Monday, November 29, 2010

Dreams for the 21st Century

In church on Sunday, our priest mentioned in passing Dr. Martin Luther King, and posed a question (I'm paraphrasing): "Who would have thought, when Doctor King gave his famous speech on the Washington Mall, that his dream would be realized in the lifetime of those hearing it?" The thought, which I have heard expressed before, set me to thinking about how a clear vision for how things could be in the future can actually change the trajectory of society.

And so, while humbly admitting that my dreams aren't as eloquent or as powerful as MLK's, I humbly submit three dreams that I would hope to see realized in my lifetime:

I have a dream that those involved in politics will assume their opponents are arguing their position in goodwill. Having become a political junky in my adulthood, I am disheartened by how hard most politicians and pundits find it to not cast doubt on their opponents' motives. While both sides have their share of opportunists and dealmakers, working with the assumption that a person genuinely believes his or her policy will solve the problem in question makes it a lot more likely to find a middle ground or a new solution that actually can work for everyone. This seems like asking for human nature to change, but then again, so did (does?) asking people to act without
thought of race.

I have a dream that we will cherish the value of human life.
I am pro-life, but I think a major failing of those leading the pro-life movement is that they act as if the lives of the women and doctors involved are less important to them than the lives of the babies they may abort. But on the flip side, pro-choice rhetoric seeks to deny the obvious point that a human fetus is a human life. Abortions will happen in a sinful world, but appreciating the common humanity that unites everyone from the beginning until the end of life could change the tenor of the debate, and lead to a solution where abortion, at the very least, is seen as a genuine loss. I could make the same point about euthenasia, the death penalty, and medical cloning, among other topics.

I have a dream that religious people will really love the sinner. It is a difficult balancing act, in public debate, to condemn what you think is a sin without making the sinner feel rejected, shunned and unprotected by the law. We have to seperate sin (which is a matter of the soul) and crime (which is when one person does harm to another). A powerful article I read recently pointed out that if Christians had done a better job of reaching out to homosexuals by, for example, caring for those with AIDS, people might be a bit more willing to listen to arguments they might make about gay marriage, because it would be clear they weren't making the argument out of hatred for gays. But the reality is that many believers can't separate the sinner from the sin, leaving the faithful open to (sometimes well-deserved) charges of hypocricy.

At any rate, my list may seem utopian. But I hold out hope that as a society, we'll get there. (My dream for myself is that I get off the couch and find ways to make these dreams happen.) If we want to achieve the vision, we first need to clearly express the vision, which is what I've made a rough first effort to do here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Which Way, America?

I think I have been hearing some version of the phrase "this is America's decisive moment" since I was old enough to care about politics, certainly since I was old enough to vote (1998, for the record). So all of the people going on about how we need to make some huge changes right now, OR ELSE are probably feeding the hype monster just a little bit.

But it is hard not to agree that the country is trending the wrong way, and has been for about a decade. It seems most people are content to look to assign blame (which in and of itself is a symptom of the disease). And in this column, Peggy Noonan does a bit of that, pointing at Obama's seeming disconnect from the country both in terms of policy and tone. But I don't think she really blames him, but rather sees his ascent to power as a symptom of the disease. And that disease is one that the Tea Party succumbed to this year, looking for the quick fix, for voting for passing celebrities rather than proven leaders. Noonan takes Sarah Palin to task for her fundamental unseriousness, then goes on to say:
Reagan's career is a guide, not only for the tea party but for all in politics. He brought his fully mature, fully seasoned self into politics with him. He wasn't in search of a life when he ran for office, and he wasn't in search of fame; he'd already lived a life, he was already well known, he'd accomplished things in the world.

Here is an old tradition badly in need of return: You have to earn your way into politics. You should go have a life, build a string of accomplishments, then enter public service. And you need actual talent: You have to be able to bring people in and along. You can't just bully them, you can't just assert and taunt, you have to be able to persuade.

I completely agree that we have been following the political equivalent of false prophets for a while, but I think Noonan's invocation of those who "earn their way into politics" is another potentially dangerous shortcut to an answer. If, in 2012, we elect someone with a history of service, of accomplishment, does that guarantee anything? Couldn't that, for example, refer to Richard Nixon about as well as Ronald Reagan? Or Lyndon Johnson? The problem is not that the experienced leaders aren't popular, it is that they are correctly seen by many Americans as having put us in our current bind, and so rather than think coherently about the best way out of this mess, they look for fresh faces. And unfortunately, some of those faces are essentially reality TV stars who have learned to espouse some catch phrases that fire up a good chunk of one political faction or another.

Which is why, despite its lack of concrete policy proposals or political suggestions, I really liked this David Brooks column on America's potential to be "The Crossroads Nation". Brooks manages to avoid the tired terms of our current debate about whether we need more stimulus, or what the tax rates should be, or if ObamaCare should be repealed. He looks to principles, and tries to express a vision for what our nation should stand for. I personally find it a moving vision:
In fact, the U.S. is well situated to be the crossroads nation. It is well situated to be the center of global networks and to nurture the right kinds of networks. Building that America means doing everything possible to thicken connections: finance research to attract scientists; improve infrastructure to ease travel; fix immigration to funnel talent; reform taxes to attract superstars; make study abroad a rite of passage for college students; take advantage of the millions of veterans who have served overseas.

In other words, he wants the nation to serve as a welcoming hub for entrepreneurs, thinkers and inventors from around the world. That vision both identifies a key, hard to compete with strength that our country has, and suggests a series of policies that should be pursued to make it happen. Some would appeal more to the right, some to the left. That might make it harder (or impossible) to pass, but it also suggests that it offers a way to escape the dull political pendulum swings that are marking time in our nation's current decline.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Condemnation

200 Years ago, the idea of slavery had many defenders: it was seen as biblically endorsed, blacks were assumed to be inferior, and it was the basis for an entrenched economic system. A combination of high and low rationales made it seem like a permanent feature of our society. Today, anyone who would endorse anything that bears the faintest resemblence to slavery would be hounded out of public life.

This evident truth occurred to me when reading a recent post by Ta-Nehisi Coates, titled, "On Improvement". He talks about some of the flaws inherent in humanity, and whether we can ever wash away the dark spots on our collective soul. He starts, innocently enough, by speculating on why we so enjoy football:

Have we created institutions which look unseemly, but actually are addressing some deeply-felt need? In relation to football, what if we--as humans--have a need to vent aggression, even if only vicariously? And what if we do this through other people who will be richly rewarded for their sacrifice, but will also suffer tremendously?

He goes on to speculate why some people persist in holding seemingly ludicrous beliefs and seeking out sources of information that reinforce them, for example those who cling to the 'Obama-is-a-Muslim' theory. He then concludes:

I confess that I have not fully worked this out, yet. I guess I'm just wondering the extent to which we've crafted our own chains. How much of this is just who we are? How much of it can be improved and reformed?

Coates doesn't touch on what I would consider the most obvious explanation: that our sinful human nature constantly tempts us down crooked paths that make us feel good, or make our lives easier, or help us avoid standing out from the crowd. To return to slavery, think about the ways that institution rewarded southern whites 200 years ago:

1) It enriched them. (we could probably stop right there, but wait, there's more!)
2) It gave them absolute power over someone else.
3) It helped them fit in, by not condemning something the richest, most important members of their community were all doing.
4) It gave them a clearly defined sense of the enemy (both the slaves and, perhaps more importantly, northern whites who were butting in.)
5) It provided a clear social hierarchy, and ensured they would never be at the bottom of it. (This is why, I'd guess, so many poor whites who owned no or few slaves were so adamantly against abolition, and explains some of the nostalgia for the Confederacy that still exists.)

I'm sure I could go on, but the point is that slavery was deeply embedded in the psyches and the relationships of the people in the southern states, and thus required major the application of powerful forces to tear it out.

Now, the interesting thing is that I could build similar lists for social causes championed today by both the left and the right. Does not abortion give the woman absolute power over the unborn child? Does not condemnation of gay marriage clearly define the enemy for conservatives? The question is whether as a society we will ever come to see abortion-on-demand or denying gay couples the right to marry in the same way we now regard slavery: that is, as a stain, something abhorrent.

One final thought. If it is true that societal ills have their root in human sinfulness, then we can expect changes in social structures, technology, and government to change what evils we tolerate, but not that some evil will be tolerated by large swaths of what we generally call decent people. An example: in the 1960's, television brought images of the civil rights struggle into every American home, making it impossible for people to ignore the plight of blacks the way they had for a century. At the same time, the contraceptive pill and improved surgical techniques made it possible, for the first time, for women to seperate sex from childbirth. Both technological changes created the impetus for major social changes: I would argue one for the better and one for the worse. One could imagine, say, a technology that allowed a fetus to develop in an artificial uterus after a few months of pregnancy, along with increased concerns about population declines in western nations, to change the societal calculus again.

A society's morals are not static, nor should we assume blindly that all changes are for the better. But we should hold out hope that we can learn an improve. Often, the sign of our progress is marked by those old practices which are now so widely condemned that (we hope) they will never curse us again.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Retreating to Psychology

My daily reading tends to cycle rapidly between political commentary and sports writing. Today, I read two pieces that demonstrated to me just how much of my life I am wasting on reading other people's dimestore psychologizing about public figures of all sorts. First, here is Maureen Dowd on President Obama:

His arrogance led him to assume: If I build it, they will understand. He can’t get the gratitude he feels he deserves for his achievements if no one knows what he achieved and why those achievements are so vital.

Once it seemed impressive that he was so comfortable in his own skin. Now that comfort comes across as an unwillingness to be wrong.

And here is Bill Simmons on Dwayne Wade:

The overthinking-it-but-maybe-I'm-right explanation: Maybe everyone slowly realized during the preseason, "Good God, LeBron is MUCH better than Dwyane. What do we do? How do we handle this? Do we wait for Dwyane to admit it? Do we ... wait, what do we do???"

Maybe Wade can feel it. Maybe his competitive juices are kicking in. No, no, we're equals. He's not better than me. We're equally good. Look, I'll show you. Maybe it's just been the elephant in the room for six weeks. Maybe deep down, everyone knows the Heat can't take off until Wade has his "You can be chairman and CEO, I'll be president and COO" moment. It goes beyond who gets to take the last shot. It's about the dynamics of basketball. It's about someone emerging as the emotional leader, the spine of the team, the guy who says over and over again, "I got this." And you can't keep saying that if you're looking over your shoulder worrying that someone else is saying the same thing. It's like a fly ball in the outfield. Eventually, someone has to call it.

In case you don't feel like clicking through to the whole pieces, I'll give you a summary. Dowd's point is: Obama was too cocky and believed his own hype and now he's paying for it. Simmons' point is: Both LeBron and Wade are used to being the star, and one of them is going to have to defer to the other if they are going to succeed. Both of these themes are so obvious and well-worn that if they had written their pieces without resorting to pop psychology, they wouldn't have been much longer than those sentences.

Why is psychological speculation so compelling to readers? Sadly, I can only answer the question by resorting to it myself: readers today are overwhelmed by how complex and challenging things have become, so they take comfort in speculation as to behavioral drivers that they can easily understand. We may not be able to figure out an agenda that will both help the country and appeal to Obama's political base, we may not be able to envision an offensive system that will maximize the combined talents of LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, but we can presume that we understand what's going on in the heads of famous people, and that makes us feel smugly superior to them. At least I'm not as cocky as the President (or Dwayne Wade).

There are writers who make more substantative arguments: Walter Russell Mead is a great example of someone using historic and strategic insights to help his readers understand what is happening in the world right now, and what might happen in the future if certain trends continue. His recent post about the sorry state of our politics, and the structural weaknesses of both parties that keep them from addressing our major problems, was compelling and avoided cheap point scoring. But as long as we continue to indulge our collective intellectual laziness by analyzing why our public figures don't behave exactly as we'd like, we will remain hopelessly far from finding new solutions to our tired problems.