The Unthinkable Happened … Now What Do We Do?

Mob invades U.S. Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021

I am appalled. We should all be appalled. But regrettably, that feeling is not universal.

What am I appalled at? Two big unthinkables.

Unthinkable No. 1: The mob’s assault on the U.S. Capitol. Even worse — the fact that the mob’s Cheerleader-in-Chief was the guy in the White House.* Still worse — Trump’s unremitting campaign to have the nation believe, in the face of overwhelming, incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, that the election was “stolen.” And then, to attempt to so utterly corrupt our democracy as to demand that the vice president reverse an election’s outcome — execute a coup — by declaring Electoral College ballots invalid. (Thank goodness that Mike Pence and many other GOP officeholders around the country — under enormous pressure from the White House — acted responsibly and constitutionally, placing the nation’s interest before their party’s. Shame on those who did not. They don’t deserve to remain in office.)

All this was absolutely Orwellian. Trump might as well have told us that down is up and that we should look west to see the sun rise and east to see it set.** If he had actually strayed that far from reality, it’s hard to avoid imagining that many of his true believers would nonetheless have sought to justify and explain away such evidence-free claims.

Unthinkable No. 2: This past summer’s orgy of arson, destruction and violent assaults in cities across the country following the police killings of George Floyd and several other Black victims.

While the summer’s events were not as symbolically awful as Wednesday’s storming of the Capitol and Trump’s criminal exhortations to violence, they were surely more destructive of life, limb and property (e.g., the stores that provide a livelihood not just to their owners but also to thousands of employees and other innocent people).

As bad as this summer’s destruction was, so too was the reluctance of many state and local officials and police (e.g., Portland, Seattle) to use their legitimate authority to restore order and shut down the mayhem for the protection and welfare of their communities.

Comparisons and excuses: In the blink of an eye after the seizure of the Capitol by unhinged elements of the Trumpist Right, I began seeing online comparisons to this summer’s orgy of “mostly peaceful” unrest (as much of the media, turning a blind eye, labeled even protests with a large measure of mayhem). Most protests were not violent, of course. They were peaceful, earnest expressions of opposition to racism and its vile consequences. But those protests that did turn violent were there for all to see on, for example, Twitter. And much of that violence was perpetrated by unhinged elements of the Far Left. To be fair, however, it often also involved Far Right groups and individuals seeking to provoke, exacerbate and exploit mayhem.

But let’s get this straight. Violence by the Far Left — however ugly — does not justify or excuse violence by the Far Right. It’s one thing to call attention to both of these “unthinkable” assaults on what most of us hold dear — as I have just done, at the risk of a few friendships — and it’s quite another thing to use the opposing side’s transgressions as a fig leaf to obscure or divert attention from the sins of those on your side of the political/cultural divide.

The violence we have seen this past week and last summer, regardless of the banner under which it was perpetrated, was not merely illegal, immoral and unethical. It was heinous. Not simply because all such destruction is execrable in and of itself. It was doubly heinous because it is ripping apart the fabric of our republic, the democracy that affords us the freedoms and opportunities we all cherish.

With all due respect to the people and nations of Central America, the resort to violence is the start of a transformation into “the banana republic for which we’ll be ashamed to stand.” Putin, Xi, the Ayatollahs and lots of other enemies of what America represents are laughing at us.

Whose fault is that? Our own. Like misbehaving children, we’re bringing these consequences upon ourselves. And, as we all know, ignoring misbehavior, looking the other way, only encourages more and worse misbehavior.

Well, I’ve held up a mirror and displayed the disturbing picture of a situation that too many of us have created for all of us. The messy room in which we live, including our dirty laundry, is on display for the world — and ourselves — to see as never before. So what should we — the people of this country and the officeholders we elect — what should we do now?

There are no simple answers. But here are a few ideas we should seriously consider as steps on the road to recovering our civic health, whose serious decline is, I believe, the cause of so many of our troubles:

  • Wag more, bark less — clever bumper-sticker shorthand for “Stop yelling long enough to listen to the other guy.” We’ll all be surprised by what we might learn. Here’s an example from my own experience of the power of listening. Last June, not long after the horrifying murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, I wrote a serious blog post on racism. Before writing it, I had believed that while racism certainly remained alive in America, the civil rights revolution of the 1960s had all but broken its back, greatly reducing the number of racists and minimizing their impact on our society. Not to mention shaming them away from revealing their true colors. (And I continue to believe that we have made enormous strides as a result of the civil rights revolution, even though we still have much farther to go.) But while doing research for that blog post, I read some eye-opening accounts of how pervasively racism continues to affect America’s Black people. The most poignant of those accounts summed up the problem in a single sentence: … we live in a world where a white person can say of racism, “Where is it?” and a black person can say, “How can you not see?”
  • Improve the education we offer our children. It’s a safe bet that while most of those who resort to violence can state their grievances (as can their angry-but-not-violent allies), many fewer can enumerate the benefits of the democratic and free-market society they are hell-bent on exploding. If more of us were better informed, we’d be more likely to elect presidents and legislators who spend more energy on tackling our problems and less on posturing to angry constituents, hoping to be reelected.
    • Thomas Jefferson put it best (in a quote I seem to recall but haven’t managed to track down): An educated citizenry is critical to the success of democratic government. In other words, how can we possibly choose people who will govern well if we are ignorant of the issues and ripe for being misled by slogans? This, I believe, is the core assumption underlying Ben Franklin’s famous response to a question he’d been asked in 1787 as he emerged from the final session of the Convention that had written the U.S. Constitution — What kind of government will we have? His crisp answer: A republic, if you can keep it. Keeping our democracy in robust health demands a well-educated citizenry.
    • Nelson Mandela, the hero of South Africa’s struggle to end apartheid, accurately called education the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.
    • So, how poorly educated/informed are we, as a nation? A short Google search turned up these devastating findings, the tip of an iceberg:
    • From a National Geographic-Roper survey following Hurricane Katrina, a third of young Americans (ages 18-24) couldn’t find Louisiana on a U.S. map, and half couldn’t find the state of Mississippi. Nearly 30%  could not locate the Pacific Ocean on a world map. Finally, if told they could flee a natural disaster by heading northwest, one out of three respondents would have gone in some other direction.
    • A 2018 survey found that only about a third of Americans (36%) could pass the citizenship test for U.S. immigrants. Barely 19% of those under 45 were able to pass it.
    • The same survey indicated that fewer than one in four Americans knew why we fought the Revolutionary War … and that 60% didn’t know who our enemies were in World War II. (Do Germany and Japan ring a bell?)
    • In 2011, another citizenship test survey showed that 29% couldn’t name the vice president (it was Joe Biden); 73% couldn’t say why we fought the Cold War; 44% were unable to define the Bill of Rights; and 6% couldn’t manage to circle Independence Day on a calendar. (It might have helped if the holiday had been identified as July Fourth.)
    • Finally, in a September 2020 survey of 18-39 year olds, nearly two thirds (63%) didn’t know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and over one third (36%) thought it was “2 million or fewer.”
    • One of the benefits of a good education, especially in history, geography and literature, is that it tells young people where we — Americans and humanity as a whole — where we’ve come from and how we got here. If more of us had such a perspective I believe it would better inform the choices we make at the ballot box.
    • OK, so if it makes sense to strengthen our kids’ education, how do we do it in the face of entrenched bureaucracies, faculty senates jealous of their prerogatives, and a “professoriate” often more heavily committed to politically correct causes than to open-minded inquiry and the encouragement of critical thinking? I don’t have the answers to these problems and I’m hardly original in pointing them out, but somehow we’ve got to do what it takes if we don’t want to risk a future of being governed by fools and knaves we were too poorly educated to identify and laugh out of the public square.
  • Overhaul the primary system to strengthen centrist/moderate leadership of both major parties — the Elephants and the Donkeys — and weaken their more ideologically extreme wings. After the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, everyone wanted to clear the “smoke-filled rooms” where party bigwigs used to pick presidential nominees far from the public’s prying eyes. It seemed like a good idea. So a new system was born that gave greatest weight in the nomination process to primary elections or caucuses of the party faithful. We have since discovered that primary elections and caucuses generally attract lopsided participation by the most-committed, ideologically zealous voters. The result has been a too-frequent tendency to nominate candidates who are either far from the center of the broader spectrum of their party’s voters (most of whom don’t participate in primaries and caucuses) or are pushed into entanglement with the pet causes of their party’s farthest-from-the-center zealots. This is how centrist or moderate candidates in both parties have been “primaried” out of office. And it’s how far-from-the-center Republican primary voters in Colorado and Delaware managed to nominate QAnon crazies for Congress (thankfully, both were defeated in November). Bottom line: the current primary system has radicalized America’s politics and caused both major parties to stray ever-farther from their voters’ more moderate inclinations. This is not merely unhealthy. It’s a cancer in our politics.
  • If improving education and overhauling the primary system look difficult, here are three more suggestions that will prove even tougher:
    • Help people learn how to better distinguish fact from opinion and propaganda.
    • Restore objectivity to journalism. Reporters should not be cheerleaders, as so many of them have now become. Cable TV is not the only place where the news fails to be reported as objectively as it used to be. Most of our major newspapers and even such serious broadcasters as NPR often seem not to clearly distinguish between news and opinion. Part of the problem comes from editorial decisions about which stories to play up and which to ignore. The process of injecting opinion into news reporting has been gradual enough that a lot of thoughtful people — leaders in their communities — seem not to have noticed and spoken up.
    • Figure out how to free our universities from the ideologues. This will be a really tough nut to crack. But it’s unhealthy for our body politic when the faculties of virtually all major universities (especially in the liberal arts and social sciences) are overwhelmingly staffed with liberal Democrats — many of them unsympathetic to colleagues who don’t share a “woke” perspective. One result is that more conservatively inclined scholars fear to apply for an academic position lest they be denied tenure (or run off campus) by their more politically correct colleagues.
  • My final suggestion: Enforce the law. Throw the book at the miscreants, including the Miscreant-in-Chief. Delivering consequences will slow — and hopefully reverse — the tide of misbehavior.

The thoughts I’ve just listed are merely first steps on the road to recovery. Putting forward some (unoriginal) ideas is a far cry from transforming hope into reality. What’s needed is serious thought about how to make it happen. Smarter and better-placed people than me will have to shoulder the burden of doing this.

***

* While I have never bought the “Resistance” argument that Trump’s election in 2016 was illegitimate (he actually did win), I agree that his presidency (with some notable exceptions) has been a blight on our country. So, while I’ve never considered him illegitimate, I’ve known since I saw him in the Republican primary debates of 2016 that he was entirely unsuited for public office, and especially the presidency. That’s why I always call him “Trump” and never “President Trump.”

 ** In the society described in George Orwell’s 1984, people were taught to believe that “war is peace, freedom is slavery [and] ignorance is strength.”

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