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On why your side is the problem. No matter which side it is.

My FB friend Judith (name changed, clearly) is a hardcore liberal.  Yesterday, she posted a “viral” video making the following (paraphrased) claims: “Think protesting doesn’t work?  The resistance has accomplished a LOT in the past week.  Nordstrom has pulled Ivanka Trump’s clothing line from their shelves.  Harley Davidson was pressured to cancel their meeting with Trump.  The president of UBER resigned from Trump’s advisory committee after 500,000 people deleted the UBER app.  Protestors at the University of California successfully shut down a presentation by neo-nazi Milo…”

And I think several things: first, I hate having to defend Trump.  He scares me, too, at least a little, with his seeming recklessness, “my way” mentality.  But those who oppose him really seem so comically, preposterously extreme, so loose with their own wild propaganda, that I find myself uncomfortably in the position of looking like I’m pro-Trump simply because my concerns about him are more measured and, yes, based on an attempt at objective truth.

For example, the “neo-Nazi” Milo Yiannopoulis is nothing of the sort (assuming that the term “Nazi” has any official definition anymore and isn’t merely a categorical dismissal of all conservatives).  While I’m hardly a fan, I’ve seen videos of the guy.  He is an outspoken gay conservative who deliberately provokes, more out of snark than hatefulness.  He seems merely to speak very unpopular opinions in a way that liberals find infuriating, in part because they are simply so disused to hearing confident dissent, but also because many find his points difficult to intellectually debate.  Thus, they resort to shutting him down.

Which brings me to Judith’s post.  I want to ask her: how do any of these “Resistance victories” amount to any sort of ideological win?

Because what they look like, I’m afraid, is mere petulant tantrums, bullying, and censorship.

Of course, I don’t actually ask her that.  Because what I find when I do ask many of my liberal friends clarifying questions is a sort of speechless dismay.  They know how to respond to defensive conservative shouting (i.e. with louder offensive shouting, and then shutting down the speaker), but most seem to have little idea how to respond to a reasonable query.  Intellectually defending and/or respectfully debating their ideology is something that most of them have never, ever had to do, since they live in a media climate that constantly affirms the absolute rightness of their views, without ever actually explaining why they are right (or why the other side is wrong, for that matter, apart from the standard “they’re evil, stupid, racist,” etc).

It wasn’t always like this.  A few decades ago, I seem to recall that it was the Christian right that had no idea how to respond to debate, being utterly coddled by their leaders and their media into the sort of intellectual weakness that comes from never being challenged.  Now, the tables have turned, and I think I know why.

When one believes that the weight of the popular majority and mainstream media is already firmly on their side, there is NO POSSIBLE GAIN from debate.  This is because it is statistically more likely that their side, being more numerous (and often quite sheltered from persuasive dissent) would lose more people to the other side than the other way around.

Being firmly in the (perceived) ideological majority, and having the nearly seamless backing of popular media, is, therefore, a lot like being an aging champion boxer.  Why accept any challengers to the title if you already have the title?  You stand to gain nothing you don’t already have, while risking it all for no benefit.

The boxer without the championship title, however, being hungry for victory and with nothing to lose, trains like a beast, itching for the opportunity to show his skill and strength.  This, ironically, is where the mainstream Christian/conservative right is today.

Until recently.  Until this last election.

Because they chose to represent themselves with someone who blatantly fails to exhibit the traits that the best of them have been cultivating in themselves: reasonableness, willingness to engage in discussion and debate, persuasion, moderation, respect.  Instead, they built a leader out of all the more petty elements of their long ideological diaspora– impatience, anger, wounded pride, and revenge fantasies.

The Christian/conservative right sold their hard-won ideological birthright for a bowl of Trump-flavored revenge pottage. This, I deeply fear, was a major mistake, and one that will set back their better-selves for years.  Maybe generations.  Maybe forever.

And yet, for modern liberals, even after their shocking and devastating loss to Trump, asking most of them to defend their beliefs with reasonable debate results in, by my experience, merely a sort of embarrassing moment of awkwardness.  They are still much more comfortable angrily shutting down voices of dissent, rather than wasting their time responding to respectful dialogue.  Even after their recent nationwide defeat, and the reminder that approximately half of the country wildly disagrees with them (and has the power to overrule them, if desired) they still (with some notable exceptions) do not want to win by persuasion.  They want to win only by shutting down debate and censoring opposition.

This is their major mistake, and one that is even now undermining and setting back their often noble agenda for years, and maybe generations, and perhaps forever.

So what are we left with?

Simple: currently, we are left with two broken halves of a broken political/ideological/social machine, running out of control against each other, destroying themselves without accomplishing any of the good the machine was originally designed for.

What I fear most mornings (like this one) when I wake up before dawn, is that the machine will eventually, inevitably, completely break down, and there won’t be anything to replace it with.  Because most of us were too obsessed with destroying the parts we don’t like instead of figuring out how to make all the parts mesh their gears, grudgingly understand each other, and work together again for the good of the whole damn thing.

Political magnets, Political Idols

NOTE: I’ve taken to journaling my thoughts privately (via JRNL.com, which I highly recommend) because, as much as I like to hear the sound of my own voice, I am increasingly aware that I shouldn’t inflict my endlessly running social commentary on everyone else.  With that in mind, I will immediately break that rule and post a section from today’s journal.

The reality that I increasingly observe is that the American two-party system is like a pair of powerful magnets ranged against each other, resisting each other’s polarities. We humans are like ball bearings attracted irreversibly to one of the two magnets, mostly based on our ideological proximity.

Most of us (partisans) are drawn inexorably and willingly into tight clusters around our chosen magnet, escaping the influence of the other entirely, and mocking its opposite power and force.

A few of us (moderates) attempt to find that middle ground between the influence of both magnets, seeing and feeling the attraction of both while never getting fully sucked in by either. But this is such a fine, nearly infinitesimal line that it requires constant, conscious work to maintain balance.

And only recently have I learned that an exceptionally rare few of us (independents– and by that I don’t just mean closet-liberals/conservatives, I mean people literally independent of any preset ideology) move out from between the polarities, get far enough away that we can still see them objectively while escaping their magnetic pull, and understand what I believe is the baseline reality: that both ideologies have some truth in them (although, at any given point in history, one is indeed more correct than the other in actual practice), both harbor a lot of crooks, lies, and distortions, and both cultivate extremism, division, and counter-productive self righteousness (especially in the age of social media, where both the speed of cultural trends and the feedback whine of confirmation bias is turned up to eleven).

And yet, this revelation– which is in equal parts both darkly comforting and deeply dismaying– is of no use to those clustered around their ideological magnet of choice. It isn’t that they can’t hear the potential truth of the outside observer. It’s that they can’t allow themselves to consider it. They have embraced the comfort of believing in– and nearly worshipping as a god– their chosen ideology. It provides them their noble fight, their arch-villain, their purposeful struggle, and most importantly of all, their affirming tribe.

It’s lonely outside the influence of those powerful political magnets. But as humans seeking truth and personal betterment, I, personally, don’t believe we need any counterfeit mission of imagined good-and-evil. There is a real battle of good and evil in my own heart and mind, a battle every day over how I spend my minutes, what I say to my wife, kids, co-workers, and friends, how I both seek out and erode (with the help of God and my diverse community) the forces of prejudice and judgment and condemnation in my own attitude and actions. This is my full time job– and I believe every human’s lifelong responsibility.

And I firmly believe that if we all attended to that personally, the world would conveniently take care of itself.

And this leads me to wonder: is the counterfeit battle of politics in actuality the greatest idol ever constructed by us humans? By worshipping it, are we not only manipulated to hate and oppose each other, but neatly distracted from the real battle that must occur inside our own hearts, souls, and minds?

Trump is a Sequel; We Need a Reboot

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I’ve been trying to figure out why, as a lifelong conservative, none of the arguments for voting Trump work for me.

At first, I admit, I liked his immunity to the partisan strong-arm tactics of the press.  One thing about Trump: where other Republican candidates fold and cower and try pathetically to make friends with a media culture that will always hate them, Trump doesn’t back down.  He doesn’t get intimidated.  He even enjoys the necessary strong-arm push-back.  A little too much, if anything.

It’s just a disappointment that the media-immunity conservatives have so long needed has come in such a Trump-shaped package.

So what makes him so undigestible to a remaining intractable core of us conservatives?  Why do the increasingly urgent exhortations by my Republican friends (and even my own parents) continue to fall on deaf ears?

Here’s a list of the arguments in favor of Trump and why I think they’re flawed…

“We’ll never be able to elect a true conservative.”

This is meant to defuse the fact that, even according to good old Rush Limbaugh, Trump is not a conservative.  He’s barely a Republican, which is no surprise, since he spent most of his life, apparently, as a liberal Democrat. Where he has voiced Republican ideology, it’s been the most divisive kinds—the kinds most easily branded racist (border walls), intolerant (banning Muslims), and fat-cat elitist (tax cuts for the rich).  It isn’t that these labels are fair, it’s just that Trump makes them so easy.

But to the point: we can’t elect a true conservative anymore, they say.  Sadly, at least for now, this is probably true.

So my question is: for true conservatives, why vote at all? 

If it’s come down to two kinds of not-conservative, why cheapen ourselves by giving our electoral stamp of approval to either?  The moment we agree to choke down a vote for the least awful not-conservative, that’s the moment we guarantee that not-conservatives are the only options we will ever have.

It’s like dating.  You know how we always tell our kids to never settle?  That’s good advice, because the moment your daughter settles for the jobless mouth-breather whose best quality is that he doesn’t actually beat her most nights, that’s the moment she begins to believe that that’s all she can get.

“But Trump’s the candidate now, and he’s our only option!”

He’s actually not.  There are third parties.  You can write-in a candidate of your choice.

“But a third party vote is a vote for Hillary Clinton!”

According to President Obama, a third party vote is actually a vote for Trump.

Personally, I don’t think either of these premises are right.  A third party vote is a vote for another option, if not for this election, then for the long-term future.  A third party vote is a conscientious choice not because it can lead to a win, but because it sends a message of no confidence in the current crop of candidates, and a threat of even less confidence (and fewer votes, and lost power) if the parties continue to offer similarly bad options.

A third party vote fosters a movement.  The more bold people raise their hands and say “enough!  We demand better candidates!  People to vote FOR rather than merely AGAINST!”, the more other people will be persuaded that they don’t have to hold their noses for a candidate that doesn’t represent them.  They don’t have to submit to having their vote extorted by threats of the worse candidate.

“But Trump is what the people clearly want.”

After all, they voted for him in the primaries.  They put him there.  He’s the will of the people.

True.

But what if the will of the people is tainted in this instance?

As has been pointed out, Trump isn’t a conservative.  So what do so many Republicans see in him?

A certain demographic of Americans– particularly older Republicans (or, in my father-in-law’s case, old-school Democrats) are deeply– and I might add understandably— angry.  Enraged, even.  For decades they’ve been mocked and belittled by the media.  They’ve been deliberately ignored by politicians.  They’ve been forced to choke down laws that they strongly disagree with– and had those laws flaunted in their faces by a snarky, nasty culture of ninnies.

The result is that what they want most right now is payback.  They do not want a wise and measured leader to gently sway the country back to its roots.  They want a Bully-in-Chief to kick sand in the faces of those that have ignored, mocked, bullied, and belittled them for the last few decades.

Trump may not be a conservative.  He may have spent most of his life as a liberal Democrat.  He may have waffled repeatedly on core conservative issues.  He may shatter Republicans’ tenuous grip on the moral-majority high-ground with his debaucheries and sexist talk and casinos and affairs.

But he’s the big, looming, type-A, alpha-male bully that those unhappy, abused Americans want to sic on the people who’ve mocked and taunted them.  Because:

“We have to take the country back!”

OK, let’s be blunt about something I think we all know deep down: there is no way to “take the country back”.  There is no returning to the way things used to be.

Why?  Because when we try to do it by force—which is really what so many are hoping for by rallying behind Trump—we are engaging in a battle that is already completely lost.

Conservatism isn’t dead, but it’s stuck in a terminal feedback loop of cultural irrelevance, and it’s partly our own fault.  We’ve been trying to do it the same way, with the same actors, using the same words and tactics, for way too long.  It simply no longer resonates with a majority of people today.

Trump is the best representation of this.  He is, I believe, the last, flailing, desperate gasp of a once-great but now obsolete form of conservatism.

The mistake his supporters make is in not trusting any new iteration of their core values.  But that’s exactly what we need: a rebirthed conservative method.  A modern take.  A more nuanced, necessarily revised approach that can win over people eager for an alternative to the stalemate of liberal values vs. liberal results.

Republicans have been trying to create a blockbuster sequel to Reagan.  When what they really need is a reboot—a brand new, refreshed, inventive message showing the core truths of conservatism without the obsolete accoutrement that modern culture instinctively rejects.

There is no “taking the country back”.  That battle is indeed totally over.  But the future is unwritten.  If we believe in the truest, deepest values of conservatism, then as much as we may resent the uphill climb, we must embrace the task of presenting those truths in a new and persuasive way to a culture that is, frankly, desperately in need of them.

“But the Supreme Court is what matters!”

This, it seems, is the most persuasive argument for many of my most conservative friends.  As odious as Trump may be, all that matters is that the next president will be responsible for filling vacancies on the Supreme Court.

I admit, this is the only thing that gives me pause.

And yet it does not convince me.

Why?  Partly because it feels like bribery.

Partly because I can’t help looking back on all the much, much better candidates that we steamrolled on the mob-like angry rush to Trump as Bully-in-chief.

Partly because I think that the precedent set by electing Trump—the precedent of cementing a future of only better-of-two-evils candidates—may actually be worse than the truly scary powers of a strongly partisan Supreme Court.

But mostly because I just don’t think that even a thoughtfully conservative justice (assuming Trump chooses one and succeeds in their placement) will make any real difference in the ongoing and much vaunted “culture war”.

To me, and many others, the threat of a Clinton-appointed justice is simply insignificant compared to the decades of eroded conservative influence and ineffectiveness we’ve already endured– an erosion that is sure to continue if we keep doing things the same way.  Fighting over a Supreme Court justice is really just one more attempt to wage a battle that’s already lost: even if we succeed, it’s only to delay the inevitable.

But…

It’s only inevitable if we continue to try to “take back the country” instead of embracing a new, persuasive, positive conservatism that might make the future even better than those halcyon “good old days”.

How can we do this?  From the bottom up.  By changing minds instead of changing regimes.

That, I think, is the biggest reason why I simply cannot vote Trump.  He’s a bloated, irrelevant, top-down sequel, when what conservatism desperately needs is a reboot: the same message, but from the grass-roots up, with a new cast, a new feel, and a refreshed, persuasive, culturally relevant face.

Our face, every day, with our friends and neighbors and families and coworkers.

It starts with each of us being the best and truest examples of conservatism: reasonable, thoughtful, calm, not given to extremes, happy, in control.  If we do that, I am absolutely convinced that, eventually, over time, those traits will trickle up to our leaders.

For my friends who are die-hard Trump supporters, I don’t intend for this to change your minds.  Frankly, I sort of envy your certainty, your faith in your candidate, the camaraderie of being part of a sweeping movement.

I hope you won’t hate me for not backing your guy.  My parents are backing Trump, and they still have to love me.  Come on over and commiserate with them if you must.

This is simply my explanation of why I am not on the bandwagon.  And what I hope for in a future bandwagon that we can all, even many of our currently liberal friends, happily join in and support.

And here, all these years, I thought I was a cynic.  When apparently I’m a starry-eyed (but still hopeful) idealist!  (:

Pinocchio Syndrome: How the Myth of the “Real Man” Completely Misses the Point.

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“Real men don’t take selfies.”

 We guys have been seeing a lot of them lately—lists of what a “real man” is and is not. If you’re a man and you’ve read any of them, you’ve likely responded with either smug vindication (a real man hunts ! I hunt! I’m a real man!) or angry defensiveness (a “real” man cries at the movies! I only cry at the end of every Browns playoffs bid!).

But here’s the thing: both responses are totally wrong. Here’s why.

It’s turned us into a generation of Pinocchios– mere male-shaped puppets hoping someday to be turned into real boys. Too many of us are waiting for a manhood fairy to float along and tap us with her all-too-symbolic wand.

We’ve been duped into asking the wrong question entirely.

It’s not what makes a man real. It’s what makes a man better.

This man. The man I am, and you are.

So, for the guys who stumble on this blog looking for updates on the newest James Potter book (it’s half-way done, keep your pants on) let’s try to make a different version of those stupid manhood checklists, but this time with the focus in the right place. And the first thing on the list is the most obvious one of all:

1) A better man isn’t concerned with being a “real” man.

He doesn’t ask if his manhood is “real” anymore than he asks if the fish he caught is a real fish. If he does a thing, and it is sound, and good, and true, then it’s real and plenty “man” enough for him. He simply does not give “real” manhood a second thought.

canoe-fisherman

“If this fish has ever watched ‘Say Yes to the Dress’, it doesn’t count.”

2) A better man isn’t threatened by a different kind of manhood.

If you’re a mechanic with grimy fingernails and you belittle the banker who gets a monthly manicure, you’re only proving one thing: that his manhood makes you doubt your own. Maybe you’re jealous of his income, or his car, or his hot younger wife. And if you’re the banker who looks down his nose at the guy waist-deep in your Beemer, you’re broadcasting your own emasculation like a neon sign. A better man has confidence unshakable enough not to be cracked by encounters with a totally different kind of manhood.

keep-your-tie-amp-desk-job-i-will-keep-my-tools-amp-testicles

The tools guy paid the desk guy to make this.

3) A better man doesn’t drift to political/social extremes.

Reality check: your self image is not defined by being a Republican, or a liberal, or pro-life, or against global warming. It can’t be. Because when we define ourselves by those things, we drift inevitably to extremes. We become caricatures of ourselves. We divide into camps and start treating important issues less like quests for truth and more like sports teams.

savetherainforest

I spent more time Photoshopping this than I did writing the article.

The better man moderates between the extremes. He builds bridges instead of burning them. He can comprehend nuance. He is able to occupy the middle ground between issues not because he doesn’t know which one is right, but because he wants to understand both sides well enough to be an effective persuader.

4) A better man seeks friends who are different than him.

Have you ever seen (or posted) one of those popular memes about the frustrations of dealing with “stupid people”? Here’s an ugly truth: our culture thinks “stupid” means “anyone who disagrees with me”.

We have to stop that. A better man knows that people can have perfectly valid reasons for voting and believing differently than him. That doesn’t make them right, but neither does it make them stupid. By making friends with people who are different, the better man is constantly challenged, his own beliefs and opinions are honed, and most importantly, he avoids becoming the small-minded, confirmation-biased blowhard uncle that we all claim to hate.

5) A better man dresses for who he is.

This may mean a tailored suit and designer tie. Or it may mean cargo shorts and a hoodie. But what it doesn’t mean is “whatever was lying on the floor from last night”. One thing about guys and clothes: it’s way too easy for us to live down to our expectations. And when it comes to how we dress, the expectations our culture has created for us are extremely, embarrassingly low.

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“hyuk-hyuk.”

The better man puts thought into what he wears. He gives the rest of the world the compliment of making an effort. But more importantly, he dresses for who he is, not for who he wants the world to think he is.

6) A better man is deliberate about what matters.

It was two millennia ago that Socrates, one of the first better men, said “the unexamined life isn’t worth living”, and even though it’s a great rule of thumb, it still hasn’t really caught on.

Most guys just do whatever their friends and culture do. But that’s a crappy yardstick to measure a life by.

The better man is deliberate about what matters– the choices he makes about his mate, his kids, his job. He pays attention to how he spends his money, and his time, and his energy. He measures himself not against his culture, but against excellence. And that means he’s deliberate about being self-aware. He studies his own flaws, he gauges what works best, and he uses that information to constantly fine-tune who he is, always striving to be even better.

7) A better man shows respect wherever it’s deserved.

Not just to the people and issues and causes that he instinctively reveres, but to good qualities wherever he finds them. Example: the average guy mocks and dismisses the people who vote different than him. A better man sees that those people want good things, too, they just have a different idea of how to get it. He respects their intentions, even if he doesn’t agree with their methods.

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“Method, shmethod.”

8) A better man makes quiet sacrifices for others (even strangers).

Years ago, I was cutting through a mall parking lot at rush hour, following a long stream of other impatient drivers looking to shave half a minute off the commute. We all jockeyed for positions, tailgated each other, and cut each other off wherever we could. I got to one of those stupid little mall stop signs and angled to turn in front of a car coming the other direction. A woman was driving. She saw my intention, patiently stopped her car, and with a wry little smile, she waved me on in front of her.

With that tiny little sacrifice of her time, peppered with the patient bemusement in her smile, she completely shamed me.

Our culture trains us to be the most self-centered, me-first bastards imaginable. The better man knows this and goes the other way. He makes sacrifices, some big, some little, sometimes even for people he doesn’t even know. Sometimes he even sacrifices for the other self-centered, me-first bastards, and in so doing he shames them a little, just by being better than them.

9) A better man leads when leadership is welcome.

If you force authority on people who don’t want it, you’re not a leader; you’re a pissant tyrant. If you shrink from authority when it’s your duty, you’re not humble; you’re an insecure twit. The better man knows when it’s his time to lead, and he does it by being the sort of person people want to follow.

10) A better man doesn’t complain

This one’s simple. Complaining—whether it’s about your boss, or your wife, or your job, or the damn government—doesn’t make you the sober voice of truth. It makes you a whiny little wuss. The better man doesn’t bitch about his lot in life. He makes it better, or he shoulders it without complaint.

11) A better man can be wrong.

If you’ve lived your whole adult life without changing your worldview or opinion about anything important, you’re either the smartest man in the world, or you’re terrified of being wrong and have done everything you can to avoid it. Maybe you just surround yourself with people who agree with you. It’s easier now than it’s ever been.

Quit it. Being willing to be wrong means gaining ever stronger and better opinions. It inspires people to be less guarded and defensive. It makes you better in a way that surpasses mere rightness and approaches actual goodness.

People respect us for our strengths. But they relate to us for our imperfections. The better man seeks to be relatable more than to be simply right. It’s how he builds communities and friendships and, ultimately, more better men.

12) A better man respects his sex.

I don’t mean his gender. I mean his actual sexuality—his passions, his fantasies, his erotic intimacies. Let’s be totally blunt: porn may or may not be harmless (it’s not). It may or may not demean women (it does). But what we all know is this: it demeans you. Looking at two-dimensional honeys tells your subconscious brain that you’re not good enough for the real thing. And you know what? The more you do it, the more it’s true.

The better man respects his sex enough to save it for a real, live, complicated, feeling, mind-blowingly delightful woman. He doesn’t pay her for it. He doesn’t pressure her into it. He doesn’t have to. He knows he’s worth being wanted, and he works to earn her desire, without demands or expectations.

And that’s pretty much it.

Basically, we all have to quit buying into the notion of the “real” man. There’s no such thing. The “real” man is merely a checklist of superficials, written mostly by small men buried in their own insecurities. Obsessing about “real” manhood is ironically the least real way to be. Throw it out with the trash.

Instead, focus on becoming a better man. It’s a journey, not a checklist. It’s all yours. Own it.

(And maybe I’ll be able to do the same.)

The Generation of Generalization

2013-spring-comic-issue-11-lactose-intoleranceSo I heard a rumor that a teacher at a local school (I’m being deliberately vague) is making broad judgments, during class, about parents and people who vote for a particular presidential candidate.  We all really like this teacher, and to some extent I don’t even disagree with their opinion.  And yet I am very unsettled by this.

I’ve been asking myself why it bothers me so much.

I think it’s because it feels like updated McCarthyism.

And because, especially when it’s passed down from a teacher to students, it is a form of thought police, stifling disagreement, discouraging debate, exchanging critical thinking for mere intellectual fascism.

And because the pet error of our generation is the insistence that disagreement equals stupidity.  More than that, disagreement may even represent a sort of dangerous, idiot evil that needs to be put down by force, if necessary.

We’ve all bought into it by degrees— the generation of generalization.  We pride ourselves in holding two entirely contradictory ideas in our heads: “bigotry is bad” and “all X people are Y”.

It can manifest in endless ways:

All Trump voters are racist idiots.

Liberals are all intellectually-dishonest cowards.

White people ignore police brutality.

Black people riot and loot.

Christians are anti-science haters.

Nickelback listeners are tasteless rubes.

Did that last one make you smile?  Does it seem OK to generalize based on musical taste?  Like some generalizations are harmless?

That’s pretty sad.  The ugliness of generalization– of bigotry– is fractal.  It’s the same vicious shape no matter how small and seemingly harmless we reduce it.

It’s a rotten, invasive little seed of prejudice that can’t be planted in just one corner of our intellectual garden.  It takes over.  It taints, then becomes the entire garden, obliterating all other consideration.

We’ve grown accustomed to the idea that the easiest way to feel big is to stand on someone else.  We think it’s OK, because we don’t make it a person, we make it some generalized group or demographic or voting block or sexual orientation or cultural category.

We think that judging a person is evil.  But judging people– based entirely on superficial group affiliation– is just fine.

Maybe even our moral duty.

In our world, people aren’t different from us because they’ve had different life experiences that have formed alternate views and opinions.

They’re different because they’re stupid, and immoral, and dangerous.  Period.

I don’t want to be misconstrued on one thing, however: People can be wrong.  Their life experiences may have fostered perceptions and approaches and attitudes that may indeed be completely mistaken, inaccurate, and even destructive.  But it’s the grand ego of our generation to insist, first and foremost, that difference equals stupidity.  Nothing less, and absolutely, positively nothing more.

So that, I think, is what bothers me about a teacher making broad, categorical judgments about “everyone who votes for X”.  Not because I like X, but because it perpetuates an ugliness that is already way too prevalent.  Personally, I think this mentality— the generation of generalization, the doublethink that bigotry is only bad if it’s bigotry against the wrong people— is a much, much bigger threat to society than any presidential candidate could ever be.

How a Regular American Could Become President With One Unusual Message

newyorkcity_crowd_shutterstock_160644944I call myself a conservative, but I’m really not that different from most of my liberal friends (of whom there are many) when it comes to the things we care about.  I also identify pretty consistently with my libertarian friends as well, and can even share some common ground with my few Socialist pals.

In every case, we can be friends and have good discussion not because we agree on how things should get done (that rarely happens) but because we do agree on why things should get done.

If I ran for president, I would probably end up on the Republican ticket, somewhere in that murky historic middle ground between Abe Lincoln and Donald Trump, and yet my strongest statement would be this:

I have more in common with the typical Democrat voter than I do with the typical Republican politician

My message would be that I respect and share many of the concerns of the rank-and-file Democrat.  And when my fellow Republicans arose in affronted surprise, I would remind them: we don’t fault our Democrat friends for caring deeply for the poor and underclass, or the environment, or those who’ve experienced unfair hurdles or discrimination in life, blocking their path to the success and liberty we all strive for. These are all worthy concerns, and we share them.

The problem is that we’ve conflated our good Democrat neighbors with the bad Democrat politicians, those who’ve exploited their constituents’ passions, and responded with bloated, flabby government programs that rarely succeed in alleviating the problem (assuming they were designed to succeed in the first place, and aren’t merely weak attempts to appease a Democrat electorate that they believe is too stupid to look past the “good intentions”).

To Democrat Americans, I would say loudly and repeatedly: you are my allies, and I am yours.  What you care about matters deeply, because these are things we should all care about.  We may often disagree on the how, but we will find a way, because we do agree on the why.

And to the American Democrat, I would go on: You don’t really hate your Republican neighbors the way you’ve been told to by your leaders and culture.  Your leaders need you to hate, because it translates to votes and viewers.  And I understand the allure of hating “the villainous other”– we all do.

Because hate often feels righteous.

And yet really, you don’t hate your Republican neighbors, whose deepest concerns are to protect the core goodness of our culture, to be free to have reverence for their faith, to respect the boundaries of personal responsibility, to fight for everyone’s freedom to choose their own path, and reap the possible rewards.

What you, my Democrat friends, rightfully hate are the bad Republican politicians who’ve exploited those causes for mere power, with little intention of assuring fairness of opportunity for everyone, who’ve catered to the lowest denominators of greed, and the tiniest, ugly percent of an otherwise wholesome constituency.

Our enemies are not each other.  If I were president, I would listen to the concerns of all sides, and work as hard as possible to find workable solutions for the good causes that we all share.

We have harbored distrust and animosity for so long that it’s become a virtue of our respective camps. 

And the truth is, we aren’t wrong in our distrust and animosity.  We’ve simply allowed the politicians– and the media that feeds off them like a remora feeds off a shark– to turn the focus of that mistrust onto each other, instead of them.

Because let’s all face the facts: Democrat or Republican, they’ve all had decades to get this right, and all they’ve accomplished is maintaining the status quo, living off our trust like vampires, spending all their energy working to make us hate each other, distracting us from their own deliberate incompetence.

Hillary wants to be president of the Democrat half of the country.  She is unabashed about this.  Trump wants to be President of what remains of the Republican half of the country, bullying for them while rubbing everyone else’s noses in their loss of power and influence.

What we need is a president who is the president of everyone.  Who understands and commits to the belief that the American citizen, regardless of party, has worthy concerns, and should never be punished, or ridiculed, or excluded for them. 

We won’t often agree on how to do good things.  But it’s time to focus first on the fact that, deep down, we, the American people, all do want good things, both for our families, and our neighbors, and our communities.

For too long we’ve submitted to politicians and the media pitting factions of American people against each other.

We have to stop defending our bad politicians as if they somehow represent us and deserve our unflagging loyalty merely for having the proper letter in front of their names.

They do not.

We all have common ground, but those who gain from division have done everything they can to hide that from us.

Because part of our common ground is that it isn’t our Democrat or Republican neighbors who are the problem.  The problem is the politicians and media who’ve fed off making us believe so.

So talk to your friends from opposing perspectives.  Make a point of finding the common ground, because it does exist.  Avoid the all-too-easy impulse to focus on the differences in the how, to mock and belittle and argue.

Get out of the intellectual prison-camps of extremism that our politicians and culture have herded us into like the cattle they believe we are.

Let’s be united again, in purpose.  Let’s be Americans first, before Democrats and Republicans.

If we can rise to a higher nature and do that, if we can remember that we agree on the why, then the how will eventually come.

If I was running for president, that would be my first and most oft-repeated message.  My guiding principle.  My deepest vision.

It may be naive, and the hurdle of overcoming our easy hatred and division may be so high that we cannot leap it in one election, or even one generation.

But anyone who aims for anything easier or lesser should never,ever earn our vote.

What Siri Taught Me About Understanding Existence

 

I consider myself a skeptic—that is, someone who examines and questions his beliefs and perceptions.  And yet I’ve never felt quite comfortable in the community of Skeptics (big S).

Upon reading an article by (and about) Skeptics, I think I’ve figured out why.  I’ll spoil this whole blog post by giving the answer now:

Skeptics are only skeptical of the sources they’re inclined not to trust anyway.

This is not true skepticism.  In fact, it’s almost the exact opposite.

The thing Skeptics ignore is that there has to be more than one way for humans to ascertain truth about the world.  The Skeptic relies exclusively on Intellect/Reason.  What can be seen, measured, proved, and repeated.

This is a comfortable place to be, admittedly, because we live in a culture that reveres (perhaps even idolizes) science.

sciencelastsupper

“I don’t care how many decimal places you average the check down to. Did you see how many drinks Hitchens had?”

But there must be at least two other avenues by which humans perceive the world.  For the sake of simplification, let’s call them Heart/Emotion and Spirit/Revelation.

(And with that, all my Skeptic friends have already checked out.  For the rest of you, hang in there.)

These three methods of understanding the world are like three techniques of getting directions to a place: satellite navigation, a paper map, and asking a bystander.

Intellect/Reason is like using satnav to get somewhere.  It’s precise, bloodless, and (ostensibly) utterly objective.  I myself prefer satnav.  I’m happy to let my phone tell me when and where to turn.  I trust the science behind it.  I respect and understand, if vaguely, the reliability of satellite triangulation married to the most perfectly scanned and catalogued maps of planet earth that have ever existed in human history.

But then there’s Heart/Emotion, which is more like the paper map in the glove compartment: trustworthy in and of itself, but always subject to the interpretation of the reader.  My wife prefers a paper map, something she can unfold in her hands and translate with her own brain, wedding what’s on the page to her own skills and experiences.

And finally there is Spirit/Revelation, which is most akin to stopping alongside the road and asking a stranger for directions.  With this method, one is no longer relying on their own personal skill, experience, or rationality but is trusting instead on an outside source of knowledge.

directions

“Turn right at youthful idealism, hang a louie at unresolved guilt, and just follow the signs for middle-age resentment. Easy peasy!”

Now I’ll be honest: it’s very easy to see why Skeptics ignore (and even belittle) the second two methods of understanding the world, placing all of their emphasis firmly on Intellect/Reason.

Heart/Emotion, just like a paper map, is entirely subject to the skills of the individual parsing the data.  The person reading the map/feeling the emotion may be accurately responding to the input while simultaneously completely misinterpreting it.  Some of the worst fights my wife and I have ever experienced have revolved around misread directions, both of the cartographic and emotional variety.

Spirit/Revelation is even easier to dismiss.  This is why most men are stereotypically loath to ask directions.  It’s perceived as surrender, a sign of weakness, even a defeat.  Trusting an external source of revelation is not only seen as unreliable, but as an offensive abdication of one’s own competence.

Thus, I can’t exactly blame the Skeptic for ignoring everything except for Intellect/Reason.  In the same way that I would be happy to never open another paper map or ask directions ever again.  I love my satnav.  I trust it.

And yet, embarrassingly enough, satellite navigation has failed me on more than a few occasions.  It’s directed me to the center of an industrial park loading dock instead of the pizza place I was looking for.  It’s missed destinations by many blocks, all while insisting I was exactly where I was supposed to be.  It has sometimes tried to take me to entirely different cities.  It will insist a destination doesn’t exist at all if I input the name in a way even slightly different than it understands.

In short, satnav is imperfect.  Cell reception can be sketchy, the data can be input incorrectly, satellite map information can be confusing, even to a computer.  (Consider, for a moment, the invisible island that Google maps insists is there.)

googlemaps

“Go home, Google.  You’re drunk.”

Similarly, let’s be honest: Intellect/Reason can lead us astray as well, or bypass some truths altogether.

For example, back in Copernicus’ day when the debate was about the center of the universe, some scientists argued that everything revolved around the earth using very reasonable, scientific logic: parallax.  They knew that if the earth was moving around the sun, the spaces between the stars would shift throughout the year as the earth changed position relative to them.  Since this was not observable, science dictated that the earth was stationary.

Of course, just like with my satnav, it wasn’t the science itself that was wrong, but the tools of implementing it.  The scientists of Copernicus’ day didn’t have sensitive enough equipment to measure the parallax of the stars.

The tools of Intellect/Reason are necessarily limited.  There are some things they simply cannot measure or understand.  Science may be able to show why hunger chemically affects the chemical balance of a human brain, but it’s no good at helping me discern if my wife is truly mad about the lawn needing mowed or if she’s just hangry.

hangry2.gif

That’s where Heart/Emotion come in.

Heart/Emotion, like reading a map, can be unreliable.  But that’s only if my interpretation is clumsy.  The emotion, just like the map itself, is accurate in and of itself.  It’s my duty to learn how to interpret the data in a reliable and meaningful way.

And there are essential things I can learn via that study that no amount of “in a quarter mile, turn right” satnav will ever teach me.  Emotional data, like a map, can illustrate the subtle topography of human interaction and the psychological distances between ideologies (and how they might loop back on one another).  Emotional truth helps me understand and relate to my wife and kids and friends.  It provides the mechanism of empathy, compassion, romance, and persuasion.

But what of Spirit/Revelation?

This method of learning about the world and existence is much maligned (and understandably so) because it isn’t as simple as asking a bystander how to find an address.  We all know how to choose a reliable source for directions.  We ask the wizened gas station jockey, not the wino on the corner or the toddler in the playground.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple when it comes to revelation about life and existence.  Sources for revelatory knowledge can seem nebulous, numerous, and even mythical.  But this may be because we are no longer trained in the art of divining (pun intended) the spiritual equivalent of the gas station expert from the homeless meth addict.

Like learning to reliably interpret emotions, learning how to test and translate knowledge obtained via Spirit/Revelation is largely a lost art, either because we think it’s silly (the Skeptic) or because we trust anything and everything (the Mystic).

But the fact that this method is the least understood and/or the most clumsily engaged is not a legitimate reason to ignore it.

Imagine if we applied the same logic to an electron microscope or a DSM manual.

The thing Skeptics love about Intellect/Reason is that knowledge gained via this manner is shareable.  It can be documented and repeated.

Knowledge gained via Heart/Emotion and Spirit/Revelation is much harder to share.  But this cannot mean it is less valuable or useful.

That would be like saying love is a myth because I can’t make you love what I do.clamato

(What I love.)

So, circling back to my first paragraph: the problem with Skeptics is that they are people inclined toward one method of knowledge happily applying skepticism to the *other* methods of knowledge.

And to be fair, this is the same problem with Mystics.  And Romantics.

We are all inclined to prefer one way of learning about the world over another.  And we are all wired to wholly exercise that method and let the others languish.

But what if truth can only be really approached when we find a way to balance all three methods?  When we find that sweet spot between Intellect, Heart, and Spirit?

What if real skepticism means using all three methods of knowledge to hone and test the others?

Let’s take it a step further: what if Intellect, Heart, and Spirit are a little like Rock, Paper, and Scissors?  Each with their own individual strength and weakness, but undefeatable as a trio?  What if our ability to approach truth is only really honed when we are capable of engaging any of those three options, each tempered and bolstered by the other?

This is possibly where modern society falls down the hardest—the thing that future cultures will most laugh at and lament about us.  From Neil Degrasse Tyson to Bill Nye, to “I Fucking Love Science”, we’re so in love with the smug superiority of Intellect that we’ve become abject puny weaklings when it comes to Heart and Spirit.

We’ve removed all but one tool from our toolbox of knowledge.

We throw the same hand every time we play Rock, Paper, Scissors.

And no matter how superior we may feel about it, we’re the worse for it.

So to end this on an upshot, let’s practice with another tool.  Next time you want to throw Rock, try Paper.  Next time you want to dismiss a belief because it hearkens to a source of knowledge you dismiss, consider it anyway.  Next time you agree with something because it corresponds to your preferred tool for understanding the world, be skeptical.  Test it against another way of divining truth.

I dare you.

Challenge yourself.  Practice the far more difficult skills of interpreting your Heart and Spirit.  Get uncomfortable with some new ideas.  Instead of poking at other people’s stupid beliefs, try to find the stupidity in your own.

Because no matter what, it’s there.

Oh man, is it ever.

Just like with mine.

At the intersection of heart, mind, and spirit, maybe just once…

try ignoring your satnav.