Ballots or Bullets

It’s taken approximately this long for my thoughts to coalesce to the point where I feel comfortable calling them a semi-ordered mess.  I’ve jotted down notes in notebooks, textbook margins, napkins, post-its, and old bank statements – half finished pieces litter both physical and virtual desktops.  I’ve written scattered thoughts on Trump’s Cabinet appointments, the future of science under the Trump administration, and how best to find common ground in a world filled to the brim with polemic, among many other things.  But I never felt like I had the perspective I needed, at the time, to write something honest or true, and I balk at the idea of adding another voice to a frothing sea of confused and angry noise.  I want to respond, not simply react.

Today, 19 December 2016, the Electoral College will cast its votes to affirm the decision of the National Election – I have little doubt of this.  Regardless of the outcome of the vote, we must each consider how to respond individually and also we need to consider, very carefully, how others will react.

Calls for electors to “Dump Trump” are, I feel, misguided and extremely dangerous.  I’m genuinely fearful of a violent response should the Electoral College fail to affirm the election results.  The discrepancy between the popular vote and the electoral college aside, Trump won fairly – insofar as procedure is concerned – and to challenge that at this point would do irreparable harm.  We must find the wisdom to know when to leverage mechanisms afforded by our Constitution and when to accept a reasonable loss.  Should the results of the election be overturned, the Democratic Party would lose generations of voters who, already easily convinced of the corruptness of establishment politics, would see it as proof positive of a vast Neo-Liberal conspiracy that requires a more unpredictable response.  It comes down to ballots or bullets, as it so often does.

Objective reality, in this case, is irrelevant – appeals on both sides are emotional, opinions are informed by mood and disposition, not facts.  This is what we must realize if reason is to ultimately prevail.  Russian hacking, which Trump seems wildly unconcerned about, troubles me for a wide variety of reasons, but what the leak ultimately revealed about the DNC troubles me substantially more.  Hillary lost the election for such a wide variety of reasons that to point to the Russians as the singular cause is not only wrong to do, but extremely foolish.  If an earnest assessment of election strategy isn’t considered and the left in America continues to stubbornly refuse to accept reality, America can expect more of the same.

The real tragedy in all of this is how the least fortunate Americans were fooled into thinking Trump had any of their best interests at heart.  As his cabinet fills with his millionaire and billionaire donors, I try to stress – as I so often do – that the common man has nothing in common with these elite other than perhaps a biological need for food, oxygen, and water.  Trump’s stated aim of “draining the swamp” has already turned out to be an effort to replace one mire with another and we can expect to see his campaign promises fall through one by one, starting with the wall.  Or fence.

But this won’t matter in the near term.  Trump’s word, to his most ardent supporters, is more than enough.  We’ll hear how his own inaction and back-peddling isn’t his fault, but instead – somehow – the liberal media’s fault instead.  Even with Congress stacked in his favor, Trump won’t be held accountable for his failures and his words will continue to have a messianic effect.  What’s perplexing, it seems, to quite a few on the left is how anyone could believe any of this, and while the answer isn’t simple, it is clear.  What’s more, this genuine confusion is indicative of a larger problem with some unique roots in the digital age.

When the American election is viewed within the scope of Western populist movements, xenophobia readily surfaces as a commonality.  In the US, Mexcians and Syrians (or Muslims, even more broadly) are the primary source of worry.  In its own way, this is the same as it’s always been; wild fears, hysteria, and discrimination has always surrounded different minority groups in the US at different times, including notably Mexicans, Africans, Chinese, the Irish, et al.  In many ways these fears self-assemble and are more than the sum of their parts.  Politicians, most notably on the American right, have used these fears for political gain even when they knew they were unfounded.

A few notable twentieth-century instances of the political leveraging of xenophobia and fear are especially telling in this regard.  John Ehrlichman, a former Nixon advisor, spoke candidly to journalist Dan Daum about the war on drugs:

I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Similarly, the Southern Strategy of the Republican party, leveraged the racism of Southern voting blocs, but using language that was murky enough to ensure the GOP wouldn’t paint itself with the wrong brush.  Lee Atwater, a campaign strategist, explains in an interview:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

The American left, I think, isn’t immune from this type of political strategy, but strangely I do think it may be more diffuse, organic, and possibly unintentional.  The left’s xenophobia is not directed outward but rather inward toward American conservatives.  It’s with a rabid, intellectual scorn that the American left shouts down opinions that smack of anything that doesn’t fit in precisely with any specific progressive agenda.  The “establishment” right, has for quite a long time been complacent in thar respect:

For years the conservative movement has tried to appeal to its media talking partners by smoothing the movement’s rough edges. It has tried to find common purpose with the liberal establishment by avoiding any appearance of extremism. Its affluent spokesmen have separated themselves from those who seem more “conservative” in their principles than the goal of bridge-building might render acceptable. Mainstream conservatives, especially those identified with foundations, have pursued this course not only to reassure liberal media colleagues but increasingly in recent decades to improve their place in the Republican Party. Since the 1980s, the conservative movement’s association with the Republican Party has grown so tight that it is hard to imagine the movement surviving in the Washington Beltway without it.

Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right, Paul Edward Gottfried  (pg x)

To many on the left, conservative voters are hillbillies, flyover state rednecks, racists, homophobic, backward and deplorable.  Very little consideration is given to issues specific to those voters – on either side of the divide – and like it or not, there is truth to be found, if it is only subjective.  Like it or not, there are reasons why Trump was elected and they need to be examined, even if they are uncomfortable.  One of these reasons, and I think this is likely the one liberals have the most control over, is that of facilitating reasonable and rational discussions about issues involving race, wealth, and gender, and to not halt these discussions at the point of discomfort or because someone might become offended.  A fact that will be important to embrace in the future is that “offense” is not a reasonable metric for ethical considerations, nor is it a necessary indicator of objective truth.

In a recent podcast during a discussion with Brookings Institute fellow Shadi HamidSam Harris pointed out that if reasonable, objective discussions about difficult issues are entirely unavailable or effectively inaccessible because of omnipresent taboos, people will naturally tend rightward – often to extremes – to feel secure.  It is time to have some very difficult and uncomfortable discussions about a wide range of topics (race, income disparity, Islam, immigration) or else we risk losing more good people to the mania of extremism.

A perfect example of this is yet another resurgence of Scientific Racism, fueled by speculative works by Nicholas Wade (MY REVIEW FORTHCOMING) and the “human biodiversity” movement whose major players include Steve Sailer and Razib Khan.  The human biodiversity movement examines, and often concludes, that micro-evolution has created separate human races with differing abilities influenced by their environments, which in turn can influence and impact civilization, science, learning, and social progress.  The movement makes a strong pivot away from the idea of race as a “social construct” – which is the widely accepted theory in most academic circles.  This is a prime example of the necessity to have open discussions about race and science.  If you hypothetically accept that there are different “races” of humans on the earth with differing abilities, this can lead to some uncomfortable conclusions.  But, is it better to have this discussion now and determine how to ensure equal treatment for all humans under a hypothetical scenario, or will our collective silence and tut-tut-ing of fringe opinion continue until it becomes a commonly accepted idea?  For reference, in the past Scientific Racism was highly influential for decades, often centuries, in strengthening the rationale for imperialism, eugenics, state-sponsored oppression, and genocide.


From Types of Mankind, Nott, et al, 1854 (pg 458-59)

The major difficulty we all face is an overwhelming, never ending torrent of information from sources the world over.  Our brains, as humans, simply have not evolved to process this amount of information effectively.  The result: human fallacies and inferential errors are magnified and exacerbated.  A negative interaction on social media with a person holding opposing views leads to a hasty generalization about “the others”.  Humans are still very tribalistic in that way; xenophobia and quick judgments were an effective survival strategy in the past, but are difficult to reconcile with circles of social interaction that are orders of magnitude larger than they’ve been at any other point in history.  What’s more, with everyone able to speak their mind so readily and with perspectives so varied, it’s no wonder that category mistakes abound.

I will say again, that we ignore all of this at our peril.  American Democracy is hardly as robust as it seems.  People seem to have quite a lot of faith in the strength of our institutions, but to suggest that political upheaval couldn’t happen here is absurd.  Unfortunately, this is a common attitude.  On 10 November 2016, a Muslim Trump supporter wrote:

 Days before the election, a journalist from India emailed me, asking: What are your thoughts being a Muslim in “Trump’s America”?

I wrote that as a child of India, arriving in the United States at the age of 4 in the summer of 1969, I have absolutely no fears about being a Muslim in a “Trump America.” The checks and balances in America and our rich history of social justice and civil rights will never allow the fear-mongering that has been attached to candidate Trump’s rhetoric to come to fruition. [my emphasis added]    

It’s this type of deluded complacency we should all be acutely aware of and adamantly argue against.  Fascism has sprung up elsewhere in “stable” regions.  Our country is not perfect, nor is it immune from a grand and terrible fall.  In some ways, this type of attitude will never go away; generational memory only lasts for so long.  Ancestors removed from struggle will never fully understand.  To some extent, we all take our freedom for granted.  Understanding our history is the only key here, and history clearly indicates Democracy may be in danger.

So how should we begin to branch the divide?  I, for one, believe that liberals have a firm responsibility to become more pragmatic and less rabid in the defense of a progressive agenda.  We’ve got to be willing to have discussions about difficult topics without immediately decrying opposing viewpoints as bigoted – because they aren’t necessarily so.  By all means stand up for yourself, but pick your battles and call out hypersensitivity when you see it, again, because this is not a valid contribution to an argument about the way things should be.    Finally, find other ways to get what you want or find a better way to agree.  Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote an absolutely fantastic piece on global warming that sets aside climate change and instead makes an appeal to health, economics, and common sense.

That might be the best thing about Trump as a president: he’s a businessman.  For him, the bottom line is what matters, meaning that this can be leveraged.  For instance, Trump made some surprising remarks regarding transgender bathrooms:

Asked if the Trump organization employs any transgender people, Mr. Trump said he truly did not know, but added, “I probably do.” And in response to a follow-up question, he said that if Caitlyn Jenner were to walk into Trump Tower and want to use a bathroom, he would be comfortable with her choosing any bathroom she wanted. “That is correct,” Mr. Trump said.

“There’s a big move to create new bathrooms” for transgender people alone, Mr. Trump said. “First of all, I think that would be discriminatory in a certain way. It would be unbelievably expensive for businesses and for the country. Leave it the way it is.”

In addition, Trump will have trouble ignoring the falling costs of alternative clean energies and the drastic uptick in alternative energy investors.  The question then becomes not “how do we leverage the bottom line” but rather “how do we leverage the bottom line before it’s too late”?



Echoes of Narcissus

In a modern take on Ovid’s tale, America has begun to craft a myth of its own.

The American left has become isolated from the political realities of the rest of the country.  Social media has become a convincing echo chamber for any number of artificial realities of our own creation.  We habitually expose ourselves only to a small circle of like-minded individuals and manage to fool ourselves into believing that our anecdotal experience is indicative of a larger trend, or even a consensus.  We “de-friend” those with different opinions not because we find them off-putting or even repugnant, but because we receive fevered congratulations from an  agreeable hive-mind when we announce that we’ve done so.  If instead we decide to keep detractors within our social circle, it’s only for cheap political argument fodder.  This is misguided pride and smug self-superiority at its worst.  Of course this behavior isn’t limited to either side of the divide, and we’ve all managed to intellectually distance ourselves from an empathetic understanding of other American lives.  Whether or not you find another citizen’s viewpoints untenable is irrelevant.  This is a Democracy, and their vote counts just as much as yours.

What so many have feared has already begun – reports of hate speech and attacks on citizens are flooding in.  Trump’s behavior has encouraged and emboldened the far-right racists in this country, but it’s very important to remember that not all Trump supporters are racist, sexist, homophobic, or misogynistic.  You may argue that simply voting for Trump makes them all of those things at once, but the issue is decidedly more complex because they don’t see themselves that way.

In any case, it’s becoming clear that many Trump supporters are angry and feel disenfranchised by establishment politicians.  As always, this is a class battle at its core.  Can we really expect a rural voter without much exposure to a minority population and their issues to be concerned with race relations instead of jobs?  Can we expect them to be concerned that their president is a racist or a misogynist when they’re struggling to find work or feed their families?  Can we expect them to care at all about a minority population if they feel equally let down by the government?  What motivation would most Americans have to vote for a radical change in leaders if they were content?  Whatever objective moral judgement you may feel the need to levy on Trump’s supporters, it’s important to remember that this will not change the political reality we’re facing; we need to bring more into the fold.  These are precisely the types of people that the left are supposed to care about.  To be clear, I do think even reasonable Trump supporters are lacking a substantial amount of empathy and awareness as well – they must come to understand the outrage that comes with being gay, a minority, an immigrant, a Muslim,  a woman, or some combination thereof – and seeing a man who has openly said or done awful things to those groups – propelled into the highest office in the land.

And again the mistakes in Hillary’s campaign – from its inception – pushed people into the waiting arms of Trump and Johnson.  Her comment about “deplorables” was gleefully celebrated at the time, but is now another regrettable moment on par with her lack of visits to key states.  You may argue that Trump said much worse – and he did – but this isn’t a contest anymore.

I haven’t yet decided on how dangerous Trump himself will be as a president in terms on what he’s actually able or willing to do.  I know that the current of hate he rode in on is incredibly volatile and will affect our country for many years.  We are bound to see increases in violence, hate speech, and vile anachronistic politics on every level.  Part of me, not a small part, thinks that Trump wanted to use his presidential candidacy as as credibility for his new network and never actually expected to win.  Unquestionably, Trump is an outstanding political talent and exceedingly perceptive in terms of reading both a crowd and a constituency, but it’s fairly clear that he doesn’t have a plan.  Many of the more frightening initiatives and timelines he’s suggested – like mass deportations – are mathematically impossible, but the mere mention of the idea smacks of internment or  much worse.  We all have an obligation to challenge these types of initiatives simply because we are in very real danger of repeating some decidedly dark history.  Garrison Keillor writes with a disgust that I understand and an apathy borne of a weariness we all know, but Trump must not go unchallenged.  We cannot afford the alternative.

What’s most disturbing is that the parallels between modern America and Weimar Germany are becoming undeniable.  In 2010, Noam Chomsky commented on the perilous state of America with eerily prescient accuracy:

“It is very similar to late Weimar Germany,” Chomsky told me when I called him at his office in Cambridge, Mass. “The parallels are striking. There was also tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system. The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.”

“The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen,” Chomsky went on. “Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like McCarthy or Nixon or the evangelist preachers. If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response. What are people supposed to think if someone says ‘I have got an answer, we have an enemy’? There it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force. And if it happens it will be more dangerous than Germany. The United States is the world power. Germany was powerful but had more powerful antagonists. I don’t think all this is very far away. If the polls are accurate it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans, who will sweep the next election.”

The American left itself is fractured, confused and muddled and the ultra-right has capitalized on a system chock-full of disenfranchised and disillusioned constituents.  As in Weimar Germany, if the left fails to unify, we all stand to lose, some worse than others.

Chomsky has advocated for a LEV – lesser evil voting strategy, and being in a safe state (DC) I strongly considered an abstention or a write-in.  But what’s the grander strategy for the future?  There’s quite a lot of blame going around for voting against the party line, or voting for a third party, or for the forty percent of eligible voters who didn’t bother to go to the polls – but this view is limited.  There is much more to consider when all of these things are happening concurrently and when our popular vote choices amount to casting our ballot “against” someone and not necessarily “for” someone else.  This election did not occur in a vacuum and outrage will not win hearts and minds.  We need to start considering ways to get the electorate involved and interested, we need to consider a more diverse range of common interests, and we need to have the foresight to make a strong pivot away from a binary system, or we risk everything.  I believe that Americans still have much more in common than they think they do.


Relax. This is all just a simulation, maybe. I gather my thoughts.

Many of us are trying to gather our thoughts after an unexpectedly perplexing election night and, frankly, a thoroughly bizarre year to date both politically and otherwise.  It appears that these results were widely unexpected by everyone.  My panic, formerly kept at bay by a dim hope, set in with finality late evening on the 8th.  I was reading Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight live feed, witnessing first hand their frantic back peddling dubbed “model corrections” in favor of a Trump victory.  CNN’s action movie coverage style, complete with a guitar-shredding background track and largely vacuous dialogue, probably took a few extra years off of my life.  What’s clear now is that we’ve all missed something and in a big way.

Some have proposed that we may currently be living in a simulation.  The theory goes that our descendants, or perhaps another sufficiently advanced species could hypothetically construct the technology required to a simulate the world of their ancestors, including approximations of human consciousness.  This is good.  Aside from the immediate existential weight this possibility adds to each of us as individuals, it means that we may have descendants who have survived long enough to evolve or become hyper-advanced.  It means that at least some shade of whatever epoch of the earth our reality is based off of has survived far into the future.

If you’re feeling bleaker, and I’m inclined to be, the simulation we live in may be much more subject specific.  For instance we could, presently, exist in an active simulation of the end of human civilization in the 21st century.  Perhaps our descendants are survivors of an apocalyptic event and hope to study its genesis.  Perhaps that event happens within our lifetimes.  And I do realize very deeply how hyperbolic all of this must sound to some, but the fact that a man as petulant as Trump will assume full control over an arsenal of the most destructive and horrific weapons ever created by man is a bone chilling reality we’ve all no choice but to face.  That an openly racist and misogynistic man has his hands on something other than a device connected to Twitter – and that WE put him in that position – is disturbing to the greatest possible extent.

How was the disconnect so wide?  How are the exit polls showing such a strong turnout for female voters and Hispanics for Trump?  How could anyone without a billion dollars or with a skin tone other than eggshell think for a moment that their interests aligned even coincidentally with  Trump’s?

This is a failure on many levels, but I have to place the blame squarely on the Democrats and their rosy naivete which spread so widely after Obama’s second win.  The electorate that turned out to vote – neglected and written off by Democrats – responded angrily with ballots.  The DNC groomed a candidate for nearly a decade who they KNEW polled poorly against key demographics compared to other candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.  They KNEW that Hillary could never escape Bill Clinton’s legacy in the eyes of many, many conservative voters.  They KNEW that she is viewed as a more-of-the-same dyed in the wool career politician and they KNEW about her email “scandal.”  Still, they pushed forward. DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to resign after evidence emerged of staffers inappropriately backing HRC over Sanders, not to mention the carefree use of Democratic Super-delegates in a primary election system that is overly complicated, convoluted and, it now seems, a position-for-favor factory.

And I empathize with Hillary and I do agree with many of her political views, regardless of the abysmal damage control of the campaign.  I am in awe of the sheer grit and poise required to stand firm in the face of an openly misogynistic opponent and – still worse – the passive and much more insidious off-handed and perfectly “acceptable” misogyny  that demands that Hillary never look old, or sick, or out of style, or too cold, or too emotional.  She – we – were up against a bloc of voters that made a clear choice of fear-mongering and wild-west politics over women.  Even women themselves strongly supported Trump.  The predilections of voters isn’t anyone’s fault, but how we dealt with it is all of our responsibility.  We ignored the signs and assumed we’d have two milestone presidencies.  We can’t ever again afford to de-legitimize or de-humanize the concerns of an electorate, especially one that has indicated, quite clearly, that it doesn’t care about Goldwater Conservatism anymore.

And where does this leave us in the worst case?  Far-right Supreme Court Nominations?  A trade war with China?  Russian appeasement?  War?  I find myself hoping that Trump turns out to be a Reaganesque leader, if only because Reagan managed to push the Doomsday Clock back instead of forward. Then again, Reagan’s counterpart was Gorbachev, and Trump faces a much less progressive and much more unpredictable counterpart in Putin.  Domestically, Trump’s rhetoric has legitimized speaking hate openly.  Across the board we can expect local elections to be flooded with imitators having vile points of view, charlatans, demagogues, and know-nothings.  We can expect xenophobia and homophobia to become acceptable creeds.  We can also do something about it.

We have to be political.  Write letters.  Call.  Reach out.  Challenge small-mindedness whenever you see it.  Encourage treatment of all human beings with dignity.  Stop blaming third party voters – the fact that there were so many inclined to vote against party lines should be a wake up call for all of us – none of us have any obligation to vote against our conscience.  I feel a profound sense of unease now, and so I can’t imagine what gay people, women, and minorities must be feeling.  We’ve got to make a commitment to stand up for one another and work as one.  I’m with you all, especially.

I don’t know what’s to come – I think it’s fair to say that even Trump didn’t expect to get here. It could be that this is a unique opportunity for us to grow as a country and to learn.  Or maybe we should all just wake up.