Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Politics (Page 2 of 2)

The American Dream and Other Myths

It turns out moral bankruptcy is not just the domain of the White House. The arrival of the Republican bill to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, which does not repeal it but does distort it into something that has amazingly managed to enrage both liberals and conservatives (even leading some to speculate that it was designed to fail), has brought with it a barrage of horrifying statements such as:

And you know what? Americans have choices. And they’ve got to make a choice. And so maybe rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on that, maybe they should invest in their own health care. They’ve got to make those decisions themselves.” – Jason Chaffetz, in a 21st century “let them eat cake” moment

“The idea of Obamacare is … that the people who are healthy pay for the people who are sick.” – Paul Ryan, appalled at about how insurance fundamentally works

Statements like these boggle my mind, and I’ve been trying to figure out how a person can get to the point where they can say things like this and not realize what they are saying is evil. Because these guys don’t think they’re bad guys, and a disturbingly large portion of our population is on their side.

After giving it some thought, I have decided that it comes down to the myth of the American dream: the idea that anyone can achieve prosperity if they just work hard enough. It’s a wonderful sentiment that we all want to believe in, but viewing the world through this lens, you can quickly come to some troubling conclusions. If anyone can be prosperous if they just work hard enough, then the flip side of that is that if you’re poor, it’s because you’re lazy, and if you’re rich, it’s because you worked really hard. Your bank account balance becomes an indicator of your character. Being poor is a moral failure.

The other corollary is that it’s not the government’s job to help poor people, and that it’s morally abhorrent to tax rich people. After all, if poor people would just work harder, they wouldn’t be poor, and those rich people earned all that money fair and square, so why should it go toward helping people who refuse to help themselves? (I suspect that in some cases, this attitude toward taxes is exacerbated by a hazy and mythologized understanding of the American revolution that goes something like this: 1. Those who fought in the revolution were true patriots. 2. They fought because they were upset about taxes. 3. Therefore true patriots hate all taxes.)

This dovetails nicely with two related ideas about the world: Objectivism and the Laffer curve. Objectivism, the philosophy espoused by Ayn Rand and popularized in her novels, says that self-interest is morally good, altruism is destructive, individual rights are paramount, and the ideal social system is laissez-faire capitalism in which the government does not meddle in economics at all. The Laffer curve, a thought experiment originally sketched on a cocktail napkin, has grown to dominate conservative thoughts about taxation. It argues that at some point, increasing taxes actually decreases revenue because it slows economic growth. Conservatives have seized upon this and twisted it to argue that the best way to encourage economic growth and therefore help everyone (“A rising tide lifts all ships”), is to reduce taxes. These ideas raise capitalism up from being an economic doctrine to being a moral imperative. It becomes an article of faith that all problems can be solved by the invisible hand of the market, if only the market were allowed to operate free from government regulations.

The problem is, these ideas don’t really jibe with reality. Everyone wants to believe in the American dream, and there are plenty of rags-to-riches stories out there to fan the flames of that belief, but actual data throws cold water on the idea. Multiple studies show that compared to European countries, Canada, and Australia, it is harder on average for Americans to make more than their parents did. Upward mobility is particularly rare for the poorest Americans.

And if you think about it, this is obviously true. There are poor single moms out there working two or three minimum wage jobs just to be able to afford rent and food for their kids. Meanwhile I easily make more than them sitting at my comfortable desk for 8 hours a day, thinking about Mars, doing work that has no tangible benefit to anyone. Hard work is clearly not the only factor leading to prosperity. Yes, I worked hard through years of school, but I also had literally every possible advantage helping me out along the way. There are inescapable structural and cultural factors that are outside of any individual’s control, and they can make a huge difference. The American dream is just too simplistic.

“If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.” – George Monbiot

The obsession with individualism and rejection of the “social contract” is also complete bunk. In much the same way that anti-vaxxers oppose vaccines even as they benefit from the herd immunity of those around them which keeps dozens of horrible diseases at bay, libertarians and objectivists who think they don’t owe society anything ignore the countless ways that they benefit from programs and facilities put in place for the public good. Working together for the benefit of all is literally the foundation upon which our species and our civilization is built. As the Author Yuval Noah Hariri argues in his book Sapiens, it is our species’ ability to work together that elevated us from just another ape to the dominant species on the planet. The social contract is what makes our civilization function and what makes us human.

And of course, blind faith in capitalism to solve all problems ignores some major flaws. Most notably, not all markets are “free”. This brings us back to health care. If I’m having a heart attack, I can’t shop around and choose the hospital that gives the best service for the lowest price, as the free market would have me do. There is one hospital in my town, so I’ll go there or die. If I lived in a larger city with multiple hospitals, I’d go to whichever was closest. Even if my major health issue was something I could plan ahead, like a scheduled surgery, it’s still almost impossible to find out prices ahead of time and shop around. And that leaves aside the fact that capitalism dictates that health insurance companies should do everything in their power not to pay for people’s medical bills, so as to maximize their profit, even if that leaves people bankrupt or dead because they couldn’t afford life-saving treatment.

As for the Laffer curve, too often it is used as shorthand by conservatives to argue that taxes should be decreased, when in reality most evidence indicates that if the curve does exist, the US is firmly on the left side of the peak. That means that raising taxes should raise revenue, and lowering taxes should lower it. This was put to the test in the real world in Kansas recently, when their governor cut tax rates significantly, which unsurprisingly drove the state into a massive deficit.

The bottom line is this: today’s GOP has become obsessed with several inter-related myths about how the world works, and base their actions on these myths instead of reality. The American dream, while a nice story, is not attainable for many, due to complicated structural and cultural issues. The social contract is the foundation of our civilization, not some burden that you can shrug off in favor of “individual liberty”. Capitalism is not a panacea. Cutting taxes doesn’t raise revenue. Being poor is not a moral failure.

Above all, we must be careful of the stories that we internalize, because they are the lens through which we view everything:

“It is easy to forget how mysterious and mighty stories are. They do their work in silence, invisibility. They work with the internal materials of the mind and self. They become part of you while changing you. Beware the stories you read and tell: subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.” – Birds of Heaven, Ben Okri

 

The Fight of Our Lives Has Begun

I know. Things are looking pretty grim these days.

The new administration rode a wave of nationalist and racist rhetoric to power and kicked off with an inauguration speech centered on the anti-semitic phrase “America First.” They vowed to publish a weekly list of supposed crimes committed by immigrants, drafted plans to have the military review what students are learning in school, and their official press briefings are  full of blatant lies, part of a broader campaign to gaslight us into questioning whether facts even exist. The president himself continues to work to undermine public trust in the free press, the electoral process, and even the judiciary branch. Government agencies are being censored for statements of fact. There is talk of the president establishing his own personal intelligence agency, and he has appointed a political adviser (and vocal white nationalist Nazi-sympathizer) to the National Security Council while demoting the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It is no longer hyperbolic to compare recent events to the rise of fascism in the 1930s.

On top of all that, the cabinet is being stuffed with billionaires with a combined net worth greater than a third of Americans (or the GDPs 70 small countries), many of whom seem to be hand-chosen to be as destructive as possible to the departments that they will lead. Our new Secretary of State will be an ex-oil CEO who is friends with Vladimir Putin, the man who meddled in our election to get Trump elected. The nominee for Secretary of Education has stated that she sees education reform as a way to “advance God’s kingdom.” The nominee for attorney general was deemed too racist for a federal judgeship in 1986. The nominee for secretary of health and human services wants to dismantle the Affordable Care act, denying insurance coverage to millions. And on and on and on.

Meanwhile, Republicans are striking while the iron is hot, pushing their own awful legislation at the national and local levels, and exhibiting such breathtaking hypocrisy regarding the supreme court position that became vacant with almost a year left of Obama’s second term that thinking about it too hard renders me incapable of coherent speech.

In the face of all of this, depending on your political persuasion it’s easy to either dismiss the ongoing freakout among liberals as overreaction, or to become overwhelmed and just give up.

We must do neither.

Believe me when I say that I sincerely hope that things won’t be as bad as they seem, but lives – and arguably, the foundations of our government – are in peril right now, so I’d much rather overreact than be complacent.

Believe me too when I say that I am living on the edge of being overwhelmed by all of the bad news every single day. I understand that feeling and the temptation to just tune out, look away, and hope for the best.

After all, none of this was supposed to happen. It was supposed to be self-evident that truth matters, that facts are real, that other human beings are deserving of our empathy rather than our hatred. We took for granted that a presidential candidate so mendacious and morally bankrupt, so openly racist and misogynist and ignorant could not win the nomination, let alone the election. That he did shines a harsh light on the flaws in our electoral process and our culture as a whole, and his actions in the first two weeks of his presidency reveal that the very edifice of our government is not as sturdy as we once thought.

It’s easy to despair, but despairing won’t make this better. It is clear that we can’t just count on progress to happen. It is time for us to stand up and fight, and despite the doom and gloom associated with the last couple weeks, I am also encouraged to see that people are doing just that.

It began with the amazing Women’s March, and continues with acts of resistance large and small. Lawyers working pro-bono in airports to help travelers stranded by the anti-Muslim ban. Strangers working together to erase Nazi graffiti on the subway. Tens of thousands planning a March for Science. Acting attorney general Sally Yates refusing to enforce the ban. The national parks service standing up for truth.

Just last week I attended my first political activism meeting ever, and I know I’m not alone. Other friends of mine are doing the same, or even organizing their own groups. Members of congress are complaining that they are being swamped by all of the phone calls they’re getting.

We must fight. And we must keep fighting every step of the way. We may have lost the white house due to the quirks of the electoral college, but we won the popular vote by more than 3 million. We are the majority. We have facts and human decency on our side. The Republicans won the latest battle, but they are going to lose the war.

There’s no doubt that it’s going to be a rough few years, but I sincerely believe that if we fight, what we are experiencing right now will not be the beginning of a right-wing authoritarian regime, but the dying gasp of a toxic brand of politics that has been growing and festering for decades. The demographics of this country will continue to shift in our favor, and most people, even if they don’t identify as liberal, agree with liberal policies once they hear them. Trump’s election is horrible, and the policies that the white house and the Republican congress will put into place are going to harm our country and ruin countless lives. But I think this will also serve as the catalyst for a new era of left-leaning grassroots activism that will first minimize the damage done and then carry on to steer the country to become that “more perfect union” that president Obama always talked about.

For that to happen we must commit to our duty as citizens to speak out any way we can. Our resistance must not fade once the flurry of confirmation hearings and shocking executive orders dies down. Republicans are counting on us losing the interest and will to continue resisting. They think of liberals as spineless, poorly organized, easily distracted and discouraged. We must prove them wrong. We must accept the fact that this fight doesn’t end in a few weeks or months. This fight is going to continue for the rest of our lives, but if we can work together and keep up the pressure, we can do our part in bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

We are the majority. We need to act like it. Stop second-guessing and questioning ourselves, stop playing nice in congress, and start fighting for what we know is right. We are going to face losses in the near term, and there will be times when each of us needs to step away from the news for a bit, take a mental health break and refocus. But the key is, once recovered we have to jump back in.

Keep calling.

Keep writing.

Keep protesting.

Keep resisting.

We are strong. Individually it may feel hopeless, but together our voices are too loud to ignore.

 

 

Truth, the Lesson of the Election, and the Rightward Ratchet

Like much of the country, I have been reflecting on the election in the weeks since Donald Trump’s shocking win. I am of course horrified by Trump and what his administration will mean in terms of policy, but I want to talk about something even deeper than policy that has been bothering me: the lesson that this election will teach the GOP.

The GOP has been steadily distancing itself from reality for years now, but Trump’s campaign took the trend and followed it to its absurd conclusion. According to PolitiFact, only 15% of his statements that they have rated are True or Mostly True . The Earth is warming and humans are responsible, but the GOP doesn’t want to hear it. The influx of illegal immigrants is at a 40-year low and Obama has deported more people than any previous president, but to hear the GOP tell it, we’re facing a human tidal wave of illegal immigration that is threatening our way of life. The vetting process required for refugees is incredibly thorough, but Trump says that Syrian refugees are pouring in and that they represent a Trojan Horse that will lead to terrorist attacks. The unemployment rate has been steadily falling since around 2009 to its present level of ~5%, but according to Trump it is higher than 40%. Our tax rates are relatively modest, and tax rates are currently drastically lower than they were back in the 50s (back when America was, presumably, “great”), but according to Trump we are the highest taxed nation in the world. President Obama is an American-born Christian, but Trump led the charge that he is secretly an African-born Muslim. You get the idea. The man is almost incapable of telling the truth. He lies so effortlessly and fluently that trying to pin down each lie and expose it is simply not possible, and has tied the media in knots.

Meanwhile, upon Obama’s election, the Republican party made its goals very clear: to stop Obama’s agenda dead in its tracks. Never mind that Obama’s proposals have generally been quite moderate. Never mind if some of those agenda items, like Obamacare, borrow many ideas from previous Republican proposals. Never mind if the nation’s credit rating is downgraded and the government is shut down for weeks because congress refuses to fund the government or pay the bills. The most egregious and recent violation of basic good-faith governing has been the refusal to even hold a confirmation hearing for Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, leaving a vacancy on the court for an unprecedented period of time.

Like many liberals, I assumed that Trump’s  blatant race baiting and disregard for reality would eventually come back to bite him. Likewise, I hoped that the GOP’s fanatical obstructionism would eventually cause voters to say “enough is enough” and shift the balance of power. In my most optimistic moments, I hoped that this election would serve to sort of “break the fever” of the increasingly unhinged GOP, teaching the party that it needs to return to the real world and work together with Democrats to actually compromise and pass legislation. I hoped the election would teach the GOP a lesson and set our country back on track to a situation with two moderate parties which agree on a common reality even if they disagree on the best course of action.

Instead, the lesson learned from this election is that there is no need to play coy and attempt to disguise the racism and disregard for the truth that has become the signature of the Republican party. You can lie all you want. You can be openly racist and sexist and xenophobic, to the point where the KKK and actual Nazis are celebrating your candidate, and you will still win elections.

The other day, I saw the following image making the rounds on Twitter. It is a quote by Jean-Paul Sartre about anti-Semites, but it resonates strongly with the current political situation in our country:

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This is what fundamentally troubles me about this election, even more than the giant leap backward that we are likely to witness on policies across the board. The Republican party has been learning this lesson for a while now, but Trump’s victory clearly illustrated that the party can make outrageous, racist, blatantly false statements and our media is so fragmented and divided that many loyal Republicans will take these statements to be true and vote accordingly. Meanwhile, those of us on the left are, in Sartre’s words, “obliged to use words responsibly”. We can froth with outrage and fact check until we’re blue in the face, but those fact checks fit neatly into the narrative of a biased “liberal media”, and the outrage serves only to exhaust us and keep us bouncing back and forth from one issue to another.

Meanwhile in Congress, the Republican obstructionist gamble has paid off in spades. The GOP was able to stop almost all of Obama’s reasonable policies, forcing him to rely on executive orders (something which itself sets a dangerous precedent). The GOP can get away with this tactic because it is far simpler to unite in blanket opposition than it is to unite behind actual legislation that is rooted in a complex and contentious reality. The GOP delights in obstructing progress because a gridlocked and useless congress plays directly into their narrative that government is ineffective. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Democrats on the other hand will (I hope) never be willing to act in such bad faith because their goal is for the government to do things to help people, and therefore they cannot pull stunts like shutting the government down or blocking Supreme Court nominees indefinitely.

I worry what the result of this may be. If the Republican party continues this strategy (and why wouldn’t they, given its success?) we will end up with a situation where during Democratic administrations the Republican party essentially shuts down congress, while during periods of Republican control we get a flurry of conservative legislation passed (and liberal policies abolished), gradually ratcheting our country toward the right. The only way I see to stop this is for Democrats to manage to take control of the executive and legislative branches, something made very difficult by poor performance in down-ballot races, along with gerrymandering that favors Republicans.

And the worst part about this is that I don’t know what to do about it. When your opponent refuses to act in good faith, and indeed refuses to even acknowledge reality, but somehow manages to convince large portions of the country to believe in his lies, how do you stop that? How do you ensure that truth wins out when facts themselves are seen as inherently suspicious? How do you defeat this strategy without adopting it yourself? I really don’t know, and it is making me despair.

What I’m Doing About the Election

Image from here

  1. Quitting the news and social media. Like most of the rest of the country, I spent this election watching in horrified fascination as the media relentlessly covered Donald Trump, providing free publicity for his campaign of lies, hate, fear and divisiveness. The media, like many of us, thought that exposing Trump for what he is would surely stop him. But instead, that non-stop media coverage is responsible in large part for his victory, because a significant portion of our country saw his behavior and instead of being appalled, saw a man giving voice to their own thoughts and fears (facts and decency be damned). Staying up to date with the latest news brings me little joy in the best of times, but now with the election still so fresh, I cannot look at the news without feeling physically ill. So I’m not. I was already considering quitting social media after the election because it was so addictive and was sucking up precious time, but now it’s not just a matter of saving time. It’s an act of self-defense and an act of protest. I’m going to try to use time I normally would have spent on social media on reading, writing, and family instead. I won’t be fully stopping social media – it’s still a useful tool – but I will be restricting my social media usage to posting things that I created and responding to notifications, direct messages, and the like. Yes, I’ll miss out on the cute animal memes and babies and jokes and other things that make social media enjoyable, but I think this is a necessary step for now.
  2. Donating. This is the easiest way I can fight back against a Trump presidency, a GOP-controlled congress, and a nation in which white supremacy, bigotry, and hate have surged into prominence. If you are feeling as sickened as me, here are some worthy causes to donate to. If you have others to recommend, post them as comments below:
  3. Writing. I have gotten so many kind and encouraging comments whenever I write about something emotional here on the blog, whether it is personal or political. I know it’s foolish to think that posting my thoughts and sharing them with the liberal echo chamber of my social network will make much of a difference, but the truth is, I need to do it anyway. Writing  helps me think, and lets me channel negative emotions into something cathartic if not necessarily positive. I’ve always thought that I wanted to write fiction (and I still do) but I always want my fiction to be perfect and it never is, so I get discouraged and stop. On the other hand, posting here about issues that are on my mind anyway is easy, and I think this may be one instance where doing what comes easier is the better choice. I have a LOT of thoughts rattling around in my brain after the election, and I plan to share them here for anyone who cares to read them. Maybe they will help in some small way. I will also be writing my representatives a lot more often than I have in the past. They are going to get sick of my letters.
  4. Volunteering. I don’t have time to volunteer. To be honest, much of the time I feel like I’m barely holding my life together, and we’re about to throw a baby into the mix. And yet, this election has made it clear that we can’t just sit back and assume that progress will happen. We have to fight for it every step of the way. I am not sure in what capacity I will volunteer, or how much time I’ll be able to devote to it, but I want to try doing something more than throwing money at groups that do good work and posting impassioned essays for my liberal friends to read and agree with. The challenge with volunteering, beyond just finding the time for it, is choosing from among the many worthy causes how to spend that time. Of the items on this list, this one is going to be by far the hardest, but I want to at least give it a try.

So that’s my list. What are you doing to cope with the election?

A Letter to my Unborn Son

Hello son,

You are due to enter the world only a few days after the presidential inauguration in January.

I’m sorry.

This is not the world I wanted to greet you. Your mother and I were looking forward to welcoming you to a country electing its first woman president. An optimistic, forward-looking world in which toxic masculinity was finally, gradually, being eroded, and equality and love and truth and knowledge and ideas were valued. Instead, we have elected a man who is the personification of toxic masculinity. A living monument to misogyny and bigotry and hatred and fear and lies. A narcissistic demagogue whose temperament and ignorance puts the future of this country and the world at risk.

None of this was a secret. This was all made clear time and time again, but instead of electing the most qualified presidential candidate in modern history, more than half of this country saw this horrible man who brags about assaulting women, who insults war heroes and mocks the disabled, who was openly endorsed by the KKK and actual Nazis, and determined that he was just the man for the job. I am sickened.

I was blind. I did not know that our country was so very hateful.

We were supposed to be better than this.

Our family will be fine. We have all the privileges. We are white and educated and employed and financially secure. We don’t fear being murdered by the police, or rounded up for our religion, or losing our health insurance. But others do. Because a segment of this country could not abide the idea of a black man as president, and certainly wasn’t going to let a woman follow him in making history, lives will be ruined, families will be torn apart. People will die.

You will, mercifully, be too young to be aware of all this. But your mother and I will be aware, and even as our country is undoing decades of progress, we will be teaching you to be a good person. We will do our best to protect you from the hatred and bigotry. We will teach you to be loving and honest and curious and inclusive and kind, because the fight to reverse the damage that will be done to our nation in the next four years will last well into your adulthood.

Your mother and I, your family and our friends will all be fighting to change the disastrous course this election has set us on. You will be born in the eye of the storm, and the storm will be long. When you are old enough we will need your help to take the wheel and steer the course. It is not fair to place this burden on your generation, but we have no choice. I hope you will forgive us.

Love,

Dad

 

A Look at Candidate Honesty

pres_vp_honesty_ranking

Setting aside actual policies for a moment, I thought it would be useful to take a look at the honesty of recent Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates, as judged by the Pulitzer-winning nonpartisan site PolitiFact. Other similar graphics have been made before, during the primaries, but I wanted one looking just at major party nominees, and with the bars aligned to more dramatically show the difference between politicians who lie a lot, and those who don’t. I chose to align the bars so that anything below “mostly true” is considered negative, since to me “half true” isn’t much better than lying. [Edited to add: It’s worth pointing out that these results are probably slightly negatively biased, since Politifact can’t evaluate every statement a candidate makes. They are more likely to investigate statements that make people raise their eyebrows, and those statements are more likely to be cases where the candidate is being less honest.]

So, here’s the result. If you want to elect candidates who are honest with you, maybe this will help. Remember to register to vote!

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