensable.

Sociologists like Max Weber and Jürgen Habermas wrote about how modernity created impersonal institutions to replace traditional charismatic forms of authority with something intended to be more rational and legal. The European Union is perhaps the quintessential example, the apotheosis of this phenomenon.

But precious few people “love” the EU: they support it because they think it offers the potential of an incrementally better life, or because abandoning it would point Europe back towards the horrors of the 20th century’s two world wars.

I think we need to somehow imbue or re-imbue bureaucracy with a bit of sacred magic and inspiration; maybe even a sense of quest. That means escaping a fundamental paradox: squaring the circle, cutting the Gordian Knot. If it’s even possible, I can think of only one place to start: to recall why we created these institutions, and why anyone joined them in the first place.

If we’re looking to create just a tiny bit of magic, we could do worse than starting with Rowling: We should be proud of our enduring desire to join together, seeking better, safer, fairer lives, for ourselves and for millions of others.

—————–

**For an interesting counterpoint, read Mark Leibovich’s new piece on the struggles of Reince Priebus, that rare individual who has actually, consciously made the decision to dedicate his life to the Republican Party.

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Learning from history (if that’s possible)

In my last post, I suggested that history teaches some lessons to folks trying to assess Sanders’s and Clinton’s outlooks on change.

It got me thinking: What can and can’t you learn from history?

Nobody buys Santayana’s famous quote anymore. Some, like the radical historian Robert Fisk, say we could learn from history but never, ever do. Others, like the late Boaz Neumann, think you can’t learn a damn thing and shouldn’t even try: “Every phenomenon… has its own language and grammar, which is irrelevant to any other phenomenon. History is an intellectual pleasure. It is dangerous to learn from it.” No patterns, no possibility of patterns, just one thing after another.

(But then, we live in an age where literature and philosophy professors say similar things, and wonder why their enrollments are plummeting!)

The not-really-Twain quote “history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes” seems a bit closer. Then, of course, there’s The Onion, resonant as usual. 🙂

History certainly can’t teach “what’s going to happen next,” or “exactly what to do about it.” Seriously doubt the person who thinks every new historical situation is the next Munich, or Vietnam, or even — maybe I’m guilty of this — the next Reichstag Fire. Such people often seem to possess one fact, like a dog with a chew toy.

Just maybe, however, history at least gives us some context for contemplating the long term (or at least recognizing that it exists). For assessing whether decision-makers are being sufficiently thoughtful. For more completely considering the range of possible outcomes.

Above all, for being modest about one’s own understanding. For that, we need all the tools we can get!

So here are a few things history seems to teach me, as a mere amateur and grad student:

  • Nothing lasts forever, no matter how much it looks like it will.
  • Sometimes, when things start to change, or to collapse, it happens stunningly fast.
  • It’s possible for smart people to blunder into disaster.
  • Similarly, some leaders (not just in politics) look smarter than they are.
  • But occasionally the reverse is also true. Don’t always assume they’re as stupid as they look. They might be responding to incentives or motivations you don’t know about, or just playing their cards close to the vest.
  • Disasters caused by blundering, sleepwalking, or foolishness are more common than those caused by successful conspiracies, which require rare levels of skill and competence.
  • Events have a way of getting out of control.
  • The ability to keep complex events under control sometimes degrades over time — working perhaps once or twice, but not the third time.
  • People always act on imperfect information and imperfect understanding. (Sometimes, “imperfect” is being generous!)
  • Leaders are somewhat more likely to make effective decisions when they know more about their adversaries’ motivations, and the dynamics of the environments they hope to impact. Having a clue is no guarantee of success, but it can help.
  • Failure to act can have consequences, too.
  • Humans behave badly, tolerate worse behavior, and become more tribal when they’re afraid.
  • Often, people who frighten them are deliberately attempting to achieve these ends.
  • Worsening hatred is one of the “events” that can easily spiral out of control.
  • Over the long term, cynicism makes productive societies harder to sustain.
  • It’s horrible to live in times and places with failed institutions. And it’s much easier to tear institutions down than to build them.
  • Bad times can last a very long time. (Centuries. Many of them.)
  • What you know for sure will eventually be forgotten, contradicted, or superseded. This is likely to be true even in science and medicine.
  • The aforementioned does not suggest that notions you pull out of your posterior are as valid as peer-reviewed research.
  • The salience of today’s passions will fade. Conflicts that seem “perpetual” eventually will end. Even ethnic and religious conflicts.
  • Don’t assume unfamiliar people and groups are either exactly like you, or diametrically opposite. (Having said that, most people in most places and times are just trying to keep their heads down and get through the day.)
  • Utopias don’t work. It’s unrealistic to build systems requiring human beings to change dramatically.
  • But it’s also unrealistic to assume people will never change at all. They have, and will.
  • Some aspects of human behavior seem more malleable than others.
  • We still do not understand the interactions of culture, family, sexuality, society, and genetics; nor the impact of changes in these. But we know enough not to oversimplify them. Therefore, resist reductive arguments about these issues, especially arguments describing certain potential changes as either catastrophic or likely to have absolutely no wider impact at all.
  • Markets and money are incredibly transformative human institutions.
  • Humans have not yet proved they can sustain societies for the long term without something like religion.
  • Humans remain embedded in natural systems that often powerfully intrude on their plans.
  • Occasionally, one side in a dispute is 100% or nearly 100% right. It does happen. But that’s not the way to bet.
  • Human courage and nobility are real phenomena. We humans can be awful, but also magnificent. Most of us sit somewhere near the center of some kind of Bell or Power Law curve of human behavior.
  • Things are almost never simple. Beware those who tell you otherwise. Especially if they actually seem to believe it.

 

 

Sanders, Clinton, theories of change, and you

First of all, congratulations on graduating from The College of William and Mary! A wonderful achievement. I’m incredibly proud of you. And I want to reflect about it with you on this blog. Because there’s lots more to life than elections. Even with that gigantic sociopathic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man-child Donald Trump currently striding through all our nightmares…

Stay-puft-marshmallow-man

It sounds like you and your unnamed friend are wrestling with what nowadays sometimes gets called “theories of change.”*

Does change happen incrementally, within the “system” (as we old hippies used to call it) — through compromise, coalition, and small steps forward? Or is such “change” hardly worth the name? Is the system so fundamentally corrupted by money and power that it must be revolutionized — and quickly, before it’s too late?**

I remember almost identical debates between young people volunteering for George McGovern, Ed Muskie, or other 1972 Democratic primary candidates (or for local congressional candidates like Allard Lowenstein) vs. those who considered electoral politics nothing but a fraud. So this is nothing new. (It’s a lot older than 1972, too. There are echoes of it in the 1930s debates among New Deal Democrats and all the nearly-forgotten sects to their left; the temporary Communist strategy to participate in so-called “popular fronts”… in fact, Debs himself left the IWW in 1906 over issues like these.)

Since the debate is long-standing, we can apply the tools of history to see if it offers any plausible lessons. Let’s set a standard: Which changes involving the political system have helped the most people live better lives? Which were designed to help a lot of people, succeeded in doing so, and became part of the permanent fabric of American society?

Here’s my first cut at a list:

  • 1934: The National Housing Act of 1934 (FHA)
  • 1935: Social Security
  • 1935: Wagner Act (establishing NLRB and right to unionize)
  • 1944: The GI Bill
  • 1954: Brown v. Board of Education
  • 1956: The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, (Interstate highway system)
  • 1958: National Defense Education Act (student loans; scientific/graduate education)
  • 1964: The Civil Rights Act
  • 1965: Medicare
  • 2003: Medicare Part D (drug coverage)
  • 2003: Lawrence v. Texas / 2013 US v. Windsor
  • 2010: Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) — probably

I’m sure there are others. (Which am I forgetting?)

Some of these were deeply flawed by racism (notoriously, FHA); and others aren’t self-evidently progressive (interstate highways). Nor are they all the brainchildren of Democrats or liberals (Eisenhower’s NDEA, Bush 43’s Medicare Part D drug benefit). But, to me, they all meet my progressive standard: They improved a lot of lives. And they put the lie to the claim that government can’t do that.

Obviously my list isn’t definitive. A conservative might add Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts; I think their net impact, given his 1982 and 1983 tax increases, is deeply ambiguous even if you accept dubious conservative premises. Some liberals might add LBJ’s other War on Poverty programs, though only some survive (e.g., food stamps, Head Start, VISTA, Job Corps). There’s the Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1958, authorizing the agency (ARPA) that essentially created the Internet. I’ve excluded this because it wasn’t crafted with intention or expectation of large-scale non-defense benefits. Other possibilities, depending on your worldview: Roe v. Wade (abortion rights); Griswold v. Connecticut (privacy penumbras & emanations — but for all the mockery, how many conservatives or liberals deny a right to privacy anymore?)

But, for the sake of my argument, let’s use my 12.

Each has its own book-length political history. But, at the top level, what do we see? A mix of “inside” and “outside” strategies.

In the examples aimed at achieving justice for mistreated groups, these movements usually start outside, with the grassroots, and find most of their energy there. Even here, however, a significant “inside” component develops.

Without a massive gay rights movement, Lawrence v. Texas and US v. Windsor would never have happened — but for this “outside” movement to triumph when it did, intelligent “inside” strategy was also required (Human Rights Campaign, Olson & Boies, etc., following the template created by the NAACP in advance of Brown v. Board.)

At the other extreme, some major societal transformations were enacted almost entirely by an insider elite: Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System (accelerating the growth of post-war white American suburban society) and the post-Sputnik National Defense Education Act come to mind. These had external constituencies, but largely resulted from negotiation among government stakeholders seeking to solve a problem. I can’t think of comparable examples since the 1950s. (Which itself seems instructive.)

Usually, though, it’s both: inside and outside. Example: the unexpected links between FDR and the anti-New Deal American Legion that helped make the G.I. Bill happen in 1944, notwithstanding opposition from elite colleges, segregationists, and even some other veterans’ groups. (A fascinating story!)

My list includes major social changes involving downward redistribution of wealth (Social Security, Medicare, the Wagner Act). These were promoted and enacted by wealthy individuals (FDR, LBJ) who received huge amounts of dark money from even wealthier individuals.

You wouldn’t think this could happen, by Sanders’s telling. It doesn’t make sense. But history tells us it does happen. Usually, however, when the system is under immense pressure (e.g., from a powerful civil rights or union movement, or economic collapse).

The scarcity of such political pressure helps explain why there’s been no such redistribution for 50 years. (Except for Obamacare — yet another reason it’s so hated.)

So if, like Sanders (and me) you want big changes to reverse accelerating inequality, you have to wrestle with questions like:

  • Why is there no huge outside pressure for specific large-scale redistributive actions? Why wasn’t there even in 2009-2010, after the economic collapse and bailouts?
  • What are the strengths (and, IMO, deep weaknesses) of the voting coalition Sanders has built? What does that coalition’s (apparent) limits teach us?
  • How did Occupy move the issue of the 1% into public debate, and why didn’t it accomplish much more?
  • What might be the next steps for harnessing and building on the energy represented by Occupy and now Sanders? (I hope Sanders is thinking seriously about this, always assumed he was, and keep waiting for some actual evidence he is.)
  • How might “outside” movements work with “inside” people to shape agendas and transform them into actual change?
  • Can any of this happen when the suspicion of elites, organizational structures, and government is as deep as it is today? 

There’s one more way my list is skewed. It doesn’t include changes that never happened. Of course — they didn’t happen! But that begs the question: why not?

Sometimes the “outside” movements for them never come together. Or they are so massively alienating to mainstream constituencies that they backfire spectacularly (see Cloward/Piven‘s lunatic notion of flooding the welfare system with so many applicants that it would collapse, leading to a guaranteed national income).

Sometimes momentum for change dissipates, like an ocean wave fading onto shore. I felt this viscerally in 1978, watching liberals and unions pulling out all the stops to pass aggressive full-employment legislation. They had to settle for the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, which committed to… basically nothing. (It’s still the law. Did you even know that?)

But there’s another reason why big changes occasionally fail to happen: rejection of incrementalism. The classic example: Ted Kennedy’s lifelong regrets that he’d refused to support Richard Nixon’s national health care plan. Later in his life, one sensed Kennedy’s pain in reflecting on how many people died for lack of Nixon’s flawed insurance.

Then Obama came along, with his compromises and coalitions designed to build just enough corporate support and hold off just enough opposition. (In an environment where there was no mass uprising for single-payer, and a nationwide Tea Party rebellion against doing anything at all.)

So, now, half the Americans who didn’t have insurance have it now.

And it’s half as good, and half as widely accepted, as it should be. And way better than nothing.

And some waitresses and home health aides and laborers will live to see their grandchildren. (Thanks, Obama!)

My takeaway?

If you want important change, there’s a place for people outside the system, making a powerful moral case for changes that nobody else imagines yet… people who know that organizing for the impossible may take decades, even lifetimes.

There’s a place for the Bernie Sanders-es of the world, who bring those moral arguments to the floor of Congress. Even if they never pass any significant legislation.

There’s a place for grubby incrementalists who work in the trenches to write legislation (and press releases)… get the best deal they can… get across the finish line with something that actually improves people’s lives… something that can be improved later.

And there’s a place for you, if you want one.

There will always be tensions between outsiders and insiders and those in between. (Think LBJ and Martin Luther King.) But if they don’t work through those tensions, nothing happens — and we can’t afford that any longer.

———————–

*I never realized: “Theory of change” is a specific approach used by non-profits to organize thinking about how to get where they want to go. Worth knowing more about!

**Another viewpoint, profoundly stupid and ahistorical, is: “let it all burn.” That’s the play-toy anarchist, Guy Fawkes mask, Joker “why so serious,” politics-as-Marvel-blockbuster view of the world. Have actions premised on this worldview ever led to anything but catastrophe? How do people with this adolescent white male comic book mindset imagine they’ll escape the fallout? In a VR helmet?

On Trump, Irrational Hate, and the Philosophical Difference Between Sanders and Clinton

Hillary Clinton at a campaign event for Jeanne Shaheen. COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

I’ve been quiet on what’s been happening politically. Not on a personal level, as you know from talking to me and from the volunteer campaign work I’ve been doing. But I haven’t been engaging much with it online and in writing. I’m witnessing such an intense dissociation from facts and values that I believed were common and among people I thought shared my views. I see millions of people deciding that Donald Trump, a man who:

Equally disturbing, I see Sanders supporters, who ostensibly believe in ideas like justice, fairness, and equality, and issues like immigration, climate change, and poverty, saying how much they despise Clinton, that her nomination would be illegitimate because superdelegates would help, and that they’re considering not voting for Clinton because of how much they dislike her. They’re impervious to the facts that Clinton has 3 million more votes than Sanders and that the nomination system they’ve railed against (correctly, in my opinion), advantages Sanders. (About half the contests he’s won have been caucuses that make it difficult for anyone with a life to vote and result in dismal turnout.)

I’ve always liked Bernie Sanders. We’ve both been familiar with him years before most of his supporters even knew who he was. He’s been ahead of most Democrats in defending LGBT rights, calling out the vastly unequal distribution of wealth, and advocating for a government that does more to give working people a leg up. But he is and always has been a socialist. This country has never been particularly warm toward socialism in any form. The most successful American socialist candidate was Eugene Debs, and he got the highest total number of votes (913,664 votes) while sitting in a jail cell. Over 100 years later, a 2015 Gallup poll found that 50% of Americans would not vote for a socialist. Clearly, Sanders has attracted a ton of support, especially among the youngest generation of voters, who are friendlier toward socialism than capitalism.

But now, in late May, it seems like Sanders’ support is fueled more by an irrational hatred of Clinton than a desire to create change. I see people on Facebook conflating Clinton and Trump as if they have remotely the same personality traits, beliefs, and goals. I was never a big fan of Hillary, but I always respected her experience, her excellent understanding of policy, and her commitment to women’s equality. None of the scandals she’s involved been involved with (Whitewater, Vince Foster, Benghazi, the emails, etc.) have proved her to be the snake so many people believe she is. She’s way too secretive and cautious, and that makes her look dishonest, but I think that was borne out of decades of vicious attacks on her and her family. If I had garbage continually lobbed at me for 25 years, I’d probably develop similar traits.

But there’s an important philosophical distinction between Sanders and Clinton that I’ve been conflicted about, and is often the subject of arguments between me and a certain friend.

While Sanders has a bipartisan record, he is more of an activist than a policymaker. As Congresswoman Slaughter said to me during my internship, in the 16 years they were in the House together, he passed three pieces of legislation, and two were naming post offices. I read an article in Politico today that delved deeper into Sanders legislative record. It found that Sanders had relatively little influence on major liberal policy achievements. He did make small, meaningful contributions, like increasing transparency of the Federal Reserve in Dodd-Frank and successfully advocating for funding for community health centers in Obamacare. But he was never a major player in crafting significant laws, and his influence on policy has paled in comparison to other senators, like Elizabeth Warren, who’s made protecting Dodd-Frank a hill to die on.

Hillary Clinton has always taken a more policy centered approach, and while she hasn’t always been successful, it has produced results. Looking up what Clinton has actually done, I was surprised to find a laundry list of legislative and diplomatic achievements. As First Lady in 1997, she was instrumental in passing the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which had bipartisan support, and has improved health care access for millions of children in poverty. As a senator she helped write and pass the Pediatric Research Equity Act, which requires pharmaceutical companies to study the effects of their drugs on children, which has made crucial drug information available for hundreds of drugs. She fought to get billions in aid for 9/11 first responders to get needed medical treatment. She sponsored and fought for the original Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which became law shortly after she left the Senate. As Secretary of State, she rallied the world to put tough sanctions on Iran that forced them to the table, while pressuring countries like to China to cut their emissions, which have led to the US-China Climate Agreement and the Paris Agreement.

We can argue that her policies have come up short, that her instincts are too hawkish, and that she’s too cozy with Wall Street, but there is no question that the woman gets shit done, and that much of it has been really good.

That said, the political system needs to be shaken up. It is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the status quo. Sanders is right: we need a political revolution. Of course, that requires more people voting in presidential and midterm elections than have ever done so, and voting Democratic. Our present two-party system is deeply unsatisfying, but until we change our voting system, which won’t happen anytime soon, the Democratic Party is the only electoral vehicle capable of affecting liberal policy change.

I sometimes wonder whether I’m too pessimistic, lacking in imagination, and too willing to compromise. I certainly give up too quickly in my day to day life. That hasn’t stopped me from getting involved and fighting though, if for a candidate that is far to my right. Let my contribution to the revolution be to motivate others to stand up and fight.

An American fable (The Trump home repair service)

Once upon a time, in America, there was a man who owned a home.

He loved his home, deeply. Just the way most Americans love their country.

His home was full of wonderful memories, all the way back to his childhood. He hoped to stay there as long as God let him live.

He knew his beloved home needed major repairs. But he had hired a couple of repair people, and they just hadn’t done the job right.

One morning, an enormous truck pulled up in front of his home, with an enormous five-letter name painted on the side. Someone climbed out and strode up to his front door.

The man was big, and seemed full of confidence. As the homeowner opened his door, he thought he might’ve seen his visitor before, on television.

“All those other repairmen are morons,” his visitor bellowed. “I’m going to make your home great again. I know exactly what to do. First, I’m going to blow it up.”

The homeowner thought to himself, “Well, I didn’t really think my home needed to be blown up. But it certainly has problems. And I’ve definitely had trouble getting them fixed. Let’s see what this man has to say…”

So, the homeowner asked: “After you blow it up, what kind of new home will you build for me?”

And his visitor said: “Don’t you worry about that. It’ll be great. The best ever. It’ll be huge! With great big walls that someone else will pay for. You’ll be a winner, just like me!”

The homeowner thought to himself, “It sure would be nice to have a great home like that.”

So the homeowner asked, “Have you ever built such a wonderful home for anyone else before?”

And his visitor said, “Don’t you worry about that, either. I’ll get the best people. I’ll make the best deals. It’ll be great.”

The homeowner thought to himself, “I’m just not sure. But this is tempting…”

So, he asked his visitor, “Well, what have you built?”

“Well, I built a big casino in Atlantic City.”

“That’s pretty amazing. Can I visit it?”

“I don’t own it anymore. It went bankrupt.”

“I guess things don’t always turn out the way we want them to,” the homeowner said. “What else have you built?”

“I built a university.”

“Great! How’s that doing?”

“All those people who are suing me are really bad people.”

The homeowner thought about how much he loved the home he’d lived in nearly all his life. He was a child when it was built. He still remembered the people who’d built it.

They were all kinds of different people. But they seemed to respect each other. They were quiet, not flashy. He couldn’t imagine them on Reality TV.

But they had built his family a home with a strong foundation.

For all its problems, his home still had that foundation. It was still pretty strong.

Would this stranger build him a home like that? One he would be proud to pass along to his children, and maybe someday their children?

He just wasn’t convinced.

So, he told the stranger: “I will have to pass on your generous offer. Perhaps someone else will let you blow up their home.”

The stranger got angry. “I knew I shouldn’t have wasted my time on you.” Before he turned to leave, he spat out: “You loser.”

And the homeowner said to himself, “I do still need to get my home fixed. But I think I just avoided an even bigger problem.”

My America

“It’s not who we are.”

That, above all, is the question, isn’t it? Who are we, as Americans?

Lately, I’ve become a lot more aware of my own narrative about America, because so many people are trying to tear it away from me.

I know mine isn’t nearly the “whole” truth about America. Nobody possesses the “whole” truth. And believe me, I can come up with plenty of contrary evidence.

Perhaps it’s best to say that it’s my aspiration for America – but that it’s based on enough of the “real” America that I’ve been able to hold onto it all my life.

It shapes how I try to act as a citizen.

Let me share it with you.

My America

My America knows people are not and never will be perfect. But it also knows they can work together, and they can improve.

The Founding Fathers certainly thought so: that’s why they crafted a constitution to build a “more perfect union.” That’s why Jefferson wrote of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Founders thought we could improve, not just as isolated individuals, but as communities, and as citizens of a Republic we could all share.

That’s why Lincoln spoke to northerners and southerners, white and black, about the “better angels of our nature.” Even as their armies were cutting each other down in fields not far from where he stood.

The Founders, for all their flaws, saw their new country as the greatest achievement of the Enlightenment, which promised we could use reason to escape the chains of ancient conflict and superstition, and begin anew.

Then they welcomed generation after generation of newcomers who also hoped to begin anew, with many diverse motivations. (Even by 1776, this was deeply rooted in the heritage of My America. There are towns in Connecticut named after folks who’d been involved in the English Civil War in the 1640s, and would have been executed if they’d set foot back in England after the Restoration.)

My America has sometimes fallen victim to outbreaks of nativism and ignorance. Of course it has: My America is made up of human beings. (We even had a political party called the Know-Nothings. What they said about Catholics was identical to what some people now say about Muslims.)

Make no mistake, for centuries many people have come to America and left because they did not like what they found here. Moreover, America isn’t the only nation that has ever welcomed outsiders. (Just north of us, there’s a country that might now do it best of all.)

But, for all that, My America has generally been exceptionally open to foreigners. And those foreigners have revitalized My America with fresh energy and ideas in almost every new generation. (The people who overcome all the obstacles in their way to get here tend to be the people with the most energy and creativity.)

People come to My America to make money, but also to make a better life in other ways. Because, as commercial a society as we are, Americans have usually understood that there’s more to life than money.

For whatever reasons people come, My America has grown and changed to encompass them, from their food to their songs to their faiths. Including mine and yours.

So far, every time My America has done this, it has become a better country.

So far, every time people told us these newcomers were too alien, too criminal, too dangerous, too impossible to assimilate, they were wrong. Including when they said it about my ancestors, and yours.

They always say “it’s different this time,” and they’ve always been wrong. Always!

My America, far too slowly, too haltingly, and with too many reverses, might even someday overcome its original sins of racism and slavery. I know that is optimistic. Perhaps it will take a third Reconstruction, perhaps a few more generations of interracial marriage, but it’s possible: My America has done amazing things.

In the America I can convince myself exists, if you are a stranger, people reach out and help you.

Perhaps some of those Americans are Christians remembering what Christ commanded (not “suggested”):

The King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’

“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’

And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it for one of the least of these My brethren, you did it for Me.’

“Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’

 “Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’

Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it for Me.’”

Perhaps some are Jews recalling the Prophet Isaiah:

Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Perhaps some are Muslims reading the Koran:

…it is righteousness… to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and give Zakat (regular charity); to fulfill the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the God fearing. (2:177)

Perhaps some are secular humanists who would agree with the manifesto of the American Humanist Association if they knew it existed:

Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

Regardless, in My America, everybody matters. If someone is left homeless on the street to die, that reflects on me. If my waitress can’t see a doctor because she has no health insurance, if she dies before she can see her grandchildren grow up, that reflects on me.

Because we are all created equal.

Because My America is a civilized society, and we all share it.

And because My America starts by looking for the good in people, as individuals. Instead of looking for the reasons why they don’t deserve help, or do deserve to suffer and die.

Make no mistake, if My America is abused or attacked, it reacts appropriately. But perhaps one reason My America has been so successful is that it happened upon the biologically most successful strategy for playing the prisoner’s dilemma, Generous Tit for Tat.

You’ve come across that strategy, right? It starts by assuming the best in people. If that’s what they give you, you keep assuming it. If not, you respond in kind. And, every once in awhile, if they’ve behaved badly, you give them one more chance to do better.

It isn’t just about “being nice”: it actually works better than any of the other thousands of strategies they tried. I think there’s a lot of “Generous Tit for Tat” in America when we’re at our best.

My America likes strategies that work. Because My America is practical. (Tocqueville certainly thought so.)

That means My America tries to find the best ways to solve its real problems. If honorable people can’t agree, they figure out where they have some common ground, and move forward on that basis. It’s not perfect. But then they tweak it and improve it, instead of raising holy hell to make sure we do nothing at all.

My America – I am actually sure of this – is full of people on the local level who are working together to bridge differences and solve problems.

What did Churchill say about us? “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.” Still, in My America, we eventually get there.

And we get there because we’re open to the best ideas, wherever they come from. We don’t rule them out ahead of time because they are inconsistent with some left-wing or right-wing ideology. So if the best way to solve a problem involves markets, or government, or both together, that’s what we do.

If the best way to make our farms more productive is to build public land-grant colleges to teach our farmers how, we do it (the Morrill Act, which established and funded many of our largest state universities). If the best way to supercharge private enterprise is to build a public canal between New York City and the Great Lakes (the Erie Canal), or a federally funded interstate highway system, we do it.

If our people are sickening and dying because of inadequate sewage and sanitation, we establish public health systems to fix it — and our people get healthier, work harder, and accomplish more. And if we need more reliable, faster networks than private enterprise is ready to give us, we invent the Internet (through the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Project Agency, which may not have anticipated cat blogging or Facebook when they did so).

Since we are grownups in My America and know things like these cost money, we pay taxes to do them. We grumble, because nowhere — even in My America — does anyone love taxes. But in My America, we understand there’s such a thing as enlightened self-interest.

That’s why, when My America won World War II along with its allies, we created the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe. Because My America recognized that you couldn’t defeat Communism without providing help, and a more attractive alternative.

(Some people said: Just bomb the Soviets to smithereens. Make the sand glow! But that’s not the strategy My America chose.)

Speaking of World War II, when My America led the Nuremberg Trials of Nazis and Japanese war criminals after World War II, we were explicit that we were establishing rules for everyone, including ourselves. Not just the losers.

When My America executed Japanese torturers, we promised not to torture, either. When My America captured hundreds of thousands of German prisoners and scattered them in work camps all over the U.S., the guards were extensively trained in the Geneva Conventions, and those prisoners were treated well.

This wasn’t new in My America. When My America’s George Washington saw his troops abusing British soldiers they’d captured, he immediately court-martialed them. Even though he knew that if his Continental Army lost the war, he would be hauled to London and executed.

Talk about “existential danger.” And yet, he would not compromise the principle that you do not torture your captured adversaries.

Washington symbolized something important about My America: it could usually tell the difference between earned, quiet strength and WWE bluster.

My America knows that merely owning a firearm doesn’t make you tougher. (Or even safer.)

My America settles its differences through its democratic institutions, not the barrel of a gun. (In My America, we don’t reserve for ourselves the right to slaughter American soldiers or policemen because we, in our own individual judgment, conclude they are agents of “tyranny.” We call alleged “Second Amendment Remedies” exactly what they are, and say: No. Here in America, we vote.)

My America takes a step back for every two steps forward, because, again, we are human beings, not saints. But over time, My America takes more steps forward than back. It becomes more just. More open. More bighearted.

Along the way, My America has listened to many demagogues – Father Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace. Usually, My America has turned them away.

Now, we are being challenged to do it again. At a time when our confidence in the future is low, our resistance is down, and we are susceptible to the fatal infection of hatred.

Darker visions of America are rising. They make it harder to believe in My America. They make it harder to de-emphasize the strands of American history where hate and murder and slavery and imperialism reigned.

They make it harder to say: “That’s not who we are.”

Yes, Trump. But not only Trump.

Tens of millions of us have been taught to hate and fear for the past 30 years, by silver-tongued professionals with immense media and financial power. (I am looking at you, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch…)

They are incredibly skilled at what they do. But there is an especially hot place in hell for people who make money or gain power by teaching us only to see the evil in each other, and in strangers we don’t know.

Thanks in great part to such people – and others who’ve happily benefited from their diabolical shaping of the public conversation – millions of Americans now see enemies and conspiracies everywhere. Both inside and outside their country.

Those enemies include you, me, and anyone whose America looks different from Their America.

It falls to us to speak out against the hate, wherever we find it. We have to.

Because, after all that’s happened and will happen, we still have something precious to fight for. America. Yours, mine, ours, all of ours.

 

What really makes the US exceptional

I know I’ve been horrible about posting on our blog, but I wanted to respond to your reactions to the San Bernardino coverage.

I’m reminded of FDR’s famous quote, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I know, cliché, right? But what we’re seeing lately illustrates its timeliness. What we become when we react to terror has always been more dangerous, more debilitating, than the acts themselves. The Japanese internment camps are long over, but there’s no legal framework preventing that from happening again. Osama bin Laden may be dead and gone, but the Patriot Act and the modern surveillance state are as strong as ever, and support for torture remains high among Americans.

Terrorism exists to create fear. As Chancellor and former Sec. of Defense Robert Gates said, it’s weapon of the weak against the strong. I think we become weaker — less than ourselves — if we give in to that fear. And I think banning Syrian and Iraqi refugees (or all Muslims) or deporting 11 million illegal immigrants would be doing just that. It isn’t just that it’s overkill as a policy: it’s not who we are. As a certain Emmy award winning writer points out, there are very few things left that make the United States truly, positively stand out in the world.

But the sheer number of people we’ve welcomed, assimilated, conscripted, enriched, uplifted, and relied upon makes us truly exceptional. If you are a Muslim in America and you go to school or start a business or pay taxes or join the military or exercise your freedom of speech or go to a mosque or join the PTA or eat a goddamn slice of pizza, you are making this country exceptional. My rights are your rights, and anyone who says otherwise can go fuck themselves.