President Trump Did What Now?

I haven’t written about politics in a bunch of weeks. The reason is simple: it’s only a matter of time before Donald Trump gets impeached. There seems to be enough smoke now for any fair-minded person to agree that there must be some kind of fire. I don’t claim to know exactly what it is or who was involved, but I don’t doubt that the act of collusion includes the man at the highest level.

The NY Times is now reporting that Presidents Trump and Putin had an undisclosed, private conversation that lasted as long as an hour during the G20 Summit. It’s true that the conversation occurred in front of many of the world’s leaders, but except for Presidents Trump and Putin, only a Kremlin-employed interpreter knows exactly what was said.

Trump is attacking the Times for the story — “Fake News story of secret dinner with Putin is ‘sick.’ All G 20 leaders, and spouses, were invited by the Chancellor of Germany. Press knew!” — but it’s not about whether the press knew about it (nor is it about the President’s use of quotation marks around “sick” — does he think he’s quoting somebody or is he misunderstanding  the use of scare quotes?). It’s about whether the press reported the conversation, and until now, they had not.

Journalists know a lot of things. They don’t report on everything they know. The best of them only report on the things they know for sure, which means they have evidence to support it.

And what did the NY Times journalist, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, report?

She reported that “hours into” a G20 dinner, President Trump rose from his seat and joined President Putin for “a one-on-one discussion…that lasted as long as an hour and relied solely on a Kremlin interpreter.”

She wrote some more words to allow the White House to register its reaction,  and she wrote some others words to provide context for more casual readers, but at bottom, those are the only facts that she reported.

And President Trump calls it “Fake News!,” not because he denied it happened, but because he’s upset someone thinks such a conversation should be news.

This is the reason those of us on the left think he is an idiot. He can’t stop getting in his own way. How hard is it to not have a private conversation with the person you’re being accused of colluding with? And if you must have a conversation, how hard is it, really, to arrange a truly private one?

You know how hard it is for this president? Incredibly hard. Everyone in the bureaucracy is out to get him. He can’t make a phone call to anyone on the planet without someone else knowing about it, and with the leak culture being encouraged by the press and, let’s face it, the American people, that someone else is more than likely to let the information slip. How much worse would it look if President Trump tried to arrange an actual secret meeting with President Putin?

He had no choice. He can’t just not talk about the situation with President Putin, collusion or no collusion, so his only choice is to do it in the most public place possible.  If he actually wants to talk about the collusion issue, he can’t trust the State-department interpreter to not share the details of their conversation, even if only under oath to a prosecutor.

So what the President did, collusion or no collusion, makes complete sense. But to think, even if only for a minute, that such a conversation doesn’t deserve to be news is to think something bat-shit stupid. If the President of the United States had a private, one-on-one conversation with the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, the existence of that conversation would make the news — and I don’t even know if they have Prime Ministers there. To imagine it wouldn’t be news when you do it with your alleged colluder in treason…that’s just dumb.

That’s why I haven’t been writing about politics lately. I’m so done with trying to understand this President. I don’t have to anymore. I get it, and I honestly don’t think he’s a match for the one-two punches that keep coming at him from the bureaucracy and the press. If Mueller is as ethical as the press suggests, then it’s only a matter of time before they take him down.

At this point, writing about Trump feels more like trying to catalog and predict the ending of a one-sided fight — will he go down because of some kind of final, powerful blow or will he just succumb to a continuous onslaught of jabs? Making those kinds of prediction can be fun some of the time, like trying to predict which character on your favorite HBO show is going to die next, but more often it feels like trying to get excited about the arc on a crappy reality show.

There’s a danger in feeling that way, of course. If we allow ourselves to get bored by the lack of progress or overwhelmed by the case’s ever-growing details (how many fucking people were in that room with Don Jr. and how the fuck are they all connected again?), then we risk losing the urgency of the resistance. I get it.

But seriously, let’s look at this shit. Yes, the Republicans are trying to fuck up all kinds of shit in Congress, and yes, the President is doing a ton of real damage via Executive Order, but it seems the most they can do right now is all short-term stuff. They’re not organized enough to ram something through Congress — Trump is too unhinged and vague, and the Republican Congress has to reconcile the desires of too many “moderates” (as if…) with too many Tea Party crazies. If the Democrats can stay united in their resistance, the Republicans can’t deliver on the biggest promises they’ve made to the electorate, and they’ll continue to look and act completely dysfunctional.

Yes, there are things to do. Yes, there are real dangers to fight. But in all honesty, it seems like those who are doing the fighting for my side of things are doing a damn fine job, and I’m trusting them to continue to do so.

Me? I’ll keep going to work each day to teach the next generation of leaders how to think for themselves. It’s the least I can do.

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.

The Personal is Political

Several of my friends on Facebook (all of whom lean conservative, interestingly enough) recently complained about Facebook not being fun anymore because their feeds are full of nothing but politics, politics, politics. As one of them suggested, everyone should “unfollow people who are draining every ounce of your Facebook Fun because they only post political crap you’re tired of hearing about!”

It’s not just my (conservative leaning) friends. You can find plenty of articles on the topic around the web. For example:

Generally speaking, those who make this argument seem to feel that Facebook should be like a friendly reunion where people who don’t see each other very often can share what they’re doing in their lives, gush over photos of each other’s kids, and exchange some good humored ribbing. It’s “a way of hanging out with everyone you ever met, and political ranting makes the whole thing…awkward.”

As you might imagine, I don’t agree with this argument.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve unfollowed friends on Facebook because of their political rants, but it wasn’t because of their political leanings (I greatly appreciate having right-leaning friends who help me stay out of an entirely liberal bubble), nor was it because the ratio between their political posts and their “personal” posts was too high. Instead, it was because these particular friends demonstrated very little ability to act civil with those who disagreed with them.

Provided you can remain civil, and remember that the people you’re talking to are real live people and they have stresses and interests that are different from your own, then I find that there really isn’t a better place for online conversations than Facebook.

Facebook allows you to connect with virtually everyone you’ve ever met, which means you can have conversations with people from college, people from high school, people from that trip you took once, and people from your extended family, all at once. People who maybe don’t ever see each other in person, who may not even know one another, and who live in variety of places around the country or around the world can actually engage in a substantive conversation about a timely topic, should they choose to.

The software itself is perfect for this. You can have threaded conversations with direct replies to people, so you can engage a particular topic from multiple angles, and people can choose to focus on a single, a small subset, or all of the angles. You can include links to supporting articles, including fact-checking services such as Snopes.com. You can tag other friends to invite them into a particular section of the conversation, either to support what you’re saying or to provide an insight that you couldn’t provide on your own. And you can get notifications everytime someone adds a comment to the discussion, ensuring that you don’t miss out on anything important (or funny).

Honestly, Facebook is perfect for these kinds of in-depth conversations.

But that’s not what I want to talk about…not exactly.

There’s a slogan that came out of second-wave Feminism in the 1960s. You’ve probably seen it on a button: “The personal is political.” It comes from the title of an essay by Carol Hanisch published in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation. The essay wasn’t originally given that title because it was written more as an internal memo to members of the women’s liberation movement, but after it got picked up and published, the editors gave it that title.

In the memo, Hanisch argued that the women’s liberation movement had to continue to engage with “apolitical” women through what detractors derisively called therapy” or “personal” groups but what supporters such as Hanisch would go on to call “consciousness-raising groups.” She argued that through their derision of these group sessions, some of the more activist supporters of the movement were pushing away women who desperately needed their support and whose support, in all honesty, the movement desperately needed.

She painted a portrait of what these group sessions were actually like:

We have not done much trying to solve immediate personal problems of women in the group. We’ve mostly picked topics by two methods: In a small group it is possible for us to take turns bringing questions to the meeting (like, Which do/did you prefer, a girl or a boy baby or no children, and why? What happens to your relationship if your man makes more money than you? Less than you?). Then we go around the room answering the questions from our personal experiences. Everybody talks that way. At the end of the meeting we try to sum up and generalize from what’s been said and make connections.

She went on to argue that through these sessions, she was “forced to take off the rose colored glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman.” The sessions gave her “a gut understanding of everything, as opposed to the esoteric, intellectual understandings and noblesse oblige feelings [she] had in ‘other people’s’ struggles.”

Women didn’t attend the meetings “to solve any personal problem. One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems [emphasis added]. There are no personal solutions at this time,” she continues. “There is only collective action for a collective solution.”

What does this have to do with not being political on Facebook?

If I show you a picture of my daughter scaling a rock wall at our local climbing gym, you can sit back for a moment, smile, click “Like,” and move on. But what have you and I just done?

First, we ignored all of the injustice in the world. We said to ourselves, “We are comfortable right now, so let’s just smile at each other for a moment, and then move on.” It’s the mental, emotional, and spiritual equivalent of running into each other at a coffee shop, smiling at each other, and moving on.

But I don’t want to just smile at you as we pass each other by at a coffee shop. If I’m friends with you on Facebook, it’s not just because I met you once. It’s because in some real and authentic way, I want to consider you my friend. There’s a real chance that we actually are friends, like in real life, and if we’re not, then there’s a real chance that at some point, if only for a few minutes, in real life, we actually were, and if we weren’t, however I know you, if you’re my friend on Facebook, it’s because at some point in my life, I thought about you and was actually willing to call you, in all honesty, my “friend.”

I don’t want to run into one of my friends at a coffee shop and simply nod and smile. I want to stop and talk for a little while.

And I get it, not everyone wants to talk politics, and most of the time, not everyone wants to talk about the world’s injustices. But the people I want to call my friends are willing, at least some of the time, to really get into it.

I went back to the town where I grew up last weekend to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with the Irish side of my family….or so I thought. To my complete surprise, my brother invited his best friend (a second-generation Italian) and his best friend’s family to the party as well. I couldn’t have been happier. There hasn’t been a minute in my life when I haven’t known this guy, and in my childhood, I saw very little difference between him and my brothers: like them, he was always there, and he usually treated me with love.

But this is a guy I don’t see as often as my brothers, so when he came walking in the door, it was like being surprised by a long-lost brother who I hadn’t spoken with in forever.

Let me set the stage for a moment. This man is a physical education teacher (and I stress the word teacher) in a Catholic preparatory school for high-school age boys. He’s a dedicated Ironman whose idea of a dream vacation is to bike the route of the Tour de France. He’s a regular churchgoer whose coworkers are ministers, and he feels that Christian charity is not a thing you give money to but a thing you actually do in your daily life, a way to be.

He also voted for Donald Trump.

Within moments of his arrival, he approached me in the corner of the kitchen and without missing a beat, engaged me in a substantive conversation that ranged from God to transgenderism to television shows to the art of teaching to the meaning of friendship to the power of plays. We spent most of the night together, joined by our wives at points, my brothers and cousins at others, our daughters at still others. It was great.

At no point did we shy from discussing politics. I’m not talking about partisan politics. Neither of us are firmly committed to either the Republican or Democratic party. True, when forced to vote for them, we often (if not always) vote for opposite parties, but when we do, we do so with clear enough eyes that we understand why other people would have justifiable concerns about our chosen candidates. I don’t think either of us would give a full-throated defense of either party.

When I say we didn’t shy from discussing politics, what I mean is that we didn’t shy from disagreeing with each other based on a disagreement in principles. We understand the strength of our relationship, and so we’re able to challenge each other without the other having to take offense. We know that each of us are dedicated to growing as human beings, and if we disagree with each other and challenge each other, it’s only because we care for one another and want the other one to continue to grow.

If I show you a picture of my daughter scaling a rock wall at our local climbing gym, and I follow it five minutes later with a link to an article on white male privilege or to the specific details of a law being proposed in Congress or to an analysis of our President’s ties with a foreign power, it’s because I want to do more that just show you pictures of my kid. It’s because I also want to challenge you as a human being, and to provide a signal to you that I would like to be challenged as well. The hope is that, through our conversations, we can each grow into something better than we currently are, which often comes from exposing ourselves to new and sometimes contrarian ideas.

The best thing we each could do with a “political post” on Facebook would not be to click “Like” and simply move on, which would be like running into each other at a coffee shop and just throwing pamphlets in each other’s faces.

The best thing to do would be to — at some point — read the article the other person shared, or if we don’t have the attention span for that, to at least look at the headline and then ask a question about it. Through that interaction, we start to earn (or renew our committment to) the word “friend.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I can’t be friends with anyone who doesn’t read every article I share or leave a comment on every post I write.

What I am saying is that if you think Facebook is more for personal stuff than political stuff, then you need to understand that the personal is political. By closing your eyes to anything you might disagree with, you’re committing a political act, one that commits you to remaining the same forever and forever, while also committing you to accept (and thus tacitly defend) the status quo, injustices and all.

If I’m friends with you on Facebook, it’s because I either am or want to be your friend in real life. That doesn’t mean always giving you a shoulder to cry on (though of course I would if you needed me to), but it does mean always giving you my willingness to get into it with you, even if sometimes I have to be the one who starts it.

What’s more personal than being willing to engage with one another from places of differing principle? And since I can’t see you everyday, and so few of us actually write emails (let alone letters) anymore, and since texting definitely isn’t a good tool for in-depth discussions, why wouldn’t the serindepity of running into each on Facebook be the perfect place to connect?

Some might suggest it would be more appropriate to take those conversations to someplace more private (Facebook Messenger?), but there’s a commitment to a private conversation that we’re not always willing to have. It’d be like if we ran into each other in a coffee shop and I said, “Hey, why don’t we go sit in the front seat of my car and catch up?” That would have the chance of becoming weird, right? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for us to keep our conversation in the public/private space of the coffee shop, where if someone we both know happens to stumble in, we can increase participation in the conversation, and where we can also remain safely in the public eye, forcing us both to be on our best behavior?

I honestly can’t think of a better tool for allowing the personal to become political. And that’s why I’ll keep talking to my friends on Facebook the way I talk to all of my friends: with a love for conversation and committment to helping each other grow.

There’s nothing more personal, and nothing more political, than that.

Minnesota’s Question of the Year

A friend sent me an article about Minnesota’s Great American Think-Off, which poses a question for people to answer in essays of 750 words or less. Four writers will then debate the question, and the winner will receive a $500 prize (FYI: this post is not my answer).

This year’s question is: “Which is more ethical: sticking to your principles or being willing to compromise?”

While I love the idea of a “think off,” I don’t think the question is a very good one because, as in all things ethics-related, the answer turns on context. There are a thousand different examples we could come up with where the ethical thing would be to stick to your principles, and a thousand more where the ethical action would be to compromise.

One of my college professors, Steven Fesmire, wrote a book, John Dewey & Moral Imagination, in which he makes the analogy that being ethical is like playing jazz. Quoting Martha Nussbaum, he writes, “a responsible action is a highly context-specific and nuanced and responsive thing whose rightness could not be captured in a description that fell short of the artistic.” The jazz metaphor “spotlights and illustrates the empathetic, impromptu, and inherently social dimensions of moral composition,” by which he means, taking a moral/ethical action requires recognizing the social dimension of the problem at hand, understanding and empathizing with how all parties feel and what they’re trying to achieve, and then having the skill to add your own voice and interests in such a way as to contribute, build, and improve upon the general harmony of the moment.

To ask whether it is more ethical to stick to your principles or compromise is like asking whether it’s better to have a saxophone or trumpet in your quartet. The only responsible answer is to say, “Well, it depends.”

Ethics are not written in stone. Like jazz, they are improvisational while also aligning with received tradition and continuous feedback. You can’t write down a list of ethics. All you can do is develop your sense of empathy and add your authentic voice to the song that’s being played.