scin-til-la: Latin, particle of fire, a spark.

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Location: Winona, Minnesota, United States

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Zero-Sum President

There have been numerous opinion pieces telling us why Donald Trump would make a terrible president.  He is bellicose.  He is profane.  He is almost impossibly needy in his narcissism.  These egregious personality flaws should disqualify him outright, and yet he manages to secure 30-40% support in Republican primary contests week after week, moving inexorably, it seems, toward the GOP nomination, or at least toward arriving at the Republican National Convention with far more delegates in hand than his closest challenger, Ted Cruz (who has his own rather profound issues, but we will save that for another time).

Trump's appeal seems to be his constant repetition of the litany of "winning."  People like winning, and the term is sufficiently vague so that would-be supporters can apply their own understanding to it as they please.  This sort of blank slate terminology is not unusual in politics, but Trump applies "winning" to virtually everything.  We will be "winning" in foreign policy, in trade, in job creation, in essentially every aspect of American life.  Of course, "winning" will be reserved for only "proper" Americans, who seem to be disproportionately white, Christian, and less educated.  (Remember, Trump asserts: "I love the poorly educated.")

Still, Trump's appeal does cross out of this core demographic, and pundits have expressed a great deal of confusion as to why.  Trump has tapped into anger and frustration that is very real.  He has done so, because by emphasizing "winning," he has promoted the fallacy that everything in American policy, both foreign and domestic, is a zero-sum game.  In other words, there are winners and there are losers, and you are either one or the other.  His indictment is that the Obama Administration (and, frankly, anybody who is not Donald Trump) has made Americans "losers," and that he will reverse American fortunes and make us all "winners" again.

Of course, this is nonsense.  The bipolar reductio ad absurdam of zero-sum thinking is appealing to the average American, because they can easily comprehend this paradigm of winning and losing.  Either your football team wins the Superbowl, or they lose.  Either you win the Powerball or you lose.  There is no middle ground.  There is no mutual "winning."  But real life is not like that at all.  There are degrees of wining and losing, and it is entirely possible for all or most to "win," even though some may "win more" than others.  While mutual success should be the goal of American policies - both in the domestic sphere and in our relations with foreign countries - Trump prefers to feed this zero-sum oversimplification to the angry and the gullible.  And they are devouring it with relish.

So much for Trump's recipe for electoral success, but how does such a wildly simplistic and inaccurate picture play out if Trump were actually elected president?  As we have seen, his actions toward those who oppose him are rash and punitive.  He is fickle in the extreme, switching from praise to ridicule almost overnight.  He believes that those who disagree with him are "horrible" and "damaging to America," and he wants them silenced.  As is emblematic of narcissists, he believes any disagreement is a personal attack, and he responds with a vendetta.  He holds grudges, and he seems eager to make people suffer if they have had the temerity or misfortune to be in his way.  This is not merely his political persona.  His business practices provide a long history of such behavior.

So how does a Zero-Sum President govern?  Consider that until Trump, regardless of the bitterness of political battles, our Presidents have considered themselves presidents of all Americans, whether they were supporters or not.  Trump's record strongly suggests that he will see himself as the President of his supporters first and foremost, and will have an almost irresistible tendency to punish those who opposed him.  This will, of course, translate immediately to political animosity toward all Democrats and the many Republicans who have spoken out against his obscenities, incitement to violence, and racist and misogynist remarks.  If you believe that Congress is gridlocked now, it will be in a legislative coma under Trump.

More disturbingly, consider Trump's control of agencies like FEMA, and his stranglehold on disaster funding.  Imagine a hurricane or earthquake or tornado outbreak in a state that did not vote for Trump.  What do you think Trump's reaction will be when that state's governor requests a disaster declaration to free up federal disaster aid?  I suspect they will all be "losers" then.  Trump will seek to punish them, and he will try to hang this around the neck of the "offending" governor or the people themselves.  They, in their foolishness, did not support Trump the Great, and now they should suffer accordingly.

In spite of all the vitriol spewed at him, President Obama has never refused to fund disaster requests - even from governors who have called him truly despicable things.  As Cicero said, "Salus populi lex suprema esto" ("Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law.").  Regardless of political disagreements or opposition to fundamental policies, this has remained the guiding principle of our presidency, and for our political representatives generally (with a few notorious exceptions).  I know of no case in which George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, or any other modern President denied disaster aid as an act of political revenge.  It is simply beneath the office of President to exacerbate the suffering of Americans in a desperate situation for political gain, and regardless of any policy disagreements, I am proud that we have had Presidents who have understood this fundamental obligation to the American people.

But Donald Trump is different.  A narcissist cannot see a disagreement as anything other than a personal attack, a betrayal, requiring a disproportionate response.  If he gains real political power, those who oppose him will be "carried out on a stretcher."  There can be no disagreement and no resistance, even to policies that are so wrongheaded that they silence critics with sheer incredulity, reducing them to simply shaking their heads, mouths agape.  And yet, the masses follow him, yearning for the illusory reward of "winning," whatever that means from their own myopic perspective.

The outlook for foreign policy is, unfortunately, far more grim.  A man bent on disproportionately punishing those who resist his initiatives, regardless of how unworkable or inequitable, should absolutely not be Commander In Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States - full stop.  We have been terrified for years of some amoral dictator of an authoritarian state getting hold of a nuclear weapon.  It is the nightmare scenario that is so overwhelming that it has overruled reason in a series of truly terrible foreign policy decisions in recent decades.  Now imagine for a moment turning over control of the entire US nuclear arsenal to a man with essentially the same personality traits and almost cartoonish world view that we attribute to petty despots we have opposed.  How long will it be until President Trump uses nuclear weapons as an overt threat against Russia (once he discovers that Putin doesn't actually like him, but considers him an easily manipulated clown), or North Korea, or even Mexico when they tell him where he can stick his wall?

I find Donald Trump repugnant in a way that makes me wish for the return of literally any other president we have had in modern history - including those with whom I have vehemently disagreed and those I believe have damaged this country very badly indeed.  Trump is an order of magnitude worse, because he will not see himself as the American President.  He will see himself as the President of the Winners, who are defined as those who support him without question.  He will lavish praise and political favors on these "winners," in a way fulfilling his prophecy.  Conversely, he will see those who disagree with his policies as "losers" who are seeking to harm America.  They are the enemy, and as such, they are to be punished, marginalized, harmed whenever possible.  They should be made to leave, just as if they have had an outburst at a Trump campaign rally, and if possible, they should be punched in the face on the way out.

Following the election of Trump, there would be no "coming together" behind the new President.  There would only be the first of an ongoing series of reprisals.  There would only be more division.  There would be Winners and Losers.  There would no longer be Americans.  And, ironically, as multiple wives have found, one cannot remain in the good graces of a consummate narcissist indefinitely.  Eventually, either through simply being an individual, or as a result of narcissistic paranoia, everybody ultimately becomes an enemy.  Everybody ultimately betrays the Great Man.  Everybody ultimately becomes a "loser," for with a true Zero-Sum President, it matters only that he himself is "winning."  Everyone and everything else is insignificant.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Crusade of Mercy

In the days following the terrorist attacks in Paris, I am seeing many images and references invoking the Crusades.  There seems to be an attempt to equate the recent attack on Paris as an assault on Christianity in the West by radical Islam.  However, this simplistic view ignores other activity sponsored or encouraged by the so-called "Islamic State" where the victims are predominantly or exclusively Muslims, such as the bombing only a day before in Beirut.  It is a completely human and in many ways inevitable response to want to "fight back," and in particular, to mount a devastating, disproportionate military action that will "destroy the enemy."  It is also a response that will ultimately fail, both because it is too simplistic to address the root causes of this violence, and because it is precisely what the Islamic State expects, indeed desires.

Terrorism, by its nature, is intended to provoke response.  I do not suggest inaction, but before acting reflexively, it is preferable to consider what response was expected and intended.  To fail in this ensures that we will be acting in accord with the plans of the terrorists.  IS cannot be simply dismissed as madmen.  They act in a carefully planned manner that supports their world view.  Of course, that view is repugnant in its medieval brutality and bankrupt as a matter of any sensible measure of morality, but it is clearly codified and entirely consistent.  And it holds that the forces of "Rome" will engage in an apocalyptic battle with the true believers, nearly destroying them before they achieve final victory.  They require a disproportionate military response from the West as a matter of doctrine, and it will strengthen their theological argument.

And yet, we are falling into this trap.  Not only is there talk of wholesale invasion in some circles, but we are now also seeing the predictable xenophobic response to the plight of Syrian refugees who are fleeing from a civil war that has brought IS to fruition in the vacuum left by the unconscionable mismanagement of the occupation following the Iraq War and  the disastrous policy of De-Baathification.   That miasma is worthy of a separate post in and of itself, but regardless of this, we seem intent blaming the victims on a truly massive scale.

Pope Francis has designated the liturgical year beginning this Advent as a Year of Mercy, and we certainly need it.  If we are willing to spend billions of dollars on military action with dubious probability of success and high probability of injuring innocents, why are we not willing to also spend billions of dollars for food, shelter, and medical assistance for the millions displaced by IS?  The vast majority of these people are in the Middle East.  Truly, they do not want to leave and go to Europe or the United States.   They would have preferred to stay in their homes.  Would it not make sense to assist them where they are now?   Why are we not sending substantial aid to Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq to cope with the refugee crisis?  Honestly, and not to validate the xenophobes, if you want to reduce the flow of refugees to countries outside the region, you must remove the inexorable forces causing the exodus.

I call for a Crusade of Mercy - a massive effort to assist the people being harmed by IS.  Part of this effort requires protecting them, and there is obviously a military role, in conjunction with those already fighting against IS.  Degrading the ability of IS to do harm is entirely sensible, and frustrating their efforts at projecting terror beyond the areas they control must be a priority.  But even more, we must engage in an unprecedented harnessing of resources to address the suffering of those displaced.

If we ever hope to illustrate the intellectual and moral poverty of the Islamic State, we cannot play into their hands by fulfilling their prophecies about the hostility of the West.  We should protect ourselves and others, but we must understand that we can never completely destroy IS with military might.  Like an infection, we could eradicate much of it with force - military antibiotics, if you will, but ultimately the body must complete its own healing.  In this case, the body is the population of the Middle East itself, and the final defeat of IS only comes when they no longer command respect, and their rhetoric and Dark Age perspective is exposed to open ridicule by the people they hope to control.

So, help those militarily who resist the Islamic State, yes.  But remember that if you want a true and lasting ally willing to lay down his life, you can do nothing more effective than saving the life of his children.  Food, medical aid, shelter...mercy.  These are the most potent weapons in our arsenal, and we should deploy them without delay, and in quantities that result in a new and lasting shock and awe.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Respect our Armed Forces at Holloween

Everybody loves Holloween. Well, at least most people do. I'm especially excited now that I have a 10-month-old daughter that my wife Lindsy and I have resolved to dress up like a giant pumpkin (it's far too cute for words). Provided that you have a safe and friendly neighborhood, going from door to door and collecting treats is a time-honored tradition for kids and parents alike, and many of the parents get into it with costumes of their own.

However, last year, both around town and at Holloween parties, I ran into a few folks who were dressed in military uniforms as a Holloween costume. I understand that putting on some BDUs or an old Class A uniform that you found at an army surplus store is an easy way of dressing up as something you're not, but I hope that people will think twice about this. Really, it is in very poor taste, and it is insulting to those men and women who wear the uniform of our country (or any country) and are willing to risk their lives to protect us. Now, of course, there are exceptions. I think if you are dressing up as an historic military figure, an historic uniform would be reasonable (General Robert E. Lee, General George Washington, etc.). Similarly, there are fictional characters that require a military or pseudo-military uniform (the Nutcracker, George Philip Sousa). This is all well and good.

The problem I'm addressing is the wearing of uniforms that are in use by current, active-duty military personnel. Service members are quite rightly taught to have a very high level of respect for their uniforms, as they are symbols of their dedication to their branch of service and to the country. They are taught to wear them properly, to exacting specifications, as a mark of that respect. Believe me when I tell you that any current or former member of any military branch or unit would never, never (am I being clear enough?), NEVER wear the uniform as a "costume." It would be like using the flag of the United States as a tablecloth or slip cover for your couch.

I'm not talking about kids here. There is a time-honored tradition for kids to dress up on Holloween as all manner of things, including the uniforms of professions they especially respect or might want to pursue when they grow up (fireman, policeman, doctor, sports star, etc.). A kid who dresses as a soldier is indicating his or her approval and admiration for military service, and very likely has a close relative who is or was in the military. This is fine, and even to be encouraged.

Adults, on the other hand, presumably have a job. As I said before, if they are members of the military, they most certainly would not consider the uniform a costume. If they are not members of the military, they don't have any business wearing an active-duty form of the military uniform. Period.

So, before you grab that green Class A coat and trousers off the rack at the Army Surplus Superstore and tack on a rank you don't have and a random assortment of ribbons you did not earn before going off to the Holloween party, stop and give due consideration to the men and women who wear that same uniform (and especially those who have died in that same uniform), and whose sweat and blood earned them the ribbons and the rank insignia they wear. They deserve to be honored and thanked. They do not deserve to be parodied.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Heartland for Change Tour

On Sept. 7, I attended the Barack Obama campaign stop in Winona as part of their “Heartland for Change Tour.” The focus of the discussion was the economy and jobs, but the very interested and engaged group that gathered at the Blue Heron Coffeehouse was equally interested in many issues that connect to these, such as health care, taxes and education.

Of course, in a roundtable discussion lasting a little more than an hour, the fine details of Sen. Obama’s proposals couldn’t be discussed, but I was very encouraged by the accessibility of campaign representatives and their desire to take the discussion to communities around Minnesota (they had been in Red Wing earlier that morning).
The all-important first step to good leadership is the willingness and ability to really listen to people and to seek out their opinions and hear their concerns.

These days, working families worry quite rightly about the weak economy, the risk to their job security and falling real estate values. They are concerned when they see jobs being sent overseas and the companies that outsource them being rewarded by tax breaks. The United States has a tremendously flexible and well-educated work force, and we truly need government policies that keep jobs here, create new jobs, and invest in new and emerging industries (such as renewable energy) that will ensure America’s future economic growth.

As a college professor, I worry about the job market that my students will enter upon graduation. In recent years, this has become increasingly challenging, both because fewer jobs exist and because the burden of student loans that graduates carry is growing steadily as student aid is cut. And now, thanks to the tightening of credit, even the loans are harder to obtain. These young people are eager to work hard, but they are increasingly squeezed out of the market.

We really do need change on several fronts. Sen. Obama and his representatives don’t pretend that these things will be easy, but they are, in my opinion, focusing on the right problems and working to formulate real solutions. I am very encouraged that similar conversations are happening at the local level across our state and country. This is exactly how real people address real concerns and find lasting solutions.

Friday, August 10, 2007

United States of Amnesia

World War II Memorial, Washington, DC

Americans are very good at forgetting things. Of course, all peoples have this capacity, but it seems that affluent nations are especially adept at ignoring the lessons of history. Perhaps there is an unavoidable correlation between affluence and cultural and political amnesia. Perhaps this is history's "safety valve" which ultimately deflates empires, from Babylon to Rome to the British Empire.

In defense of my fellow citizens, it is tempting in the extreme to live in the moment when the moment is luxurious (and I use that term comparatively). Why remember failures and fiascos of the past when one has 200 cable channels and cold beer? Why study history at all? It seems that the level of historical awareness of students entering university studies in the United States has declined alarmingly, even in the past 12 years in which I have been a full-time professor. Identifying important dates in American or world history is all but impossible for the vast majority of college students I see. Lest you feel too smug about your own history IQ, here are a few important dates. Take a moment to list the corresponding events (answers follow at the end of this article):

44 BCE
314 AD

Of course, not everybody will score 100% on this little quiz, but I've seen students fail to identify any of the dates (well, perhaps with the exception of the last one).

The United States is only recently a powerful nation, following the enormous industrial buildup of World War II, and the devastation of the world's primary European powers in that conflict. We have thus only been a "superpower" for half a century. Yet, in this relatively brief span of time, we appear to have forgotten that before WWII, we had a very modest military for a country of our size (under 190,000 troops). By 1945, this had swelled to 1.6 million. Having been finally drawn into the conflict, with its industrial capacity and relatively large population, the US became, along with the Soviet Union, the major actor on the world stage.

Americans born after World War II can scarcely imagine a world in which the United States is a second- or third-rate military and political power. We might consider the microcosm of a family over several generations as a parallel.

Most Americans of today are descended from immigrants, who in most cases left their countries of origin precisely because they were not rich or powerful. They came in search of a better life - economically, politically, and spiritually. As one traces a family from its immigrant generation through subsequent generations, the affluence of the family almost invariably increases. A conflict develops between a desire to remember and honor ethnic and cultural origins and a desire to forget the hardships and sacrifices of earlier generations. Over time, at least in the American experience, the forgetting appears to gain the upper hand.

So it is with nations. Americans, and notably those in power, prefer not to remember our precarious national origins as a "breakaway" colony. I do not suggest that the founders of this nation were anything but thoughtful and courageous people. On the other hand, the framers of our Constitution were very well aware of history's lessons, and incorporated concepts drawn from these lessons into the documents that still today form the basis of our republic. Sadly, in the midst of our great military might and economic power, today's leaders scarcely seem to grasp even the most fundamental principles of the agreeable conduct of nations, and thus commit the most egregious blunders.

There is a remedy, of course. We must teach our children our history - with all its warts and blemishes. We must insist that they understand the fluid nature of international politics and power, and they must know something of our nation's founders and their vision (as well as their disagreements and struggles). We can start by teaching our children the history of their own families, of the courage of pioneer ancestors, the selfless sacrifice of veterans, the struggle of slaves for freedom, and the desperation of the Dust Bowl and the Depression. There are heroes and villains in every family history, and lessons for each of us to learn from them. As we learn our personal and familial histories, we learn how our ancestors shaped this nation and their nations of origin. Perhaps we also learn from their failures.

Mark Twain was once quoted as saying that history doesn't repeat itself, but it does "rhyme." There is a great deal of rhyming going on at this very moment. However, with no sense of history much of our population lacks the ear to hearken to the poet's warning.

Answers to some significant dates:

44 BCE - Murder of Julius Ceasar
312 AD - Conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity
800 - Charlemagne crowned Holy Roman Emperor
1066 - Normans invade England, William I "The Conqueror" becomes King
1492 - Christopher Columbus discovers the "New World"
1620 - The Mayflower lands and Plymouth Plantation is established by the Puritans
1776 - Declaration of Independence (July 4th)
1789 - French Revolution
1812 - War of 1812 begins. (Washington captured and burned by the British in 1814)
1815 - Defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo (June 18th)
1861 - US Civil War Begins (Ft. Sumter, SC - April 12th / Bull Run, VA - July 21st)
1917 - US Enters Word War I (war began in 1914)
1929 - Stock Market Crash (October 29th)
1939 - World War II Begins (Germany invades Poland September 1st)
1941 - Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (Dec. 7th. US joins WWII Dec. 8th)
1945 - End of World War II (May 8th in Europe, Aug. 15th in Pacific)
1945 - US drops Atomic bombs on Hiroshima (Aug. 6th) and Nagasaki (Aug. 9th)
1949 - First Soviet atomic bomb test (August 29th).
1953 - Death of Josef Stalin (March 5th)
1964 - Gulf of Tonkin Incident (US dramatically increases troop presence in Vietnam)
1968 - Assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 4th) and Robert F. Kennedy (June 6th)
1974 - Watergate Scandal (break-ins of 1972) results in resignation of President Nixon (August 9th)
1981 - Assassination attempts on President Reagan (March 30th) and Pope John Paul II (May 13th)
1986 - Space Shuttle Challenger explodes 73 seconds after takeoff (January 28th)
1991 - Operation Desert Storm "Gulf War" (air assault begins Jan. 17th, ground assault Feb. 24th)
1995 - Oklahoma City Federal Building Bombing (April 19th)
2001 - Terrorist Attacks on World Trade Center, NYC and the Pentagon (Sept. 11th)