What You Deserve

KeepOutThere is a moment when your brain pauses, almost imperceptibly, to come up with a rationalization. At that moment, you are balanced on a knife edge. On the one hand, there is something you know for certain. On the other, you don’t yet have a reason for knowing it. In that moment, the rational choice is uncertainty: to question whether what you know is actually true.

We are not rational.

In that moment, our brains do something else entirely: invent. They fill in the gaps with whatever is to hand. They paper over the holes with something thin and ill-considered. They make the hole invisible, and then they forget about it. This is rationalization: a veneer of rationale to hide the irrational.

But the hole is still there, hiding, and our brains move on to do something else unwise: they stake out a perimeter around the rationalization and defend it at all costs. They get angry when challenged. They refuse to consider the question directly. They throw up defenses and attacks.

This, of late, seems to be the whole scope of American public discourse.

There is a group of people who has decided that people like them (mostly white, mostly born in the United States, mostly churlish and unwilling to share) are deserving, while other people are not so deserving. They know this to be true. There is no reason, beyond tribalism and fear. There is no rationale.

Yet, they have no trouble coming up with rationalizations. They claim we need to secure our borders, and that this is an absolute charge. In framing it as such, they believe human rights are irrelevant for people unlike them: securing the border comes first. The fact that this means a class of people is singled out and denied basic rights seems incidental, but in reality that is the starting premise: they do not deserve those rights.

Or perhaps they claim crossing “their” border, being in “their” country, without “their” permission, means the people unlike them have committed a crime. Therefore, those people forfeit their human rights. But you cannot forfeit human rights: that is the entire point of such rights. And again, a group of people is singled out to be denied, and that seems incidental. It isn’t.

And I say “their” border, country, permission—because they are happy to single out anyone who challenges them as undeserving. Perhaps you have protested their haughty abuse of others; now you, too, are not deserving. Perhaps you voted against their petty and foolish leaders: now you are not deserving. Perhaps you told their most vicious and vitriolic liars that those lies were harm more than speech: now you do not deserve to speak.

The premise is always the same: they are deserving, you are not. They are American, you are treasonous. They are citizens, you are illegals. They are “real” America, and you are elitist cultural poison. Any act that preserves their power and reduces yours is reasonable; any act that restores balance or benefits the disenfranchised is a waste at best and unconstitutional whenever possible.

They are deserving, you are not. This is a lie, and it is a lie fundamentally at war with the American ideal. Yet, it is also a lie so old and deep that even the people who wrote the American ideal did so with that lie in their hearts. They thought they were writing that ideal for themselves, for the rich, white, landholding men. They didn’t know it would be extended to everyone. They didn’t want it extended to everyone.

They still do not, and still want the ideal for themselves and not for you. Free speech? For them, not you. Freedom of the press? For them, not you. Freedom of religion? For theirs, not yours. Freedom to live and work a pursue happiness? For them, not you. Never for you.

How do you combat such a deep premise, such a pernicious double-standard? For many of us, the double-standard is obvious and the justice of balancing it is clear. Yet, for the people who believe they are deserving and you are not, the premise is so deeply entrenched, so well-defended, that they barely know it is there—even, and especially, when they see it face-to-face.

When they see a child in a cage, an immigrant seeking a better life, a poor person in need of a job, a sick person in need of care, a meek person, a peacemaker: always they say “you are not deserving.” They claim a rationale, but all they have is rationalization.

This is America today: at war between egalitarianism and tribalism. And one side thinks everyone deserves the same rights, and the other side, under all its lies, thinks simply that they deserve rights, and you deserve nothing.


Image Credit: Russ Allison Loar


We’re Doomed, So Resist

flag_viaevechanWhen a man shows us how cowardly, ignorant, and petty he is, we should believe him. We should not expect him to change. We should not expect him to become better. We should not expect him to stop being a bully when he is given power in addition to a bully pulpit. This man has shown us who he is, and he will be exactly the same for the next four years—but with power to remake the country with his actions and not just his words.

He has muzzled scientists and set in motion actions that, without exaggeration, will drive climate change from manageable disaster to runaway cataclysm. And he denies it exists. He has taken action to attack Americans, to strip us of our rights, and to expel us from the country. And he denies we deserve otherwise. He has decreed the building of an edifice of exclusion, and denied that we will pay the price.

And he has whined and complained about the depth of opposition to his dictatorial ambitions. Like any coward, he only knows how to silence those who critique him. A leader would strive to be better; this man strives for nothing.

Has it only been a week? There are so many more to come. The temptation to look away is strong—but despair, especially, we must resist.

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Where We Go From Here

divided_viajenThe world seems to weigh a lot more lately. Stuck with the gravity of the situation, the rock of history, and the hard place of the coming few years, I can’t help but feel greater responsibility and greater urgency both. I thought, outside of climate change, that I had time to figure things out. Now I think I have no time at all.

So, in changing some of my focus, I also will be changing my writing. I started writing here as practice and a way to explore ideas, and I still want to do that, but the patient exploration of ideas is no longer where I can afford to spend the majority of my time. I need concrete, specific action that will have a direct impact on the world.

What that means for the time being is that I’ll post essays here only on Fridays, and I reserve Tuesdays for things I find productive in the Trump era. I need to balance my thought and my action, and so I’ll balance it here as well.

To start with, yesterday I attended (and nominally helped organize) a session on having hard political conversations in our communities. It’s a small step, and a work in progress. But, no matter what our politics, we’re all getting into those conversations, and it helps to think about how to have them beforehand. So for today, I’m posting the list of resources I helped compile, and which is going out to participants. Continue reading

Work With Your Hands

hands_viajuliaavilesDig your hands into the dirt. Run them along a smooth board. Reach down into the engine, through the grease and wiring. Use your hands stiffly in the cold, or damply in the sun, or dry in the dust. Use your hands with steadiness on the wheel, with certainty on the brush, with a slight tremor that disappears as you focus on the finer work. Use them with care, and strength, and intent, and work something you can touch and own.

This is common ground.

I wrote that we need common ground, that we have to find it and till it and protect it. That we cannot occupy it, and do not need to. That the only way through is to find places we have drawn lines and erase them. I think this is one of those places.

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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

Without Evidence

newspapers_viabinoriranasingheIt is conventional to give people the benefit of the doubt—to err, when possible, on the side of uncertainty and not to presume the unlikely is untrue. But it is one thing to give the benefit of the doubt in uncertain circumstances, and it is quite another to give an outsized benefit with very little doubt indeed. That, in essence, is origin of false balance.

Worse, of late the media has taken to determining what subjects are in doubt not by what evidence is available, but instead by how forcefully people argue for one side or another. A forceful but untrue statement often triggers a confused and muddled response from journalists, who, by dint of their profession, know both that the statement is painfully untrue and that to contradict it outright is painfully taboo.

Journalistic conventions, intended to ensure fair treatment regardless of personal inclination, fail abysmally when public figures refuse to play by the rules.

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Ignorance Vs Malice

twohead_viaolegshpyrkoI 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?

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