Friday, December 30, 2016

Tools for Dialogue: Political Autobiography

I have a deep personal desire, need might be the better word, to find a path to constructive political dialogue.  At the same time I have increasing doubts about my ability to do this and whether attempting to do so is a good use of my time.

But rather that rattle off the list of doubts, let me hit this from a different angle.  What would be the features of a constructive dialogue?

The first thing is that it cannot be a debate, because a debate is fundamentally about winning and losing.  The dialogue has to be based on mutual curiosity:  I want to understand your point of view, not convert you to mine.

It can't focus too quickly on political issues, either.  A person's stand on a specific issue is an extrapolation of their basic world view.  If two people have different world views then they necessarily approach any given issue from two points of departure--different priorities, different ideas about how the world works, different definitions of crucial concepts ("freedom," for example).  They will almost certainly talk past one another.  Worse, they're quite likely to end up arguing, in effect, that my world view makes sense and yours doesn't.

So the first main feature is a basic understanding of each other's political worldview.  Therefore my usual practice, whenever possible, is to ask people to offer their political autobiography, although I usually find a way to ease them into offering it rather than to ask directly.  By political autobiography I mean the basic values and life experiences that created their political perspective.  Many people are happy to tell me.  Some are not.  With regard to those who aren't, my impression is that they feel defensive or embarrassed.  What if they sound silly or naive?  What if they can't readily say how they came to believe what they believe?  What if they've never even thought about it?

It isn't necessary to view the skittish ones as not worth talking to.  But for the time being it's best to talk about something other than politics.

It can be useful to give one's political autobiography first.  It's easier for other people to show vulnerability if you're willing to show some vulnerability and it provides a model for them to follow.

So by way of illustration, I'll give you my own--some of it anyway--as nearly as I can make it out.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Tess Rafferty Tells Off Trump Voters - Pt 3

The title of this post is misleading because at this point I want to suggest that in her two videos (see Parts 1 and 2), Tess Rafferty's real target isn't people who voted for Trump.

Her target is people like me.

Let me explain.

The election of Donald Trump shocked the American left like nothing I have seen in my lifetime.  It certainly shocked me.  When a few people compared Election Day to 9/11 I thought the comparison grotesque but in one respect I understood it.  The September 11 attacks shook all Americans to their core.  They served notice that we didn't live in the world that we thought we lived in.  Most liberals were viscerally shaken by the election and the discovery that Trump could not only get taken seriously as a candidate and gain the Republican nomination, but could actually become the 45th President of the United States.... Well, if anything could convey the impression that we didn't live in the country we thought we lived in, Trump's election could do it.  And did.

Against any other candidate in the Republican field I cannot imagine people getting so rattled. Had Jeb Bush defeated Hillary Clinton, for example, liberals would have been disappointed in the same way that all of us are disappointed when our guy doesn't win.  I think that would have been true even if Ted Cruz had won.  Sure, there would have been the usual Chicken Little rhetoric--"the sky is falling, the sky is falling"--but nobody would actually have believed it.  With Trump, however.  Well, maybe the sky was indeed falling.

The problem wasn't Donald Trump per se.  The problem was that so many of our countrymen voted for him.  According to the final tally, Trump received 62,979,636 votes, more than sufficient to give him a convincing majority in the Electoral College:  306 to 232.  (That is of course prior to the formal electoral college vote on December 19, in which two Republican electors defected from Trump and five defected from Clinton, yielding an official tally of 304 to 227.)

Hillary Clinton, for whom 65,844,610 Americans cast their ballots, won the popular vote by a margin a 2.1 percent--the second highest margin for a losing presidential candidate in US history.  (In 1876 Samuel J. Tilden lost despite a margin of 3 percent).  But the operative word is "losing."

To explain just why Trump's election was so disturbing would take so long that it would essentially hijack this post.   And others--Tess Rafferty, for instance--have explained it well enough already.  So let me get directly to Tess Rafferty and her two videos, ostensibly aimed at Trump voters but really aimed at me.

Why me?  Well, in the aftermath of the election liberals essentially had two impulses.  The first was to underscore, as firmly as possible, their rejection of the misogyny and xenophobia that Trump openly displayed and the tacit racism that was obvious enough to make white supremacists regard him as their champion.  The second was to try to understand why so many Americans chose to vote for Trump despite myriad glaring flaws.  The impulses weren't mutually exclusive but they did require a difficult balancing act that required nuance.  And in our polarized political culture, nuance is not highly prized.

Given a forced choice, my heart was more with the second impulse than the first.  I have always been a sucker for the idea that a way to have a constructive dialogue can always be found and that we have a moral responsibility to find it.  Spouses have to find ways to reach spouses.  Parents have to find ways to reach children. Friends have to find ways to reach friends.  Nations have to find ways to reach rivals.  And countrymen have to find ways to reach countrymen. LBJ is said to have frequently quoted Isaiah:  "Come now, and let us reason together."  The idea that humans can do this--that they can reason their way out of conflict--is powerfully attractive.

In recent weeks we've seen a number of liberal opinion pieces that try to understand Trump supporters.  A op/ed that currently stands at #5 on the New York Times list of its most popular articles bears the title, "Sorry, Liberals, Bigotry Didn't Elect Donald Trump.", written by David Paul Kuhn, author of The Neglected Voter:  White Men and the Democratic Dilemma (2007).

Several weeks before the election, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 51 percent of white working-class voters did not believe that Mr. Trump had a “sense of decency” and ranked Mrs. Clinton slightly higher on that quality.
But they were not voting on decency. Indeed, one-fifth of voters — more than 25 million Americans — said they “somewhat” disapproved of Mr. Trump’s treatment of women. Mr. Trump won three-quarters of these voters, despite their disapprobation.
Bluntly put, much of the white working class decided that Mr. Trump could be a jerk. Absent any other champion, they supported the jerk they thought was more on their side — that is, on the issues that most concerned them.
 Just yesterday an article from September briefly occupied the #16 spot:  "We Need 'Somebody Spectacular':  Views From Trump Country," a sympathetic portrait of voters in eastern Kentucky.  "Appalachian voters know perfectly well the candidate is dangerous," says the teaser.  "But they're desperate for change."

"Everybody Is Reading Books to Try to Explain Trump Voters," reported the Style section of the Washington Post in early September.  Prominent among those books was Hillbilly Elegy:  A Memoir of Culture and Crisis, by J.D. Vance, a young author with a Harvard degree but roots in the coal country of Kentucky and the transplanted working class Appalachians living in Ohio.  Hillbilly Elegy briefly held status as practically a Rosetta Stone for understanding the core Trump supporter--enough to provoke a backlash.  A writer in The New Republic excoriated the author as "J.D. Vance, the False Prophet of Blue America."

But that was a rejection of Vance, not the idea of trying to understand Trump voters empathetically.  The author, herself a native of Appalachia, argued that Appalachian voters turned to Trump because the Democratic Party forgot about them: "We don’t need to normalize Trumpism or empathize with white supremacy to reach these voters. They weren’t destined to vote for Trump; many were Democratic voters. They aren’t destined to stay loyal to him in the future. To win them back, we must address their material concerns, and we can do that without coddling their prejudices. After all, America’s most famous progressive populist—Bernie Sanders—won many of the counties Clinton lost to Trump."

Perhaps an even more powerful explanation for why Trump supporters voted as they did came from Michael Moore, because he predicted a Trump victory at a time when people like me were offering odds of ten-to-one on Hillary Clinton.  On October 26, an article in Salon explained Moore's belief that  "People Will Vote for Donald Trump as a Giant 'Fxxk You'--and He'll Win." 
Trump’s sincerity in wanting to stand up for the average Joe doesn’t even matter, Moore argued, because voting for him is a giant message that disaffected Americans will be happy to send to media and political elites who they see as not caring about them.

“Trump’s election is going to be the biggest ‘fuck you’ ever recorded in human history — and it will feel good,” Moore argued.

“Whether Trump means it or not is kind of irrelevant because he’s saying the things to people who are hurting, and that’s why every beaten-down, nameless, forgotten working stiff who used to be part of what was called the middle class loves Trump,” Moore continued. “He is the human Molotov cocktail that they’ve been waiting for, the human hand grenade that they can legally throw into the system that stole their lives from them.”
In and of itself, the impulse to understand the Trump voter is not problematic--until you start arguing that maybe the Trump voter has a point.  It's perhaps bad enough if the Trump voter has an economic point--maybe it's a problem if you used to be a coal miner making $70,000/year and now you're struggling to find two dimes to rub together, and maybe we should have factored that outcome into our concerns about the environment.  But it's worse if they have a cultural point, which is the argument that Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla made in a widely-discussed New York Times op/ed, "The End of Identity Liberalism."   (November 18).  It's sufficiently important to be worth quoting at length:
It is a truism that America has become a more diverse country. It is also a beautiful thing to watch. Visitors from other countries, particularly those having trouble incorporating different ethnic groups and faiths, are amazed that we manage to pull it off. Not perfectly, of course, but certainly better than any European or Asian nation today. It’s an extraordinary success story.
But how should this diversity shape our politics? The standard liberal answer for nearly a generation now has been that we should become aware of and “celebrate” our differences. Which is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy — but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.
One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end.
A convenient liberal interpretation of the recent presidential election would have it that Mr. Trump won in large part because he managed to transform economic disadvantage into racial rage — the “whitelash” thesis. This is convenient because it sanctions a conviction of moral superiority and allows liberals to ignore what those voters said were their overriding concerns. It also encourages the fantasy that the Republican right is doomed to demographic extinction in the long run — which means liberals have only to wait for the country to fall into their laps. The surprisingly high percentage of the Latino vote that went to Mr. Trump should remind us that the longer ethnic groups are here in this country, the more politically diverse they become.
Finally, the whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by “political correctness.” Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.

For many liberals, that kind of response is fundamentally unacceptable.  Comedian Samantha Bee explained why when she used the op/ed as Exhibit A in her contention that "identity politics" is a dangerous euphemism for something else:
Bee:  "Identity politics.  That's a fun word.  Can anyone whitesplain it to us?"

FOX News guest Heather McDonald:  "Identity politics defines whites, and particularly white males, as the oppressors of every other group, real or imagined, in the United States.  It has produced vast government bureaucracies, dedicated to extirpating phantom white racism."

Bee:  "OK.  One:  'White males' is an identity.  Two:  The only way white racism is a phantom is that its most iconic uniform is literally a ghost costume." [Photo of KKK rally in full regalia]


Bee:  "I forget.  What do you call it when you have two phrases for the same thing, but one makes people feel better?

Trump, speaking at a rally:  "... but that was a euphenism [sic]."


Bee:  Right!  A 'euphenism.'  He is, like, smart. . . . Identity politics is the dismissive term for what we used to call 'civil rights' and 'equality.'"

Then follows a montage of FOX News commentators agreeing that the Democrats lost because of their fixation on identity politics rather than jobs.

Bee:  "It's our fault.  We fell down the stairs.  We're so clumsy.  Look, stop it! Come on, Democrats!  There's Loser Stockholm Syndrome and then there's taking your talking points from Steve Doosy and pals."  [Doosy is the co-host of the morning talk show, "FOX and Friends."]

Another montage follows, that segues to North Carolina Republican Governor Pat McCrory's loss to his Democratic opponent, widely seen as due to his association with the infamous "bathroom" bill aimed at transgender persons.
Bee:  "Democrats, I know you're having a rough time.  You hate being lost in the wilderness.  You have allergies, and you were reading a book in a corner when your Scoutmaster taught everyone which leaves to avoid.  [Laughter.]  But if your panic over a loss makes you abandon both your principles and the people who actually vote for you, then you'll be in the wilderness for a decade.  Or until Trump's cabinet sells the wilderness to oil companies.  By all means, invite working class white people to the party.  Just don't let them take over the d.j. table."
By all means, let's embrace working class white people--but on our own terms.

This gets to the purpose of Rafferty's demands that Trump voters must take ownership for the full implications of their vote, which includes lending aid and comfort to racists, xenophobes, and just plain assholes.  It isn't directed at Trump voters at all.  It's directed at Democrats who might be inclined to open a dialogue with Trump voters, by modeling an approach to dialogue designed to foreclose it at the outset.  The real message is that dialogue--honest dialogue involving give-and-take and an open mind--constitutes betrayal.

I reject that sentiment, of course.  But here's a disquieting idea that is its functional equivalent, and that is becoming harder for me to dismiss:  Dialogue constitutes a waste of time.  I'll explain my reasons for disquiet in my next entry.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Tess Rafferty Tells Off Trump Voters - Pt 2

A little while ago I posted, without comment, a video by comedian Tess Rafferty on the election of Donald Trump that went viral when abridged and shared by Occupy Democrats in mid-November.

Here's a second video by Tess Rafferty, shared by Occupy Democrats on December 9.  It's entitled "What Trump Voters Need to Hear."  As if any Trump voter would sit still long enough to endure this three-minute brow-beating.  Nonetheless, I will comment on this one.

Shorn of the in-your-face tone, Rafferty's request in this video boils down to this: if you voted for Trump on grounds other than racism, misogyny, Islamophobia; and if you voted for Trump despite the "flaws" that were regularly excused by saying the Hillary Clinton was an even more flawed candidate--an excuse that is no longer necessary; then say something to dissociate yourself from those things and do or say something tangible to show that the Republican Party doesn't embrace those things.

Most of the people I know who voted for Trump are in fact people who did so for reasons I can understand even if I don't agree with them; people who aren't racist, or misogynists, or xenophobic. The disquieting thing about them, however, is their near-universal refusal to acknowledge that Trump or any of his supporters did in fact appeal to or express racist, misogynist, or xenophobic views.

Tess Rafferty Tells Off Trump Voters - Pt 1


Tess Rafferty is a comedy writer and activist.  Like a lot of people, she wasn't just disappointed that her presidential candidate of choice didn't get elected.  She was horrified that so many Americans voted for a man who negated, about as strongly as anyone could, pretty much everything she believed in.  She was also, she said, just plain tired of trying to engage in reasonable discussion with the people who supported Trump. (I'd be interested to know if she actually did.)

Two days after the election, Rafferty composed a sort of cri de coeur and read it before a camera.  The 8 minute, 43 second video was abridged to 3 minutes, 33 seconds, and shared on Facebook by Occupy Democrats on November 18, entitled "What Everyone Who Voted for Trump Needs to Hear."  The Facebook version received nearly 22 million views in five days.  As I write this, the count is currently on the high side of 33 million.

I think it is safe to assume that very few of those 33 million views came from people who voted for Trump.

Nor for quite a while did any of those views come from me.  I don't usually read/watch anything by liberal advocacy groups.  I can form my opinions without their help.  So I was oblivious even to the existence of Rafferty's video--until my niece posted the Occupy Democrats version on her Facebook page and asked her FB friends to watch it.  So I did.

But here's the original video, which I find more interesting--and which, be it noted, I present without comment.  (A transcript is below the jump.)