The President Who Never Grew Up

When Donald Trump became President, many people, including my father (who did not vote for Trump) comforted themselves with the thought that upon becoming President the weight of the office would make him more mature, more serious minded, more Presidential.  “The man doesn’t make the office, the office makes the man”, my father said over the phone in our first conversation after the election.  For him and me it was the hope that the worst alternative would turn out to not be quite as bad as we thought.  I comforted myself with the knowledge that Trump’s stance on various issues, namely abortion and gay rights, had been relatively liberal in the past prior to his becoming a Presidential candidate.  Perhaps after being elected he would stop posturing to get votes from the Republican base and act on his own historically more liberal beliefs, I thought.  Those who voted for him but weren’t fond of his less than Presidential demeanor hoped like my father did, that the office would make the man.

Nearly seven weeks into his Presidency we see no signs of his un-Presidential way of doing things slowing down.  Recent twitter accusations by Trump against former President Obama that he had Trump’s phone lines tapped during the election have yet to find any basis in fact anywhere in America’s vast intelligence community.  Some have perceived this, with good reason, as a tactic of Trump’s to distract from the scandal involving Attorney General Jeff Sessions, specifically Sessions’ failure to disclose (or to tell the truth) during his confirmation hearings that he did indeed meet with a Russian government official during the Trump campaign (Sessions was an early supporter and surrogate for Trump).  Trump’s accusation against Obama, though possibly strategic in nature, is nonetheless an outright lie, another in a long line of lies, charades, breaks with tradition, words that directly contradict his actions, unsavory insults, you name it.

So how and why, instead of getting better, is Trump actually getting worse?  Well, why do most of us not do the sorts of things Trump is doing?  We all have a conscience to one degree or another to be sure, but another thing that keeps us from lying, being hypocritical, bullying others to get our way, etc., is the fear of consequences.  No one wants to be caught lying or put in the corner of the classroom because we were misbehaving.  We all learned to behave ourselves and respect others in part because there were consequences if we didn’t do those things.  Consequences teach us invaluable lessons.

Trump has not learned those lessons.  He’s never had to.  In addition to growing up in a wealthy family, once his father gave him the money he used to start his business empire and managed to achieve some success on his own, Trump has used that money and that success to insulate himself from any and all consequences.  If he got sued by a disgruntled contractor, he had the money and the lawyers to sue them back and either win the case or keep appealing the case until his foe couldn’t afford the legal bills any more.  If a business failed, he could file for bankruptcy in such a way and/or use various legal loopholes made possible by his accountants and lawyers that he would barely lose any money at all, and perhaps even make money in some cases.  Failure and being mean to other people never hurt him.  He literally couldn’t lose.  Even when faced with divorce and accusations of marital rape, he has been able to wriggle out of paying any meaningful price for any of it.  During the campaign Trump literally said he could shoot someone in Times Square and not lose a single voter.  Then there was the tape of him from 2005 bragging about being able to sexually assault women with total impunity.

And after all of this and much much more, rather than being punished for these infractions, he was rewarded with the Presidency.  After decades, nearly a lifetime without any real consequences, a life that taught him he could do whatever he wanted without paying the price, Trump had now been given the ultimate reward for his brash, “I’m untouchable” attitude.  The victory itself seemed to be a mandate from the people reaffirming his belief that he could do whatever he wanted.  Now with the legitimacy of the Presidency and the Republican Party behind him, Republicans, White House staff, and even some voters defend him and make excuses for him, and when worst came to worst, Trump can in some cases get his way with an executive order or distract from a scandal by telling lies no one will hold him accountable for anyway.  It’s no wonder then that his behavior has only gotten worse and not better like so many of us hoped.

Trump has never learned that the words you say and the things you do have consequences.  Because for him they never have.  Unfortunately for the American people and the people of the world, his words and actions now have consequences for all of us.  Whether or not his words and actions will catch up with him in the long run is up to congress and the American people.

Persuading the Unpersuadable

We’ve all encountered it more and more these days: That person on facebook, a friend, a relative, an old high school or college friend who believes things that simply have little to no basis in facts.  Any reasonable attempt on our part to persuade them with reliable facts only seems to make them believe more strongly in their erroneous beliefs and the reasoning (or lackthereof) they use to justify them.  Many of us have, I’m sure, asked ourselves during or after such encounters, “How do you debate with or persuade someone who doesn’t believe in facts?  Who is totally closed off from even considering any point of view but their own?”  This is a VITAL question for our age.  Changing hearts and minds will be the difference between society moving forward or slipping backward into a dark age America has not yet known.

In seeking answers to this question of how to talk to such people I recently observed more than one article on facebook about the phenomena of how the ignorance of ignorant people becomes self-regenerating and self-protecting.  One article was about the Dunning-Kruger Effect and another was about the Backfire Effect.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is when someone with little to no knowledge, talent, or expertise in a particular area perceives themselves as actually being very good and reliable in that area.  Tom Nichols writes in Foreign Affairs:

In 2014, following the Russian invasion of Crimea, The Washington Post published the results of a poll that asked Americans about whether the United States should intervene militarily in Ukraine. Only one in six could identify Ukraine on a map; the median response was off by about 1,800 miles. But this lack of knowledge did not stop people from expressing pointed views. In fact, the respondents favored intervention in direct proportion to their ignorance. Put another way, the people who thought Ukraine was located in Latin America or Australia were the most enthusiastic about using military force there. 

The other article was about a related phenomenon called the Backfire Effect.  The Backfire Effect, as I understand it, is about a deliberate refusal or simply ignorance of critical thinking as a whole.  A pre-existing perception, regardless of whether that perception is based on accurate information or not, is held as sacred.  Any attempt to disprove that belief is an attempt to call the holder of that belief stupid and therefore a show of disrespect.  “You disagree with me therefore you don’t respect me.”  This creates a persecution complex which causes these people to be defensive and feel the need to cling all the more tightly to these beliefs they perceive as being under attack.  Any facts used to attack these beliefs must be inaccurate, or at least ill intentioned, because to admit their validity is to admit you might be wrong and therefore stupid enough to have believed the wrong thing in the first place.

Forget the scientific method of hypothesis, testing, and only then arriving at a theory.  These two psychological effects totally paralyze one’s ability to think critically.  One’s ability to soberly comprehend reality, evaluate trustworthiness, and otherwise make sound decisions are also sorely inhibited.

So how do we break through then?  How can ignorance that proudly insists on being called expertise be persuaded it isn’t?  None of the articles I read seemed to offer any concrete advice or solutions, although the end of Tom Nichols’ article in Foreign Affairs came close.  And then I looked up The Backfire Effect and found a “rationalwiki” article about it that directly addresses its causes and some ways to fight it.  I highly recommend reading it, but here are my takeaways/interpretations as it relates to the problem of political discourse with people who are effected by the Backfire Effect and also the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Critical thinking is the key thing these people are missing.  So often when well informed, thoughtful people try to persuade or inform less informed, less thoughtful people, it ends with the thoughtful informed people thinking those who are less informed are simply stupid.  This is not so.  Less educated or less thoughtful perhaps, but not necessarily stupid.  Some people are indeed less intelligent than others, but most everyone is capable of some degree of critical thinking and analysis.  Critical thinking is a skill that takes practice.  Like a muscle that grows weak from lack of use, so too the neurons of critical thinking grow weak and less likely to be used.

Conversations with people who have clearly not used facts or critical thinking to arrive at their opinions need to be about introducing them to using these invaluable tools in a way that doesn’t come off as telling them how to think.  Right though you may be, telling someone they are wrong or stupid for thinking a certain way or arriving at a conclusion a certain way simply makes them angry and less likely to even consider listening to you or anything you have to say.  By insulting them, accidentally or on purpose, you’ve made them an enemy to you and the ideals you’re trying to advance.  And even though writing them off as fools who are destined to go on happily marching to Hell and calling it Heaven might make you feel superior and good about yourself in the short term, in the long term you have FAILED MISERABLY at achieving your goal of actually persuading someone.  

So what’s the silver bullet to talking to and persuading such people?  Not more facts, not rhetorical devices or mind games.  The answer is simple, but difficult: Compassion, listening, and patience.  The less you arouse their anger and yours, the more likely both of you are going to listen to one another.  The less emotion that enters the conversation, the more room that is left for logic and sober thinking to enter into it.  As for patience, no one’s mind is changed over night, especially if their beliefs are deeply ingrained.  So the next time you get in a conversation with “one of those people” take a deep breath, and remember to take many more deep breaths after that.

Trump: The Un-Christian President

Thousands of article have been, can, and will be written about Trump.  How did he win the election?  What was his appeal to certain voters?  Why do some voters continue to support him despite controversy after controversy, ineptitude after ineptitude?  Today I found myself pondering these questions from the perspective of the disconnect between the Judaeo-Christian values that many conservative voters claim to value so much and the un-Christian candidates they support, in this case Trump.

First off, it’s been said many times that Trump speaks the language of so-called Middle Americans: working class, sometimes rural, almost always Christian, almost always white, generally less educated (not to be confused with less intelligent), and generally people who have not seen much job growth over the last decade.  Over the last eight years under Obama the rights of the LGBTQ community had been fought for, an African American had become President, for the first time a woman won the nomination of a major political party for President, and the fight for the rights and well being of African Americans was heating up like nothing since the 60’s, but all the while these Middle Americans were losing jobs and no one seemed to be fighting on their behalf, only for these other “liberal” causes.  Where was their champion?  What about their cause?   This anger, however misplaced, found voice in Trump.

Trump’s rhetoric does not appeal to intellect.  These Middle Americans didn’t want intellectual explanations or excuses.  They wanted promises and they wanted someone to stand up and sympathize with them.  Trump fulfilled that.  “Fear the outsider”, “look out for yourself, not others”, “America first!”  Feel familiar?  Trump only said the last quote, but the obvious message of that quote and so much of the rest of his rhetoric is in the first two.  His rhetoric, at its most inspiring (at least to his supporters), is almost never about intellect, but about painting a striking and emotional picture that overwhelms the intellect of the listener and causes them to be afraid.  What do we think of when we’re afraid?  We think of our safety and ourselves, nothing else.  Trump’s inauguration speech is a good example:

For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military; we’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.
We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.
One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions upon millions of American workers left behind.
The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.
But that is the past. And now we are looking only to the future. We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power.
From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land.
From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.

Trump could not have been more clear: Being generous by caring about and giving to others is bad for you and makes no sense.  One would think American Christians would have been appalled at such talk.  Apparently not.  Naturally the appeal or lack of appeal that Hillary Clinton had to American church goers, particularly evangelical Christians, is important to take into account.  But that’s another discussion.

Why should American Christians have been appalled by Trump’s rhetoric?  Let’s compare it to Jesus and His rhetoric.  Turn the other cheek, judge not lest you yourself be judged, treat others as you yourself would want to be treated, be kind to strangers.  I’m paraphrasing but all of these generous, Christian, and liberal (yes, liberal) sayings that we hear all the time originated with Jesus and are part of the backbone of Christianity.  The Bible, particularly Jesus, challenges us to go beyond our gut reactions to people and situations and transcend our baser instincts of fear, hate and selfishness.  Jesus challenges us to instead respond to the world and its problems by tapping into our love, compassion, inquisitiveness, and acceptance.  Government policies should reflect these Christian values, as conservatives often remind us our country was founded on Judaeo-Christian values after all.  Trump’s rhetoric and his policies contribute to a government and a country of selfishness and fear.

And yet despite these blatantly unchristian policies and rhetoric, the most “Christian” citizens of our country continue to support him.  Why?  Sad to say, the robust intellect of Jesus and of Christianity seems to hold no importance to them any more.  Theology that takes the whole Bible, as opposed to selective excerpts, as its source for reaching conclusions seems to be more and more rare.  What we see more of instead mirrors how some Americans view the Constitution.  The Constitution and Declaration of Independence to some are documents that exist for them to selectively cite so they can uphold their point of view.  What should happen instead is people need to adjust their point of view to uphold the American values of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.  The Bible too is being used to justify preexisting opinions and prejudices (homophobia for example), rather than being examined to shape new, more informed opinions.

Trump has exploited this Biblical misinterpretation, this lazy way of practicing religion.  It’s not natural to forgive or be generous as Jesus taught.  Trump and his policies would have us be our “natural”, “animal” selves, selfish and dog-eat-dog.  Christianity teaches us to transcend these natural instincts and become human beings instead.  We instinctually want to keep our money.  We instinctually want to hate those who hurt us or who we perceive as hurting us.  It’s instinctual for us to fear those people we find strange or don’t understand.  Christianity, when taken as a whole, asks us to be more than that.  We should ask our President and our government to be more than that too.

Gorsuch and Abortion: Principles or People

“Freedom is the spirit of American law and the American Constitution. That is what judges should be most concerned with upholding.”

On January 31st, Neil Gorsuch was nominated by Trump to fill the ninth seat on the Supreme Court, a seat which has remained empty ever since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia on February 13th, 2016, just 20 minutes shy of one year as I write this*.  Gorsuch’s successful nomination would essentially return the balance of power in the Supreme to five conservative justices and four liberal justices (although the Reagan nominated Justice Kennedy has been fairly moderate on abortion in the past). Gorsuch’s confirmation would potentially affect a great many issues. Among these issues is abortion. With Gorsuch’s nomination and certain promises made by Trump during the campaign, there has been some talk among conservatives of the possibility of overturning Roe v. Wade, the forty-four year old Supreme Court decision which in essence made abortion legal. So let’s take a look at abortion and how Gorsuch’s confirmation might affect it.

Gorsuch has been described as a Constitutional Originalist. An excerpt from a speech he made at Case Western Reserve University in 2005 tellingly sums up what this means to him. He said that judges should strive, “to apply the law as it is, focusing backward, not forward,  and looking to text, structure, and history to decide what a reasonable reader at the time of the events in question would have understood the law to be—not to decide cases based on their own moral convictions or the policy consequences they believe might serve society best.” At a glance there is nothing wrong and certainly nothing illegal with this stance. Constitutional Originalism or not, the courts have the ability to interpret EXISTING laws. For abortion this means defining life and when it begins. Unless a law is specifically passed by congress defining life as beginning at conception or not, the legal interpretation of whether abortion is murder is up to the courts. How might Gorsuch’s Constitutional Originalism define this? According to Gorsuch it would seem that applying Constitutional Originalism to abortion means deciding, “what a reasonable reader at the time of the events in question (laws against murder in the case of the abortion question) would have understood the law to be.” Put more simply, “What would the original writers and ratifiers of the Constitution think of abortion?” As radical and ahead of their time as many of our Founding Fathers were, they were still products of the 1700’s. They didn’t even allow women to vote**. It’s highly unlikely that they would have approved of terminating a pregnancy. To them this likely would have been considered an unnatural, murderous act. But we don’t live in the late 1700’s.

So the question is, do we interpret our Constitution according to 18th century values (duels, slavery, no vote for women) that no longer apply to the modern world, or do we interpret our Constitution according to the more nuanced, complicated world we live in now? Not that the world wasn’t complicated in the 1700’s, but their view of the world was uncomplicated by today’s standards. In today’s world we know better. We know that gray areas abound. And where gray areas abound, the FREEDOM of individual citizens to interpret those gray areas for themselves must be given and PROTECTED by the government. Without choice to make such decisions for ourselves we cannot be considered free. So the question becomes: Are we to live free to interpret these gray areas, as is our right, or not free?  Gorsuch would choose the later, not for our sake, but for the sake of Originalism.

*We are currently 26 days away from reaching the record of 391 days with an empty seat on the Supreme Court.   This is thanks to the Republican leadership creating a bizarre eighth year rule where Presidents don’t have the Constitutional right to appoint judges even though the Constitution explicitly says, “and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court…”  Gorsuch may be a Constitutional Originalist, but Mitch McConnell clearly isn’t.

**It is worth noting that some Constitutional Originalists would argue that though rights like a woman’s right to vote were not in the original draft of the Constitution, Constitutional amendments exist precisely to fix such oversights and necessities. Supreme Court decisions were not required to give women the right to vote. A Constitutional amendment did that and that’s how it should be done, they might say. However, it is worth noting that even after giving African Americans the right to vote with the 15th Amendment in 1870, they were still denied that right even after such court cases as Giles v. Harris in 1903 where the court blatantly failed to uphold and therefore enforce the 15th Amendment. It took yet another piece of legislation nearly a century after the passage of the 15th amendment, The Civil Rights Act of 1965, to enforce African Americans’ right to vote which should have been enforced under the 15th Amendment in the first place. Courts have CLEARLY FAILED not only to uphold the spirit of the law at times, but have failed to uphold the law at the extreme detriment of American citizens and their rights. Freedom is the spirit of American law and the American Constitution. That is what judges should be most concerned with upholding.

The Democratic Value of Big City Values

“Big City values are…values designed to make it possible for large numbers of people with diverse beliefs and backgrounds to peaceably co-exist while still maintaining their individual freedoms to live as they please.”

“Big City values”, “New York values”, these are phrases we heard often throughout the 2016 Presidential campaign.  They aren’t the first time, however, that these terms have been used in the negative sense.  Normal thinking would define these “values” as liberal or left wing values.  Pro-choice vs. pro-life (although I prefer to call it ANTI-CHOICE) and gay marriage have historically been  key issues differentiating rural, small town values (as if all small towns are the same) from Big City and New York values.  Now immigration is yet another issue deeply dividing and differentiating rural, small town America from Big City America.  But let’s look deeper into this.  Shall we?  What makes Big City people SO DARN TOLERANT?  How can they stand other people having the FREEDOM to get an abortion, the FREEDOM to marry someone of the same gender, and the FREEDOM for people from other countries to come here after exhaustive background checks?  What VALUES make such tolerance possible?  Big City values.

Values are shaped by a person’s surroundings.  Everyone shapes their values in such a way as to make it easier to live and survive in relative peace.  That’s only practical and common sense.  Therefore Big City values are, by definition, values designed to make it possible for large numbers of people with diverse beliefs and backgrounds to peaceably co-exist while still maintaining their individual freedoms to live as they please.

These values and the surroundings that spawned them have given Big City people the unique quality of being unfazed by a broad range of human diversity in appearance and behavior.  It allows us to live in relative harmony with one another.  It is a beautiful beautiful quality about us and it should be celebrated.  We are more difficult to shock or offend and that is a good thing.  “Offense is taken, not given.”, said Ricky Gervais.  Big City people know better than to take offense left and right for their own sanity.  After all, going after people who offended us would be too exhausting.  We would find ourselves doing it 24/7.  It’s no different outside the cities except occasions for such perceived offenses are so few and far between by comparison that the time and energy to “prosecute” these “offenses” is much easier to come by.  Not so in the big city.

Therefore Big City values, New York values, or whatever you choose to call them, are the values most conducive to a functional, harmonious, and prosperous democracy.  Not to lord over other value systems, but rather to maintain the freedom of other value systems to exist in our country at all.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  Sounds rather American even.  Maybe we should have more Big City values all over the country.  Just so long as we don’t force our values on others.  That’s not what Big City values are about.

Facebook and Political Discourse: A Recent Encounter

So about a week ago I shared a story from BusinessInsider.com about a Jewish congregation in a Texas town who let a local Muslim congregation use their synagogue for worship services after the Muslims’ mosque had burned down.  A person commented the other day on the article,”No good deed goes unpunished.  I’d like to hear the end of that story.”  I wrote back,”What is that supposed to mean?” I half convinced myself I was asking a genuine question as opposed to the truth.  What I was really saying was,”Say that again.  I dare you.  And say it plainly so the ugliness of your hatred is on full display and I can rip you to shreds in front of everyone for it.”  Realizing that this is what I had really meant and that it might quickly lead to a combative, unconstructive conversation on my Facebook wall that I didn’t truly want, I quickly edited my response. 

But what to say instead?  I suddenly remembered my Fiddler on the Roof.  “Yes, but if he did nothing wrong he wouldn’t be in trouble.”  “Oh Papa, how can you say that?  What wrongs did Joseph do?  And Abraham, and Moses?  And they had troubles.”  I quickly edited my response.  “Good deeds shouldn’t be done so we can be rewarded.  Good deeds that come from genuine compassion, not a desire for reward, are the best kind, the most pure and selfless.  Nearly every major Biblical figure including Jesus was made to suffer for their good deeds.  It doesn’t mean they were wrong to do them.”  Later on the person responded,”I agree with you AND hope for the best for all concerned.”  I said that I agreed and left it at that.  I wouldn’t call it a victory exactly, but then I don’t want to beat anyone either.

Mission Statement and Guiding Principles

The facts of everyone’s life and world are different.  The facts of life in Dayton, Ohio are different from the facts of life in Miami, Florida.  Those differing facts shape differing world views, both valid and applicable to the places from which they came.  Somewhere in the middle is a reconciliation of the two views into a governmental philosophy that CAN and NEEDS to work for all Americans.  This blog is dedicated to, among other things, finding and elucidating that philosophy for myself and my readers.

The following beliefs and principles are meant to help guide myself in writing and my readers in reading this blog.  I will always try to hold myself accountable to these principles and welcome my readers to do the same for me, themselves, and others.

  • Finding COMMON GROUND is always more CONSTRUCTIVE than driving a wedge between people.
  • People must always follow their CONSCIENCE unless it is at the expense of the people.  There is nothing CONSCIENTIOUS about that.
  • All government employees, regardless of party, need to be held accountable and held subject to public scrutiny so that they may better serve us.  We can only hope to GET more from our public servants if we first EXPECT more from our public servants.
  • ACTS OF DEFIANCE that make us FEEL GOOD about ourselves are wonderful, unless making us feel good about ourselves is ALL that they’ve accomplished.  BRINGING US TOGETHER and improving the lives of others are our ultimate goals.
  • Our COMPASSION for others must be just as RELENTLESS as our pursuit to hold them accountable.  “…others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them back, and then you destroy yourself.”-Richard Nixon.  The guy knew what he was talking about.
  • “LOVING IS LISTENING.”-Hector and the Search for Happiness.  Like it or not, a government often reflects its people.  If we expect our government to listen to us and care for us like we want and deserve, we must first strive to LISTEN TO EACH OTHER.  Only then will we know how to LOVE EACH OTHER AS COUNTRYMEN AND WOMEN.  Let’s not wait for another national disaster to COME TOGETHER as a country.  LET’S DO IT NOW AND ALWAYS, and let us start by LISTENING TO ONE ANOTHER.  “Loving is listening.”