Finding 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 →
At the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you.
This month we had a cultural and political upset in my country, and it left most of us wondering about the way forward. So this month all of these are about understanding that.
Simplicity is an enduringly attractive ideal. The clarification of mind and idea brings with it a singularity of focus and purpose, a drive to act, and a knowledge of what is right. To boil down a problem to its essence gives us confidence that we understand, and the ability the reason, we think, more adroitly. Nodding our heads, we proclaim that we understand—yes, now, finally, we do.
We do not.
Simplicity is a great boon when problems are complicated by our own confusion and misperception. But simplicity is a dangerous canard when the problems we face are complex, multi-faceted, and refuse to yield to silver bullets.
There is no one solution. In acknowledging that, we bring down upon ourselves a deep despair, a feeling of something so large as to be intractable, and a fear that we will never gain its measure. Yet that is the true state of things, and as we look upon destruction (that we did not stop) born of ignorance (our own), the allure of simple answers can and must be resisted.
I have long held the position that one should never attribute to malice that which is explainable by incompetence or ignorance. Inherent in that position are two presumptions: first, that intentions and actions can be judged separately in the same cases; second, that most people are selfish, but not malicious. In most situations, that means presuming good intentions even when a person’s actions cause harm or damage common goals. With most people, I find that presumption is justified and leads to better relationships and easier problem-solving.
Yet I have been struggling lately with where to draw the line. At what point is the explanation of incompetence or ignorance no longer plausible? How much foolishness must I allow to cover over blatant harm? Yes, I can believe that many people act on specific priorities to benefit themselves, and without anticipating the consequences.
But what do you do when someone has been given every chance to uncover their own errors, and refused? At what point does willful refusal to consider different perspectives cross over from ignorance to malice?
Where does a new coalition come from? Not, I think, from the habits and narratives that got us where we are now. Not, I think, from blame, accusation, or concession to some “new normal” where ignoring evidence, suborning prejudice, and inciting fear are acceptable forms of leadership. Not even from the recognition and naming of oppression, which is both necessary and insufficient.
We live in a representative democracy, which means that we elect well- or poorly-chosen individuals to take care of governance on our behalf. Yet somehow, we have begun equating governance with responsibility, and now we begin to think the only way to solve a problem is through those self-same representatives, however ill-qualified they may be for the job. And thus, we look at congress at declaim partisan gridlock, but we take no responsibility for it ourselves.
So let’s. Politics is, in theory, of the people. It is, in theory, for the people. Why do we make ineffectual choices, and then express surprise when they ask for our votes and our money, but not our ideas? The one thing we agree on across party lines is that our government regularly fails to meet our needs. Thus, I think it is time for a politics of service.
America needs a new coalition. I know this, because I see Americans marching in the streets, justifiably afraid that this country is not safe for them any longer. I know this because the same people who deride those protesters were, themselves, just a few days ago, talking about grabbing their guns and fighting a rigged election. I know this because a whole lot of people felt they had no one but Trump to address their struggles. I know this because we are a Democracy, and instead of running a candidate in either party who could energize the country, we ran candidates who pit us against one another. Sure, some of us feel like one of those was incredibly far above the other. But we’re tied with the people who thought the same about the other one. We have different value sets.
So I know we need a coalition that isn’t just one side. It’s hard to say that right now, when it feels like so many of us have been betrayed and continue to be hated. It’s hard, but it’s unambiguously true. Half the electorate said so.
So I ask myself, what’s next? This is a democracy. This is the president we voted for. Yes, only barely, but that doesn’t matter. Yes, I am angry that someone who espouses hate for so many of my fellow Americans is now our chosen leader, but he is. What’s next?
Some on the left will riot and declaim Trump. Some on the right will gloat and declaim the left. As they always have. More so now, but Trump is not a normal candidate—he is the most disliked president-elect in history, even by those who voted for him. And he has gone out of his way to make many of us feel we are not welcome. So let’s start there, and here’s what I’m going to do. And I invite you to join me.
The grief is palpable—if you are liberal. 11/9 is like 9/11, in that your very way of life is under attack. Which, in many ways, it is. But why it feels that way is more complicated than that.
If you are centrist, this outcome doesn’t much register—this is business as usual, maybe a little worse but not that much. And if you are conservative, it’s annoying but still a win—Trump is an unlikely hero for conservative values, but hey, you won, so who cares about the other two thirds of the country. Fuck em.
And because there is so stark a divide right now, I need to apologize to my conservative friends. I think you are dead wrong about Trump, and no, Clinton is not a corrupt criminal, and no I don’t forgive you and would never trust you with my rights—but you were right about one thing: the media does have a liberal bias. All that grief? It’s in the media. All that confusion? Yup, that too. All our pain? Everyone seems to share it. After all, how could this happen? How could we have gotten it so wrong? The media is convulsing along with us and scrabbling for answers.
“People are pouring across our borders.” “Immigrants are taking our jobs.” “Unemployment is the worst it’s ever been.” “Refugees are coming in and we have no idea who they are.” “The second amendment is absolutely under siege.” “Islamists want to conquer this country and impose sharia law.”
If there is a single narrative at stake for America, this is it—“they’re coming for you.”
And if you’re thinking “that’s the other guys,” flip the script—don’t just look at the words of one particularly unfiltered and untruthful demagogue, look at the narrative overall.
“Money is pouring into politics and controlling our elections.” “Corporations are destroying our jobs and our health.” “Chemicals are ending up in our food and we have no idea what they do.” “Christians want to take over the government and impose their restrictive beliefs.”
Whether you frame it as a story of fear or a story of heroic resistance, the core is the same: we’re under attack by dangerous, insidious people who have come to take what we have, and if we don’t fight back, we’ll watch our way of life disappear. So stand up and fight, or be prepared to lose your freedom.
Except… every single one of those statements is a lie. Every. Single. One. Some of them are motivated lies, and some of them are ignorant lies, and some of them are exaggerated lies, but they are all lies.
Politics has always mobilized the most intuitive kind of lies—the kind that we don’t bother to look at very deeply because they confirm our existing prejudices. Politicians are masters of the lie that feels true, even when all the facts run counter. And we buy those lies, and repeat them, and believe them, not because they have any isolated value, but because they bolster our view of the world.
Yet even knowing that, this election seems to me to be built on uniquely straightforward misinformation.
So I have been paying more attention to this election than some in the past, but not because I am disillusioned or disgusted with the choices, or frustrated by my vote not counting the way I’d like. Instead, it is because I think this election is historic, I very much want to see how we deal with it as a society.
I can’t tell you how much I wanted something other than a Clinton/Trump election. But you know, I can tell you that I didn’t want it enough to avoid it. Sure, I didn’t vote for either of them in the primaries, and sure, I thought (and still think) that Trump was a joke, but I didn’t do very much to avoid this. In retrospect, I wish I had, but I’ll own that and plan ahead next time.
And in the meantime, I’ll deal with the choices I have. But I’m okay with dealing with the choices I have, because I don’t see voting as this big emotional weight. I see it as one strategic choice I can make to impact my country, but that impact is not huge. There are a lot of other things I could do that would have a lot more impact.
Which is why, as much as I want third and fourth party options as a regular part of our elections, I’m not about to cast a third-party vote in a close race. I don’t really want either of the options very much, but I also don’t need to shoe-horn my every belief into the ballot box. It’s not my only voice.