Empathy

Decades ago Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy kicked off a cold civil war; Ronald Reagan kept it going with his apocryphal story of a Welfare Queen, George HW Bush had Willie Horton, and George W Bush had the duplicitous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In the 1990’s Newt Gingrich weaponized “traditional values” in congressional elections and the culture wars, begun thirty years earlier (by Goldwater acolyte Phyllis Schlafly) were fully joined.

Trump isn’t the disease. He’s a symptom. He is the apotheosis of a cynical process begun by Schlafly and Roger Ailes, continuing in a straight line through Gingrich and Palin and on to Jim Jordan, whose feverish House speechifying would be hilariously funny were it not so scary: if he believes even half of what he says he is simply incapable of coherent thought and critical analysis; if he doesn’t then he is a proven liar.

So if Trump and all these others are symptoms, what is the disease? Why is our congress deadlocked, our legislative pipeline gridlocked? Why is our political discourse coarse? If politics is supposed to be the art of the possible, why is even the smallest compromise seemingly impossible? It comes down to one single word: empathy. There has long been an empathy gap in American politics: Republicans have none, Democrats a surfeit. (This might be a good time to point out the misleading way many polls are reported: breaking results down by political affiliation might seem useful but it has the effect of elevating the Republican Party to a status it does not enjoy. Independents and Democrats each outnumber registered Republicans.)

Politics is the art of the possible: compromise. But compromise is impossible in an environment where one party routinely engages in the most toxic rhetorical excess, demonizing policy differences and branding them as an Enemy who is seeking no less than the destruction of the nation. Compromise requires empathy, and a willingness to view the world — just for an instant —through someone else’s eyes. Before you judge a man, it is said, you should walk a mile in his moccasins.

The signal event in the transformation — or disintegration — of the Republican Party was the rise of Newt Gingrich to Speaker in 1995. What began as an election device to demonize the Other became, in Gingrich’s hands, a weapon of legislative havoc, a wrecking ball aimed not just at New Deal and Great Society programs but at the people who would preserve them and their legacy. Empathy is rhetorically conflated with sympathy, and both are denigrated as signs of weakness. That demonization is, ironically, itself a sign of weakness, the kind of professed certainty and absolutism that betrays fanaticism. (“The fanatic,” wrote John LeCarré, “is always concealing a secret doubt.”)

The transformation of the GOP into the POT is complete: there are no scruples (only “winning” is important), there is no objective truth (only “alternative facts” are allowed), and there is no actual leadership (only a bloviating void determined to airbrush failure after failure). Perhaps, in a few years, a new center-right party will emerge to honestly debate the things that must be debated. Everybody wants to win; but winning doesn’t mean somebody has to lose. Compromise used to be possible; it will be possible again when empathy is properly embraced as a political tool and a sign of strength.

Calvin Coolidge and The Business of Government

“The business of government is business.” Coolidge didn’t say that, exactly: what he said was, “The business of the American people is business.” In today’s Republican Party (indeed, the Republican Party of the last half-century at least) that is a distinction without a difference. We have, in this country — in the world — an awful lot of people who have taken much too literally the adage that “the government that governs least, governs best.” The GOP has, since that day in 1986 when Ronald Reagan — President of the United States, leader of the free world, and his own government’s Chief Executive Officer — declared war on the idea that government had anything useful to offer. “The nine most terrifying words in the English language,” he declared to a cheering crowd, “are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help!’” It was a great applause line, and it certainly caught on. But it begs the question which too few thought to ask at the time: If you don’t believe in government, why are you in it? And, mightn’t the energy and effort required to dismantle government be better spent improving it?

I have always understood Coolidge’s line — even, or maybe especially in its misquoted form — to mean that government, to be successful, must create and preserve the conditions that allow and enable its citizens (and their businesses) to thrive. Government’s role is to build out and maintain essential infrastructure: good roads, clean water, adequate sewerage, excellent schools. This infrastructure must be available to all regardless of station or stature. Established firms will rely on it; entrepreneurs will leverage it.

And when there is a disaster — a 100-year storm, say — government has to step in to provide emergency assistance to those suddenly in need: a roof, a meal, a helping hand with cleanup and rebuilding. Floods, being local matters, are generally left to the state governments; the federal government, with its wider reach and greater resources, provides a backstop whenever necessary.

Well, now it is necessary: we have a global pandemic that in three months has infected over 1 million Americans and killed over 56,000; to say nothing of the millions of other people around the world. And where is the federal government, whose coordinating role is essential to preventing the spread, mitigating the damage, and developing a vaccine? “I take no responsibility at all,” says Donald Trump. And, “It is up to the governors to decide when to reopen their states.” Reopen?? We’ve barely begun to understand how this new virus spreads let alone its mechanisms for ravaging the body; a speedy return to business as usual almost certainly will mean a second wave of infections and another tsunami of job losses and economic devastation. The “cure” of reopening will surely be worse than the disease of stay-at-home orders, quarantine, and social distancing.

Instead of a single, coordinated, and effective response to this crisis we have fifty separate jurisdictions each managing its own response; they have given up pleading with the federal government for leadership or even a single supply chain for essential medical equipment like protective gear and ventilators.  A crisis response regime under which the states must compete against each other in a world market for scarce resources while FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — sits back or, worse, seizes shipments arriving in New York for domestic redistribution by well-connected private companies? That’s not a system of government by and for the people, it’s kleptocracy and just one small step away from anarchy. That’s profiteering, aided and abetted by the feds.

“When you drown the government in a bathtub, people die.” That arresting headline in The Washington Post’s opinion pages got my attention a couple of weeks ago, because it is so very true. Sure, small government is great, and the government that governs least, governs best. Until there is a crisis. Until you actually need a government to step in and do what only governments can do. When that government is filled with apparatchiks and cronies, with people whose only purpose in being in government is to shrink it further, with men and women without relevant experience but who will pledge undying loyalty to the cult leader, the enormous and deadly consequences should surprise exactly nobody.

There is plenty more that big government can and should do; I hope to explore that soon. It seems I’ll have plenty of time because the governor of my state — unlike the governors of at least a few other states, and unlike the president — is proceeding with very sensible caution. He knows what he doesn’t know, and when he needs to rely on expert advice from epidemiologists and crisis managers who have spent years training themselves for this. (The day-to-day manager of the HHS coronavirus task force has also spent years training — labradoodles.)

Government exists to improve the lives of all people, not just a few. Because the business of government isn’t business: it’s governing. At the end of the day, competence and relevant experience matter.

Genocide

The tragic events that continually unfold in Sudan (like the events in Rwanda a decade since) are, the world must acknowledge, genocidal in their scope, in their intent, in their effect.  For all intents and purposes, the world has acknowledged these facts; and yet the world has stood by, continues to stand by and watch it happen.  One is tempted to observe, bitterly, that genocide has become a spectator sport — but spectator sports garner far more attention, and indeed far more money.

The United Nations decries it; the United States has, through its Department of State, declared the unraveling in Darfur to be genocide; and yet neither can muster the political will — or the military force — to intervene: the former because it is chronically weak, the latter because its forces are bogged down, as it were, in the Central Asian desert, the sand turning marshy as the blood pours recklessly, needlessly, and indiscriminately from invader and indigenous, infidel and faithful.

The world stands by as the people of Darfur are slaughtered.  One is forced to wonder: Is the genocide-ignorer a genocide-enabler?

The United States deplores the events, but the colossus too is impotent.  And one’s thoughts turn to America’s self-inflicted wounds, and the coming bloodbath in Iraq: genocide is in the wind there, too, and we are all but powerless to stop it.  The invasion set it in motion, “Mission Accomplished” assured its emergence, and our continued presence slows its arrival — for now.  And the question arises:  When a power (however inadvertently) create the conditions for genocide, does it thereby undertake a continuing obligation to prevent it?

These are not idle or theoretical questions, by any means: They are central to winding down America’s misadventure Iraq, and they neatly define the quandary of Americans who opposed the invasion of Iraq as unwarranted and now oppose withdrawal as immoral.

The argument runs something like this: Having once created an unstable and untenable situation in Iraq, the United States cannot now walk away from the civil war that has ensued.  Or: We lit the fire, after all; we ought to stick around long enough to put it out.

Alas, this is not a fire that can long be contained, much less extinguished.  Like the wildfires that devastate the American west, this one will (I fear) have to burn itself out.  The cultural animosities infecting the peoples of Iraq have alternately simmered and boiled over for centuries.  Only Saddam’s brutality held the region together as a modern nation-state, as no occupying power — no matter how benign or benevolent — could ever do: the Ottomans had a hard time of it, and the British failed utterly.  Now the United States takes its turn, and by freeing three disparate (and antipathetic) peoples from the tyrant’s grasp has unleashed the ethnic conflict and super-heated it.

For Iraq it hardly matters, at this moment, whether U.S. ground forces stay or go: by staying they forestall the inevitable conflagration; perhaps when it does occur, the other nations of the world will see fit to step in and suppress the violence.  Meanwhile, other corners of the world where the American forces could make a positive difference — Darfur being uppermost at this moment — burn and bleed, because American forces are, as of now, spread too thin.  Multilateral action — the African Union, the United Nations — has been tepid at best; only the United States has the power to take the kind of action, unilaterally, that is required.

And so the giant is twice shamed: for not intervening when it could, and then tying its own hands by intervening where it shouldn’t.

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Additional resources:

“A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” (Samantha Power)

“We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda” (Philip Gourevitch)

“Encyclopedia of Genocide (2 Volumes)” (ABC-Clio Inc)

SaveDarfur.org has a post called “Educate Others” that’s worth checking out…

Hundreds of thousands of people around the world have responded to the suffering in Darfur by standing up and demanding that their governments take action to end the crisis. However, many individuals still have not heard about the genocide in Darfur. To build the political will necessary to…

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Surging Generals

With the long-overdue departure of Donald Rumsfeld (not to mention the arrival, come January 4, of some much-needed adult supervision from Congress), perhaps the defense establishment can engage an honest and open debate about Iraq. For the last week the punditocracy and the retired generals on the talking-head circuit have chattered on about the “surge,” the idea being that an additional insertion of 20,000 or so ground forces would turn the tide in Iraq.

That tide went out many, many months ago, and it’s not coming back in. We have two choices: issue an apology and leave; or continue to watch our blood and treasure disappear into the desert sands, never to return.

What is now being called “the surge” is nothing more nor less than Frank Rich, Thomas Friedman, and others have been writing about for some weeks now: it is code for an invasion de novo in Iraq. It is the only way, at this point, to secure the country so that the really critical job of building (and repairing) basic infrastructure can get properly under way.

Why the Orwellian euphemism? Because distortion of language is a lesson this Republican party has learned well; it is Karl Rove’s stock-in-trade. Because in the absence of any real plan or progress, the only alternative — Rumsfeld himself as much as admitted it in his “deathbed” memorandum — is to attempt to redefine (for example) “victory” downward. As so many other things in this sorry war foisted on the world by this sorry administration, this “only alternative” is so only when regarded through the Bush funhouse prism, the one that presents all of the decider’s decisions in stark Manichean terms, as the obvious selection from a set of false choices.

All of which brings us back to those talking generals: some indeed say that a “surge” would secure Baghdad (for example) to better enable the training of Iraqi troops and police and permit the rebuilding to continue apace, without the distraction of open warfare in the streets (and around the power plants). Others, more realistic, perhaps, point out that a surge is another band-aid, a tactical response to a strategic blunder.

The problem with the surge is not that it’s a flawed idea (it isn’t); it is that we haven’t sufficient ground forces nor matériel to accomplish the job. The surge is, rather, a “do-over,” a weak attempt to correct our initial strategic blunder (the invasion) and tactical error (assignment of insufficient resources) by trying, too long after the fact, to “get it right.” We had the men and equipment in 2003, but Rumsfeld insisted we didn’t need them; the results were disastrous. Now that we have created chaos where there was none; terrorists where there were none; and contempt in the wake of admiration; we have squandered our resources and our prestige, and there is no getting them back. Recovery of our national pride will not be had by doubling-down a bad bet, but by a frank and full confession of our error.

The invasion of Iraq and its aftermath, up to the present day and into the foreseeable future under any circumstances, has been one enormous national humiliation. The executive lied, the legislature waffled, and the judiciary is doing its best to turn a blind eye to extra-legal excesses that are more effective at highlighting American hypocrisy than extracting intelligence or “keeping us safe” in any meaningful way. In short, democracy has failed and its true meaning bled away, drop by precious drop.

It would be refreshing if the debate, in Congress and on the opinion pages, included an acknowledgment of the real reason anyone is considering a surge: to forestall admission of “defeat” and thus preserve — for some segment of the voting public — the sense of “honor and dignity” that Bush promised to “restore” (as if it were ever missing). We have already been defeated, as much by our own hubris and want of planning as by any enemy; the only thing that remains, if our national honor is truly to be restored, is to issue an apology and walk away, chastened. It’s time for us to grow up and see ourselves as the world sees us.

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The “complexity” of Iraq

You would expect and desire a commander in chief, in looking at a situation, to examine military concerns, security concerns, diplomatic concerns, internal political concerns within Iraq, regional ramifications, how you get people to work in concert with one another. It is enormously complex.

— White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, on the delay of a major Iraq policy announcement, 12 December 2006

Well, yes, it is enormously complex. Actually, I’d expect all of those things of a commander in chief before he gives the order to invade a sovereign nation.

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Assimilation

Recently a controversy has erupted (or re-erupted) in the Town of North Hempstead, on Long Island’s north shore. How it began is of little or no importance; nor, in the scheme of things, is its subject matter weighty: the lighting of a giant hanukiah in a town park. (Rest easy: This will not be a meditation on the First Amendment, or the separation of church and state, or anything like it. That’s for another post.)

What troubles me is this: the self-appointed guardians of Jewish identity have, I think, dug themselves a hole from which no “graceful exit” is possible. To jump quickly to the punchline: who is more assimilated, the secularist whose celebration of Hanukah explicitly acknowledges its minor place in the liturgy? or the religious who so fears acculturation that he erects a giant menorah in the public square to proclaim parity with the majority’s solstice festival.

As a Reconstructionist, I am keenly aware — and take pains to make my children aware — that Hanukah is a minor holiday; even while we observe its customs, what we celebrate is not the festival so much as its place in our history and culture.

Perhaps the greatest irony in this much-ado-about-nothing is the origin of Hanukah itself: the Maccabean revolt against a leadership that was assimilating, willingly, with the Greek influences of the time. (Civil war? No; just a little sectarian violence.) Fearing the permanent loss of Jewish identity, Judah Maccabee led his fellow-travelers against Antiochus; after months taking refuge in the mountains, they retook the temple grounds, rededicated the temple, and celebrated the eight-day holiday they’d missed while hiding out: Sukkot. No siege, no shortage of oil, no miracle of the lamps.

The Guardians of the Jewish Faith would turn back the clock to rabbinic times, but no farther; thus they fall into the same trap that has held Israel and the surrounding hostile nations in a deadly embrace for the last sixty years: the compulsion to remember the past, but only up to a point. How much more productive to honor the past, while setting one’s gaze — and one’s ambition — on some yet-unknown and unbuilt future. To do that, though, requires real vision and true leadership.

Vote counting

The debate over electronic votes — as noisy and as intellectually impoverished as it has been — has missed the central point, and the central problem. Many of the technologies being pushed — Diebold’s touch-screens come to mind — make the fatal error of conflating two distinct acts: the casting of votes, and the counting of the votes cast. The focus has been on counting, not casting: with accurate counting as the priority, the “new and improved” process is optimized for the convenience of the county clerk, whose (tedious) job it is to tally ballots.

This focus on counting misses the point of voting in the first place: if the first priority isn’t accurately recording the voter’s intent, accurate counting doesn’t count for much. If we were serious about solving (or at least mitigating) the problems that have made electronic balloting famous (or infamous) of late, we might try examining it as a system — with discrete component parts — rather than as a function. The essential components are, of course:

  1. Record the votes: The voter’s choice is accurately recorded, in fixed and tangible form. This means that a paper trail is required: simply displaying the choice on-screen won’t do.
  2. Count the votes: The recorded ballots are tallied, and (if necessary) tallied again. For the sake of simplicity, the paper ballots might be scanned, separated, and tallied; for the sake of accuracy, it might be worthwhile to employ multiple methods.

Much has been made of the need for paper trails, but even so the processes of casting and counting, of recording and tallying, coalesce into the single process of “voting.” A paper trail actually serves two distinct purposes: it verifies, to the voter, that the vote recorded is the vote he cast (see 1, above); and it provides a means of counting tangible, physical ballots (refer to 2, supra).

[Update: an editorial in The New York Times stresses the need for a paper trail and calls for Congress to act, after yet another election debacle in Florida.]
The fundamental difficulty, as noted above, is that the purchasing decisions are effectively made by the people who specify the equipment: the county clerks; and those decisions are heavily influenced by the equipment vendors, who often hire retiring clerks as “consultants” who can credibly lobby their former peers. Every interest, in short, is served save one: that of the voter.

What’s wrong with this picture?