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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Why I've stopped writing about politics

Stephen H. Provost

My parents told me, back in the’70s, that it wasn’t smart to talk about two things in polite company: politics and religion. So, what did I do? Like any child determined to reach his own conclusions, I did the opposite: I talked about them – at least when I got old enough to know what I was talking about.

And I proved my parents wrong ... for a time.

About 20 years ago, I started a group on the now-defunct MSN Groups platform called Faiths & Reasons. The idea was to create a place for where people of different (or no) faith could exchange ideas and talk about the role reason played in their spiritual lives. It did exactly that. There were very few self-righteous rants; most people played by the rules. They enjoyed examining why they believed what they believed and hearing why others had chosen different paths.

Eight years later, MSN closed that platform, but the social climate was already starting to shift away from what had made that group a success. The openness that had been the hallmark of Faiths & Reasons was quickly being frozen out by a growing avalanche of tribalism. This trend was driven by a number of factors, not the least of which was a focus on identity at the expense of ideas.

(Forgive me now if I talk about politics for a bit; it’s kind of unavoidable in explaining why I won’t be doing it in the future!)

On the political stage, the trend toward kneejerk tribalism was reinforced by the success of Gerrymandered districts, which created seats of power safely insulated from viable challenge. When you know you’ll be elected regardless of your viewpoints, those viewpoints tend to become more extreme and self-serving. “The base” is no longer something to be courted in the primaries, it’s an altar upon which to sacrifice any principles you might have left.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham illustrates this perfectly. Once considered a man of principle, he has been exposed of late as a charlatan who hid behind principle because it was politically expedient at the time. Now, it no longer is. Trumpian lies and insults are all the vogue, so he’s adopted that approach as well. When the climate changed, so did he, admitting that his first goal had never been to uphold some high ideal, but rather to be re-elected. By whatever means necessary.

Changes such as Citizens United and the explosion of “preach to the choir” media only amplified the move toward unthinking tribalism. The end result has been to avoid talking about principle and exalt identity. This is, incidentally, why Nixon’s specter of the imperial presidency is rearing its ugly head again in a the Trumpian age. Empires aren’t about principle. They’re about the identity of the emperor. Bow down or fuck off (have your property seized and be locked away in a tower – if you’re lucky).

A new, more bitter age

Faiths & Reasons was based on the idea that people could honestly share and disagree on principles without having their identity questioned. It worked well in its time, but that time has clearly passed. For the past decade, I’ve been trying to do what I’ve always done: challenge bias – my own and others’ – through civil dialogue.

I’ve been pretty damned stubborn about it. I’ve persisted even though I’ve been called names, dismissed and accused of being sexist, bigoted, closed-minded, privileged, naïve ... the list goes on. There’s a saying that “what you tolerate will continue.” Well, folks, I’m done tolerating this. I won’t be blogging or posting much on social media about politics in the near future.

These days, anyone who claims to be speaking his or her own mind is shot down as either crazy or a liar. Case in point: GOP Rep. Justin Amash posts a detailed (for Twitter, anyway) rationale for why he believes Trump should be impeached. Trump’s response was typical of what I described above – not to mention his own crass puffery: He dismissed Amash as a “lightweight” and a “loser” only interested in “getting his name out there through controversy.”

It would be easy to say, “Well, that’s just Trump.” But it isn’t. Trump is as much a reflection of our culture as he is a builder of it, and the signs go far beyond his toxic Twitter feed.

It’s gotten so twisted that people dismiss reasoned arguments as “talking points” – while relying on their own talking points to do so! Responding to Amash’s critique, Republican Party leader Ronna McDaniel basically refused to acknowledge that he even had a brain, accusing him of merely “parroting the Democrats’ talking points on Russia.”

It’s truly Orwellian when a knee-jerk toady accuses an independent thinker of being, well, a knee-jerk toady. But this is the world we’re living in, folks. And I won’t be suckered into participating that kind of doublethink anymore.

It would be bad enough if it were just Trump and lockstep Republicans, but there are true believers on the other side who demand that people be marginalized for deviating a single syllable from the party line, assuming that such deviations, intended or not, are signs of some latent and cleverly concealed “ism.”

They may be right. But they just might be wrong, too. And in the current climate, they never pause to consider the latter possibility, because they’ve committed themselves so strongly to their position that they can’t even begin to entertain other options. Maybe they’re wrong. Or maybe the situation they see as in such absolute terms is more complicated than they want to admit.

Process, not conclusion

I’m not creating some false equivalency here. I’m not saying, as Trump did, that there are “good people on both sides” in a confrontation between civil rights advocates and white supremacists. That would be patently absurd. I’m not talking about conclusions, but the process we use to get there: Do we arrive at our conclusions through rational thought or because someone else tells us that’s how we should think? In my mind, the second method is like cheating on a test: You deserve a big fat F even if you get the right answer!

If you react based on fear and outrage rather than based on reasoned analysis, you’re part of the problem, yet that’s how more and more people are reaching their conclusions these days. That’s especially true of politics. Politicians like to talk about “working across the aisle” and “having a dialogue” on race or immigration or whatever. When positions are already firm and unyielding, a dialogue isn’t possible. What we get, instead, is a shouting match.

Both sides become determined to bargain from a position of strength and avoid sliding down a slippery slope, so they dig in their heels and nothing gets done. The current trade war is a prime example. “Compromise” has long been dismissed as a dirty word, but if that’s true, what’s the point in negotiating? Successful negotiations will always be conducted in good faith, and today, neither side has any faith in the other ... beyond the assurance that, if they give an inch, they’ll get screwed.

If this were just the way politics operated, it would be bad enough, but the tribal mentality is permeating society on nearly every level in 2019. The cycle of outrage and distrust has become locked in, as politicians and the public reinforce it – locking out any hope of rational discourse.  It’s pointless to argue about the chicken and the egg: Politicians and the public reinforce this toxic thought with each other, thereby locking out any hope of rational discourse.

Switching teams

Sports serves as an interesting parallel: People continue to root for their chosen teams, even if they adopt a whole new playing style or trade for players they previously disliked. I’ve been accused of being a fair-weather fan for switching my allegiance from the Lakers, whom I supported for years, to the Warriors because I like their players’ attitude and enjoy their style of play. Does Magic play for the Lakers anymore? Does Kareem? Jerry West? James Worthy? If they did, I’d still be a fan. But the Kobe show paled in comparison to Showtime, and I’ve never been a fan of the drama that LeBron and Lonzo bring to the table.

So, I became a Warriors fan.

Similarly, I’ve been a Republican, a Democrat and an independent, and I won’t apologize for switching affiliations when I did. In each case, it was a reflection of either my own political evolution or a party changing what it stood for – or some combination of the two. (The Republican Party of today looks nothing like what it did under Lincoln, Eisenhower or even Reagan.) I place principle and substance over assumption and identity.

But our society doesn’t view changes in position as a sign of personal growth or independence. It sees such evolution as a sign of inconsistency, hypocrisy or weakness. Or, worse, betrayal. I don’t buy that. To my way of thinking, revisiting previous decisions is one of the most courageous things a person can do, especially in an environment such as this one. I’m going to continue to do that, no matter what others may think.

Out of step

I’m a person of nuance living in a world of absolutists who have won the day through an endless barrage of fear and propaganda, with an emphasis on reinforcing their identity as part of this or that “in group.” The tribe. People who, increasingly, believe it’s better to drink the Kool-Aid than question what might be in it.

I’ll operate on their black-and-white level in one instance only: I’ll vote. Because, ultimately, I believe that’s the best way to make a difference. I’m glad it’s a secret ballot, because that means I won’t feel like I have to walk on eggshells or justify my position to those who don’t care about the reasoning behind it in the first place. That’s exhausting, and that’s why I’m out. I’m not interested in preaching to the choir, nor do I want to get blasted for refusing to echo someone else’s ideas, down to the last dotted “i” and crossed “t.”

I’ve come to the conclusion that I can make a bigger difference in other ways that have nothing to do with the tribalism that dominates the current political scene.

My parents were right, after all. I still hope we can return to a world in which sharing ideas doesn’t have to be akin to walking through a minefield, but I’m not holding my breath it will happen soon. So, for the time being, I’m removing myself from the fray.

I’ve realized that my tribe isn’t a political party or a spiritual group. It’s not the people who share my profession or my hobbies. It’s not a “movement” or an “issue.” It’s those who think the way I do, who believe in assessing ideas openly and independently, rather than simply accepting the conclusions of the powers that be.

Just as in Faiths & Reasons, I know I’ll find them in the oddest and most unexpected of places, even if they may be, in today’s climate, exceptionally rare.

Note: If you want to know what I think about politics, I’ve written about it on this site extensively in the past. Also, you’re free to pick up my book, Media Meltdown: In the Age of Trump.

Purists are making allies an endangered species

Stephen H. Provost

Our polarized political tug-of-war has created an odd dichotomy in the middle. On one hand, more and more people are identifying as independents. On the other, these people “aren’t really all that independent,” as CNN wrote in a headline.

The percentage of voters identifying themselves as independents increased from 33 to 38 percent between 1994 and 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. This should have made the so-called “moderate middle” fertile ground for candidates in a general election. But it hasn’t. Instead, politicians have focused more and more about appeasing “the base” – those true believers at either end of the political spectrum.

These true believers, not surprisingly, are more engaged and motivated. Or, to use a term often employed by pundits, the base is “where the energy is.” In other words, people at the extremes are more likely to vote. A Pew poll in the fall of 2018 found that roughly 60 percent of party-affiliated voters said they voted; that compares to just 54 percent of Republican-leaning independents and 48 percent of Democratic leaners.

Because they don’t identify with one side or the other, independents don’t feel as though they have as big a stake in the game. Their concerns aren’t reflected in the shock-addicted media or acknowledged by either of the parties, so why bother? This attitude, however, creates a vicious circle: The less they vote, the less the parties will pay attention to them ... and they less relevant they’ll feel. More and more people feel ignored by the two parties, disengage, and see the parties confirm ignore them even more.

Instead of working together, the true believers are working from both sides to make gaps unbridgeable. Gender gaps, income gaps, gaps between faith and science, between urban and rural America. I could go on.

This hasn’t happened all at once. It’s been occurring over the course of years or even decades, propelled by a number of factors – many of which involve the fragmentation of how we communicate and our willingness to consider opposing views. Like prizefighters, we stay in our own corners (Fox or CNN, Breitbart or the Mother Jones) until it’s time to come out fighting. Then, the Marquess of Queensbury Rules be damned. The transformation from civil society to MMA-style social brawl has been insidious, like a boiling frog.

Those who insist on staying in the middle don’t matter.

This is why the power of “the base” is ascendant even as independents have become the largest segment of voters. It’s why Mr. Trump continues to target his ultra-conservative base, rather than worrying about how independents view him. They don’t matter, because they’re less likely to vote, anyway. And the more they feel marginalized, the higher the chances Trump will win re-election.

But the principle is in play on the left, as well, where intra-party feuding is rampant and political “purity” is reinforced by voter shaming and a series of litmus tests not all that different from NRA ratings an anti-tax pledges on the right. The latter can be traced to George H.W. Bush’s act of reneging on his “no new taxes” pledge. But instead of realizing how badly such pledges boxed them in, Republicans decided to make more of them and be sure they kept them, regardless of whether they were a good idea.

Their willingness to do so helped plant the seeds of the political purity movement we see today, and the resulting trend toward the extremes has been fairly well documented in the political realm.

Disaffected

What hasn’t been mentioned much is that the same dynamic is occurring socially. As with politics, tension has arisen between issues and identity. Many of those issues, indeed, are common to both the social and political realms, but social identities are different, and often less fluid, than political identities, which makes the social dynamic even more treacherous for those in the middle.

A Democrat can always re-register as “decline to state” (in California) or with a different party, and some states, such as Virginia, don’t even offer party registration.

Social identities, by contrast, aren’t that easy to change. Some of them – race, sexual orientation and, to a slightly lesser extent, gender – don’t offer any wiggle room at all. You were born with it, and that’s what you are. It’s slightly less difficult to escape class-based identities, but it’s still no easy task: Those who live in wealthy neighborhoods have a built-in head start on obtaining a good education, making white-collar job connections, and so forth.

It’s no coincidence that the economic middle has been growing less relevant, too (although, unlike the disaffected political middle, it’s shrinking, not growing). Political decisions affect economic realities and reinforce social constructs. So, as the political and economic middles become less relevant, the same thing is happening socially.

The rise of social “purity” on the right has led to a resurgence of newly emboldened white supremacists, nationalists and religious bigots. On the left, it’s led to censorship and political correctness, the free exchange of ideas be damned. The people left out of this are, socially as well as politically, the middle-grounders: the people who want to think for themselves and reserve the right to disagree, on occasion, with those they most often support.

The concept of a “loyal opposition” has gone down the toilet. Either you’re loyal or you are the opposition. That’s Trump’s mantra, to be sure, but the same principle is being invoked, only slightly less explicitly, on the left.

Allies go home

The shrinking social middle consists largely of allies: People who may not belong to a certain group, but support that group as a matter of conscience or principle. Like those in the political middle, they don’t – or can’t – identify with a given “side” in the culture wars, but they nonetheless agree that side should prevail. Maybe in most respects. Maybe in all. They are, however, not the social base. They’re not as personally invested in the struggle and, while they may believe in it, they’re often not as motivated to fight tooth and nail for it.

Plus, many have an aversion to following anything blindly. Even if they agree with most of the actions a group espouses, they reserve the right to think for themselves and politely disagree if they prefer a different course of action.

Increasingly, however, such politeness is met with skepticism and derision. Members of the social base have adopted a motto of “if you’re not for us, you’re against us.” They don’t trust independent allies because they don’t appear to be “all in” for the cause, whether that cause be racial justice, gender equity, LGTBQI rights, or raising the minimum wage. If they disagree occasionally, it’s seen as a red flag that they might not really believe in anything the group stands for. Disagreement is viewed as evidence they’re (at best) slaves to some subconscious social conditioning or (at worst) posers out to infiltrate the movement.

Some question whether a white male can ever really truly be all-in on gender equity or racial equality; whether a cisgender person be all-in on transgender rights; whether a person oriented toward the opposite sex be all-in on LGBTQI rights. There’s always going to be some underlying lack of understanding or potential conflict of interest when the rubber meets the road, or so the purists fear.

Disengaging

If you’re a social ally in the middle and your motives are repeatedly questioned, you’re likely to do exactly what political independents do: Disengage. If you feel shamed for your identity, you’re apt to withdraw. Race, gender and sexual orientation aren’t like political parties; you can’t simply reregister at the drop of a hat. So, you’re left feeling as though you don’t really belong anywhere. You can’t abandon your identity, but you won’t abandon your principles, and that tension isn’t something most people care to live with for long.

It didn’t exist, at least not to this extent, 20 years ago, but social purity tests have poisoned the well, just as surely as political polarization has proven toxic to government. (Lawmakers willing to forge alliances by working across the aisle are all but extinct, thanks to demands for political purity.) In the current environment, many allies become silent supporters, voting their conscience at the ballot box but otherwise keeping their mouths shut in order to avoid taking fire from both sides. They turn their attention elsewhere – to places where they feel like they are relevant: their families, their jobs, pastimes they enjoy. Places where they’re appreciated and feel like they can make a difference.

Political independents are checking out in droves for the very same reasons.

In alienating the social and political middle, extremists are accomplishing their ultimate goal: to create an atmosphere of social and political tyranny ruled by bigotry, censorship and intolerance. It’s the antithesis of what the founders sought to enshrine in the Constitution: a free exchange of ideas that acts as a crucible for progress and innovation.

So much for the American dream. In alienating independents and silencing the middle, we’re killing it. It’s dying from the inside out.

Samuel L. Jackson just made struggling artists feel like shit

Stephen H. Provost

I’m a fan of Samuel L. Jackson’s work, and that’s probably not going to change. I enjoy his acting. I’m also a critic of Donald J. Trump, and that certainly ain’t gonna change. I don’t enjoy his play-acting as president.

But what Jackson said in repudiating Trump stuck in my craw: “I know how many motherfuckers hate me. ‘I’m never going to see a Sam Jackson movie again.’ Fuck I care? If you never went to another movie I did in my life, I’m not going to lose any money. I already cashed that check.”

Emphasis mine.

Here’s the point: Jackson can afford not to care. Most actors, writers, visual artists and musicians can’t. Jackson doesn’t have to choose between his integrity and his bank account. Gee, that must be nice.

He goes on to say he does care about health care, but not because he wants the best for his loved ones. Because he wants to protect his bank account(!): “Some of this shit does affect me, because if we don’t have health care, and my relatives get sick, they’re going to call my rich ass.”

Ask me if I feel sorry for him.

Somehow, he’s got enough money not to care about pro-Trump haters, but not enough money to care more about whether his relatives get good health care than the prospect of having to for it.

Actually, I agree with Jackson on this issue, too. The prices for hospital stays and prescription drugs are obscene; the system is broken, and it’s causing people to lose their homes, their cars and their retirement savings. But let’s be clear here: That’s not going to happen to Jackson if one of his relatives gets sick.

Say, for example, one of them had to stay a month in the hospital. At $30,000 a day, that would be $900,000. Yeah, that’s a lot of money. Now say it cost another $900,000 for surgical procedures and meds. Let’s round up to the nearest million. That’s $2 million. Yes, that would break most people. But Jackson? His net worth, as of 2019, is 111 times that much: $220 million. It’s a drop in the bucket for the man who made the 2011 Guinness Book of World Records as the highest-grossing actor of all time.

Gimme mine

Maybe Jackson’s just trying to be funny. He has, in fact, donated money to more than two dozen charities, including $1 million for the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture. But in spite of this, his latest comments come off as gloating. I’ve got my $220 million, and I’m gonna keep it.

And why shouldn’t he? He’s a good actor. He’s worked hard, and he deserves what he’s got. No argument there.

But there’s a flip side to his comments: A lot of people work just as hard and are just as good at what they do, but they struggle to get by. Vincent Van Gogh, famously, sold just one painting during his entire lifetime. He died a pauper. He killed himself. There are thousands of good – even great – artists, writers, actors and musicians you’ve never heard of who are in the same boat. Yet the notion persists that how much you have in your bank account defines your value as a person.

Bullshit, motherfucker.

Economic entitlement

In a world increasingly sensitive to attitudes of race- and gender-based entitlement, the concept of economic entitlement remains largely ignored. Health-care and education reforms are stymied. Sure, there’s talk about a $15 minimum wage, but that’s not even a living wage for most people. And indexing it to the cost of living? You might as well try planning a trip to Jupiter. Anyone who suggests leveling the playing field is accused of (gasp) socialism and de facto thievery.  

Because economic hardship isn’t always tied up in things like racial and gender identity, it’s assumed that those who don’t have money somehow deserve it. They’re a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings leeching off society because they’re allergic to hard work or don’t produce something of real value. Art? That’s dismissed as a “luxury.” But Jackson can’t very well say that, because he’s an artist too.

The work he produces is extremely valuable, but so was the work Van Gogh did. And he never complained about having to support a sick relative, because he never even had that option: His brother was the one supporting him.

This is why it’s so jarring to hear a rich actor issuing such a complaint, even if it’s to highlight the inequities of a broken health care system. Regardless of how talented he is or how many charities he’s supported, this is how it comes across: I’ve got my $220 million. You can’t have any of it.

Ironically, this is exactly how Trump thinks. He’s got his, and nothing else matters. Jackson is a Trump critic, yet he comes across as sharing the same attitude – unless he was just joking, in which case it’s not very funny. Because the joke is on creative folks who aren’t worth one one-ten thousandth of what he is.

I applaud Jackson for criticizing Trump. I share his views. But he doesn’t deserve any special pat on the back for voicing them when he has, by his own admission, no financial stake in the game. The people who do deserve props are the struggling artists who could lose a sale by speaking out – but do so anyway. The unknown Vincent Van Goghs of our time who might just, one day, change the world.