Sunday, July 15, 2018

Patriotism, Nationalism and a Letter from Bobby Kennedy

There's a meme going around on social media.  It's called Patriotism vs. Nationalism.  Sounds like a distinction work making, doesn't it?  Yet, I was offended when I first watched it. 

Why? Well, let me start by focusing on the “vs.” or versus in the title.  The post was initially promoted by a group with a Facebook page called America Versus.  Should every topic worth discussing start by positioning it as oppositional?

In Patriotism vs. Nationalism, the 3-minute video correctly defines the difference between the terms and supports its POV with snippets from liberal icons including President Obama, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom promote the idea that dissent is patriotic.  There are no quotes or video snippets supporting an alternative POV.  There is simply the implication that those who disagree are less intelligent than those who do.

Now, to be clear, I agree with the distinction being made. So, why am I offended?  Because we are better than this.  This video is intended to further polarize us.  If you are liberal, it feeds your confirmation bias.  If its producers had wanted to get conservatives to think about or reconsider their view, they might have used quotes from the founders.  For example, here’s what Thomas Jefferson said on the subject:

"The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then."

The person who posted the video is someone I consider to be a friend despite our political differences.  (Yes, that’s possible.)  I didn’t respond to his post.  I simply sent him a video that approaches our differences differently: an 8-minute video from PBS discussing the origins of our political beliefs.  If you take the time to watch it, you’ll recognize friends and neighbors – people whose company you enjoy.  To me, it offers us the space to consider how people develop different values and the perspective not to hate those with whom we may disagree.  At some level, it creates empathy. 

I would rather start any political discussion there, not with the word versus in the headline. 

Many pundits date the beginning of the culture war to the 60’s.  Barry Goldwater ran for president from the extreme right wing and was defeated by the liberal LBJ.  The Supreme Court gave us Miranda Rights and banned prayer in school.  The war in Vietnam divided the country.  African Americans protested Jim Crow laws in the Deep South.  The country was divided then as it is now.

In its midst, I received a letter from Bobby Kennedy.  It’s dated May 29, 1967, a year and a few days before he was gunned down in Los Angeles.  It’s framed and hangs on the wall above my desk.  Bobby Kennedy ran for president in 1968 from the liberal left.  Today, I would not agree with his politics or policy prescriptions.  Yet, his letter hangs over my desk because none of that mattered then nor does it matter now.  He simply expressed that he knew that my “family must be very proud” that the US Navy had offered me a scholarship and that he “would like to join with … friends and family in offering … congratulations.”

I am sure he wrote thousands of those letters while serving as New York’s representative in the U.S. Senate.  I am sure that every member of Congress has long sent similar letters.  Yet, it’s special to me because it’s a touchstone.  Yes, I know that nostalgia improves our memories of times gone by.  However, I remember the 60’s as a time when, divided as we might have been, we were able to move forward as a nation.  Social media didn’t exist and mass media wasn’t engaged in trying to divide us.

The problem I have with the versus crowd is not what they have to say or what they believe.  It’s the laziness of their approach.  It’s this or that.   If this is good, that must be bad.  If you don’t believe this, you must believe that.  If this is good and that is bad, you must be bad.  People are complex and life is complicated.  The world isn’t divided into binary choices of good and evil.


Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Depolarization, Connections and My Numerous Sins

As author of The Reluctant CEO, I became a reluctant guest on our area’s most influential radio talk show, Connections hosted by Evan Dawson, presented by our local NPR affiliate WXXI.  Why was I reluctant?  Well, the topic was climate change and I knew I would be out of my depth both on the science and on public policy. Perhaps, I wondered aloud, we could talk about climate change in the context of political polarization.  He thought that a terrific idea.  So, I accepted his invitation. 

He also promised not to throw me into the deep end of the pool without a life preserver, a promise he lived up to.  He proved, along with his producer Megan Mack, to be a most gracious host.  I can’t recall ever feeling so comfortable in front of the media. (If you missed it, you can listen to the podcast by clicking here.)

Dawson cast me as some sort of anomalous creature, one who educates himself and changes his point of view if the evidence points in a direction different from the path on which I start – a thinking person interested more in principle than polarizing politics and behaving heroically in the face of a constant barrage of vitriol.

“Who are you?” he asked laughingly, both cracking me up and appealing to my ego. 

After the buzz wore off, I began to think about what a heinous hypocrite I am.  After all, just last year, I found myself in a contentious social media melee with someone promoting socialism as a preferred economic system (a conversation I can’t believe we’re having in the most prosperous nation on Earth).  I may have lost a friend over that.  At a dinner party a few years ago, my debating effectiveness caused one of the guests to get up and walk out.  He accepted my apology but things haven’t been the same since.

Truth is: it has been a difficult journey to this imperfect place at which I behave imperfectly.  It is especially difficult in an era like this one, where what is true in one moment may become untrue, or at least irrelevant, in the next.

My journey started eight years ago when I swore in writing that I would no longer watch cable news (STOP WATCHING CABLE NEWS NOW!).  It’s an oath to which I have been faithful with the few exceptions where a video is worth a million words – earthquakes, tsunamis, forest fires, etc.

I used the time saved (about an hour and a half per day) to read more.  As a result, I have become more conservative.  (Turn off mainstream TV media and it may happen to you.)  My reading has helped me to formulate opinions outside the mainstream.  This blog began to hit its stride a few months after I stopped watching cable news when I wrote about a Gainesville, FL pastor threatening to burn a Koran (Is That What Jesus Would Do?  Really?).  There were other high points as when I wrote about my son’s hopes that the nation would legalize gay marriage (It’s Not Religion… It’s Not Politics…It’s Personal).  Or, my post expressing great hope for society (Hope, Love, Forgiveness… Can society achieve it?).  I began with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope…” and ended by expressing my “hope that civil society will prevail in accordance with humanist tradition.”

But, there were low points as well.  Listening to Connections in late 2015, my blood was boiling over the assertion that there was only one person, the current resident of the White House, that would elicit the response, “I would vote for anyone else if __________ is nominated.”  I would fill in the blank with Bernie Sanders and so I wrote, “Let’s Understand Just What Socialism Means to Us” in which I described Sanders supporters as “either ignorant or stupid.”  I have since met many Sanders supporters who are neither; but that’s not what turned me around. 

It was David Blankenhorn who wrote an article in The American Interest from which I quoted liberally in “Lessons in Depolarization:  Let’s Start Now!” Blankenhorn has since started an organization called “Better Angels,” taking the term from Lincoln’s first inaugural.   The organization has recently had its first convention attended by an equal number of “Red” and “Blue” delegates.  They have asked for volunteers to host red/blue events.  I have volunteered to host one if they ever make it to Rochester. 

I haven’t forgotten my sins of the past.  I am simply trying to make amends.


Sunday, June 17, 2018

Pittsford should care and here's why

Note: An edited version of this post was published in the June 17, 2018 edition of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle.

The problem?  We’ve all heard it before.  One of the nation’s worst performing public school districts (Rochester) coexists a mere five miles from one of the best in Pittsford.  

It’s a sound bite, one that is meant to call our attention to a social justice argument.  How can the wealthy residents of Pittsford and other suburbs tolerate such injustice?  It seems unconscionable to some.  There is certainly a social justice argument to be made.  But, that term – “social justice” – has become a linguistic marker for liberals and that leads us down a dark road into divisive politics.

I’d like to take a different approach. 

For a century, Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb attracted talent to our community.  While it could be argued that there are still talented executives and scientists moving to our area, it can’t be said that the number is sufficient to drive our local economy as it once did.  As our children grow up and go to college, some will settle here and some will not.  For our community to continue to thrive, we need a profile that will attract companies to move their operations here. 

Today, inner city poverty and our broken school system may be the biggest deficiency in that profile.  I am not alone in this opinion nor is it uninformed.  Last month, the American Enterprise Institute released the results of a study that concluded in part that (1) a key element of any successful economy is the quality of its workforce and (2) simply increasing funding for schools is unlikely to improve results.  The study goes on to suggest structural reforms and changes to incentives for teachers and education leaders.

It may be appealing to business leaders and conservatives to embrace this study.  But, those of us who live in our comfortable suburbs can be subject to what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton called “psychic numbing,” the tendency to withdraw from issues that are too overwhelming to envision a solution or to participate in it.  And, yet, we must participate because failing to do so will undoubtedly lead to a steady decline in our fortunes as a community.  Our renovated airport, economic development initiatives and downtown redevelopment will all be for naught if we don’t have a workforce to attract new businesses.

Rochester has a proud heritage; a culture formed by the legacy of visionary leaders Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and George Eastman.  Each had a vision the impact of which outlived them.  Now is the time for community leaders, from both inside and outside the city, to develop a new vision, one that will create the momentum to overcome our biggest challenge.  Our future depends upon it.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Platitudes vs. Principles

Americans now reflexively expect the government to solve our problems, whatever they may be.  I am incredulous.

We have expected our government to guide our economy.  The result has been inequality and deteriorating infrastructure.  We have expected our government to ensure we all have adequate health insurance.  The result is a morass of inefficient bureaucracies and escalating cost.  We have expected our government to improve the prospects of our least fortunate citizens (remember the war on poverty?).  The result is that poverty has become entrenched in our inner cities and has extended to rural communities. 

How did we get here?

Politicians of both parties have abandoned principle in favor of an unstated philosophy that has been embraced by the public: “government should enforce what I think is right.” Whenever 50% of the population is imposing its beliefs on the other 50%, we have lost track of the basic American principles of freedom and rule of law.

Instead, we get platitudes.  What’s a platitude?  I recently saw a definition that cuts to the quick: a platitude is and idea that (a) is admitted to be true by everybody, and (b) isn’t true.

The recent bi-partisan budget deal is exhibit #1.  Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) called it a deal that “makes us weak as a civilization.”  Meanwhile, Sen. Charles Shumer (D-NY) called it a “win for the American people.”  So, which is it?

Well, you can be sure that whenever you see both Chuck Shumer and Mitch McConnell smiling, the taxpayers will be paying a bigger bill. (In this case, a mere $288B.) Such compromises always results in rewarding political friends, engaging in social engineering, and supporting businesses by socializing losses incurred by so-called capitalists.

Some media like to focus on examples of government waste from studying the sex lives of Japanese quails to printing reports that no one reads.  While that’s great fodder for social media LOL’s and angry faced emojis, it’s not the right place to focus our attention. 

The “free market” (not that it’s really free) is responsible for our prosperity but also is the cause of much pain. Society may benefit from higher average incomes but is harmed when businesses with near monopoly power eliminate the competition or when the side effect of our prosperity is damage to the environment.  To advocate policies in support of business while ignoring the negative side effects is irresponsible.

Our strategic competitors – primarily Russia and China – have been investing in military technology while we have shrunk our global presence and are burdened by a wasteful bureaucracy (the Navy has more Admirals than ships).  Yet, rather than debate the defense budget from the standpoint of strategy, we quibble about the size of the budget and what programs should be saved in defense of jobs in one Congressional district or another. 

We should be having healthy debates based upon principles.  What are public goods that should be supported by government? Does it include protecting natural areas?  How much should our budget commit to the Smithsonian Institution or national monuments?

What is government’s role in protecting the privacy of its citizens?  Should the government guarantee a minimum standard of living?  How should we restructure Social Security and Medicare to ensure benefits for an aging population without overwhelming the generation still at work?  How should our immigration policy be redrawn to ensure our economic growth while treating those who wish to come here humanely?

These are the debates we should be having.  Instead, conservatives focus on how to undermine the effectiveness of institutions that provide women’s health services, while liberals endeavor to restore the 20th Century glory of a now obsolete trade union model. 

Both liberals and conservatives can agree in principle on the need to ensure our prosperity while providing an effective social safety net.  Both can agree that we need to maintain a leading edge in military technology in order to ensure our national security.  Both can agree that our environment must be protected by government regulation.  We should have a healthy debate on all these matters. 

Unfortunately, we can’t do so until we get past the perceived need to govern by platitude rather than principle.