Wednesday, January 01, 2020

A Lack of Good-Faith Arguments has Impoverished Civic Discourse

A friend of mine told me that we should probably sneak anti-Trump arguments past Trump voters by not mentioning Trump if we want to make any headway with them and, sure enough, he was right because certain people—let's call them your Facebook friends—found it off-putting when I mentioned Trump in my Jojo Rabbit post. "Ohhh, so this is an anti-Trump movie. I'll pass." If I hadn't mentioned Trump in my post, these people would have been more likely to see the movie, which is what I wanted because it's a great movie that everyone should see.

So I wonder, should I compromise my transparency in order to be more persuasive to some people?

Some people are persuaded by conspiracy theories, ad hominem attacks, distracting insults, and appeals to their deep-seated racial grievance. Should I make "arguments" like that in order to convince them? If people are persuaded by stupid, untrue things, should I try to say stupid, untrue things that will persuade them?  Should I throw in some casual misogyny to be more palatable? Maybe this would be a winning strategy, but I think it does damage.

Avoiding good-faith discussions impoverishes civic life. We have to understand what people really mean so the issues at stake are clear. Then we can move forward toward consensus. We live in a pluralistic society and people disagree about essential values. But we can still try to make good decisions. For example, say I work with a couple of vegetarians. We need to decide where to go to lunch. I don't have to become a vegetarian or convince them to disavow vegetarianism in order to find a place to go to lunch. We can actually find a place to eat that works for everyone. It will be a compromise, but we can find a place. (It's Cubbys, by the way. Cubbys is the place where we can all eat.) However, you have no chance to compromise with someone you disagree with if they are being disingenuous.

Lindsey Graham was disingenuous when he said—on the same day the GOP voted against background checks, on the same day of another school shooting, and in the same sentence he offered condolences for that school shooting—that he's "dying to get some gun legislation passed but he can't because of the impeachment." It wasn't a real reason. Graham threw up a smokescreen as a distraction instead of giving us good reasons for what he's doing (or not doing) on gun legislation. It's bogus.

Another example of using a smoke screen instead of engaging in earnest discourse goes like this: You share a legitimate complaint about Trump. Then someone—let's call them your state representative—tells you about how much they hate divisiveness. They never speak to the issue and they can't defend Trump. But they've framed your legitimate complaint as "divisive" and the conversation is over. It's a smart tactic because it sets you back on your heels trying to prove you aren't divisive. And the indefensible behavior of Trump is never discussed in earnest. It's bogus.

I have made good faith arguments about why I think Donald Trump is terrible and should not be our president. People can agree or disagree (and they do). But not a single person has given me a counter argument for what's good about him and why he should be president. They make no attempt to support a claim that he should be president. Instead, I hear things like this: "Trump is the most energetic president ever."

Ok. How so? I agree that it does take energy to truss yourself into a sloppy suit and go red in the face against your own state department at a hate rally. That does take a lot of energy! Now we're getting somewhere. If that's not what you meant, you should explain. If you don't think he should be impeached, make a case for it. Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan haven't. If you want to re-elect Trump, make a case for it. "Hillary was a criminal" is not a compelling argument for re-electing Trump in 2020. Give me some good reasons. No one has—none of the speakers at his rallies, none of his hoes in Congress, and none your mom's neighbors on Facebook.

It's not surprising. Platforms such as Facebook weren't set up to handle political content. They were set up to sell us to advertisers so they aggregate like-minded people and amplify content rather than facilitate discourse. People have been exploited by Facebook's targeting capacity and now they think what they're seeing in their feed is "news." But it's not a true reflection of reality any more than an Instagram influencer's house tour is. *And I am actually relying on those algorithms to keep me and this post safe from anyone horrible who would be mean to me about it.

I know that being vocal about Trump is a turn off to some people and announcing it forfeits any chance I have at persuading them. But you have to ask yourself, do you participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?

Mitch McConnell has gone a long way participating in a politics of cynicism and, it has to be said, he has been very successful—if you define success as beating an opponent. That's how you win a fight. But you win an argument by persuading someone and achieving consensus. I don't want to be like Mitch McConnell. I hate Mitch McConnell. I hate his tactics and I hate his smug, boneless, NRA-check-cashing face. (I realize that wasn't a very reasonable claim with support about Mitch McConnell and was actually more of an unfair rant against him that didn't really seek common ground or consensus. I see why people do this. It feels great! And it's super easy.)

I've wondered what the right thing to do here is. Certainly I've wondered whether we should play as dirty as Mitch McConnell in order to win. But mother taught us, "When they go low, we go high."

I wish we lived in a country where Donald Trump had no chance at re-election in 2020, but here we are. These are the only ideas I can think of to beat him:

We need to vote.
We need to register people to vote.
We need to talk about issues and pick leaders who will fix problems.
We still need to make the argument against Trump in order to persuade a segment of voters who are becoming disillusioned by him.
We need to speak out against the things Trump does that are wrong, because many people haven't heard about all of it.
"Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or in a politics of hope? In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation; the belief in things not seen; the belief that there are better days ahead." Barack Obama

Monday, November 11, 2019

Werden Wir Helden

Jojo Rabbit is my favorite movie to come out in a long time. It's funny and poignant and comforting and inspiring.

Writer and director Tiaka Waititi has earned a lot of good will with the most awesome Thor: Ragnarok and the utterly charming Hunt for the Wilderpeople. He takes a big swing with Jojo Rabbit—a satire about a little aspiring Nazi whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler—and he pulls it off 100%.  Improbably, Waititi has made a laugh-out-loud movie about the dehumanization of Jewish people by Nazis. Not what you were expecting? There's more.

Because it's not a joke. It's serious. This movie shows us how despicable it is to mistreat people we think are different from us. The ridiculousness of imaginary Hitler and the Nazi propaganda is an argument against his worldview.

But it's also more than that. Jojo Rabbit provides a remedy for this harmful worldview. 10-year-old Jojo rejects the prejudices of the Nazi party after getting to know an actual Jewish person. Being with people and getting to know them is one way to get over preconceived notions we have about people we have classified as "other." It's a cure.

Even though this movie is hilarious and heartwarming, it's also violent and devastating. It doesn't subvert the atrocities of WWII in order to pull off the humor. It's tough to take at times, but it bucks us up by not pulling punches. It's not escapism. It paints a stark picture of fascist leadership and white nationalism. Sorry I always bring it up, but you can't watch this movie and not think about the upsurge in nationalist rhetoric and anti-immigration sentiment that has been ushered in with the election of Donald Trump. The parallels are gutting.

In the midst of the horror show that was Nazi Germany during WWII, Jojo Rabbit delivers a message: Endure.

When Jojo sees the bodies of dissidents hanging from scaffolding in town he asks his mother, "What did they do?"

"What they could," she replies.

The final scene ends with a quote excerpted from Rilke's "Go to the Limits of Your Longing" and it's like medicine for dealing with hard things:

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final. 

As you may know, I hate that people voted for Trump and I hate that leaders continue to enable him. Everything seems worse to me because the candidate who most overtly mistreats people different from him (women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ community, immigrants, non-white people) became our president. I'm different since the election. I'm sadder. I'm disappointed and I have lost some of my faith in people. I know this seems like hyperbole but it's how I feel. I vacillate between wanting to withdraw hopelessly and wanting to hang in there and try to make things better. Jojo Rabbit gets it and says, "Do what you can. Just keep going."

I don't know who needs to hear this but

It's me. I needed to hear this.

Jojo Rabbit ends with David Bowie's German version of Heroes, Helden, playing. David Bowie actually performed the German version at the Berlin Wall three years before it came down. I never knew about the German version until I was making a David Bowie playlist when he died in 2016. Helden is pretty arresting when you hear it. It's one of those songs I feel like I've always known so you immediately recognize it and know what's coming but then instead of "We could be heroes" you hear it in German and Germans are, you know, not the heroes but the villains of WWII.

But that's just one of those ill-conceived notions I have about a group of people who are different from me. America could do a lot worse than look to Germany for an example of moving forward after the atrocities of WWII. In fact, while working on the Lynching Memorial and Civil Rights Museum Bryan Stevenson was inspired by the way Germans have memorialized WWII. He says,
I went to Berlin. You can't really go 100 meters without seeing markers and stones that have been placed next to the homes of Jewish families that were abducted. Germans seemed to want you to go to the Holocaust Memorial. They were intent on changing the narrative. They didn't want to be thought of as Nazis and fascists forever. And I just don't think we've created cultural spaces in this country that motivate people to say "never again" to this history of enslavement and lynching and segregation. And the absence of that commitment I think has left us vulnerable. And not only do we not do that, we actually romanticize this era and we tell stories about how glorious and wonderful the architects and defenders of slavery are. 
The way Germans have memorialized WWII can teach us something about how to move forward—with humility and by being truthful about what happened.

I know that it's just a movie. When the president is a nightmare, when Congress won't listen, when your representatives in Washington don't actually represent you, when there's nothing you can do and everyone with any power seems ineffectual, what good is a movie? Alongside serious problems, arts and entertainment seem like luxuries—pretty low on the list. But it's not a luxury because luxuries are extra. When all is lost, art is the impetus for hope. It's a vital component of resistance. That's why they always start by burning books.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

The Perverse Pleasure of More than Small Talk

I watched Tolkien a few weeks ago. It's about J.R.R. Tolkien as a young man and his group of friends at Oxford. They are the most insufferable group of nerds you ever did meet. I liked it and I like how they bond over the things they read and all of their Middle-earth/highbrow passions. Tolkien went on to start another group of buds called the Inklings as a professor at Oxford that included C.S. Lewis. Their friendship was deep and productive and facilitated the writing of two of the most successful fantasy series of all time as well as Lewis's conversion to Christianity.

Tolkien's group of literary thinkers reminds me a little of the group of students I work with in my literacy labs at Project Read. They are the people I spend the most time with—three times a week—reading and talking about ideas. I feel close to them because we have good conversations whereas in most other situations all you get to do is make small talk with people.

I hate small talk. I find it boring and I'm not good at it. You just hardly ever get a chance to get past it. I think I've always been this way, but too many brief and sometimes counterfeit interactions on social media have left me starved for meaningful connections. I also read a book called Lost Connections which argues that everyone feels like this and that's why so many people are anxious and depressed.  So that might have been where I got this idea. At any rate, I'm super nosy. I want to know what you're thinking about every second of the day. Small talk doesn't do it for me. Small talk politely passes the time. I'd rather probe deeply. (Not everyone is game.)

Being a teacher lets me get into people's heads a little and I love it. For example, one of my most perverse pleasures as a college writing professor is responding to my students' rough drafts. I get to see their ideas at kind of a vulnerable stage before they're polished and I get to tell them what I think they should do to make it better. I love it when I write a comment to them—it's like a little note—that something is unclear and then in the next draft they clarify it and add more support and take my suggestions and make it better. It's like I prodded them inside their brain and changed their thinking. Oh, I dig it.

Teaching literacy labs to adult learners affords me some of the same perverse pleasure. Imagine teaching an adult to actually read words that they couldn't make sense of before. Imagine picking the subject matter that will be the only content a person consumes all week. Imagine that your definition of the word "scrawny" will be the only explanation of it that someone will ever be exposed to. Imagine someone asking you earnestly, "Are mermaids true?"

It's a treat. I signed up to help at Project Read late at night after the presidential election was called in 2016. The election results made it clear to me that the world was neither as literate nor as compassionate as I had once believed. Project Read seemed like just the ticket to be the change I wanted to see in the world. I didn't expect to have such meaningful interactions with my students.

They're my friends. They are nice to me and cheer me up. Once we were reading an article about dogs and I got tears in my eyes because my dog had just died after slowly deteriorating on a dog bed in my bedroom for a month. They noticed and asked and I told them and telling them made me feel better. They bring me bottles of diet soda and bags of 7-Eleven chips even though some of them live on a fixed income. 7-Eleven-branded chips are in their own class, did you know? You can get prime rib flavor and I am not kidding when I say that they have after notes of horseradish. We eat, read, and share ideas over bags of chips as if we were a gang of highfalutin Oxford boys.

We just read an adaptation of Washington Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Before that we read an adaptation of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer. Before that we read a biography of Hellen Keller. She had her unseeing eyeballs taken out and replaced with beautiful, blue glass ones. She was quite vain and wanted people with disabilities to look nice at all times. Guess who dubbed her incredible teacher, Annie Sullivan, "the miracle worker"? Mark Twain. They were friends. Like us.

By the way, Tom Sawyer holds up. I was worried about it because of the whole "Injun" Joe bit, but my students understood it and were into it. They took time from work, family, and whatever else they've got going on to sit there with me reading a crudely illustrated children's adaptation of a classic because they want to get better and in doing so have reaffirmed my faith in humanity, the arts, goodness, and trying to be a better person while other circumstances over the last four years have done their worst to invalidate everything I once believed to be true about the people around me.

The other day we were making words with Spill and Spell dice. One of my students beamed like he had just won the game. He had spelled a word: Kauy.

I think he thought the u was a c. I'm technically a literacy specialist and a big part of my job is correcting people when they spell, read, or pronounce things wrong. But I allowed it. I didn't think he even knew my name—let alone how to spell it. Frankly, most people are off by a lot more than one letter.

In fact, just a couple weeks ago at a ward party a person I've known for 12 years said to me, "Hi bishop's wife," because my husband is the bishop. I joked and replied with fake indignation, "I have a name, you know." He didn't know. He actually didn't know my name and had to ask what it was a few minutes later. It's fine and funny and I don't care and I don't know a lot of people's names in my ward so it's not a big deal to me at all. But ma boi at Project Read knows my name and he can almost spell it.

Another time we were studying poetry and I had everyone write name poems. We started with my name and they filled in my letters like this:

Key to heaven and learning
Almost falling from the sky
Clouds can't hide her
You know?

You don't need Tolkien's degree in philology to feel the vibe. 

During our poetry unit I tried to find poems for people to read in their native languages. This is how I discovered the Persian poet Rumi. If I'm being honest, I had seen Rumi quotes around (because he is highly quotable) but I confused him with Raffi. I could have gone my whole life thinking Rumi was Raffi if it weren't for a very dignified man who used to travel back and forth every few months from Iran to the United States to visit his children here in college and attend Project Read to improve his English—a man I have not seen since Trump's travel ban went into effect. We compared the original Rumi with an English translation. Eat your heart out J.R.R Tolkien. Yours is not the only insufferable nerd game in town.

Here are some of Rumi's thoughts on friends:

I love my friends
neither with my heart nor with my mind.

Just in case...
Heart might stop.
Mind can forget.
I love them with my soul.
Soul never stops or forgets.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

We Are Responsible for What We Find Persuasive

I keep writing on Trump because I care deeply about what is happening in our country and I am very worried about him being re-elected. A second term will send the message that we, as Americans, co-sign Trump's behavior. I don't.

We can blame Trump for taking advantage of low-info voters and using unethical means of persuasion (lies, for one, stoking racial grievance, for another), but he's not being that tricky. He doesn't use big words or talk about complicated things. It doesn't require sophistication to assess his presidency. You can fact check the president yourself.

We are responsible for the kinds of things we find persuasive. It's your choice to think an outrageous tweet is rad and decide to vote for Trump because you hate Hillary Clinton (reminding everyone, once again, that she is not a contender for 2020), but you're accountable for being persuaded by that. I, personally, think such a decision is an abdication of civic duty and I believe we know better and can do better.

I don't see a lot of good faith efforts to earnestly persuade me that Trump is our best choice for president in 2020. Here's one for why he's not.

Lies and "Fake News"

I'm alarmed by how much Trump lies. It has become a joke that he lies a lot and people don't take him seriously anymore. Haha. But a president needs to be able to say things that people believe and Donald Trump can't because he has told documentable lies almost every day of his presidency.

I believe there are demonstrably true things. Even though it is hard to cut through Trump's bluster and make sense of the 24-hour news cycle, we have to try. Yes, fake news is a thing—but it's not the only thing. You can discern between better and worse sources of information. People can learn to evaluate sources and puzzle out useful information.

Anyway, for all his talk about "fake news" Trump is not making the situation better. What is he doing to safeguard institutions of the free press? Nothing. In fact, he makes it worse by spreading disinformation himself and by irresponsibly promoting conspiracy theories. Trump constantly tries to discredit and undermine the free press, just as he constantly tries to discredit and undermine the Federal Reserve, the Justice Department, and the FBI—all at his disposal, by the way, to do research and provide credible information.

Trump repeats some common themes: "You can't know, no one tells the truth. Everyone lies. Nothing is true. It's all fake news," he says. This makes people want to tune out and dismiss everything because there is a lot of exaggeration and misinformation out there. To me this message is kind of nihilistic and depraved. I don't find it persuasive. Maybe because I've been taught the opposite my whole life:
We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If anything is virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.
As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I rarely find a candidate who matches my values exactly, but my beliefs provide the counterargument to the cynicism Trump and his supporters promote. He (they) would have you believe that everyone lies, that everyone cheats on their taxes, that everyone is 100% self-serving, that everyone would take and use opposition research from Russian, that everyone lusts after younger women. Well, I don't. And I am persistent in my hope that we can elect someone a lot closer to our ideals.

Ineffective Governing

People who voted for Trump say they thought he was a successful business owner and would bring that skill set to the White House. I get that inclination. But, as it turns out, he's little more than a con artist and he does not govern well. Furthermore, his personal failings, lack of experience, and inability to learn make us less productive and less safe as a nation:

He said he would do infrastructure. He hasn't.

He has no plan to address the rising violence of white nationalists.  Whether or not you agree that he is encouraging violence (I think he is), he's certainly not discouraging extremist groups.

He isn't doing anything to safeguard the 2020 election. There is no cyber security coordinator. Scarily, he can't accept that election meddling is a threat to our country and considers reports on election meddling personal insults and attacks on his legitimacy. This is one of many examples of how Trump is primarily concerned with himself at the expense of the country.

After meeting with NRA leader Wayne LaPierre, Trump flip flopped on background checks even though a majority of Americans support common sense gun laws. We didn't vote for LaPierre to represent us. Why do we have a president who kowtows to freaking Wayne LaPierre?

Trump's failing trade war with China is not helping the economy and he seems to have no plan if a recession hits.

Pulling out of international agreements, insulting allies, and a general disregard for process is an abdication of American leadership, not good governing.

In short, Trump has been an ineffective leader. He focuses on himself—not us.

White Nostalgia and Racial Grievance

With all of Trump's ineptitude, why doe he still have support? The only through-line I see is white nostalgia and racial grievance. There are no policies or infrastructure plans. As far as I can tell, the only compelling argument that Donald Trump has made for himself is based in racial resentment. It's the only thing he consistently talks about and delivers on. I don't want this to be true; I hope it's not, but what I'm gathering from polls and approval ratings (please, let them be inaccurate) is that most of his supporters don't mind when he says and does racist things. The cost of indulging in bigotry has been zero for this person and for the crowds who shout at his rallies. It's revolting.

His approval rating is still hovering at 40%. It's dropping, but even at 40% I'm shocked. Being distrustful and unwelcoming towards other races seems to be the defining ideology of Trump. That's the common ground his supporters seem to share. (This may also be why his message resonates so strongly with some boomers—he reminds them, affectionately, of Archie Bunker.) It's not a trick. He's not hiding it. And this is the defining ideology you're voting for if you vote for Trump. If chants of "send her back" persuade you to vote for this person it's certainly your prerogative, but to me it's shameful.

Is this your defining ideology? Are you a one-issue voter and is that issue white nationalism? If not, we need to fight against this. We are responsible for what we value, for what we are persuaded by, for what we give our attention to, and for the kinds of arguments we buy into.

Moving forward I hope we can be clear about the kind of person we want for president and how we want to be governed.  It shouldn't be Donald Trump. He doesn't deserve it; he's not doing a good job, and the one thing he's delivering on is basically abominable.

If you've read this far, thank you. I know it's a really long post but tweets and captions aren't cutting it.  I'm sad about the divisiveness I've seen lately and the last thing I want to do is add to it.  I just know that we have more in common than the policy details we might disagree on.

Something Boyd K. Packer (RIP) said and President Nelson quoted encourages me to try to make this case for electing a better president. I hope it helps you feel brave about speaking up and figuring things out for the upcoming election:
We need women who are organized and women who can organize. We need women with executive ability who can plan and direct and administer; women who can teach, women who speak out. . . . We need women with the gift of discernment who can view the trends in the world and detect those that, however popular, are shallow and dangerous.
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