Trust (I)

Every once in a while an idea is presented so strikingly that it forces you to look at things in a wholly different way. Sometimes the insight comes from a teacher; sometimes a friend, or a parent, or a coach; sometimes a peer or coworker. Sometimes it’s a random encounter on the street, or even one of the clucking heads on Fox — everyone is allowed the occasional, if unintentional, flash of brilliance. Frequently the new insight becomes, in hindsight, obvious: how could I have missed that? And often the answer is: because earlier proponents were simply not as articulate, or perhaps so blinkered by their own perceived brilliance that they struggle to communicate their ideas.

So it was that I attended, about thirty years ago, a panel discussion on public key cryptography. One of the speakers — whose name is on one of the critical pieces of that now-critical infrastructure — began by explaining the principle of trust. Asymmetric encryption — in which there is a public key known to the world and a private key known only to the holder — is important to electronic commerce because it assures the parties to the transaction that they are who they say they are. It is a trust mechanism: not an enforcer, but a reliable conveyor of fact. A message encrypted with the recipient’s public key can only be deciphered by her private key — ensuring message integrity; a message encrypted with the sender’s private key can only be verified using her public key — proving identity.

Well, yes, I was thinking, even then. But so what? “Trust,” said my panelist, “is what makes the world work.” And there it was. Simple. Obvious. And rarely articulated so starkly or so clearly. Trust that you are who you say you are; trust that you own what you say you own; trust that you will deliver on your promises to pay or to perform. The public key infrastructure (PKI) assures the first of these (identity) and goes a long way to assuring the second (truthfulness). It does nothing to assure the third — the kind of trust that is earned (reputation).

I mention all this because the Trump era presents a particular problem of trust: trust in government, trust in institutions, trust in the mechanisms that protect our liberty and propel our national and individual success. Americans no longer trust their government to keep them safe, help them thrive, and ensure that their children grow into a better world than they received from their own parents. Ironically, the solution for a very vocal minority has been to repose trust in a man who is utterly untrustworthy, who never tells the truth (except perhaps inadvertently), whose appalling and bottomless need for validation is his only motivation. He is incapable of empathy — and for that reason alone he cannot be trusted: he will never act for the common good because his personal benefit is the only thing he is capable of seeing.

Trust — like its fraternal twin, Respect — is earned. Without that foundation a leap of faith is a headlong plunge into the abyss. And yet: “Trust me. Believe me. I alone can fix it.” These words ring hollow to most people, but strike a chord with just enough of our compatriots whose faith in government was already so broken and battered that they opted for the grinning autocratic mountebank rather than the charmless competent technocrat.

Popular culture is full of references to the notion that America is not a country, it is an idea: the American Experiment, we call ourselves. The foundational document of our republic speaks of “a more perfect union”: the experiment is always evolving, always changing, always growing. This is — quite literally — progress. There have always been those who want to arrest it, or at least slow it. This idea finds spectacularly clear expression in the penultimate scene of “The American President”:

We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character, and you wave an old photo of the President’s girlfriend and you scream about patriotism. You tell them she’s to blame for their lot in life. And you go on television and you call her a whore.

Decades have passed and this speech is stunning not just for its clarity, but for its prescience. “He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid, and telling you who’s to blame.” This is the Trumpian tactic; this is McConnell at his cynical and dishonest worst. Replace “whore” with “anarchist socialist who wants to destroy America” and we are in the present. This is not the language of statesmen or problem solvers; it is the sentiment of men interested in power for its own sake, not for its use towards the common good and a common goal.

The question we all should be asking — and the press should be leading the way on this — is also simple: Why do you think that American citizens want to destroy America? What, exactly, is the reason for that? How do they benefit? And if you can’t answer that question, why are you saying such things? Why, in short, if you so claim to love America, do you so obviously hate your fellow Americans? Why do you not grant them the same courtesy, trust and respect you demand?

This is a nation of divergent and often opposing views. Democracy assumes that compromise will be reached in the back-and-forth of the legislative chambers. The winner-take-all view of today’s Republican Party does not acknowledge the possibility that theirs is not the only legitimate vision for America and its people; it takes instead the autocratic position that might makes right. “Trust us,” they say. “We know best.”

Trust and respect are earned every day; they are never given as of right. Electoral outcomes do not repose unfettered confidence; they are a signal that the winner should, instead, proceed to prove his case. That is the American way — and we stand on the precipice of forever losing it.

A National Strategy Requires a National Government

Like so many Americans, I find myself envying nations that have a national government, and all that implies: A national sense of purpose; a national strategy for testing and tracing; a national plan for a public health crisis. There was a time when the United States had purpose, whether it was defeat of the Axis or putting a man on the moon. “We’re going to win!” is neither a goal, nor a strategy for achieving one. And, “We’re going to win so much, you’ll be tired of all the winning!” What does that actually mean? It is tautological, nonsensical, risible. “Winning” in this telling is undefined and lives (if it lives anywhere) beyond the looking glass, where words are just sounds with no actual meaning:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

 Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

It’s a sure bet that Donald Trump hasn’t read the book, nor would he understand the exchange. Irony, as they say, is not his long suit. At least, not intentionally.

Any dream of a national purpose must wait for another day; the pressing need, today, is for a national strategy: the novel coronavirus is among us and is not leaving any time soon. The national response has been botched — because in truth there was no national response. We had, instead, fifty state responses, some more successful than others but all of them at risk: the weak responses in a very real sense threaten the stronger ones. Our constitution guarantees freedom of movement, and while the governor of (for example) New York can require travelers from Texas and Florida to self-isolate for two weeks after arrival, it is only a matter of time before someone decides to make a literal Federal case out of a very real and very practical exercise of the state’s police power. Health and safety be damned, because this is America!

Meanwhile, in the real world: over 30 million people are unemployed; over 5 million have contracted Covid-19; over 160,000 have died from the disease, and 1,000 more die each day. (Our infection rate has been doubling about every six weeks; at that pace, by May or June the entire nation will be Covid-positive, a stunning achievement. If “winning” means, “create a nation of lepers”: mission accomplished.) And the United States Senate, the self-styled “world’s most deliberative body,” can neither deliberate nor negotiate nor even formulate legislation that might help  American citizens survive — pay the rent, buy groceries — until the pandemic subsides and the jobs actually do come back. Bear in mind that formulating legislation is the actual job of senators: it is their primary responsibility, enshrined right there in the job title: “legislator, upper body.”

For anyone who might be persuaded by the argument that “the House refuses to negotiate,” please bear in mind that the House actually passed legislation in May. The Senate (and the White House) chose to wait until the expiration of the March bill (July 31) before even beginning negotiations, evidently in the hope that Democrats would be persuaded of the urgency of passing anything and would thus accept whatever weak last-minute tea the Republicans brewed. (The Republicans, for their part, can’t even agree among themselves what to ask for or try to pass. So much for their legendary party unity.) It has taken a generation, but the Democrats — and Speaker Pelosi — have gotten wise to this game and aren’t having it.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee — under Lindsay Graham’s “leadership” — grills Sally Yates about the spooks under the bed. (Ms. Yates wasn’t having it, either, and deftly put the majority in its place.) Writing legislation is the Senate’s primary job, but by all means let’s ask more questions about Hilary’s emails, eight years after the fact. Changing the subject is a time-tested method of distracting attention from your failures, collectively as a legislative body as well as individually.

By most accounts the American people aren’t buying, not this time. There is an actual plague in the land, and the federal government isn’t doing anything to control the spread or mitigate the effects. We’re on our own, until we’re able to put people in government who are actually interested in doing the hard work of governing.

A Crisis of His Own Making

In the beginning it was popular, among the so-called chattering classes — the op-ed pages, the Sunday talk shows, drive-time radio — to refer to the Covid-19 pandemic as the first crisis Trump has faced that is not of his own making. (It’s not quote true, of course: there was Maria and the devastation our citizens in Puerto Rico are still suffering, three years on. Trump didn’t create the storm, but the lasting effects were made far worse by his customary blend of indifference, insensitivity, inaction, indolence, and incompetence.) Crises in the Trump era have been, most notably, the foreign policy blunders and debacles: North Korea, Iran, Turkey, Brazil… the list goes on, and each and every one actually started with Trump.

And now, Covid-19.

The alarms were first rung at least in late December 2019 — fully seven months ago, if not more. Trump ignored them. A month went by, and further disturbing intelligence emerged — and Trump ignored it. Worse, the National Security Directorate tasked with managing a pandemic response had been disbanded and the literal book on health crisis management, a sixty-plus page manual developed by the Obama administration, had been tossed aside by people so sure of their own abilities that nobody in the history of the world could possibly teach them anything. Seven months later — when the rest of the world has returned to normal and has resumed life as usual, the United States struggles: over 1,000 dead each day (compared with perhaps a dozen in all of Europe); nearly 150,000 dead since March; the mortality rate continues its grim ascent parallel to the long handle of the hockey stick; and over 4.5 million known cases. Trump insists that we test more, and therefore have more cases. No: nor will eliminating biopsies cure cancer. That any adult would say this might be amusing; for such dissembling nonsense to spew daily from the Oval Office is terrifying.

So is this truly not a crisis of Trump’s own making? The facts suggest otherwise. The signal event — the virus’s species jump — was surely beyond anyone’s control; the reaction to that event, and how to manage its consequences, is entirely within the control of any government interested in doing its job. Trump prefers to preen and posture; rolling up his sleeves and doing actual work is far beyond his capabilities. By ignoring facts, science, and a set of written instructions left by the previous administration, Trump has exacerbated a crisis that, properly managed, might have been over by March; instead it is now a raging plague that will be with us for years to come.

Historians are forever telling us that every president campaigns on domestic issues and is soon consumed by international affairs — hot spots and flareups that the United States must address in its capacity as beacon to the world and, since 1990, sole superpower. In the age of Trump the United States no longer lights the way except in the strictly negative sense: don’t do this, more pratfall than pragmatism. It’s not that we have become the problem so much as we have lost control of the entire enterprise; and feeling now out of control we have no real idea how to correct course. Our democracy is threatened by those sworn to protect it and the American experiment in self-governance is closer to burning out than it has ever been in its 244 year history. The beacon of the world is perilously close to self-extinguishing.

Presidents, and crises, come and go. That Trump would both by his actions, and by inaction, create crisis after crisis was predictable. But the only cure, the only lasting remedy, is to look beyond Trump and acknowledge and act upon what our founders knew in their bones. As we consider the Trump Trifecta — a pandemic, record unemployment, and rampant social injustice — we might bear in mind the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel from just fifty years ago, when he joined the ranks of protesters in an earlier age of social unrest and upheaval:

There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of our dream of honesty.

The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the Prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.

The Prophets aren’t going to lead us out of this low ebb in our history; only the collective voices of all Americans, shouted as one on November 3, can begin to reverse the tide and begin the long road to redemption and restoration to greatness. In a free society some are guilty, but all are responsible. Trump and his enablers might be guilty; but we are all responsible to send them packing.

Great and Small

Small men hide their mistakes and admit no error. Great men expect and own theirs. Small men require adulation; great men earn respect. The small man will punch down (but never up), trying to improve his own standing by standing on others. Great men reach down and lift up.

The small man believes that marble and bronze likenesses are proof of greatness. The great man’s monument is his achievement, memorialized by the judgment of history. The small man pounds his chest to make a point; the great man pounds the pavement to win the day. Small men remain small despite their puffery; great men know the worth of words and of ideas.

Great men lead the way into battle; small men say, “The fight is over yonder, come back when you’ve killed something.” Great men will explain a higher purpose and persuade to do the hard things; small men don’t look beyond where their followers are going anyway. Great men know that a chain, or an army, or a nation, is only as strong as its weakest component; small men know only the rhetorical intimidation of projected strength.

Great men learn from their mistakes; small men repeat them.

This Independence Day, as we look towards the nominating conventions and a national election, let us all aspire to greatness. Mistakes are the human condition, but a failure to learn — and a compulsion to repeat — looks like willful stupidity.


Respect is earned: it is not given. Which is to say, an indivdual must work to gain respect beyond whatever is granted by default, by virtue of his office. A group manager is respected insofar as she is the group manager; but she doesn’t get the respect she wants without earning it, without treating her people well, without having their backs.

What to say, then, to the man who demands respect but gives none; who is too lazy to earn it, let alone understand it. How does one respond to the man who demeans himself, his office, his nation. What rational answer is there to the foolish, aimless, and irrational mental wandering of a man so contemptuous of others, so needy of adulation, as to be utterly and completely beyond redemption.

It’s impossible to respect a man who doesn’t respect the office he holds.

Intellectual (Dis)Honesty

Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump don’t want to defund the police. A sloppy slogan — which Carlson, at least, knows doesn’t mean what he says it means — has become a rallying point for the collapsing conservative movement and Trumpism. “Defund the police” doesn’t mean — as, again, Carlson is surely aware and which Trump might or might not be — abolish the police, dismantle the police, disband the police, dismiss the police, or even replace the police.

What it does mean is simply this: we ask the police to do too much, and it’s long past time we cut back on their mission to allow them to focus on the things only a well-trained professional police force can do. It’s time to stop asking them to be social workers, truant officers, mental health professionals, suicide prevention counsellors, poison control specialists, drug treatment counsellors, election monitors, and the thousand-and-one sundry other things we throw money at the police to do because, well, it’s just easier than hiring people who actually trained for this or want to do that.

The truth is, the police are failing right now: they fail because of mission creep. “Protect and serve” was never meant to mean, “Protect our bloated budgets and we will serve your political interests.” The answer, it seems (to listen to the Tucker Carlsons and Sean Hannitys of the world), is to repair and reform the police, presumably by throwing more money at them.

These are the same people, mind, who believe that failing public schools should be defunded — by which they mean, disbanded and shut down. Take the education budget and shovel it towards the private sector where it won’t so much educate children as enrich the well-connected, in much the same way the law-enforcement dollars spent on tanks and riot gear don’t keep the peace so much they as effect an enormous transfer of wealth out of the public coffers.

It has long been an article of faith in conservative circles that competition is a sort of magic bullet that will solve every problem. Schools not doing the job? Take away their money and inject some competition into the system, and may the best school win! Health insurance not covering your expenses? Competition is here to save you! Just read the fine print from every carrier and make an informed decision!

Public schools fail for the same reason policing fails: the ever-expanding mandate makes it impossible to focus on the core mission. If we want everyone to have a future in this country — black children, white children, special-needs children, gifted children, everybody’s children — we might take a few minutes to consider why the answer for one failing institution is to withhold funding; and for the other, to continue to throw money at the problem.

It’s past time for the proponents of charter schools and school vouchers, and the defenders of shockingly abusive police practices — so often the same people — to be honest about their agendas. The results of your intellectual dishonesty are always, always deadly.

Essential Workers

Driving along the Interboro – – excuse me, Jackie Robinson – – Parkway, one passes through several cemeteries. It’s a common site around here. When several of New York City’s highways were constructed in the early 20th century, they literally cut through cemeteries and many graves were relocated.

What I see now shocks me. Last weekend I counted at least a dozen mounds of fresh earth, and several more open sites ready for an interment. Funeral directors report at least triple their normal business, with many more cremations than usual due to long waits for burial. Hamlet’s gravediggers didn’t think of themselves as “essential workers” but they were. In a time of plague, it’s not just the butcher and the baker who keep us moving forward; it’s also the teamster, the apothecary, the embalmer.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that it’s the people at the bottom — the minimum-wage workers — whom we most rely upon. The stockbrokers and hedge fund managers aren’t going to help us get through this. The nurses, grocery clerks, letter carriers, and, yes, the gravediggers, are the ones we need.

It’s time for us to rethink how we value, and reward, work.

The (Non)Partisan Blame Game

Former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, in an op-ed in The Washington Post, suggests that we “avoid the partisan blame game” when the pandemic is over and we can all go back outside:

I’m worried about preventing a sickness, one we’ve been through before — much more recently than the last pandemic flu. It’s our tribal eagerness to employ 20/20 rearview vision and castigate the Other Side for its mistakes, even those made in all sincerity, even those the second-guessers failed to dispute, or even endorsed, at the outset.

Having laid out his premise, Daniels proceeds to recite his recollection of the run-up to the Iraq War. I say “recollection” to be charitable: the revisionist history that Daniels recounts posits that “the consensus conclusion of multiple national intelligence agencies was that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had or was close to acquiring weapons of mass destruction,” leaving out the part where the intelligence was cherry-picked to support the conclusion desired by the President. He leaves out the part where Colin Powell addressed the UN Security Council and knowingly bent the truth to fit the objective.

The problem, of course, is that in his analogy the Other Side — the administration and its supporters in Congress — did not make “sincere” mistakes: the evidence supporting the undeclared war was at best distorted to enhance its probative value; at worst it was fabricated.

Fast-forward to the present day, where a literal plague threatens the human population of the planet. As of 10 May 2020 (GMT):

  • 4,100,788 cases worldwide
  • 280,432 deaths worldwide

Of these, the United States — with 5% of the world’s population — has nearly 33% of the cases and  fatalities:

  • 1,347,309 cases
  • 80,037 deaths

The infection rate continues to rise in states whose governors are all too willing to “reopen” their states (or who never “closed” them). This in service to a president who bungled the federal response; who ignored at least a dozen warnings that a deadly virus was spreading around the globe; who discarded the pandemic readiness manual prepared by the previous administration; who insists that widespread testing and contact tracing are not necessary to public health and safety; who does not wear a mask in meetings, in public, or on a photo-op tour of a mask factory and who prefers to “go it alone” when it comes to developing a vaccine, rather than cooperate with global efforts.

Many countries have managed this better than we have; there is no secret to their relative success: they have implemented widespread testing and contact tracing. In the United States, while the administration and its captive governors and senators still insist that there is nothing more to be done, a number of states — going where the science tells them to go — are ramping up contact tracing programs of their own. This isn’t a new idea: it has long been standard practice for outbreaks of tuberculosis, as well as for STDs.

If it’s a good idea for STDs, why is it a bad idea for a global pandemic that (so far) has killed over 80,000 Americans, doubling its grisly yield every two weeks? Anyone?

With all respect to Governor Daniels, the blame — and there is plenty to be heaped on this administration and its minions in both federal and state governments — is not partisan. To call it “partisan” is to perpetuate the same logical fallacy that Lisa Murkowski and other senate Republicans foisted on their constituents during the impeachment trial. Refusing to participate in a democratic process doesn’t make the process partisan, it makes you partisan. It means you value your party’s control of government above the principles upon which this nation was founded.

Call it partisan all you want to. That sort of weak straw man isn’t going to sit well in the history books of the next century — if there are any. Refusal to participate, refusal to compromise, has put the nation, and the planet, on a collision course with extinction. Next up: Unprecedented flooding along the Gulf Coast while the virus rages on.

Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics

Though the phrase survival of the fittest is often used to convey the gist of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution, it was Herbert Spencer who first coined the phrase; and by it he intended the kind of winner-take-all mentality that seems embodied in today’s GOP: in a word, social Darwinism.

In the context of civil society the idea that the strong should clamber over the weak is repugnant. It is not even a sound economic and business principle, for if competition ensures innovation and lower prices (both good for society), then in any given market — let us say, for example, for widgets — the logical and eventual outcome of unfettered cutthroat competition will be monopoly or, at best, a duopoly.  Competition of the kind pro-business politicians usually say they mean cannot exist without strong antitrust enforcement; it should be noted, then, that these same politicians usually want to weaken the antitrust laws.

But in a civil — and civilized — society, the notion that the fittest will survive and the weaker elements of society will wither, fall away, and die, is as morally repellent as it is antithetical to the foundational belief that all men are created equal.  “The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics,” wrote Justice Holmes, dissenting in Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), a case decided upon the — ahem — libertarian notion, resurgent in our era, that government has no authority to interfere in any economic aspect of the individual citizen’s life.

It is settled by various decisions of this court that state constitutions and state laws may regulate life in many ways which we, as legislators, might think as injudicious, or, if you like, as tyrannical, as this, and which, equally with this, interfere with the liberty to contract…. The liberty of the citizen to do as he likes so long as he does not interfere with the liberty of others to do the same, which has been a shibboleth for some well known writers, is interfered with by school laws, by the Post Office, by every state or municipal institution which takes his money for purposes thought desirable, whether he likes it or not.

198 U.S. at 75

More recently it was argued that government cannot compel the purchase of health insurance, that individuals should be permitted to decide how to spend each of their hard-earned dollars. Freedom! Freedom of contract, in Lochner; or the “freedom” to self-insure against catastrophic illness.

Very well; we will grant you the right to refuse health insurance if you will permit us to refuse you entrance to the Emergency Room when your appendix bursts, or when you suffer a heart attack, or when your carelessness in the kitchen threatens a digit. After all, you took the risk and assumed that you would not need health insurance; now you want the rest of us to pay for your ER visit, your cardiologist, your orthopedic surgery. In fact you assumed no risk at all, betting that the rest of us would backstop your bad decision. This is freedom defined through a looking-glass and exercised at the expense of others: exactly what laws and government are intended to prevent.

If you find this line of argument — you decided to roll the dice so man up and take your lumps — offensive: you should. But it is not the inverse of the libertarian freedom-of-contract, freedom-to-self-insure argument; it is the identical logic applied and imposed from the other direction.

The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics, and the Constitution and the laws and social structures that rest on it do not constitute a suicide pact. So, please, Michigan militiamen: your desire to “liberate” your state from “tyrannical” social-distancing orders is an unconstitutional affront to your neighbors’ desire, their right, to continue living without the unnecessary threat of disease and death that your liberation would impose on them.