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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: Trump

We'd rather play the victim than pursue the truth

Stephen H. Provost

Welcome to the Victim States of America.

Somewhere along the way, we stopped judging disputes based on reason and a search for the truth, and instead started basing our decisions on who can whine the loudest – and longest.

I suppose it’s easier that way. We don’t have to think; all we have to do is grease that squeaky wheel. Except, in this case, it just makes the wheel squeak louder.  

In yet another byproduct of our increasingly polarized culture, we prize loyalty to our “tribe” over a dedication to truth, and never has it been more apparent than in the current impeachment proceedings.

Democrats announced they would be pursuing impeachment before they’d read the whistleblower complaint against Donald Trump. Then, when it did come out, Republicans dismissed it without even appearing to consider how damning its contents were.

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican, hit the nail on the head. “Democrats ought not to be using the word impeach before they have the whistleblower complaint or before they read any of the transcript. Republicans ought not to be rushing to circle the wagons to say there’s no there there when there’s obviously lots that’s very troubling there. The administration ought not to be attacking the whistleblower as some talking points suggest they plan to do.”

Sasse counseled “lots of deliberation” but also acknowledge that “this place is terrible at deliberation.”

How we got here

“This place” might have meant Congress, Washington or the nation at large, and it would have been equally accurate.

There are, of course, reasons why we’ve exchanged deliberation and reason for loyalty oaths and litmus tests.

First, as mentioned above, it’s easier. You don’t have to think. You just let your tribal leaders do the thinking for you. Of course, you shouldn’t be surprised if you find they’re picking your pocket and shackling your wrists in the meantime.

Second, those tribal leaders have succeeded in making “deliberation” look like gridlock. They’ve done this in part by stonewalling the release of information, so that the process becomes so drawn out and tedious that no one has the time or patience for it. (This is especially true in an era when people often work two or three jobs to make ends meet, and those who don’t have been indoctrinated in a culture of instant gratification.)

Third, they’ve raised the bar for independent judgment so high that it’s almost impossible to reach. Anything short of absolute proof can be debunked as “doctored” or “fake news.” The upshot of this is we stop trusting ourselves to make informed decisions, so we abdicate that power to (surprise!) those same tribal leaders who thirst for it the most.

Fourth, they deflect. Instead of defending themselves, they point the finger elsewhere and say, “See, he’s doing it, too, and it’s even worse!” (One has to wonder whether the folks who do this have ever heard the saying “two wrongs don’t make a right,” or whether they did hear it and simply don’t care.) We don’t have time to weigh charges and counter-charges, so we ignore the whole thing and retreat to our own camps and, yes, those tribal leaders.

Fifth, we rushed to judgment and cried wolf so many times that no one’s listening anymore. The media, chained to their instant-update news cycle, contributes to this. So do political spin doctors eager to take the first shot. When they’re wrong, they lose credibility. And they create a vicious circle: The lack of deliberation has made us even less inclined to engage in it.

Skepticism gives way to cynicism, to the extent that everything coming out of the “other” camp can be dismissed as propaganda, no matter how much evidence there might be to back it up. We don’t have time to sift through all that, weed out the facts from the spin, and make an informed decision when we don’t even know if we have all the information we need to do so.

Is it any wonder we’ve disengaged from politics? Who wants to spend all day listening to people whine – and deciding who’s the bully and who’s the victim?

When Supreme Court nominee Bret Kavanaugh was accused of sexual harassment, his most effective argument was a self-righteous tirade about how he was the one being harassed. Clarence Thomas had done the same thing under similar circumstances a couple of decades, when he characterized allegations against him as “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”

The irony is that Thomas’ argument itself didn’t involve “thinking,” but was fallacious. He was attacking the messenger by questioning motive, rather than seeking to refute the allegation itself. He made it a question of identity – prejudice against “uppity blacks” – rather than reasoned argument. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone comment on the irony of that supposed defense, but maybe it’s because we’ve become so used to people playing the victim that we barely notice it anymore.

Thomas and Kavanaugh now sit on the Supreme Court, which is supposed to be the most deliberative body in the land. Its members are supposed to think, not engage in ad hominem defenses. What does it say about our society as a whole when even members of our highest court seem to rely on such flawed excuses for reasoning?

Loyalty over truth

Some people are shocked that Republicans are defending Trump in the light of what appears to be very compelling evidence against him. But they shouldn’t be, because we long ago stopped judging people based on rational argument and substituted Trump’s own standard for “truth”: blind loyalty. Trump has used this standard for his entire career, and comparisons to mob culture are entirely accurate.

But Trump recognized something he has used to his advantage: That culture was spreading. The nation was catching up – or more accurately, falling back – to the kind of tribal culture he’d exploited on a smaller scale all his life as a real estate developer. Whatever his other shortcomings, he knew how to make it work for him. And as it came to dominate American culture as a whole, newcomers accustomed to operating by more conventional political rules found themselves out of their league.

Not only does Trump know how to create blind loyalty, he also recognizes it and is able to call it out in others. He then exposes it and discredits them for the very things he himself is doing – often more flagrantly. And because that loyalty has bound so many people to him, they refuse to call him out for his hypocrisy, no matter how blatant it might be. He really could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.

Nobody whines louder about being the victim than Trump, who laments “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT” in all caps and blames the media, the Democrats, and anyone else who dares to criticize him for all his woes. The only thing he seems to be more emphatic about is how great he (says he) is.

Who we’ve become

But this isn’t just – or even primarily – about Trump. He’s a symptom, not the condition. He could never have thrived if we hadn’t created a culture based on litmus tests and loyalty oaths long before he came along. Trump is Nixon redux, but in a time and culture far more vulnerable to Machiavellian bullshit. For this, we have only ourselves to blame. We began rushing to judgment long before Trump and others like him began using their cattle prods on us. We exchanged reason for outrage and humility for hubris. We ditched patriotism in favor of partisanship.

We’ve become so comfortable playing the victim and blaming others that it’s almost become second nature to us. We do it in government, in our personal lives, in our professional interactions. It’s become second nature.

But in exalting our own victimhood, we’ve abandoned what got us here: a spirit of determination that didn’t care what obstacles others put in our way. We didn’t waste time blaming the people who put them there; we tackled those obstacles head-on. We overcame them or died trying. It was what we used to call the American spirit. Flawed, yes. Cruel at times, to be certain. But we were not victims. Never victims.

Until now. Now we all want to do is play the victim – and in a sense, that’s what we are: victims of our own ignorance and stubborn refusal to face the truth.

And we’ll keep being victims until we’ve decided we’ve had enough.

Trump's undoing in Ukraine scandal: the word "though"

Stephen H. Provost

As I watched the coverage of the unfolding impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump, I kept waiting for someone on cable news to mention one word.

They repeatedly referred to Trump’s use of the word “favor” in a summary of his conversation with the Ukrainian president, and that word is, indeed, very important. But they never mentioned a word that’s just as crucial in determining Trump’s intent.

The word right after “favor.”

“Though.”

In the exchange between Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, as laid out in a summary released by the White House, the Ukrainian president says his country is grateful for U.S. financial aid because it wants to use the money to buy more defensive weapons.

That’s when Trump responds, “I would like you to do us a favor though.”

The word “though” explicitly links what Trump’s about to say with what Zelensky said that preceded it. That’s its purpose - its raison d’etre. Otherwise, there would be no need for its presence in the sentence. Trump could have easily said, “I would like you to do us a favor.” Full stop. Indicating the beginning of a new and entirely separate thought.

But that’s not what he said.

He said, “though,” inextricably linking the “favor” (working with Rudy Giuliani to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden) to the military aid just referenced.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “though,” in this context is an adverb that means “despite the fact that.” In other words: Despite the fact that you’re preparing to buy weapons from us, we want you to do us a favor. The clear implication is that the purchase of weapons is not enough to close the deal – to make the two sides “even.”

When used as a conjunction, “though” means “even if (introducing a possibility)” or “however; but (introducing something opposed to or qualifying what has just been said. ‘her first name was Rose, though no one called her that.’” (again, quoting Oxford).

In the case of the Zelensky-Trump conversation summary, “though” serves as a de facto conjunction that indicates Trump’s request for the “favor” qualifies or is even opposed to what has just been said. It introduces the possibility that the request will not be granted – or would not have been granted – without the condition being met.

But whether it’s used as an adverb or a conjunction is, in fact, immaterial. In either case, it links the two thoughts, creating a dependency of Zelensky’s action upon Trump’s condition (the favor). Such dependency is the essence of a quid pro quo, which Oxford defines as “a favour or advantage granted in return for something.” Yes, it even uses the word favour (albeit with the British spelling)!

I’m surprised the pundits I watched missed this. Perhaps others picked up on it, or have figured it out since then. But the word “though” is the key to this entire puzzle.

Remember when Bill Clinton, when asked about the status of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, famously responded: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”? The distinction was deemed laughable.

But there’s no distinction at all in the Trump-Zelensky exchange. Whatever the tense, there’s a quid pro quo here. “Though” means “though.” Period. Full stop.

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.