I Joyfully Disagree

A few years ago, I had an argument with my brother that lasted a little over four hours. It started around 10pm and ended after 2am. We argued the entire time. By the time we both went to bed, we were slightly upset with one another, but thankfully, the negative energy didn’t carry beyond the following morning.

Several weeks ago, I had an argument with my cousin-in-law. It also started late at night and ended sometime early in the morning. This one involved a myriad of people standing outside at a party, but he and I started it and he and I finished it. At one point, he physically threw me up against a wall, but at no point did I feel that we were actually upset with one another.

I do this a lot.

A couple of days ago, I argued with three of my students for forty-five minutes straight, only stopping because the clock told us we had to. While one of the students grew verbally exasperated with me during the argument, and another seemed to get silently so, at no point did I feel like they wanted the argument to stop.

I do this all the time.

I’m not entirely sure where this personality trait originates. My family argued a lot growing up, and my best friend and I used to (and still do) argue all the time, but I don’t know how much was nurture or how much was nature.

I’ve even bought into the astrological argument on this one, despite telling myself I don’t believe in astrology. While I understand and agree with all of the arguments that explain why I shouldn’t agree with astrology, when it comes to being a Gemini, for me, it simply feels true.

As Astrology.com explains it:

[Talking is] not just idle chatter with these folks… The driving force behind a Gemini’s conversation is their mind. The Gemini-born are intellectually inclined, forever probing people and places in search of information. The more information a Gemini collects, the better. Sharing that information later on with those they love is also a lot of fun, for Geminis are supremely interested in developing their relationships.

Forever probing; collecting and sharing information for the pure joy of it; and developing relationships through this method — it sounds like a person who loves to argue (and who loves to blog).

The argument with my brother started because he endorsed the Confederate flag. The argument with my cousin-in-law started because he supported Judge Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court (and as a lawyer, he thought he knew of what he spoke). The argument with my three students started because they doubted that there is such a thing as altruism.

These are all good arguments.

My brother argued that the Confederate flag doesn’t have to stand for racism. It can also stand for rock n’roll in the way that Bo & Luke Duke were rock n’roll. It can stand for bad-assness, that brand of American individuality that flouts convention and shoots from the hip. After all, it comes from Confederacy not just of slaveholders, but of rebels. My brother’s argument wasn’t wrong.

My cousin-in-law argued that, when it comes to the Supreme Court, the best judges would be textualists. It’s not the Supreme Court’s job to do what it thinks is morally right. Our country’s morals and values should be democratically determined through a legislative process whereby competing interests make their best arguments and majority opinions rule the day (tempered by the minority’s right to continue the argument even when they don’t have the votes, forcing the legislature to arrive at some kind of near consensus). It’s a drawn-out and dirty way to determine our society’s values, but it’s the best method anyone’s come up with yet to balance the rights of the individual with the obligations of a society.

To best protect those democratically determined values, we want a Supreme Court that restrains itself to the values entombed in a text that the people themselves have agreed upon (through their elected representatives). The Supreme Court should not make rulings because of some kind of prevailing societal wind whose presence can sometimes only be sensed by five out of the nine judges. My cousin-in-law’s argument was not wrong.

My students argued that altruism doesn’t exist because human beings have evolved to sometimes seek experiences that will increase the flow of dopamine in the brain (altruism has been shown to be associated with dopamine). In other words, we don’t act altruistic because we’re nice people; we act altruistic because it gets us a little high. Since the unselfish acts required for altruism ultimately reward the self, the act’s altruistic origin is false. My students’ argument was not wrong.

And yet, argue with all of them I did.

I tried to explain to my brother that, while what he was saying wasn’t wrong, the violence of slavery was so horrific that its symbol should only be able to exist in history books and museums. I didn’t disagree that any individual anywhere has the right to wave whatever flag they choose to wave, but just because they have the right to do so doesn’t mean that they should. It’s a sad world when someone tells you that the flag you’re waving creates a sense of visceral fear and/or horror in their hearts, and they have all the facts of history to support their emotional response as a reasonable reaction, and yet, just because you can, you continue to wave the flag. That’s not an act of rebellion; that’s just disrespect and hate.

I tried to explain to my cousin-in-law that, while textualism sounds like a great method for interpreting the law, I’d rather have judges who share the majority’s understanding of fairness, regardless of the intricacies of the text that fairness should be based on. In addition, when a judge has a clear preference for finding for the rights of corporations over the rights of individuals (as Justice Gorsuch has been shown to do), then that judge isn’t capable of (or interested in) defending the people against the moneyed interests who have corrupted the legislative process that is responsible for those texts.

To be a textualist, then, is to be a judge who openly declares his faith in a system of laws whose creation is funded and driven by a combination of multinational corporations and the richest individuals who run them. Corporations do not need any more influence in our government than they already have, but the confirmation of Justice Gorsuch gave them not just one more representative, but one more incredibly powerful representative whose preference for the corporate interest will have an effect for generations.

I tried to explain to my students that, while altruistic acts ultimately reward the individual with dopamine, that doesn’t mean altruism doesn’t exist. For two reasons, the first of which is a question of timing, and the second of which is a question of semantics — of where you locate the meaning of altruism.

The process of altruism leading to an increase in dopamine is an evolved process, which means that at some point, some creature (possibly pre-chordates) did something altruistic, and then, and only then, was the dopamine triggered, the joyful experience of which created the drive to do something nice again, even if only to get a little buzzed again.

The same process probably happens in the development of young children: first they do something nice (probably because they were taught to), and then, and only then, can the dopamine be triggered.

But until they (chordates or children) actually commit the altruistic act, they can’t know that it will result in the joyful release of dopamine, and so, wouldn’t the impulse to altruism have to come first, rather than the reward of the dopamine?

Even if a child only commits an altruistic act because their parent(s) taught them that it’s right to do so, they must first do so not because of the reward they’ll receive (which they know nothing about) but because it’s the right thing for them to do.

The second reason is that it doesn’t actually matter how the drive to be altruistic evolved. Obviously, for social creatures such as ourselves, being altruistic makes it easier to live among the group and, hence, to survive long enough to create the next generation of altruists, which of course passes on the genes for altruism (including too, perhaps, the genes for listening to one’s elders). But this doesn’t change the fact that the person doing the altruistic act does so to be helpful.

Yes, there is a biological and evolutionary reward, but if there’s one thing that defines the human species, it’s that we’ve evolved to transcend our bodies, hence the evolutionary and transcendent gifts of language, culture, and technology. Just because something finds it origin in our biology doesn’t mean we ought to locate its meaning there as well.

The meaning of altruism exists beyond the body — this is in some ways its definition: a helpful act extending from one’s body and through which nothing good is expected in return. Just because something good is returned (the joyful flood of dopamine) doesn’t discount the fact that nothing good was expected. It’s that lack of an expectation (factual or not) that defines altruism; not the gene that floods the brain inside our bodies, but the lack of an expectation that something good will come to us from outside of our bodies.

It was a long and complex argument with many twists and turns and a healthy amount of crossover, and by the end, we seem to agree to disagree. My students are damn smart, and they know, themselves, how to make an argument.

Regardless, this is who I am: the Gemini who’s going to argue with you, not because I’m angry (rarely) or passionate (often), but because it just feels so damn fun to do.

A Serious Mistake

I had a moment with a student this week. It was early in the morning, and this student was not feeling up to it. I entered the classroom and already I could tell that something was wrong.

But for some reason, I didn’t do anything to help him. I was in my own head, feeling self-important as I entered the room and focused on my own agenda for how the next sixty minutes would go. While I saw him and knew something was wrong, I did not let that deter me from accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish.

In my school, teachers share classrooms. While we are a one-to-one school, very few of our blocks are truly one-to-one. Even if we have one staff member assigned to one student, we often group students and staff together in the same space, even when they’re not working on the same subject. This allows the students and the staff to play off of each other in fruitful and often serendipitous ways.

So that morning, as I entered the classroom, I saw this student having a real problem, but he wasn’t my student for the next sixty minutes, so I passed him by and moved on to what I imagined my responsibilities were for that block, a combination of administrative obligations and student supervision (not teaching, per se, but supervision; my assigned student works independently that block). There were two other teachers in this shared space, so I assumed he was one of theirs, and hence, his problem was their problem.

About twenty minutes later, I noticed that the student was still sitting there, without any adult’s undivided attention, so I asked him, “Hey, who are you supposed to be with this block?” He looked up at me and said, “You.”

And then it hit me: he was absolutely right. It’s just that, until this day, he had worked side by side with the student who was working independently, and so I forgot he was assigned to me. And then, on this day, when it really mattered, I wasn’t there for him.

As soon as I realized my mistake, I immediately left behind every obligation I imagined I had and sat down with this student, made direct and clear eye contact with him, and asked him what was going on. Within moments, he had tears in his eyes, and for the next 30 minutes, we just talked. We didn’t talk about the problem directly (he doesn’t yet trust me enough for that), but we did talk about something else that was bothering him, and by helping him process that more minor problem, I believe I helped him talk about the real problem later on in the day with our school counselor (not to take anything away from the incredible skills of our school counselor, who is perhaps one of the most analytical and yet most present listeners I’ve ever met).

But that’s not the point. It’s not about the twenty minutes he and I spent together, having what I felt to be a meaningful conversation; it’s about the 35 minutes before that, when I told him with every fiber of my being that he didn’t matter (not enough for me to stop focusing on my goals anyway).

Unfortunately, at my school, there’s really only one thing our boss completely expects from us (most staff members have other obligations, but this is the big one), and that’s to be present with the kids we are assigned to. When a staff member is having an issue connecting with one of our kids, they can blame whoever does the schedule, but I’m the guy who does the schedule, so there’s no one left to blame but myself. In my capacity as the scheduler, I chose this student for this block; I knowingly committed myself to him; and that day, I forgot he was mine.

As I said, I didn’t solve my student’s underlying problem that day. And the truth is, I’ll never be able to. It’s a systemic problem that originates in the home, is diffused and exacerbated by society, and spilled onto the floor for everyone else to deal with. It’s the problem of being (or at least feeling like) an unwanted child.

Most of the students in my school have come to us as the last stop. There really isn’t anything after us except a bed in a state-run institution, and there’s not always enough beds. They’ve been told by almost every single adult they’ve ever interacted with that they’re not wanted. Many of them are in some kind of foster care, or living with non-parental relatives, or shuttled off into quasi- or state-paid-for apartments. They’ve been kicked out of every school they’ve ever attended, and sometimes they’ve even been kicked out of other schools like ours.

We are the last stop, and when they don’t make it with us, the next stop might not just be a state-run institution; it might actually be death.

I’m not trained to handle that kind of responsibility. But honestly, who is?

You might think, “Um….psychiatrists? psychologists?…you know…doctors?”

Okay, fine. But do you know how much doctors get paid? How much are you willing to pay in your taxes for some other kid’s education? Would it be enough to pay for a school full of doctors? And just one school or two? What about seven? What about 250? What about 98,271?

Until society decides to pay teachers like doctors (or pay doctors to be teachers), who are we willing to pay to be present with those kids whose next step might include a noose, or even worse, holding a loaded machine gun?

Me. That’s who.

You’re willing to pay me.

An adult who sometimes forgets what kid he’s assigned to. But also an adult who is willing, every single day, to sit down with any troubled young person and ask, with all my heart, “What’s going on?”

Boston Defense

I’ve been spending the last few weeks trying to understand what it means to be a fan from Boston.

The topic first came up in my classroom, when two of my colleagues (one of whom is a Yankees fan and the other of whom is a Lebron fan) accused Boston of being a terrible place to play sports. Later that day, I learned about an incident at a recent Red Sox game when a bunch of Boston fans yelled racist slurs at an opposing player, an incident that sparked a national conversation about racism in Boston.

I am a Boston fan, and I know Boston is racist because Bill Russell said Boston is racist. As a lifelong Celtics fan who was raised on the original Big Three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish, I love and revere Bill Russell, and if this person whom I love tells me Boston is racist, I have to believe him, just as I would have to believe Tom Brady if he told me Vince Wilfork was gay.

Russell’s statement is corroborated by players in a variety of leagues. There is no dispute of this. I know Boston is racist.

But Boston also isn’t racist. The very next night at the Red Sox game, the entire stadium gave a standing ovation to the opposing player who received those slurs, and that too is a testament to the quality of the fanbase.

There are racists among us. We know this. But we don’t want the racists to define us.

We want to be defined by one thing: our ability to make a difference on the court or on the field.

It means something to play a home game in Boston. I know home teams everywhere have the advantage, but in Boston, it’s more than an advantage. It’s a legacy. Bill Russell (and Red Auerbach) gave us that legacy, and that is one of the reasons we will always love him. Together, Russell & Auerbach taught us not to expect anything less from our teams than a championship (a lesson Tom Brady and Bill Belicheck have been reinforcing for almost fifteen years now).

As fans, we see ourselves as having one job. When the visiting team comes to town, we want them to get nervous to play in front of us. We’re not on the court or on the field, and we don’t have the talent or the discipline to develop a career in professional sports, but we do have one skill: we can get fucking rowdy, and even though we’re stuck in the seats, we can use our words and our noise to get inside their heads (not to mention the heads of the refs, who, it turns out, are really affected by home-court crowds).

That’s the one thing we can do to help our city win a championship, and we take that job very seriously.

While that rowdiness is directed at the opposing team, it has the additional benefit of charging up our players. If, as a player for the home team, you need the crowd to give you energy in the fourth quarter, the ninth inning, or the third period, you can count on Boston to give it you.

And because of that, we — the Boston crowd — can make a real difference in the game. We know we do.

As a player, that’s what you should expect from us. It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black or Canadian, if you play hard enough to stay competitive, then the fans of Boston can provide the energy you need to take it the rest of the way. We cannot give you talent, but we can give you energy; and in the playoffs, energy makes the difference. As Bill Russell once said, “The great reward is watching the other team slowly suffocate.”

But it’s not just the racist thing, or the energy thing, that makes Boston fans who we are.

Two nights ago, in game five of a seven-game series, the Celtics needed a win at home. The story of the series is that the Celtics fought tooth and nail to win two games at home, and then they got blown out of the water for two games on the road, making themselves look very, very bad on the national stage.

During the first of those road games (game 3), a young player on the opposing team named Kelly Oubre charged and shoved one the Celtics players, a white doofus named Kelly Olynyk. Now some people hate Olynyk (maybe rightfully so), but the doofus actually plays the game well sometimes, draining threes when they matter, playing defense with a real sense heart (if not always real smarts), and even causing turnovers at crucial points in the game.

Anyway, in game three, Oubre shoved Olynyk, Olynyk went flying, and controlled chaos erupted on the floor. When everything settled down, Oubre got ejected from game three and suspended for game four.

All of which meant that Oubre’s first game back after the incident was this one, game five, when the series came back to Boston.

Oubre is not a starting player. But about five minutes into the game, when the Celtics had demonstrated that this wasn’t going to be the same kind of team the Wizards faced in Washington and that the game was probably not going to go the Wizards’ way, the Boston crowd started chanting, “We want Oubre! We want Oubre!” Oubre hadn’t played yet. He was still sitting on the bench. And the Boston fans were calling him out (later in the game, the chant would change to something more profane).

That’s also what it means to be from Boston. It means that when the opposing team comes to town, we’re going to talk shit to them. We’re like those guys clustered around two fighters in the street. We’re not in the fight ourselves, but man, we’re gonna talk shit to anyone whose trying to beat our boys at home. We can’t be in the ring (which is why we can’t wear the ring), but we can talk shit if it helps our boys defend the home turf.

I love that about us.

It’s just that sometimes, the shit we say can be rather shitty.

Here’s another story. A week or so ago, soon after the racist slur incident, a fan used the jumbotron at Fenway Park to propose to his girlfriend, making the grandest gesture he could think of. And the girl said no….on the jumbotron.

And what did the Boston crowd do? It started chanting, “She said no! She said no!”

That’s ridiculous, of course, but it’s also hilarious. It doesn’t take into account how devastated that man must have felt, nor how embarrassed that woman had to be, which means in some real humane sense, it was a completely shitty thing for the crowd to do, but it’s also hilarious.

(There’s a reason Louie C.K. will always be a Boston comic, regardless of where he lives or how big he gets. With Louie, everything that is shitty about life is also hilarious. Using a master’s control of his craft, Louie’s stand-up bits and television shows demonstrate in exacting and emotional detail how shitty life human existence can be in the twenty-first century, but they also make us experience how funny it can be at the exact same timeThat’s a sensibility you get from living in Boston.)

And I love that about us. We can be shitty and funny at the exact same time and as an entire crowd: tens of thousands of people being shitty and funny together. It’s great.

And it’s part of what makes Boston Boston. And it’s why “I love that dirty water….”

Trump In The Führerbunker

Donald Trump is a dumb guy. He’s not the dumbest guy — you’ve got to have some kind of intelligence (a ruthless one?) if you’re going to make as many millions of dollars as he has — but to fire James Comey like that, right now, with the Russian heat as hot as it’s been, is there any other word for it except dumb?

I guess we could call it bad strategy. I’ve been reading a lot about war and politics lately, as well as playing a lot of Madden football, so strategy is something that’s been on my mind, and thinking about Donald Trump, I have to ask: What kind of game is he playing?

He’s not playing politics. If you’re playing the game of politics, you do not fire the official who is in charge of investigating your administration the day after the other justice official you fired testifies in front of Congress about that investigation, a testimony that includes the coincidence that just as she increased the heat on the investigation of your administration, you found another cause to fire her. That would just be dumb. It arouses more suspicion, which craters your approval ratings, which decreases your influence among those whose votes you’ll need to get your policies passed. It’s just bad politics.

But what if he’s playing war? If this is a war between Donald Trump and the rest of the world (as a narcissist like Donald Trump could only imagine it to be), would firing Comey still be such a dumb idea? I’m not so sure.

Comey was obviously a liability to the White House. The man was actively investigating the administration’s ties to a foreign power where the suspicion was not simply money laundering, but also straight-up treason. If your only public goal is to survive until the next election, then it might make a lot of sense to cut your losses and simply get rid of the guy. As the head of the executive branch, you’re responsible for appointing the man’s successor, so why not get rid of him now and install someone you know you can trust? Yes, you’ll take shit for it in the short term, but in the long term, you might be able to sleep better at night.

Trump has to be wondering what his opposition’s counter move is going to be. Yes, the Congressional investigations will get more intense, and yes the heat from the media will increase, but ultimately, what does that matter? If the Republicans keep control of the Congress, there’s no way he gets impeached, and if you’d just won a Presidential election against all the odds that the bookmakers could quote you, you’d probably believe it doesn’t matter what the odds are going to be in 2018, because you’ll still end up on the lucky side of the coin.

In that case, firing Comey right now, regardless of what it looks like, makes perfect sense. You know the battle’s lost on the investigation front, so cut your losses, appoint someone loyal to defend the front, and move on to the next problem. The Congress and the media can do whatever they want, as long as you’re ultimately protected by those whom you know are loyal.

It’s a bunker mentality, and the Trump White House is currently under siege.

And in that kind of reality, it’s actually a reasonable move.

So now you have to ask, as the opposition, what should we do to counter it?

We could intensify the investigation, of course; that’s where the White House is feeling the most pressure, so we should just keep pushing until it breaks. Already, the quantity and quality of the leaks have expanded, so appointing someone loyal might be the equivalent of Trump trying to stick his thumb in the dyke.

But to use a war analogy, that would be like we were sticking with the infantry instead of overwhelming our opponent through a combination of Air Force, Army, and Navy.

We ought to, of course, intensify the investigations (which the Senate Intelligence Committee seems highly committed to doing, thank goodness), but we’ve got to account for the possibility that the person Trump appoints might actually be up to the job of derailing the investigation long enough for the Republican House to get re-elected (which, again, would eliminate the risk of impeachment), which means that the investigation can’t be the only front in our war.

The other front is obvious: taking control of the House in 2018. I live in Vermont, where the House & the Senate are a lock, so there’s only so much good I can do (and all of it will have to be at a distance). Thankfully, Bernie’s movement is actively channeling itself into local and state elections, which means there’s already an army on the ground. Now we just need to give them some air support.

Change the Channel

This is all just a TV show. That’s what I learned from this great article in Current Affairs magazine. Moderate conservatives and liberals prefer President Jed Bartlett of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, while the right prefers Donald Trump of The Apprentice and FOX News. Hilary Clinton, supported by the media, ran on Jed Bartlett’s platform of intelligence, competence, and moral smugness, while Donald Trump ran on FOX News‘ platform of cynicism, xenophobia, and aggression (read as “security”).

The election wasn’t an election as much as it was a study in what kind of TV shows we like to watch. Those who prefer scripted dramas voted differently from those who prefer “reality” TV.

Except, and this is what’s important from the Current Affairs article, that analysis isn’t true at all. Because reality is neither a scripted drama nor a reality TV show. It sounds trite, and no one would ever argue that it was, but it’s also important to remember: reality is neither a scripted drama nor a reality TV show.

It’s reality, with real live consequences. The people in Syria are not characters in some postmodern multimedia text; transgender people are not characters who’ll soon disappear from some screen; and ex-miners are not going hungry just for the chance to star in some capitalist’s propaganda poster. This shit is real, and it really matters to persons. Decisions made in New York, Washington D.C., London, Paris, Berlin, Beijing, etc. affects real change in the daily experiences of individuals all over the planet and not just in the power dynamics of a popular TV show called Watch the Throne.

In Our Climate Future is Actually Our Climate Present, Jon Mooallem explains that we will not experience climate change as some great calamity, but as a kind of gentrification, with human beings doing what human beings are already doing: putting our heads down and continuing to trudge on, day by day, until we die.

But it’s the job of politics to make trudging through this life just a little bit easier, not just for me and you, but for everyone.

And why wouldn’t it be? If the political truly is personal, then politics is the act of living among your fellow human beings. It’s not a game to be played at the highest professional level; the Democrats and the Republicans are not the Red Sox and the Yankees. They’re two groups of people who claim to stand for specific ways of treating other people.

The Democrats claim to stand for treating each human being with dignity and respect, and they extend that claim to embrace the moral obligation it recommends, that is, to protect and advocate for those who cannot protect or advocate for themselves. This stance does not allow for bullying, but it does allow for righteous indignation, civil (not to be read as peaceful) protest, and a willingness to engage in defensive combat.

It recommends this not just as a form of politics, but as a form of living a life. It accepts the complexity that comes from living in a democratic society where your neighbors, not to mention the millions upon millions of other people whom you don’t know and will never meet, all get a say (at some level) as to how you live your life (if you want to live your life among them, anyway).

In a democratic society as large as ours, where we can’t come to a consensus on a statement as objectively true as “The Earth is not flat,” Democrats claim the only way to interact with each other, in our homes or outside of them, is with dignity and respect and the moral obligation to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

This is not how actual Democrats behave. This is their claim as to the right way to live among your fellow human beings.

The Republicans claim the proper way to act among others is to say Fuck them. This is not the same thing as Fuck youRepublicans are Christians, after all, and good Christians don’t say “Fuck you” to one another. They will say “Fuck you” to them though, just as God said “Fuck you” to all the other thems in the Old Testament: The first-born sons of Egypt? Fuck them. The Sodom and Gomorrah? Fuck them. The Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites? Fuck them. King Ahazia? You’re fired!

But as for the rest of us — those of us who are not them — the Republicans claim we can pretty much do whatever we want.

Want to shoot someone? Make sure they’re not one of us or that you can claim you were protecting yourself; and if you can’t find someone to shoot, join the army and we’ll point your gun in the right direction.

Want to get rich? Go for it, and the best of luck to you. If someone gets in your way, fuck them.

Want to screw a girl? Don’t worry, because they secretly really want it; and if they don’t, well…fuck them.

Heard that there’s someone with an unwanted pregnancy? Fuck them for not being more responsible.

Do what you want. Do what you’re good at. And fuck them if they can’t take it.

Based on everything I’ve seen or read or experienced, that’s what the Republican Party claims is the way we should act among our fellow human beings (again, not fuck you but fuck them).

It sounds like I’m saying the Democrats are angels and the Republicans are devils. I’m not. There are plenty of Democrats who stomp on the backs of the underprivileged and plenty of Republicans who spend their days providing crucial services to those who are suffering, regardless of what the victims look like or believe.

What I am saying is that there is both a Democratic and a Republican claim about how we should act, and they differ from one another. Both are attractive, but for different reasons.

It’s a lot easier to live in a Fuck them world, and it promises to be more interesting: there’s obvious conflict in a Fuck them worldview, and as the ratings for Honey Boo Boo demonstrate, conflict itself is exciting, regardless of its content.

Living in a world where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and where the only sanctioned conflict is against an act of injustice? That sounds predictable and boring.

Except reality is never predictable and boring. It’s difficult to treat people with dignity and respect, and the world is filled with acts of injustice. Ultimately, as the Buddhists have long argued, all life, regardless of race, class, or even species, is struggle, and it provides a near-constant engagement with both internal and external conflicts. If conflict is exciting, then nothing could be more exciting than deeply living one’s life, and at the end of the day, isn’t every life lived deeply by the one who is living it?

This conception of reality, where everyone is fighting both internal and external conflicts almost all the time, founds the Democratic claim that everyone deserves dignity and respect. If everyone is in the middle of some conflict, the last thing we should do is add to their troubles by making them the them of our Fuck them.

The Republicans, on the other hand, tell us not to worry about what they’re going through. Worry about us becoming more safe or economically better off, and fuck them if they get in the way.

Again, I’m not talking about actual Democrats and Republicans here. I’m talking about their advertisements for the way we should live our lives.

Unfortunately, too many people would rather watch Donald Trump say Fuck them than engage with the complexity of trying to actually understand them. And right now, those people are holding the remote control.

Jed Bartlett thinks we should persuade them to give it to us instead. But you can’t persuade someone out of a remote control. There’s only one thing we can do: take it by force, and fuck them if they get in the way.

One Meaning of Liberalism

I have a reputation among my friends and family as a rather aggressive liberal. I don’t deny that reputation, but I also don’t wholly accept it. As I recently explained to a family member, I try not to bring up politics in a conversation, but if someone else brings it up, I’m am more than willing to join in.

To me, however, politics does not mean partisanship. I am not a registered member of either of the major parties: I am not a Democrat, nor am I a Republican. I’m a registered member of the Vermont Progressive Party, the most successful third party in the United States. “Founded by the activists who helped to elect Bernie Sanders as the Mayor of Burlington” in the early 1980s, the Vermont Progressive Party now boasts 10 local officials throughout the towns and cities of Vermont, three state senators, eight state representatives, and two statewide officeholders (Vermont’s Auditor of Accounts and Vermont’s Lieutenant Governor).

So when it comes to talking about national politics (which is usually what I’m talking about with people), I don’t have a dog in the partisan fight.

While I’m not a Democrat or Republican, I am, in fact, a liberal. But when you take away the context of the national parties, the question becomes: what does it mean to be liberal?

The concepts that ring out the most are social justice, economic justice, a rigorous commitment to the facts, and a willingness to engage with the complexity of historic and systemic context.

Justice is at the heart of being a liberal. The pre-emininent philosopher on the topic, John Rawls, lays out two principles of justice: first, that there must be “equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties,” and second, that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage and attached to positions and offices open to all.”

The first principle means that everyone in the society has the same rights and obligations, regardless of who they are or where they come from. The second means that any difference in those rights or obligations must be acceptable and open to all; for example, if the President of the United States gets to have the pomp of the Marine Corps Band playing a song every time he walks into a room, it’s because we want to have the best of the best take that position and offering such pomp is one of the ways we try to entice them, and that’s okay, provided that the office is open to everyone.

In the context of social justice, it comes down to what Rawls famously calls the “veil of ignorance,” where you are asked to construct a just society of which you will be a permanent member without knowing anything about yourself — your race, gender, sexuality, ethnic background, intelligence level, physical ability, vigor, wealth, etc. In such a situation, you would probably design a society that is as fair as possible, since there is a reasonable chance that you would be among the least advantaged members of that society.

In practical terms, that means looking at today’s social and economic issues as if you were a member of the disadvantaged class. If you are a White person, you must imagine our criminal justice system as if you were a Black or Latino person. If you have a place to securely lay your head at night, you must imagine the nighttime worries of a homeless person. If you are a member of the financial services or advanced technology industries, you must imagine the depression of someone whose entire economic life has revolved around a coal mine. If you can comfortably sustain a medical emergency in your family, you must imagine the strain of a hospital visit for someone who doesn’t have health insurance. If you are free from the crippling hunger of addiction, you must imagine what it feels like to be so driven to score your next fix that you’re willing to demolish your closest personal relationships, including those with your children. If you can walk into a public restroom without any thought about which door is right for you, you must imagine the difficulty of someone who sees the male or female symbol as not representing their lived reality.

In such situations, where you are among the underprivileged, how would you design your society? Would you design a dog-eat-dog system, or would you design a society that was as fair as possible for everyone involved? Any reasonable person would attempt the latter.

When a situation arises — the protests at Standing Rock, for example, or Justice Gorsuch’s case of the frozen trucker, for another —  liberals attempt to imagine the viewpoint of the underprivileged member(s) of the conflict and develop their stances accordingly.

However, liberalism is not as simple as rooting for the underdog because along with social and economic justice, there is also a rigorous commitment to the facts and a willingness to engage with the historic and systemic context. Without these two elements, you’d have a knee-jerk liberalism that refuses to acknowledge any reality outside of its own.

I strive to not be a knee-jerk liberal, and whatever success I have is a function of my dedication to education, edification, and engagement. I seek out alternative viewpoints, try to read as widely and as deeply as possible, and focus as much as I’m able on questions surrounding the right and the good, knowing that there are no easy solutions to any of the conflicts facing  societies today.

There is no easy solution to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. No easy solution to the war-mongering North Korean dictatorship. No easy solution to the Syrian civil war. No easy solution to the ramifications of a globalized economy. No easy solution to the economy’s dependency on oil. No easy solution to America’s withdrawal from imperial obligations. No easy solution to the clash of liberal Western democracies with fundamentalist ideologies. No easy solution to technology’s conquering force. No easy solution to the problems facing public education. No easy solution to gun control. Etc. Etc.

But the liberalism I aspire to accepts this complexity and says that the only way forward to a better society lies in grappling with issues in a reasonable and enlightened manner, acknowledging grievances, accepting historic realities, and finding, through democratic conversations and a willingness to compromise (not on principle, perhaps, but in fact), solutions that are acceptable to all.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world be as one.”