American Exceptionalism

Our passivity towards gun violence is exceptional. Especially among developed nations.

Anthony Lane in The New Yorker on Tarantino’s current film “Once Upon a Time. . . in Hollywood”:

“. . . two things alone freaked me out. One was the sudden, insane burst of brutality that is inflicted by men upon women. And the other was the reaction of the people around me in the auditorium to that monstrosity. They laughed and clapped.”

One night in 1994, knowing it wouldn’t be the Good Wife’s cup of tea, I went to see “Pulp Fiction” by myself in Greensboro, North Carolina. In the film there were a few insane bursts of brutality inflicted by men upon men. Point blank shootings that prompted the crowd to spontaneously erupt in prolonged applause. That was deeply unsettling.

Twenty five years later I fear we’re even more desensitized to wanton gun violence.

Where does it end?

Weekend Assorted Links

1A. Quitting Mormonism, or more formally, resigning from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

“But if the internet is inherently threatening to the Church, or to any faith, it’s perhaps not because of the way it affirms doubts. Rather, it’s in the community it opens up — a community that can be just as close-knit and supportive as a ward. Where ChurchofJesusChrist.org offers scripture, the internet beyond the Church’s domain shines light into what has historically been a black box: the lives of the people who have left.”

1B. Mormon identities in flux.

2. Baseball prodigy. Like Mike Trout, but 16 and a switch hitter. Damn the Yankees.

3. The likely elimination of single-family zoning in large Oregon cities. Coming to a city near you?

4. Please stop telling me America is great. I was ahead of the curve.

5. Human dominoes. When brakes are useless.

Stupidity Is a Bigger Threat Than Socialism

And it’s not even close.

Conservative Republican opinion leaders, winners in life’s lottery, worship at the altar of free markets. In their minds, merit explains their relative success, not privilege. Acknowledging privilege would require them to admit markets are fallible, a thought that would consider a total reconsideration of themselves.

American exceptionalism is largely explained by blind devotion to free markets as if they are ordained by God. Literally. We are better than other countries because our markets are freer. Never mind our prison numbers, our opioid epidemic, our gun violence, our homeless crisis.

To conservative Republicans, taxes are always too high. The government uses its tax system to unfairly take what is rightly ours. Government, as if it consists of some insidious “others” instead of our neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens; is incompetent and wasteful. We know much better than the diabolical government what to do with our own damn money. Left to our own devices we would naturally fund private equivalents to Head Start, public libraries, Social Security, Medicare, and federal highways because they so obviously improve our quality of life.

Given that context, I probably shouldn’t be as exasperated as I am by the depressing quality of the initial 2020 campaign conversation about competing economic systems. Yes, through flawed messaging, some on the Left have contributed to the problem; but that’s no excuse for the Right’s complete unwillingness to talk about the crippling consequences of widening inequality on everyone and how it’s in our enlightened self interest to make greater (and proven) public investments in the common good.

Instead, deathly afraid their taxes will go up, those on the Right scream VENEZUELA and CUBA and demean Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as “just a 29 year old bartender”. As if the Left wants to replicate life in Venezuela. How is it that many of the most virulent anti-socialists are formally educated and yet seem completely unable to think about subtleties, nuances, and complexity?

To those virulent anti-socialists, there’s a huge middle ground between Milton Friedman and Maduro.

To the army of Presidential contenders, I don’t want to waste time talking about Venezuelan socialism. I want a critical conversation about how best to improve our economics and politics so that many more people experience the promise of our ideals. More specifically, I believe it’s in my enlightened self interest to make more investments in public schooling, in public libraries, in single payer health care, and in infrastructure. And by “more investments” I mean moderately higher taxes. Millions of others think similarly, enough to get elected.

And once gain, this is where the national conversation devolves to the point of embarrassment because my Conservative Republican friends predictably say, “Okay, go ahead and write a larger check to the Internal Revenue Service than you owe” as if the penalty for critical thinking about the status quo is having to compensate for the mindless purveyors of it.

An extra serving of ignorance in a conversation marked by mind boggling stupidity.

 italics=sarcasm

Understanding Trumpism

Think about the 2016 U.S. presidential election in the context of renowned Sinologist Orville Schell’s analysis of modern China in this recent essay. Some excerpts:

This confidence in the strength of the China model—and the supposed weakness of its Western competitors—has reshaped the way Beijing relates to the world. Its new confidence in its wealth and power has been matched by an increasingly unyielding and aggressive posture abroad that has been on most vivid display in its maritime disputes in the South and East China seas.

Couldn’t one say about the U.S., “Its longstanding confidence in its wealth and power has been matched by an unyielding and aggressive posture abroad that has been on most vivid display in it disputes in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.”

Obama has been far more restrained than his predecessors when it comes to conventional warfare, but we can’t bury our heads in the sand when it comes to his unprecedented, unyielding, aggressive use of drones.

Schell adds:

One clear message of this turbulent week is how interconnected everything actually has become in our 21st-century world. Financial markets, trade flows, pandemics and climate change all ineluctably tie us together.

This irrefutable insight is lost on Trump’s followers mired in 20th century notions of politics as a zero-sum game that we’re predestined to win as the world’s sole economic, political, and military superpower. Trumpism rests upon notions of American Exceptionalism mixed with nostalgia for the past when the relative economic, political, and military strength of the U.S. was undeniably greater than it is today; as well as competition between nations at the expense of cooperation; and scapegoating the newest citizens for pernicious public policy challenges that preceded their arrival.

Schell again:

Of late, China has been acting in an ever more unilateral way, perhaps at last enjoying the prerogatives of its long-sought wealth and power. Mao imagined a China rooted in the idea of “self-reliance,” zili gengsheng. The most encouraging news out of this week would be for Mr. Xi and his comrades to recognize that China can no longer be such an island—that China cannot succeed in isolation, much less by antagonizing most of its neighbors and the U.S.

As large, dynamic and successful as China has become, it still exists in a global context—and remains vulnerable to myriad forces beyond the party’s control. It must take the chip off its shoulder, recognize that it is already a great power and begin to put its people, its Pacific neighbors and the U.S. at ease. Any truly great nation must learn that the art of compromise lies at the heart of diplomacy, that it is almost always better to negotiate before resorting to war and that compromise is neither a sign of weakness nor surrender.

If the alarms over the past few months presage such a revelation in Beijing, it would not only enhance China’s stability but its soft power and historic quest for global respect. Given Mr. Xi’s track record, one dare not be too optimistic.

Is any U.S. intellectual in position to lecture China’s leadership about soft power and global respect? “Make America great again,” trumpets Trumpism, meaning less compromising, less diplomacy, more unilateralism.

Trumpism thrives on the insecurities of a people who feel their world dominance slipping. Ahistorical to the core, it has no patience for the complexities of public policy, environmental degradation, or globalization. It assumes people aren’t smart enough for the complexities of 21st century life. It advocates sloganeerism, brashness, and business principles as panaceas for problems real and imagined. It asks no questions, listens only for openings to speak, and never admits fault.

Eventually, enough people will see it for what it is, and reject it.

Two Roads Diverge

The first in a week-long, three-part series.

I’m doing some reorienting. Prioritizing my non-work identities and relationships. Mid-life crisis? Don’t think so, but time will tell. Check back in a year or two from now. Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I’m taking the first steps of a journey whose outcome is unknown.

So what follows, like my identity more generally, is a work in progress. I don’t expect anyone to agree with everything. Or anything.

U.S. citizens are at a fork in the woods. A fork formed by a decline in manufacturing, technology-based automation, slower economic growth, and heightened economic scarcity.

More details here, although you don’t need Tyler Cowen or me to tell you about what you’re experiencing day-to-day.

We talk at length about the trees in the woods—fast rising gas prices, exorbitant health insurance premiums and college costs, and declining home values —but hardly at all about what lifestyles are most sustainable and meaningful.

The fork has prompted a radical shift in thinking. In the U.S., throughout the 20th century, parents thought, “I expect my children to live a better, more comfortable life than me.” Today the default is “I worry and wonder whether my children will be able to live as well and comfortably as me.”

Two roads diverged in a wood and I—I worried and wondered.

Economic security seems outside of our control. The economy is in constant flux and no job is secure. We can’t get politicians to think beyond their re-election and balance our state or national budgets. We can’t get them to stop fighting distant wars. We can’t slow China’s and India’s growth. We can’t reduce our dependence on oil. We can’t get consumers to stop shopping at Wal-Mart and other big boxes. We can’t stop companies from outsourcing jobs. And there’s seemingly no way to improve parenting, fix schools, or reduce inequality.

The fork is doubly tough for adults responsible for young people. They worry, what does their future hold? “I’m worried for myself and I’m worried for you.”

If we stop or even slow down, we may be overcome with fear for the future and overwhelmed with anxiety; therefore, we fill our days with work, shopping, entertainment, new apps, Facebook.

I wouldn’t be able to write this sentence if I weren’t extremely privileged, but I wonder if these tough economic times are an opportunity to slow down and think through more carefully how we want to live, to find ways to live more sustainable, meaningful lives. Or maybe, since lifestyle choices are intensely personal, I should say, how I want to live, to find ways for me to live a more sustainable, meaningful life.

Before fleshing out those concepts, consider the perspectives of the political left and right who have distinct opinions about the causes and consequences of the fork. Competing voices in the woods if you will. And yes, I’m conscious I’m overgeneralizing. Sometimes when you’re painting, you just grab the broad brush.

The right interprets economic history and life more generally through the lens of American exceptionalism. They’re more anxious about accelerating ethnic diversity than they are global economic restructuring. They refuse to acknowledge our relative decline and are nostalgic for the second half of the 20th century when the U.S.’s economic, military, and political advantages were much more obvious. They’re in serious denial, but if you tell them that they’ll label you anti-American, because in their worldview, American exceptionalism is self-evident.

Stagnant wages and high unemployment aren’t a result of technology-based automation, economic globalization, or our consumer choices. They’re temporary anomalies. Small bumps in the road. If the Kenyan-born, Muslim president (okay, that was uncalled for) would just embrace American exceptionalism, reduce the government to a fourth of its current size and lower taxes by half, we’d quickly reclaim our rightful role as the world’s unquestioned economic superpower. Then we could pick up living large again.

Wednesday—Part 2 of 3—The left, the President, and my evolving thoughts on the fork.