On the Fringe

CapitolReflectionvia_WilliamBeemIt’s not that I didn’t know Alternate America existed. I knew it did. I knew people believed a whole host of things that, to me, didn’t reconcile with the evidence. Yet, I make of point of being willing to change my mind when presented with solid evidence for a different position, so I assumed, wrongly, that most people would reasonably do the same. Outside of a few hot-button issues where emotions override facts, I figured truth was inherently stronger than fiction, however convenient.

Now that idea seems naïve. Of course the truth is not stronger. Of course the evidence is not convincing to those who don’t want to be convinced. Why did I think it was? The clash between America and Alternate America has been seething beneath the surface, erupting in localized ways, for decades. And yes, Alternate America has been losing a lot of battles, but in response they’ve also been tightening their boundaries and reinforcing their narratives.

That was a smart choice for people who care more about protecting their beliefs than they care about correcting them. Ideology is stronger than truth. I thought it was stronger by a little bit; but it seems to be stronger by a great deal. Mix a potent ideology with a well-chosen narrative, and people will happily ignore their lying eyes.

I’ve been trying to understand how people could possibly believe that host of things that doesn’t match the evidence. But that was the wrong question; the question I should have been asking was “what are the narratives?”

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Of the People

IMGP2701.JPGPeople have a great many misconceptions about dictionaries. For a start, we assume that dictionaries are authorities—that the usages of a word listed in the dictionary are allowed, and that other usages are not. We assume that words not in the dictionary are not words, and words in the dictionary but labeled “obsolete” are no longer allowed. And we assume these things because we fundamentally misunderstand what a dictionary is.

We think dictionaries are arbiters of language, determining what is and isn’t allowed. But, in reality, dictionaries are just records of language. They preserve old ideas, record new ideas, and describe how language is being used. They are slow to catch up, but not that slow, and they occasionally retain things we would rather forget.

We have many of the same misconceptions about government.

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Give Us This Day Our Daily Outrage

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I find the psychological whiplash of the news cycle exhausting and depressing these days. Yet, the worst part is not every new facet of the problems we face, but instead the constant demand for my emotional energy. “You’ll be horrified by this tweet” one headline promises. “The Trump nominee no one is talking about” blares an e-mail subject line. “Step up to protect migrant workers – call your senators NOW” insists a Facebook post. “New Russia revelations demand action!” orders a call to sign someone’s petition.

They’re not wrong, exactly—but it is too much. No one can do all these things. No one can spare the emotion to treat each of these with the gravity they deserve. And, perhaps most insidiously, the outrage is baked in. These things feed our anger, but they also assume it. Even well-intentioned organizations are using instant fury as their primary messaging strategy. It works, and yet along the way it sends an accidental message: anger is the only real way to respond.

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What if it Wasn’t Us?

We_Can_Do_It!What if the future of our country, our businesses, our economy, our children, and our friends and family were under threat? What if a natural disaster, requiring our concerted response, put us to the test? And what if, to fight back, we had to innovate, cooperate, act carefully and wisely, solve problems together, and save the world? What if that was America’s challenge, and within our power, and just a matter of will?

I mean, what if that was America’s challenge, but it wasn’t our fault?

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Under What Conditions?

bush_library_oval_office_replicaI do not support Donald Trump. But what if I did? He legitimately won the election under our democratic system; only a quarter of the country voted for him, but that is the system we have. His rhetoric is divisive and untethered from evidence, but that is the rhetoric we decided was acceptable. The choices he makes, whether we like it or not, will shape our country and possibly the world for many years to come.

One thing I am sure of is that being politically divided and unwilling to change our views is a self-reinforcing feedback loop. It’s easy to use division to justify more. But I don’t want to do that. I want to have solidly-evidenced political positions.

I don’t plan to say “oh, give him a chance,” because our country already decided to give him that on November 8th, and because I do not personally expect him to become any more respectful or honest as president than he was in the year preceding the election. Nor do I intend to shut up about what I disagree with, because critiquing the government is patriotic and quashing dissent is undemocratic.

So he’d have my critique even if he already had my support. But what would he have to do to get my support? Under what conditions would I say “Well, I didn’t expect it, but he’s doing a good job”? If my opposition to Trump is partisan, there will be no such conditions. But if my opposition to Trump is based on his policies and actions, I should be able to say under what conditions I would change my mind.

Here they are:

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Hypocrisy is Easy

two-ways_vaisamuelyooCan you believe what the other side said this week? They’re such hypocrites—they say one thing when it applies to everyone else, and another thing entirely when it applies to them. It makes me so mad when people don’t hold to their own fundamental principals—I think the best response would be to create a snarky meme showing that and share it widely, divorced from the original context.

Well, sometimes I think that. Sometimes I just see the snarky meme from someone else and get that little rush of agreement. You know the one: the one that makes you feel good about being right, and just, and having enemies. And not just any enemies—the best enemies. They go out of their way to be spineless fools whose simpering evilness is so clear in their fundamental lack of a coherent worldview that it would be foolish to even listen to them.

Right?

So bear with me for a minute here.

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Common Ground

notrespassing_viaterrylawsonFinding common ground is not just an ideal of democratic society; it is a task of monumental effort that requires us to reject our own ideas and hold them, in common, with ideas we do not agree with. There is such discomfort in this that we generally avoid it: villainy is a comfortable foe, but nuance unmasks it. Nuance transforms villainy into foolishness, and our righteous anger crumbles into confusion and pity.

I wrote not long ago that there is no common ground left—that we have occupied every inch of it with partisan certainty and left nothing in the middle. Perhaps this is why there is such an appetite for lies these days: there is no ground left to seize, unless it be wholly invented. There is no battle left to win, only scraps to scrabble over on the edges. But create a lie, and you can draw a new line down some imaginary patch of ground, and crow heartily as you defend it. Create a villain, and you can occupy new ground.

But I believe finding common ground is the only path forward, and that requires nuance. Yes, we need righteous anger and villains to motivate us. But they must be few and far between. If we want common ground, if we want a united states, that ground must be worked and planted, not occupied. Continue reading