Don’t Gloat, Dems.

Now that the election is past and Obama got the win he earned, I’m reading posts by some of his supporters.  “It’s a major victory”, they say, “a harbinger of things to come, an end to the Republican extremists, a new day for an ascendant Left, a mandate from the public”.  I can see where they might see hints of that.  Exit polls suggest that people are tired of the most extreme extremists and their loudly-proclaimed viewpoints, and that seemed to be all the GOP was offering during the primaries. Romney was a less extreme extremist, it seems, and he beat them back.  Then, the Right made an avalanche of claims that Obama was an extremist — even a Stalin, a Hitler. (Not that anyone outside of their small camp bought into that – Obama was in European terms a Left-Centrist governing from the middle.)  Several idiots who spoke of ‘legitimate rape’ lost — as they would have in any other election — and a handful of key opponents of global warming legislation lost.

Whoop-te-doo.

Fact: Obama’s win was quite narrow – not as narrow as Bush-Gore or Kennedy-Nixon, but much more like those than like other elections.  The nation is still tightly divided.
Fact: It hinged on super-high turnout of Obama supporters in urban areas in ‘battleground’ states, including a huge push for early voting – the much-discussed “ground game”.
Fact: the Republicans still have the House firmly in control, with nearly all of the main figures in their stonewalling, budget-bludgeoning tactic (most importantly Paul Ryan) still in place.  The Democrats still have the Presidency, and still rule the Senate, but they are still well short of a filibuster-proof super-majority.
Fact: despite the unprecedented extreme unpopularity of both houses of Congress, people will vote their current representative back in, if that choice is offered. Incumbency is more than ever the despotic emperor of the electoral process. No matter how many billions the billionaires pump into challengers, the ins still hold all the cards if they keep a bit and bridle on their own mouths.

In other words, while a few of the very worst idiots are gone, the next four years are still the same sides with the same faces in the same places.

As to the supposed leftward ‘trends’ in the electorate, recall that this has been seen before. The leftward youth of the Depression became the supporters of anti-Communism in the ’50s. The young movements of the ’60s gave way to the Reagan Right of the ’80s. It is a matter of history that the young learn as they get older that things really aren’t as they seemed when they were young, there were actual reasons for much of what their parent’s generation was doing. Events like WW2, 9-11, and the Iran hostage crisis added trauma and fear to our national and individual lives; some such event will happen within each generation. They eventually grow up to get a personal stake in this world, and when that happens, there’s not enough substance in their practice to prevent “do your own thing” from morphing into “get what you can” in the presence of money.

Next election, the Democratic nominee is not likely to be an African-American, and that will have an effect on that great “ground game” Obama had in the hugely-black areas of the cities.  Republicans are bound to do some repositioning, especially regarding Latinos. They will have to reposition on taxes, in the next few weeks, if we are to avoid the “fiscal cliff”.  The faces will be different next times, with surnames that ethnic groups will recognize, and talk that will sound more moderate, or at least more rooted in scientific fact. The GOP won’t run all old white males next time out. Hopefully, they’ll toss all the Roger Ailes/Karl Rove types out for political incineration, though I’m not holding my breath about it. The next congressional election is in two years, an off-year election, which historically adds to the party that is not in the White House.  And Republicans will surely work to improve their “ground game”.

What this all means is the Democrats have nothing to gloat about.  They should be happy they have the White House, but that means they must spend the next four years delivering on their approach to fiscal responsibility and on rebuilding the financial structure, under new rules. It means managing the economy so that the low-wage workers‘ lot improves dramatically, and vigorously protecting the programs that attack hunger and poverty here and abroad. It means ending Bush’s foolish wars, even if events force our hands regarding new ones. And, as much as anything else, it means undermining rank-and-file GOP anger by actually listening and understanding the substance of their concerns instead of flaming out at the most warped side of those concerns.

The nation is still so tightly divided that some basic tweaking can mean the difference between winning and losing an election. This election has not changed that fact.  So, for all you Democrats, it’s not time to gloat, or to think the tide has turned your way. It’s time to roll up your sleeves and open up your ears.

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You Can Stop Hiding Now.

You Can Stop Hiding Now..
Do we live in a world in which we look at human freedoms like Star Trek’s Romulan Cloaking Device – something for hiding your own selfish intent from the rest of the world, until it’s time to strike?  Or are we to use them as the means to move this world forward, enabling each of us to work in their own way toward a common good?

We Don’t Care Enough to Hear You.

I’ve written many times on politics, using two basic ideas to point a way forward.
(1) We’ve all got something to learn, and
(2) We all have a stake in each other.

The one act that encompasses both “learning” and “each other” is listening.

You’d think that, given its importance, that America would be setting up new ways to listen to each other. The new technology gives us listening opportunities we could hardly imagine 50 years ago. The old technologies, especially the oldest one, of face-to-face in-person relationships, are still fully available to us should we want to use them.

But there’s the rub. When it comes to political decision-making, we’d rather not use them. We don’t really want to listen, and when we do, we seem to forget how to really do it. Our listening is selective — usually limited to stuff we’ve already decided we want to hear. When it comes to politics, even those of us who are spiritually inclined to go to great lengths to achieve mindfulness tune out other people’s politics. Even those who speak at length of how every person is made in God’s image seem just fine with blowing other people off over their politics.

The political world has trouble listening. One reason is that it loves being distracted. In this election, to most people, the real matter-at-hand is the state of the economy. Immigration and debt figure large, too. But instead, what gets most of the time on the news shows and the political ads? Birth certificates. Tax returns. Strange comments by strange legislators. Who leaks what secrets. Extreme words from talking heads and media stars. Half-truths, quarter-truths, and outright lies about the candidates’ records. Broad accusations about corporate slavery and Marxism. Even hints of violence if the other side wins. If your friend or your colleague at work kept looking away to talk to someone else, or paid more attention to the bird at the window than to you, would you think they were listening to you? When political discourse gets distracted, it cannot accomplish its main tasks.

American politics no longer has mediating activities. There’s no place where people can walk through matters with each other, with some urgency but no demand of a timetable nor of a particular pre-determined conclusion. We have to cobble together our own ad hoc substitute for gathering information. But gathering information is not the same as hearing others share their stories with us, meeting them more as people and less as members of a political faction.

One of our worst habits in political discussion is that we don’t show that we understand what’s being said. When you’re really listening, you’ll occasionally paraphrase, saying back to them what they said to see if you’ve got it right. Instead, the political world interrupts, quotes directly, wrenches it completely out of context, and shoots back with snappy rejoinders and cynical dismissal. They listen only for nuggets to latch on to for a flame-out response. The result? We can’t really understand what’s really being said.

The tameness of the US press’ questions has long been noted by political scientists. But it’s gotten so bad that when a truly incisive question is asked, it stands out almost like it’s a historic moment. US viewers of BBC (British) news love it so much because the Beeb still actually pursues questions that aren’t on the candidates’ approved list, and they’re likely to bite back when they’re being manipulated. Here, in the land of the free-for-a-small-fee, the idea of a true followup question is something out of a fictional fairy-land.

I know my own reaction when someone is clearly not listening to me. I get angry. And the more they do it, the angrier I get. And when I’m angry, I’m also no longer listening. Most of us are that way; most of the few who aren’t that way choose calmly to stop listening. It’s easy to understand why that leads to an angrier, more dismissive political world. When you don’t listen, you don’t understand. When you don’t understand, you don’t decide, you don’t act, you don’t move ahead. You get gridlock. And you get stuck in the same place while the world changes around you and time leaves you behind. Or worse: anger builds into a new, ugly civil war.

Learning how to listen may prove to be key to our nation’s future.

It Is Still the Economy, Stupid!

Dear Democratic Campaign:

I’m getting worried.

For weeks on end, you’ve been hitting on the stupidities that come from the mouths of many of the Republican candidates, including Mitt Romney. Frankly, I don’t blame you. Every week gives us another fine example of lame thinking and dishonest pandering. The policies they propose are shot through with the purpose of enriching the rich – so much so that if the only ones who voted for them were those who benefit from the policies, they’d lose in historic landslides nearly everywhere.

But I fear that this is causing the Democrats to miss the forest for the trees.

What the public (remember them?) wants and needs to hear is not why they should fear the GOP and vote against them. What they want and need to hear is why they should vote for you to handle the fiscal and economic mess we’re in. People are still unemployed, still losing their homes, still worried about their future. As the Clinton campaign reminded itself repeatedly, “it’s the economy, stupid!”. And it still is.

This should be a layup, folks. The House Republicans have spent the last two years blocking your every economic and fiscal action. Even actions Republicans supported in the past. Even policies Republicans created. Even things that would, over time, save people a lot of money. Even steps that would wind down an expensive war. They’ve been playing the negative card without relent. People are looking for those who actually do something about the bind we’re in, and that can be the Obama administration.

What you need to do is to stop talking about what concerns smaller, activist cadres. Just stop it. Period. Instead, put as much time and effort and money as you can into what you would do about the economy. It is the economy, stupid! And you apparently need to be reminded of that.

Show people, in detail, what the Republicans stopped you from doing about it. Point by point. It’s not the points themselves that count, as much as the cumulative case. Show what you were able to get done in spite of them – again, point by point, and it is about how it all adds up. Focus like a laser on the House, since that’s the body you don’t control and the body that’s easiest to run against because of the aforementioned stupidities. And show them what the additional income from taxing the rich just a little bit more can do to treat our fiscal illnesses. (Actually, the added income could do quite a lot.)

Then show them what you intend to do in the next term. Show them how you’d treat housing debt. Student debt. Small business debt. Credit card debt. Government debt. Show them an aggressive, effective treatment from a regulated-free-market viewpoint. Show them what you’d do to encourage growth in customers and lessen wasteful consumer spending. Propose ways to sensibly regulate in order to direct investment money into real investments instead of being forever stuck in a loop of margins to derivatives to debt swaps to currency transfers. Show them how you’d treat corporations as corporations instead of as people, and treat the wrongdoers in them as criminal people. And show yourselves to be open to listening to other ideas. Forget ‘did you say something?’, ‘shut up’, and especially ‘look who’s saying it!‘ – strip all such things from your vocabulary, on all matters, permanently. Ideas and proposals must stand on their own merit.

I know, it’s fun to get into a bashing match. But frankly, they’re better at that game than you are, so don’t play it. Don’t say, ‘Fear them!’; that’s taking care of itself just fine. Say, ‘We can do it!’. Give them a positive reason to vote for you. And do it on the one and only set of subjects that matters to two-thirds of the public, a set of subjects you’re losing on at the moment.

It’s the economy, stupid. The less you focus on a positive economic plan, the less likely you’ll win in November. The election, both presidential and congressional, depends on it.

Do you believe everything you think?

This election season is a monsoon of communication that doesn’t really communicate. The communication is done with much skill, so the failure is not in the technique. And there’s no lack of good information, even if you have to dig to find it. But today, communication fails mostly because of the frame of mind and intentions of those who make and receive it.

A key problem is that we tend to believe everything we think. We all do that. I do that. This leads to an imperialism of thought: I treat the way I think it is as how it really is, and when someone else differs, they’re wrong, and their thinking must be repaired.  But my mind (and yours) is not good enough for that.  My logic falls apart at some point. My lack of information betrays me. My intuitions, left to themselves, divert me.  My feelings drive me past the point where I should stop. My imagination whips up fantasies that often severely distort reality, yet still influence how I deal with it.

Since the only point of view I actually experience is my own, the only way I can become less of a thoroughly self-obsessed wiseass is for outside forces to push me to a new place from which I will see the world differently. And indeed, this is what happens to all of us. Each of us thinks in ways that have been shaped, gathered together, and imaged by media, institutions, culture, and the people around us. Other points of view show us what I can’t see from where I am. That’s actually a good thing to a point, because none of us have anywhere near enough experience to understand more than a few matters well. Without such constant reshaping, gathering, and imaging, we don’t learn.

Good to a point.

That point is when we let those others do the thinking for us. Life is so much simpler that way. There’s less responsibility in it. When people tire of thinking, they use the phrase ‘my head hurts’.  It takes work to seek, sift, solve the puzzle, and figure out what to do with what you’ve discovered. Few of us are built to turn everything into a doctoral dissertation.  And, truth be told, we don’t have to. It is enough just to think things through until a clear direction task hold.  That’s enough to prevent us from being someone else’s servant. We have enough of our own biases without taking on another’s and holding it just as tightly.

Now, assume you’ve been doing this right. You listen to others, to yourselves, you feel, you sense, you imagine, you think things through. That leaves one more barrier: pride. It hits in this form: “I’ve already thought this through. I came to my stance rightly. While I know that I don’t know it all, that’s just a technicality at this point.  I really *do* know.” But that is not how knowledge works. No matter how rightly you process knowledge, you are small, and wisdom is BIG. Each little bit of understanding comes as part of a huge context, with large subcontexts within it. What’s needed is ‘epistemic humility‘ – being wise enough, with enough self-perspective, to truly understand that you don’t ultimately know. Epistemic humility doesn’t mean that you don’t aim high, it means you don’t live under the illusion you’ve reached as high as it goes. You are not God. You’re in the same boat as everyone else. This leaves you in no position to hate or judge your neighbor. You can learn. You can trust that what you’ve learned is true, and it matters that you keep learning more. But there’s always something partial or broken or incomplete about it. You can’t get out of that. There are some things that come from understanding this: tolerance, an open heart, and a listening ear. And due to those, increased wisdom.

Christians Are Not the Center of the Universe

God is.

OK, so now I’ve stated the obvious. But I find it has to be said, thanks to the way the blogosphere has been working.

  • the Religious Right believes it knows the answers and thus has a right to control what happens.
  • the Progressive Christians and the mainline Left talk as if everything anyone in the evangelical sector believes is not only untrue, but is malicious and is the root cause of the many distortions of today’s American politics.
  • the outspoken atheists are all too happy to extend the blame — but they also include the moderates and progressives in that blame.
  • the media talk about such matters as if they agree with all of the above — Christians in politics is seen as this all-pervasive force that makes the entire rotten thing spin around.
  • People in general see people of faith doing nothing but slashing at each other, which leads many of them to blame all of the above for the mean spirit of our current political world.

But is it true?  In part yes, to be sure.  But not as much as all this talk would indicate. The truth?

  1. The Religious Right doesn’t have enough voters by itself, in most places, even with their higher turnout, to determine the general elections.  They win because there is a sector of people who never set foot in a church who support the same candidates and the same extreme rhetoric.  They don’t read the Bible, may not even have one in the house (unless it’s somewhere in a storage box).  But they watch Fox News religiously, listen to talk radio, and think Obama is a Muslim.
  2. Most people are not evaluating the candidates on the basis of faith.  (Not even many evangelicals or Catholics.) They are evaluating them on the basis of a fairly naked and poorly-informed form of self-interest. The corollary to this is simple:
  3. most folks aren’t sitting around with bated breath waiting for us Christians to make up our minds so they can vote accordingly.
  4. Most decisions that are made by government are not made because of religious faith. Not even the ones where the President flies the flag of faith. They are made because of a complicated set of influences and reasons that revolve around power, freedom, security, and wealth. Faith is a part, but mostly a small part, of that mix. The corollary to this is simple too:
  5. most of the ugly stuff that happens, which the various religious factions blame on the beliefs of the others, actually happens mostly because of non-religious factors. There are complex sociological, psychological, economic, and cultural influences which made these ‘evils’ possible.  Religious faith is a large factor, but is rarely if ever determinative. It is much more likely that the view of the faithful reflects these other influences than is the other way around.

None of this is meant to make light of the influence of practicing Christians on politics or culture. It is potent.  But its strength lies in subtext more than in text.  It is far too simplistic a thing to blame public and political behaviors on someone’s view of hell or perceived duty to protect the poor or any other such matter. But people of all sorts are doing it. They are saying, ‘you keep saying your faith is the reason everything happens the way it does, so you’re to blame.’

If only something this simple were true.  But it is not.  Thus we shouldn’t act — or write — as if it is.

Walker, and Walking the Walk

(This was originally posted 06 June 2012 on Facebook, before this blog was ready, but it’s still relevant now. Edited.)

It’s sad to see Scott Walker win another victory in Wisconsin.  His meat-cleaver approach has hurt, not helped, his state. I’m not happy — but then, it was not a surprise.

Already, the losing side cries: it was the ads, the money.  No: listen carefully to what the Wisconsin majority who voted for Walker are saying. For them, it was rather clearly *not* a matter of advertising or spending. It was that he did what he promised to do, what he was elected to do, what in the last election he had convinced his state’s public was needed to fix their situation. They turned out to tell us that. And they dislike the entire idea of recalls – let officials serve out a full term, like they were elected to do.

The main problem I have with those who opposed Walker is their approach to electoral politics.  In this race, they used the methods of ideological power politics, such as projection of force, name-calling, blame, and drawing harsh lines of good and evil.  It reminds me of the wrongheaded approach many Christians use for evangelism: stuffing tracts, howling bloody hell on people, playing off of people’s psychological guilt, doing all telling and no listening, speaking in ‘us vs. them’ terms, blaming a person’s life decisions on the supernatural influence of some insidious conspiracy by Satan’s servants.  Where’s the love there?  The same method is too often true of the ‘progressive’ political movement. And unlike the Right, they ought to know better.

If any headway is going to be made to get saner political outcomes, there will have to be conversion — a change of the hearts and minds of regular folks. (By which I mean, those who are not in the public eye, who aren’t trying to attain personal power or position on the backs of these divisive issues.)  To do that, we’ll have to start taking to heart something like the more ’emergent’ or ‘progressive Christian’ approach to evangelism, or like the more relational approaches to education, or like the less-ideological processes of community-building, and apply it to our politics. That means listening, and walking through matters with them, with some urgency but no demand of a timetable nor of a particular pre-determined conclusion. (That’s the part the US Left has the worst time with: it assumes that if you think it out, you’ll join them, and if you don’t join them, you didn’t think it out.) It means trying to understand people in frameworks other than that of power politics, seeing them as people instead of as members of interest groups. It means not demonizing or automatically labeling people ‘haters’ or boycotting or shunning them just for disagreeing on a matter.  Most especially, it demands that you not treat other people as if they’re stupid. It means being persistent, truthful, open, and factual, always leading them (and ourselves) to think it through thoroughlyWe’ve all got something to learn, and we all have a stake in each other.  That can only be addressed effectively together.  But that can’t be done when we’re busy building walls and throwing stones. And it takes time.  Lots of it.  More time than we have for the 2012 election. This is a long-haul struggle.

This would change the ground on which the politicians and the squawkers stand, which will, in turn, change the politicians and their actions.

The political extremes always fail to treat people like people.  That’s why there’s so little conversion that leads to change that benefits the least instead of the wealthiest.  Power politics will usually help the powerful.  Used on everyone else, even for the best of causes, it will create the anger that leads to the Silent Majorities which will repeatedly stymie real progress.