Category Archives: Critical Thinking

Pertains to discerning authentic truth, bias, and achieving the civil discourse essential to democracy.

Beware The Ides of March

There is a Twitter protest (#idesofmarch, #idesoftrump) which suggests that angry citizens deluge the White House with postcards on March 15th.  Julius Caesar was assassinated on that day in 44BC as we remember from Shakespeare’s play in which a soothsayer warns the emperor, “Beware the ides of March.”

 

This is a really bad idea for several reasons. No good purpose would be served by such an action. We already know that the 45th president has a very thin skin, and would react badly with the attendant storm of press commentary.  He uses the drama of such moments to cover actions that he doesn’t want headlined, and the press obliges in the interest of keeping ratings and circulation up.   

 

The act itself is purely rage – an act of hate and cruelty toward someone who evidently can’t help himself and may be mentally ill. “Darkness can not drive out darkness, only light can,” as Martin Luther King famously said. We may be furious with 45’s actions and words, but we must respond with clarity and with words and deeds that promote resolution. Our outrage must be channeled to influence our government representatives positively. They are beginning to see that the game has changed, and that the Trumpists (19% of people eligible to vote) will not suffice to reelect them if the other 80% is mad as hell and organized.

 

President Trump prides himself on counter punching. His instinct, when attacked, is to attack back. I know of no instance where he has paused and looked inward when confronted. In fact he wants the world to see him that way. Much to the dismay of his would-be political handlers, he strikes out on twitter and in public discourse.

 

He does understand leverage and power.  The real leverage he respects is the 2018 election, and a congress that

Rep Contact Info
LWV page to find contact information for elected representatives.

balks because so many of their constituents oppose his policies.

Many of my friends are engaged in issue specific calls, visits, and letters to their elected representatives. This is how and where to strike back. Get the contact information for all of your elected representatives at this League of Women Voters site:

http://hq-salsa.wiredforchange.com/o/5950/getLocal.jsp

Check out the Indivisible Guide written by congressional staffers about how to influence your elected officials:

https://www.indivisibleguide.com

Sending nasty postcards to the White House will squander your time plus half a dollar’s worth of postage and postcard. Worse, in doing it we become that evil we hate. It is essentially a personal attack, a publicity stunt, … exactly the behavior we deplore in our 45th President.

The “Welfare” Mentality?

Some people see an injustice in our tax system because they see it as stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. They resent “Confiscatory” taxes — those they pay for the benefit of others that they don’t think they should be forced to subsidize.  They resent public spending on welfare of all kinds: unemployment benefits, public education, parks and recreation, … it’s a long list.

Libertarians are often the most outspoken critics. And the GOP, enabled by the Trump administration, is likely to savagely gut existing programs.  The American Dream is predicated on a healthy work ethic.  Hard work, thrift, and personal sacrifice in the early lean years are rewarded by abundance and leisure later on. Continue reading The “Welfare” Mentality?

The Power of Fear

Fear has been a major component in the 2016 political campaign and continues to be a tactic of the Trump team as they prepare for him to take office.  All of us need to understand how fear can cause us to make bad choices. But we also need to learn how to combat it. What follows is an excellent video that demonstrates how fear was used as a tactic in the campaign.  The remainder of this post is remarks about Fear and Faith shared by Marguerite Chandler, my spouse, at the Newtown Friends Meeting this morning. Continue reading The Power of Fear

We Still Don’t See It Coming!

Many of the pundits are saying, “nobody saw this coming.” They go on to describe the revolt of the less educated white working-class male, or some other demographic that has been marginalized by globalization, or income inequality.

There is no denying that they are at least partly right. But I know that I personally missed something that’s context for Trump’s win – it’s political gaming of the system that’s been a GOP strategy for decades and was happening big time in this election.

As I was puzzling out loud over the fact that Hillary won the popular vote, and Trump won the Electoral College.  Marguerite said, “It’s gerrymandering.” I scoffed at her interpretation. I think of gerrymandering as a way to guarantee seats in the House of Representatives by, in effect, picking your voters by demographic mapping.

How Gerrymandering Works
How Gerrymandering Works

However the reality is much subtler. Gerrymandering  helps a party that does not have a majority of voters support at the congressional level. The “red” minority (see chart) can get three of the five districts (60%) by clever carving. The “blue” majority can draw districts to give themselves all five (100%).

This simple example illustrates how the US political system can be modeled like any other complicated set of interdependent rules and variables. Consider that each state makes the rules about how it runs its elections. It is the governor and the legislature that also define political boundaries.  So if a political party can optimize boundaries to get the most seats in congress, it can lock in some districts without having majority of the votes. In addition, it can target the campaign money on districts where there is no such lock.

Another gambit is voter suppression. Voter ID rules, polling hours, polling locations, number of voting machines, early voting, absentee ballot rules — all the many aspects that are controlled at the state level can be played to the advantage of one party over another.

Those tactics will be reflected in not just the House of Representatives, but also the Electoral College.

The GOP figured out how to game the system long ago. The book “Rat F**ked” explains how it happened.  The title is a vulgar expression for political sabotage.

The process is ongoing. When the smart money in the GOP campaign pulled back from supporting Trump, it refocused on supporting GOP candidates for state legislatures and governorship. Already the GOP has a lock on the US House.  They are working on voter supression strategies to gain wider control.

If you believe in democracy you should be concerned.  But even if you are concerned you may not be able to change it.  It will take a super motivated electorate to reverse the many ways our political system is being corrupted.

The Citizens United decision is another element of the strategy.  Now that huge amounts of money can be targeted at particular state and even local races, it has become possible to hammer any candidate that opposes your interests.  The NRA is perhaps the least subtle. It wants politicians to think that taking a stand on gun regulation is just not worth it. But the tactic can work to defeat a popular candidate who opposes any moneyed interest.

Partisan news networks are another facet. Fox News learned how to game the system and President Elect Donald Trump became a master at playing the system to his advantage. Propaganda does not need to be grounded in truth to have devastating effect.

One of the tragedies of public education is the evident lack of discernment and critical thinking exercised by massive numbers of people. Another is the dumbfounding ignorance of basic civics – most people don’t know how our government works, don’t know who the current leadership is, and don’t understand their role as a citizen and voter.

When most of us are indifferent and ignorant to civic processes, the field is wide open to those who want to game the system at our expense.

God Bless Save America!

OUR “ELECTION” ESSAY

Dear friends,

Instead of our usual year-end letter, we’ve decided to speak from our hearts about the current election and what it means to us.

Jonesborough Courthouse
Jonesborough Courthouse

We’ve written this essay together—sharing our spiritual concerns  and our extensive analysis of the situation.  It’s divided into five sections:

  1. How did we get here?
  2. Personality vs. Character/Morality.
  3. Who benefits from our disconnection, confusion, and disillusionment?
  4. Values worth dying for?
  5. The concerns we have are not going away (no matter who wins).

We hope you’ll receive our letter in the spirit that we’ve written it—as an invitation to ongoing inquiry. Our country is at a crucial turning point.

How did we get here?

Many of us are distressed with the current state of American politics, the ugliness, the bitterness, the distrust of the media, the candidates, the Congress, each other.

League of Women Voters Yard Sign
League of Women Voters Yard Sign

When Richmond and I were young adults, we trusted our parents, our family doctor, our banker, our teachers, and our neighbors. We respected news people like Walter Cronkite or Bill Moyers and their investigative journalism.  We used to feel connected to our larger world.  But extreme mobility and digital media have broken down that sense of community and connectedness.  Now everything has become “entertainment:”  news, food, sports, gun violence.  We’re texting, Instagramming, Facebooking, Tweeting, running to keep up, grasping for diversions.  We’re accomplished but exhausted, successful but soul-weary.

Many Americans spend more time viewing and reading about sports events than they do about the workings of our government. Retired Supreme court Justice David Suter, in 2012, spoke about “Civic Ignorance” and how it puts democracy at risk. He expressed the fear that an autocratic leader could exploit discontent and seize power by promising to fix dysfunctional government.

Bit by bit, what used to give our lives meaning has been eroded.  Advertising tells us we’re not good enough.  Media shows us there are only winners and losers.  The implicit assumption is that power and force alone win the day.  Family dynamics in movies and on TV show competition, cynicism and sarcasm instead of loyalty, caring, hope and generosity of spirit.  The world as the media presents it often seems evil, untrustworthy, and downright scary.

In politics, widespread gerrymandering has resulted in extreme candidates who support partisan stagnation, and fail to perform basic functions like appointing judges, funding government operations, and working towards viable solutions to our state and national problems. Lobbyists are paid more than our legislators and their staff combined (and there are 23 lobbyists for every person in Congress). Elected officials spend more time raising campaign money than they do preparing bills or deliberating on legislation. Everyone, including our representatives,  is fed up.

Personality vs. Character

Two 2016 candidates used the discontent to challenge the political establishment.  Ordinarily such grassroots-driven change would be cause for celebration of the democratic process—but not so much this time.  One so-called  “populist” candidate has appealed to fear, bigotry, hate, and a false nationalism that has rallied many to him for what he’s not:not a politician”, “not politically correct”, “not elitist”, and “not a compromiser.”  Perhaps more hopefully, Bernie Sanders won major changes in the Democratic platform and pulled Hillary back to her Progressive roots.

Quakers have a saying, “Let your life speak.” None of us live up to our ideals all of the time, but it does matter that we learn from our mistakes. We’ve looked into the records of both candidates. Hillary Clinton is a career politician whose accomplishments and failures are very public, but she’s got a long record of service and caring for the poor and the middle class and the experience and temperament to lead and govern.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, has the appearance of success in business, but the more one learns about him, the less there is to like or respect.  He’s a savvy and skillful promoter of new enterprises. But 1/3 of his ventures have been outright failures.  Another 1/3 have been marginal at best, and 1/3 have “met expectations” according to the New York Times.  He’s presided over six bankruptcies that represent about $4.7 billion in losses to his investors and creditors. He openly brags that he personally made money as those companies failed. Just this month the Trump Taj Mahal closed.  Though Forbes Magazine estimates Trump’s current net worth at $3.7 billion, economist Robert Reich has calculated that the funds he received from his dad, if invested in an average performing portfolio, would now be worth $12 billion.  His career is also besmirched by his predatory practices with vendors and contractors.  Trump left a trail of unpaid bills and more than 3,500 litigations building his personal wealth. His crude remarks about women have dominated the headlines as we wrote this.  His public speeches and appearances have been so full of misinformation and outright lies that he has set records with fact-checking organizations.

Daily Newspaper Endorsements (Wikipedia)
Daily Newspaper Endorsements (Wikipedia) as of October 22, 2016

No major daily newspaper,  and only 3 of the more obscure ones, have endorsed him. USA Today, The Atlantic Magazine and eight others have savagely denounced him. Yet he remains the GOP candidate for President with polls showing that 43% of voters will vote for him.

To us, it’s more alarming that his followers don’t seem to care about Trump’s lack of merit or character. Many say they just want to elect him because “he will shake up” Washington. They quickly segue into a rant about Hillary as representing all that is corrupt and wrong with establishment politics.  But, if you “burn the house down” to dispatch the vermin, then what?

We note that the Trump campaign staff was recently restructured at the insistence of the Mercer family, one of Trump’s billionaire backers.  The short version of a longer story is that the Mercers want somebody in the White House who won’t mess with Wall Street and specifically who won’t impose a transaction tax to make flash trading unattractive.  Since the Citizens United decision, big money has been a problem, but the Koch brothers and the Mercers are now directing campaigns and the votes of successful candidates for narrow self-serving purposes.

Perception is a tricky matter.  What we “see” depends on what we’re looking for and where we stand.  When I’m fearful and exhausted, I see danger at every turn and deceit in every person.  When I’m feeling more bouyant, I see possibility, and other people represent hope and support.  We constantly decry negative campaigning, but it works because negativity and characterizations are so contagious.  A colleague says, “My boss is a jerk,” and it’s all too easy to agree without any facts.  We assume characterizations are based on evidence, but actually we make the characterization in anger, and then begin to collect evidence to support it.

Throughout Obama’s Presidency, some people’s perceptions were constantly jarred because they were not expecting to see a Black man accorded the perquisites of power.  (Consider how differently you and others you know might perceive a white Marine holding a rain umbrella for our Black president.) The Guardian, a conservative British magazine, not historically a Hillary fan—did an in-depth analysis of Clinton’s fundraising and policy positions and finally concluded that Clinton was “fundamentally honest and truthful.”  PolitiFact did an exhaustive analysis of Clinton and all the other candidates—and consistently found her to be “the most honest of this year’s presidential candidates,” yet according to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, she has received more negative media coverage than either Sanders or Trump.  Robin Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley observed that, “With Hillary everything she does is either different from what men do and it’s ‘wrong,’ or it’s the same things that men do and that’s ‘wrong,’ and that’s because the underlying thing about Clinton and her candidacy is it’s not normal.  ‘Normal’ is a male candidate, a male voice, a male tie.” (see an excellent article from Rolling Stone, Oct., 2016, “Hillary Vs. the Hate Machine” ) Is perception equivalent to reality?  Since Lee Atwater first said it, political strategists claim it is.

Who benefits from our disconnection, confusion and disillusionment?

Is there a global conspiracy that’s destroying our American way of life?  Are low-wage workers in developing countries stealing our jobs?  Are corporations only rapacious and exploitative? What happened to the social certainties in life, where men were men and women were women and they liked it that way … where people “knew their place” and were respectful?  Where are the “just wars” where the enemy is clear and the cause worth dying for?  Where are the alternatives where there’s clearly a right and a wrong choice?  When did we stop “loving our neighbors” and being “our brother’s keeper”?

Let’s explore the question of “who benefits?” If we’re a nation divided, seduced by drama and diversions, fear and uncertainty, how much more easily we fall into scapegoating others instead of seeing the huge injustices against all of us.  A university study representing the population of the USA as 100 people showed that, during the slow economic recovery 2009-2013, the one richest individual would have acquired $9.10 of every $10 generated, while the 99 of us got the remaining 90 cents!  Or looking from another perspective, real wages for the middle class have stalled since the mid-70’s, but during the same period, “wages for the top 1% have risen 165% and wages for the top 0.1% have risen 362%.” (Thomas Piketty quote)  In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “A house divided against itself will not stand.” When we’re divided as a nation, our allies despair and our enemies delight!

Values Worth Dying For?

Our soldiers are sworn to defend the flag-plateUS Constitution with their lives if necessary. It’s up to each of us to ensure that the values enshrined therein are honored so this nation merits the ultimate sacrifice.  There is far more to it than just wearing a flag pin.

Who, lately, can relax and enjoy day dreaming, playing, thinking, laughing, or just calling a friend spontaneously?  The news is full of corporate exploitation (the Epi-pen scandal and the Wells Fargo scam being the latest as we write this). With an eight figure annual compensation package, what could a CEO lack that would explain such greed? If I’m all alone with no sense of a community that cares about me, if my vote is meaningless and my voice isn’t heard, if one believes that there’s only winners and losers (me vs. you)  ̶  then working endlessly to get all I can and fighting to hold onto it makes perfect sense—especially when some are so obviously “gaming the system.”  From this perspective, civic duty, personal character, stewardship, and kindness seem like quaint, outdated sentiments.

How difficult it is to see clearly when we are constantly bombarded with distorted messages, with lies repeated over and over until they sound “normal” and “true,” with memes that are—well, mean!  The sophisticated systems for slicing and dicing us by our interests and preferences are legion:  what magazines we read, what pages we “click” through to on our computers, what products we buy, our income levels — all types of personal information is gathered.  Marketers have been parsing market segments for a long time. Now political campaigns have brought these techniques to a new high (or low) so that our perceptions can be cleverly manipulated.

The 20th Century is over, and we sense that the 21st Century is taking a new direction.  As teacher and futurist Joanna Macy has said for many years, “This is the time of the Great Turning [away from a consumption society towards an earth-preserving society].”

Cover of Funny Times
Cover of Funny Times

As activist and commentator Van Jones has observed, “We will either turn on each other or towards each other.”  The paths have been diverging for a long time and are now irreconcilable—and as poet Robert Frost declared, “And that [which path we choose] will make all the difference.”

 

Richmond recently observed, “Everyone is a minority.”  We’re easily confused and defeated when we’re isolated from each other, but evidence is now robust that when all members of a group participate in decisions, those decisions are stronger and more relevant to all our needs. Quakers have practiced consensus — finding the sense of the meeting — for centuries. The fact is we are interconnected, intimately bound to every other person in our humanity and our well being. (“All of us together are a genius,” Lynne Twist has famously said.)  How can we learn to listen for our commonality instead of our differences? As supporters for Clinton (or Bernie) or Trump, we all love this country, want a better future for our children, are frustrated with the deadlock in Congress, seek meaning in our work and our relationships.  We need each other’s wisdom and experience, but we must work together to benefit from it.

America is worth dying for when out leaders play to our highest aspirations and shared vision. It’s not worth it when our leaders play to greed and manipulate us with fear .

The issues that concern us are not going away

Cover of The Week
Cover of The Week

No matter who is elected President, the issues that divide us are not going away.  We urge you to prayerfully consider your vote, and then vote for something, not against something.  There are no “perfect candidates” (that’s an oxymoron like “perfect parents” or “perfect children”),  but the character of the person who’s at the top of the ticket does matter—as well as the character of candidates  all the way to the bottom of the ticket.

In the spirit of full disclosure, we have historically split our votes when choosing candidates, but this year we’re voting a straight Democratic ticket.  Why?  Because after careful analysis, the facts show that:

  • Over the past 64 years, when the Democratic party controlled the White House (from Eisenhower to Obama), every economic indicator was better—productivity, wages, the stock market, the pace of the unemployment rate’s decline, the rate of economic growth. (Source: Mark Watson and Alan Blinder, Princeton U. professors of economics)
  • Tax cuts and trickle-down economics haven’t worked despite 30 years of “testing”—ask the citizens of Kansas, whose Governor promised a “march to zero” taxes and huge economic growth with tax cuts and austerity —and instead delivered an economic catastrophe! When George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton raised taxes, we experienced a surge in economic growth.
  • Now, eight years later, it’s clear the “dreaded” and much maligned Economic Stimulus Package did avoid another Great Depression, created jobs, avoided a budget deficit that would have been twice what it currently is, and build hundreds of new bridges and hundreds of miles of re-paved highways—without spiking inflation or causing deflation (Source: those same Princeton U. economists, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, and Goldman Sachs, among others)
  • Those who work hardest to eliminate poverty are the poor people themselves. There are always those who exploit the system, but it appears that the significant “welfare Queens” are special interests who use “the commons” but don’t participate in what it takes to make the commons thrive for future generations.
  • Obamacare isn’t perfect and the Social Security “trust fund” is declining, but the answer isn’t scrapping these essential programs but working across-the-isle to address what doesn’t work based on evidence, not emotion.
Wedding Chapel Sign
Wedding Chapel Sign

Recently, in a Tennessee wedding caterer’s storefront chapel, we saw a sign that said, “As two families are becoming one, we ask that you choose a seat and not a side.”  This sounds like pretty good advice for this political season.  When the election is over, our democracy needs us all—our active engagement, our constructive criticisms, our vote, our voice, our willingness to stay at the table—and to make room at the table for those unlike ourselves.  Our greatness as a country is in our diversity.  Unless we’re full blooded indigenous people, we’re all descended from immigrants whose courage and vision got us here and whose creativity and tenacity allowed us to become successful here.

As we made phone calls and canvassed door-to-door, we were struck at the enthusiasm of the folks voting for Hillary and at the anger of those voting against Hillary or for Trump. None of us makes our best decisions in a mood of anger.  We strongly believe that our democracy will be safe with Hillary Clinton and at grave risk with Donald Trump.  This election is not about personality – it’s about the character of the candidates and the values they model. We pray, not for political victory, but for the highest good of all concerned.

As Quakers, we seek “that of God in every person.”  We invite you to join us in “minding the Light “ in ourselves and each other, so that we keep the flame of democracy burning brightly.  As one of the tellers at the National Storytelling Festival said last week, “Faith is light in your heart when all your eyes can see is darkness.”  Let’s keep faith with our democracy.  Our election process isn’t an athletic competition.  America is great. We remain the world’s best and strongest hope for a fair, just, inclusive, thriving future.

We’d love to hear your thoughts.  We also hope you’ll take our essay and discuss it with others—or take the bits that resonate with you and write to your friends.  Our democracy needs every voice—if we can learn to listen with mutual respect and open hearts.

Peace,

Marguerite and Richmond
October 24, 2016

“And the work of generosity shall be peace, and the effect of generosity will be quietness and security forever.” Isaiah 32:17

 

Storyteller and humorist Donald Davis' lawn sign in Jonesborough, TN.
Storyteller and humorist Donald Davis’ lawn sign in Jonesborough, TN. Photographed at The National Storytelling Festival, October 2016.

 

 

“They Don’t Care” – Terry Madonna, Pollster

For his followers Donald J. Trump is “a sharp stick in the eye” of the political establishment according to Franklin and Marshall Professor Terry Madonna, who has been studying political attitudes for more than two decades. When asked why mounting evidence of the GOP candidate’s mendacity doesn’t repel his followers, Madonna said, “They don’t care.”

It seems that all else about Trump is irrelevant to his followers because he is seen as the only candidate who is not part of a system that they quite literally hate, and want to destroy.  This burn-the-f**ker-down mentality is refractory to reason, facts, and all forms of persuasion. It’s anti-intellectual and fired by a seething rage at both blue and red establishment politics.

Recently historian Ken Burns broke with his long established practice of political neutrality to speak about the threat this represents to the American political system.

The ever perceptive Gary Trudeau expanded on one of Burn’s metaphors:

(Click to view web page)
(Click to view web page)

The Doonsbury strip likens the folly of electing DJT to the presidency to having DJT pilot a jet with no training or experience. It’s funny in a macabre way, but really folks can we let this happen?

What can we do if they just don’t care about the facts?

There is another dimension to this, it the disaffection of the rest of the voters with Hillary Clinton as the only viable alternative.  Whether or not you feel that it is justified, it is real. The consequence is apathy on the part of many who would otherwise rally to be sure DJT is not elected. Political professionals know that candidates must generate enthusiasm to motivate voters to get out and vote. So the fact that voters don’t like HRC works for DJT and he is exploiting and amplifying it.

The very most persuasive force in politics is personal relationships.  Our most cherished attitudes and beliefs derive largely form what we perceive to be congruent with our friendships.  Friends do, in fact, discuss politics and religion over dinner.  What you can do, if you want to influence the election is take a personal stand against what you see happening.

As for myself, I write posts like this one. I will also be writing my “Christmas Letter” in October this year, and it will express my deep concern for what I see as a threat to my children and grandchildren … what Ken Burns so passionately decried.