Feeding the Outrage Machine

Outrage can be an addictive drug. It seems to inflict people of all political persuasions. Social media seems to have brought this on, but it started before that. CNN was the first to use 24 hour news. Then came Fox and MSNBC. There are countless others now that we have stream our entertainment and news. All of these things put together have created a monster.

The root question usually starts off with “how can you possible support _____ when _____” It’s like political/social/religious Mad Libs. Of course, I’m dating myself with that reference. Those of us of a certain age remember coming up with random nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs to create a hilarious story. In this case we can usually insert political party A into the first blank with whatever outrageous thing we want to throw into the second blank.

So, before we move on let’s ask ourselves some important questions. What purpose is the outrage serving? Who is it serving? Does it help get us anywhere we actually want to go? Usually, this is when someone correctly points out that we should follow the money. Who is profiting from the outrage? It certainly isn’t you or me.

There are 350 million Americans. So, if you write a book that one percent get excited about, you just sold 3.5 million copies. I haven’t sold one percent of that total with a combined five books. Why? Is it because I’m a horrible writer. Perhaps that’s true, but I tend to believe it’s because I’ve never said anything outrageous. Just looking behind the scenes at my statistics for this blog is very revealing. The most popular articles seem to be the most controversial. The most popular one is the one that included the most personal information in it. I’m not the final arbiter on what my best work is. You put stuff out on the public sphere so the public gets to decide what’s good and what’s crap. That’s the way the world works.

So, if i say something outrageous, I actually get rewarded. It doesn’t matter if 99 percent of the world thinks it’s crazy, stupid, or inane. If the one percent is excited enough then you become a millionaire. So, it isn’t hard to see why people throw bombs from their extreme perch on the left or right. Extremism sells.

The social media and internet revolution have given rise to the troll. The troll is the guy (usually guys but girls can be trolls too) that doesn’t contribute anything constructive to the conversation. They just say something outlandish and take a step back. If they are really successful then they cause a fight between two groups of people that were originally all united behind how stupid the troll is. The cardinals rule of trolls is to not feed the troll. Outrage only makes them stronger.

In that vain, the president might be the most successful troll in history. People have their reasons for supporting him. We’ve talked about it before. This isn’t about that. This is about what he gains when we feed the outrage machine. Numerous pundits have noted that the national numbers really haven’t changed all that much since June. Sure, there were a few points up and few points down after each convention. The net result is zero.

What does this mean? It’s pretty simple. Making this race about him really doesn’t move the needle. A large part of him probably enjoys the negative attention. He called veterans suckers and losers. People were outraged. He lied about COVID. People were outraged. Yet, it’s the same thing every time. It’s the same people every time.

They then flip the script. They get their own folks to be outraged about something. So, everyone becomes more and more outraged. No one really changes their mind and we never end up discussing stuff that actually matters. We revert back to the “I don’t understand how you can support _____ when _____.” The end result is that we politicize everything.

On a day to day basis, government isn’t about the big stuff. It’s about the small stuff. It;s about the stuff we’ve either never heard of or really don’t have any disagreements about. The small stuff ends up becoming big stuff to those impacted. It is about helping clean up and rebuild following a major storm. It’s about putting out a fire before it damages more homes and lives. It’s about sniffing out a terrorist plot before it happens. It’s about building safe roads, teaching our children, delivering the mail, and providing dozens of other everyday services every day. Who are the people that will do those jobs best? Those are the questions we usually ask ourselves every other November. It’s time to ask them again.

The Three Stages of Crisis

Psychologists have spoken at length about the stages of grief. There are numerous books written about the stages themselves, how to navigate through the stages, and how to identify where your friend or loved one might be on the grief journey. We don’t talk as much about the stages of crisis. As you might expect, the internet is full of observations on the 19th anniversary of 9/11. It would seem like there is not much to add, but I’m going to try to tell my own story and tie it into current events if I can.

I was doing the same thing in 2001 that I’m doing today. Well, that’s not literally true. Today, I’m home from work for reasons I will elaborate on later. Then, I was teaching and coaching volleyball at Pasadena High School. The planes hit the towers during our athletic period, so I did not see either event live. We had televisions in all of our classrooms, so we watched as much coverage as we could. Needless to say, no one was getting any work done that day.

Throughout the day, parents were coming to the school to pick up their child. The school is located across the freeway from a series of refineries and plants. Some of you may recall the numerous rumors of where planes were targeting. One rumor was that a school in Los Angeles was targeted. It didn’t take much to imagine a plane crashing into a plant and causing all kinds of damage.

The aftermath at the school bordered between scary and hilarity. Many demanded we develop an evacuation plan. What ended up transpiring is that we allowed students to carry cellphones for the first time. I’ll bet many of you thought we could blame school shootings for that. Interestingly enough, the rapid fire descriptions above actually depict much of the three stages of crisis.

The first stage of crisis is the pre-stage. As I said in a previous piece, presidents deal with crises all the time. We don’t hear about most of them because they get advanced information that they are coming and we’ve dealt with them before so we have an idea of what to do. 9/11 and the pandemic are really no different. George. W. Bush got numerous warnings that Osama Bin Laden was going to try an attack. The fact that 9/11 occurred represents some level of failure.

Of course, no one will ever be certain where that failure lies. Maybe the intelligence community couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was going to happen. Maybe Bush didn’t take the warnings seriously enough. Maybe the terrorists were just too clever. You could certainly go in any number or directions here.

The point is not to re-litigate 9/11, but to show the parallels between 9/11 and the current pandemic. Whatever the case, there was a breakdown in both situations. We could spend hours and even days arguing back and forth about exactly who is at fault. Sometimes you can do everything humanly possible and disaster still hits. This brings us to the second stage.

Stage two is where we see a sharp separation between Bush and Trump. The second stage is how we deal with tragedy in the immediate aftermath. This is arguably where Bush was at his best throughout his entire presidency. No one worries about blame in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. Those that do are usually shunned by people on both sides of the political spectrum.

The two main considerations of the second stage is to immediately limit the damage and to begin the healing process. We see this following natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, and earthquakes. We see this following economic strife like recessions, depressions, and stock market crashes. We see this after human tragedy like assassinations, mass killing events, and high profile tragedies like the space shuttle disasters.

We want to see two things from our leaders in these moments. We want to see an acknowledgment of the pain people are feeling. We want to know that our leaders at least understand that some of us are in immense pain even if they themselves are not. The second thing we want is an assurance that they will do everything in their power to stop the pain. Admittedly, this is often an empty gesture depending on the situation. Sometimes there is little a president, senator, or governor can do to immediately stop whatever is happening. The fact that they are trying their best is enough.

Bush passed this test with flying colors. Trump has failed miserably. I could speculate as to why in both situations, but that would be rehashing some old arguments. It would be hard to argue with that statement. Some would argue that it isn’t important for a president to fulfill the role of consoler in chief. They are free to make that argument. I think most people on a human level would agree that it helps to have a leader understand the pain that his or her people are going through.

The third and final stage of crisis is the aftermath. How does tragedy or crisis define us? How does it change us? What exactly do we learn from it? Does it make us grow as people or do we somehow become a lesser person after going through it? This is where I fear that 9/11 and the pandemic will have the most in common. Many will argue that Katrina was Bush’s worst hour. That’s hard to argue with. It is also difficult to argue with the fact that the War on Terror and the Patriot Act might be the worst of his lasting legacy.

The tragedy of the aftermath of 9/11 is that he did the hard work of uniting the American people in the immediate aftermath. He squandered that unity. It would be impossible to fully define the aftermath of the pandemic because we are still in it. Yet, the fact that the administration seems to be so desperate to put it behind us is probably telling.

The fact that Trump has worked so hard to downplay it throughout the past six or seven months is probably telling. It demonstrates what’s really important. He chose to prioritize the economy over human lives. He continues to prioritize the economy in real time. It was really important that businesses reopen and schools reopen.

My district sent me home yesterday. I self-reported a sore throat and cold symptoms. These are the same cold symptoms I get every year in August and September when school starts. This time, they want to be safe. Thankfully, they are taking that step. Yet, you can’t help but notice breakouts throughout the country at schools. Heck, they even asked me if I had volunteered at another school in our district. I can only assume why.

In the backdrop is a cold, hard reality that is difficult to bear. I’m just a number. My immediate supervisor, building leader, and coworkers have all reached out and asked if I am okay. I’m not a number to them. That’s more comforting than you can know. However, it is hard to not look at what is going on and realize that on some level, someone has agreed on a number of people they deem to be acceptable losses. I’m just a number. Students are just a number.

In the book/movie “Fight Club”, the main character works for a major car manufacturer where he determines whether the cost of a recall will exceed the cost of lawsuits due to wrongful death or injury. There is an entire equation apparently. One can’t help but believe there is an equation somewhere in Washington. If COVID deaths stay below a certain level, it is okay as long as the stock market reaches a certain level, unemployment reaches a certain level, and the GDP reaches a certain level.

I suppose if there is an aftermath, it is that more of us learned exactly what our lives our worth. They are worth a lot to those we love and those we work with. They are worth little to the people making big decisions. Maybe your death or my death might be worth the unemployment rate dropping .1 percentage point. Maybe 100 deaths are worth .3 percentage points. How much are200,000 deaths worth?

Striking a balance

I came to grips with an important fact years ago. I write for me. There are a few people that read my writings on baseball and a few that read my posts on politics and social issues. Some have reached out and commented one way or another, but the whole concept of a blog got started as a way for people to write a diary in digital format.

America is morphing into a battleground politically, socially, and religiously. It gets really bad when we morph two of those together. For instance, I hear people say that you can’t be a good Catholic or a good Christian if you vote for Joe Biden. I hear others say that you are a racist if you support Donald Trump. I hear lots of things and have said lots of things. Some of them I might even believe partially, but now is not a time where I want to re-litigate any of those statements.

Of course, no sadder thing can happen then when politics, religion, or social issues divide and conquer families. This is as personal a reflection as it is an observation in general. We each play a role when we have family squabbles. As I am fond of telling my students, you always have a choice whether to escalate a situation or deescalate a situation. I’ve been on both ends of that.

This hit home during two different conversations this week. I won’t reveal the details of the conversations for the few that are reading this, but it became clear that politics and stupid conspiracy theories were threatening to destroy relationships. One surrounded what I can only assume stemmed from the QAnon conspiracy run amok. I’ve talked about it before. The other involved just a regret about fighting in public. I can’t be certain, but I think one of my posts was involved.

The QAnon conspiracy is a great example of cult-like behavior. One of the ways that cults begin to take over your life is that they convince you that everyone that believes a certain way is evil. Then even people that you know and love become evil. At that point, they can separate you from your family and bring you into the collective whatever. It’s at this point where you have to make a critical choice. Is the person who I’ve known and loved for years suddenly my enemy? Perhaps the person telling me that is really my enemy.

I called this striking a balance because there are times when we need to confront family and friends. The psychology world calls this an intervention. Maybe they have toxic beliefs or are participating in toxic behaviors. This is why it can be so hard to let go of that political debate or that debate over religion. We feel like we are right and we want to help our family member or friend from going down the wrong path.

This is when we have to ask ourselves whether they have changed the essence of who they really are. Would supporting them and loving them change the essence of who we really are? I’ve had to end toxic friendships before. It’s a difficult decision and there often is second guessing involved. Can we accept them for who they are? Can we maintain a relationship with them and still maintain the best parts of ourselves?

Pundits will tell us this is the most important election of our lifetimes. They will tell us that in 2024 and 2028 as well. Elections will come and go, but relationships with family and close friends hopefully won’t. They hopefully will stay with us. November will be here before you know it. For most of us, it can’t get here soon enough.

Piling on the dirt

Author’s Note: I’d like to thank all of my visitors. If you like what you see, you can go directly to the website and click on the follow button. It costs absolutely nothing and you can get every new post sent directly to your email. Of course, if you don’t enjoy it, I am open to your comments as well.

There seems to be a new scandal every few days. I certainly understand the frustration of conservatives on social media. Many are asking why it seems that Joe Biden never gets asked a tough question. Sure, I get that. It’s hard to deny the truth of this question. Of course, the answer might not be as convenient. It isn’s as simple as saying “Fake news” or simply writing off the mainstream media as liberal shills.

There’s really a simple explanation for it. Donald Trump is the incumbent. As the incumbent, a majority of the questions are going to be about his record. They are going to be about his administration. That’s what made life rough for Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, John Kerry, and Mitt Romney to a lesser extent. It made life rough for George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. When things are going well you’re the focal point. When things aren’t going well you’re the focal point. It’s the double edged sword of being the guy in the oval office.

So, the latest scandal is that Trump did an audio interview for Bob Woodward’s new book. In other words, it’s on tape. Trump is heard in early February acknowledging how dangerous the virus is. He acknowledged it was deadlier than the flu and he acknowledged downplaying the dangers on purpose. He said that he didn’t want to cause a panic. He even acknowledged that he would likely continue to downplay it. Of course, he obviously has continued to do that.

So, obviously the outrage machine is running in full gear. It will run for another 48 to 72 hours. Some have called for him to be impeached again and others have even talked about charging him with murder. Normally, I’m fully on board with the outrage machine, but this time around I’m going to allow the train to leave the station without getting on.

How likely was it that no one briefed the president before February and told him how dangerous the virus was? How likely was it that he didn’t grasp the obvious? From there, it’s all about calculation. We see the same thing happen down here with hurricanes. If Galveston and Houston called for a mandatory evacuation every time a hurricane was in the Gulf of Mexico we would spend half our summers evacuating.

Presidents, governors, and mayors get briefed daily on dangerous situations. They rarely tell us about them. If presidents told us every time they were briefed on a dangerous situation we wouldn’t be able to function. We would live in constant fear of foreign attacks, terroristic plots, and health crises. If we weren’t paranoid before, we sure would be then.

So, did the president lie to the American people? Did he know in February that hundreds of thousands of people would die? I seriously doubt it. I’m sure he thought it would go away when the weather got warmer. We have to remember that when the statements were made, it was early February. We have to consider what he knew at the time. It is easy to take these particular facts and attach them to what we know now. That paints a very dark picture, but it is not the picture he was looking at in February.

This isn’t about criminality. It isn’t about scandal necessarily. It’s about incompetence. Local, state, and national executives have to take a warning about various crises and decide which ones need immediately attention. He made a huge miscalculation. He hoped not sounding the alarms would keep Americans working and the economy humming. He was wrong.

What is probably worse is the fact that his strategy never changed. When a coach continues to run the ball when he’s gaining zero yards you don’t throw him in jail. You fire him. When a president continues to downplay a virus after it is clear it is much worse you fire him. When he still doesn’t ramp up federal support for testing (even decreasing support) you fire him. So, his subsequent decisions are all examples of incompetence. You could call them gross incompetence. You really shouldn’t call them criminal.

Of course, this doesn’t exonerate Trump of any of the other crimes he may have committed. It’s okay to get angry at this new revelation. It’s certainly okay to include this in the list of reasons why you might vote for Joe Biden. Calling for his impeachment is all well and good, but it shouldn’t be for this. This is something all presidents have done on a nearly daily basis. You just don’t hear about it because the crisis never materializes into something that impacts our daily lives. This one did. Is that his fault? Maybe. Was it criminal? No.

On Statues and History

The makers of South Park actually do satire well. They touched on this years ago in an episode where Chef was protesting the South Park flag. It depicted a black man (more a stick figure) being hung with a half dozen or so white guys (also stick figures) cheering. It was over the top and crass, but most good satire is. During the course of the episode, people in town kept commenting that they understood that it was racist, but they also agreed that it was history. Thus, nothing changed…until the end of the episode.

Absurdity often helps reveal things that we don’t see in everyday life. One of the general complaints this summer during the protests was the continued sight of Civil War monuments and statues throughout the country. This isn’t a new complaint. We remember Charlottesville well if not for the statue debate itself, but the aftermath and the president’s comments. However, the statue debate is a good one to revisit.

The general consensus from those that defend the statues is that if you tear down a statue you are erasing history. The notion is so patently absurd that it doesn’t deserve much debate. I’ve taught history off an on for over a decade. I never took students to a statue. Never. History teachers aren’t panicking during the pandemic. They’ve restricted field trips. Oh no, how will our students learn about the leaders of the past if we can’t take them to statues?

This isn’t to completely pooh pooh the idea that monuments and statues can have an educational purpose. The family went to Washington D.C. a few summers ago and we were able to take our daughter to the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Vietnam Wall, and World War II Memorial. I’m certain she learned a few things from the experience.

However, I’ve been to Washington several times. This past time was the first time the World War II Memorial was open for viewing. It’s not like World War II didn’t exist before that memorial. It’s not like World War I doesn’t exist because of the absence of a memorial. So, a statue or memorial is history in the sense that it was erected in the past. Otherwise, that’s not why we do it.

Statues and memorials are erected to honor those who are depicted in the memorial. It seems like a fairly simple concept. Yet, so many people get offended when you question whether a civil war officer should be memorialized. For heaven’s sake, we’ve named military bases after them. We’ve named schools after them. If you want to debate history you need consider why we are honoring such men.

This is usually when the slippery slope argument gets introduced. If you tear down a statue of Stonewall Jackson then why not Thomas Jefferson? Why not George Washington? Excellent questions. The answer is pretty simple. They didn’t wage war against the United States. All of those statues certainly have racist undertones attached to them. Part of that is that the Civil War was fought over slavery. Part of that stems from the time period and motives for erecting them. However, let’s leave that aside. The reasons for waging war against the U.S. is not important. Funny though, we don’t see statues of Benedict Arnold anywhere.

Washington and Jefferson were flawed men. We are all flawed men and women. Yet, they are known for helping build the country. Their indiscretions were relatively private. It is similar to the statue of Sam Houston near Huntsville. Houston was a raging alcoholic that had considerable personal problems. He also resigned rather than sign off on joining the Confederacy. Given the time period, that was a tremendous act of courage.

Statues and memorials have historical contexts just like the people they depict. The reasons behind erecting them are just as important as their mere presence. Having a founding father honored makes perfect sense even if we learn damaging personal information years after the fact. Erecting a statue of a traitor makes no sense at any point. Every person that has existed has had positive qualities. No one is 100 percent evil 100 percent of the time. So, to say that a Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson had good qualities is just an excuse. Of course they did. Ted Bundy had good qualities too and did some good things at some point. He also killed a bunch of people.. The question is what we remember most.

We don’t honor traitors. It’s fair to talk about all of the sides of a person for the purpose of understanding history. We don’t want to paint anyone as purely evil or purely good because that ignores the very reason why we learn history in the first place. Sometimes some very good people can do some very awful things. Sometimes it’s the reverse. If you find yourself standing up for a statue then you have to ask yourself why. Why do we want to continue to honor this man? It’s not about history. It’s about something else.

Smoke on the water…

“Smoke on the Water” was a 1970s hit song from the band Deep Purple. According to tale, they were just minding their own business (a personal favorite phrase of mine) when they saw a warehouse catch on fire and the lake nearby also appeared to be on fire. Often the most iconic hits come from everyday observations.

Some of you may have caught the news over the weekend that a Trump boat rally on Lake Travis (near Austin, Tx) went horribly awry. Several boats capsized and a few people wound up in the hospital. One is still there with a broken back. Fortunately, no one perished, but a whole lot of people came out a little worse for wear.

The initial reaction for most of us was to snicker. This is the schaudenfreude I mentioned in an earlier post. For those unfamiliar, schaudenfreude is a German word without a literal English translation. The closest anyone has ever come is “shameful joy.” Leave it to the Germans to develop an entire intricately designed glossary of terms for pain.

However, the reports from residents there is chilling to say the least. According to one resident, the wind before that day had not exceeded ten MPH (or knots). So, there were no considerable waves on the water as some naturally assumed when hearing the news. So, you might ask what caused all of the damage. That’s a fair question.

According to the resident, owners of the boats were driving them too fast and too close to other vessels. This caused the higher waves and caused some of the smaller vessels to capsize. Apparently, even when first responders were out on the water attempting to rescue victims in the water, some vessels continued to speed past them quickly. Obviously, this caused the situation to get worse.

I can think of nothing more fitting to describe a group of people than this whole situation. It encapsulates everything that is wrong with our society. No, this is not an indictment of all Trump voters. I know plenty of good people that are Trump voters. However, the entire movement is starting to have a cultish feel to it. The end result is almost a toxic individualism. This isn’t a phrase I’ve seen before, but it’s definitely a thing.

So, what is toxic individualism? In short, it is when the balance between the individual and the collective swings way too far in the way of the individual. This will always be a battle in American culture. Other cultures have more of a collective mindset. What is good for the majority is good for me. If a program or action will help the majority then my life will be better even if I don’t directly benefit.

The American mindset is almost exactly the opposite. What’s in it for me? If I don’t get something out of it then I don’t want anyone else to have it. Share it fairly, but don’t take a slice of my pie. I got mine. Go get yours. A certain amount of individualism is a good thing. Capitalism certainly has it’s good points. It rewards drive. It rewards innovation. It rewards a certain amount of greed. So, a balance is certainly welcome. However, toxic levels threaten to rip society apart at the seams.

In the backdrop of all of this is the use of “socialism” as a cudgel against any systemic change in society. We can’t have universal health care. That’s socialized medicine. We can’t have free tuition. That’s socialism. We can’t have a universal basic income. That’s socialism. I’m not saying I want any of these ideas necessarily. Yet, I want to evaluate them on their own merits and not push them away because they sound socialistic.

Much of western Europe is socialistic. They seem to be doing fine. In some areas like education, health, and levels of poverty they are doing better than fine. They also seem to be doing much better in crime rates. Sure, much of that can be attributed to gun culture, but a lot of it is just a different mindset. We want what’s ours whether anyone else gets hurt or not. I fully admit that I act in selfish ways every now and then. I think all of us do.

Those folks on Lake Travis just happened to provide a perfect illustration for what happens when we do what we want to do and disregard the rest. Certainly, we can avoid labels as much as possible. I certainly paint Trump supporters with a broader brush than I probably should. Maybe that’s my failing. Yet, it was difficult not to snicker. The English teacher in me was flooded with imagery, irony, and satire all at the same time. Laughing is okay once we determine everyone is actually okay, but here’s hoping that those involved actually learn something from this.

Taking a step back

I seem to have a streak going of looking at buzzwords and catchphrases, so I might as well keep the streak going. I ran headlong into a discussion on Twitter and came out of it a little worse for wear. Social media debates are often won and lost that way because one side ends up tag teaming the other side. In this case I was in the minority.

The debate was over Kyle Rittenhouse and whether he acted in self-defense. The notion at first blush seemed ludicrous. They made their points and based on nothing but their points it seemed like a logical argument. The fact that I pushed back seemed illogical to them. I was the worst guy they had ever met on Twitter. Hyperbole aside, it took me awhile to finally discover where the breakdown in logic came.

The buzzword for today is “toxic masculinity.” This term is a bit ironic considering it was Rittenhouses’s own mother thet drove him there. She was also photographed carrying a big gun on the scene as well. So, maybe masculinity is not the term we are looking for. However, we are clearly looking for something toxic.

Toxic masculinity is defined as “traditional cultural masculine norms that can be harmful to men, women, and society overall; this concept of toxic masculinity is not intended to demonize men or male attributes, but rather to emphasize the harmful effects of conformity to certain traditional stereotypes.

It’s difficult to put my finger on what I’m trying to describe. However, I felt it very acutely during that discussion. I was less than a man. I have to admit that I don’t fit the traditional male stereotypes. Sure, I’m married and have a child. Sure, I like sports and sometimes watch the occasional action movie. Yet, I don’t fit other stereotypes. I don’t work on things around the house. My hobby is writing. I also don’t own a gun and will never allow one in my house.

It’s that last one that created a divide between me and those guys I was debating with. On the one hand, I was less than a man because I’ve never fired a gun. On the other hand, they couldn’t possibly understand what it must be like for a crowd to witness people openly carry guns into a potentially dangerous situation. They couldn’t possibly fathom what was going through their heads. People that openly carry probably don’t bother to think about such things.

They don’t understand that this is literally the only issue I have ever been militant about in my relationship with my wife. They don’t understand why. They probably think it’s because I’m scared of guns. They would partially be right. It’s really about all of the bad things that can happen with a gun in comparison with the few things that can go right.

I debated using the term “gun culture” to describe this phenomenon. However, that doesn’t fully encapsulate it either. I know plenty of people that own guns. Some of them hunt. Some of them target shoot. Some of them want them for protecting their home and family. I respect all of these reasons and before anyone runs off half cocked, you should remember this statement.

However, this scene wasn’t just about owning a gun. It wasn’t about going hunting for the weekend or practicing at the range. It was about a lot more than that. It was about private citizens taking it upon themselves to “defend” something they had no business defending. It wasn’t their job. It’s not their job.

This is usually when one of them would pipe up and ask whether the rioters have any responsibility here whatsoever. Of course they do. However, most of these situations were under control prior to the militia groups getting involved. Still, this is a lot more simple than that. Openly carrying a gun is not a neutral act. It is a provacative act. The bigger the gun the bigger the provocation. It is designed to make me feel afraid and it is designed to make the carrier feel powerful.

So, to say Rittenhouse didn’t do anything to provoke the crowd is ludicrous on its face. Of course he provoked the crowd. The very fact that he was there with a big gun provoked the crowd. Now, what we don’t know is what exactly prompted them to chase him. This is where the logic breaks down on both sides of the discussion. A big gun is supposed to make you freeze. It’s supposed to make you run away. It’s supposed to allow me to be in charge. The fact that people would react otherwise defies all explanation.

The only plausible explanation is that something else happened to prompt that reaction. Maybe they yelled at him for carrying a big gun. Maybe he yelled at them. There were witness accounts that said he was yelling at protesters. So, either he had used his weapon or the people there felt like he was about to use his weapon. That’s the only reason for taking him on that makes any sense.

Framing this as self-defense conjures up a number of images. We picture someone breaking into the home and threatening the home owner. We picture someone minding their own business and being attacked on the street. Neither of these images are accurate in this case. One of the gentlemen I debated even said he hoped I would find myself in that situation someday. He then in a later comment asked me not to use Christian phrases because I obviously wasn’t Christian. Now, allow that to sink in for a moment.

This is where it was clear we were talking past each other. He meant that he hoped I would be minding my own business and have to consider what to do to protect myself. The fact that he was wishing me harm is something we will have to ignore for now. Except that wasn’t the situation and couching it like that demonstrates a cross between toxic masculinity and gun culture. Rittenhouse himself chose to go into a dangerous situation. Rittenhouse himself chose to bring a high powered weapon into a dangerous situation. Rittenhouse himself attempted to practice crowd control without being formally trained. If witness accounts are accurate, Rittenhouse was also arguing with and yelling at the protesters. That’s not minding your own business.

The same scenario will never happen for me. I will not go into a dangerous situation and set myself up as hostile to those there. I will never openly carry a gun and wave it around like I’m Wyatt Earp. I certainly would never antagonize a large group of people that are already agitated. Is this a sign of fear? Maybe it is. It could also be a sign of common sense. That’s the big thing lacking here. If I instigate a fight, it is difficult for me to come back and say that whatever damage I caused isn’t my fault.

So no, I’m not against gun ownership. What I’m for is a little more understanding that owning and using a gun is an awesome responsibility. It’s not something that you carry around without consequence. The decision to carry a gun openly or with concealed carry brings certain responsibilities. It is also not a neutral act. It is a provacative act. When that act results in the death of two people and serious bodly injury of a third then you bear moral and legal responsibilities. You don’t get to go home with a pat on the head.

Political Nihilism

I seem to find myself using a lot of big words and interesting new vocabulary these days. Nihilism is defined as “the rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless.” It is a term that got its roots (ironically) in early 20th century Russia. Political nihilism definitely got its roots there.

Let’s follow the logica progression. It starts with the assumption that all parties (or individuals) come in with hands unclean. The Russians used this tactic as a way to ward off criticism of human rights abuses by simply pointing out that your people (whoever is levying the charge) had done the same. Stalin killed more than a few million people? Well, your government killed countless Native Americans. The Russians have oppressed their people for centuries? Well, your government had slavery and Jim Crow.

You see friends and family that have unwittingly bought into this line of thinking in political terms. Candidate A is a horrible person that committed crimes and steals whenever he or she can. Candidate B had an affair and lied about it. So, they are both horrible people and their “crimes” cancel each other out.

Political nihilism is in some ways worse than the orginal kind because it involves two key elements that threaten to destroy everything our country has built up until this point. The first one is closely related to the original definition. Essentially, the concept of overriding principles that govern everything we do as a body politic no longer exist. Everything is transactional. We shouldn’t base anything on what we have traditionally believed to be true. It’s all about what we get in the moment.

Donald Trump seems to be on the forefront of this revolution. Conservatives used to be for personal responsibility. They used to be for free trade. They used to be for fiscal conservatism. They used to be for standing up for our allies and against our enemies. They are not for any of these anymore. In fact, you can find no greater symbol of political nihilism than the fact that they have no party platform. Officially, they are just rubber stamping 2016’s, but really they are pledging fealty to Trump. It’s all transactional.

As a fact of history, platforms and core beliefs shift. Yet, each party has always had them. You could stand proudly and declare that you were a Democrat or a Republican and that means you stand for X, Y, and Z. It served as a moral compass. Sometimes those principles were religious in nature. Sometimes they weren’t, but they were surely moral principles just the same.

The second part of political nihilism is the scariest part to me. It is a general attack on objective truth. Mind you, no one seriously comes out and says there is no objective truth. That would be political suicide. Instead, we simply eat away at the institutions that are the arbiters of objective truth and fact. They become “fake news.”

So, whenever a media outlet reports something we don’t like it becomes fake news. This isn’t about just Trump. This has been going on for decades. There has been a very organized attack against the mainstream media. You’ve probably heard people call it the lamestream media. Suddenly, well respected outlets like the Washington Post and New York Times have become liberal shills.

Well meaning folks will admit there are right wing sources that do the same, but it serves the same purpose. There is objective truth, but there is nowhere I can go to find it. The end result is that people simply find sources that tell them what they want to hear. Those sources become reliable sources. If I dismiss all information from certain sources because I assume they are biased then I effectively can shut down any debate or discussion. If we can’t agree on the facts then we might as well not debate at all.

So, what we are seeing these days is the intersection of three very dangerous principles. The first principle was the fact that all countries and all people have done bad things and they’ve all lied, so there is no moral or ethical ground to stand on. I can vote or support whoever I like with impunity because they are all bad people.

Secondly, we don’t need political, social, ethical, and religious guardrails in our society. We can do whatever we want in the moment. It is the subtle difference between moral relativism and simply having no morals. The first simply comes to the belief that you and I can reach different conclusions as to what is absolutely morally right. However, each of us should have a moral code we live by. This is why the president’s comments about service seem so abhorant and yet make so much sense when you think about his psychological makeup. He doesn’t understand that some people would do something where they don’t necessarily benefit in some way monetarily. The entire concept of selflessness is foreign to him.

Finally, we get the war on facts. This one has been going on longer than Trump has been around, but he has taken full advantage of it. He’s lied more than 20,000 times as president and yet it doesn’t seem to stick. His followers just cry “fake news” and move on. You get the intersection of these three horrible trends together and you understand where we are as a society and body politic. There is no objective fact we can agree on, everyone is a liar and a cheat, and there are no principles we need to live by. It’s no wonder so many of us are so despondent.

Which one am I?

This question came up on Facebook following one of my recent posts “In for a penny…” It followed the simple logical point that Trump voters are either like Trump, are not like Trump, but are okay with Trump being the way he is, or are in denial that Trump is the way he is. I understand the impulse to defend one’s humanity. I can see the notion that one needs to push back against being called a horrible person. That’s of course, not what I was saying, but I can see why it can be interpreted that way.

I don’t have the capacity to answer that in a sentence or two. The most difficult assignment I ever had in college was when a professor told us we could write no more than three pages. Anyone that says anything without writing 1000 or more words really isn’t trying that hard. Yet, this is a serious topic that has a deadly serious and careful response.

So, let’s take the first possibility. If you support Trump because you are like Trump, that means you are a horrible person. There’s no getting around that. If you listen to what he says and say, “I like the cut of his gib” then you are a horrible person. I’m not going to apologize for that. However, I suspect that most of my friends and family don’t fall into this category.

In order to fall into this category you would have to acknowledge every awful thing that Trump has said and done and nodded in agreement. They would have done or said the exact same thing if given the opportunity. Very few people fit into this category. To say or do that many awful things would put most people either in jail or ostracized by polite society. So, I don’t take this very seriously.

The second one is where I think most people are at. They like some of what he has said and don’t like other things he has said. This is where most people are politically in both parties . No politician gets 100 percent agreement across the board. This is certainly true of behavior. Support of a candidate doesn’t mean you support everything the candidate says and does.

I’ve heard friends say they acknowledge that Trump is a bad guy, but thought he was better than the alternative. I wholeheartedly disagree with the conclusion, but I certainly understand the sentiment. At least this statement shows a level of self-awareness that I can get behind. Acknowledging facts and that people said what they actually said is an important first step.

The last group is a group I have the most difficulty with. I think it contains a sizeable chunk of people that support Trump. These are the folks in denial. They attribute anything negative to fake news. The mental dexterity it takes to maintain this level of denial is impressive. You have the normal denial of mainstream media sources. That’s certainly par for the course.

What’s entertaining to watch is when a non-traditional MSM source reports the same thing. They deny that too. People at a recent rally booed Chris Wallace. This is a reporter that works for Fox News. Fox News is a right leaning media outlet. If you are bagging on them for criticizing the president then I’m not really sure where we can go in terms of having a productive conversation.

So, you have three choices: I like Donald Trump specifically because of the horrible things he does and says, I don’t like Donald Trump, but he’s better than the alternative, and I like Donald Trump and don’t believe that he has said or done horrible things. Those are the choices on the table. All of us have to reconcile that with the choices we make on election day. So, I sympathize to a certain degree. After each horrible thing, I see people that change their calculation. It’s difficult to suppress the urge to ask why this horrible thing was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Ultimately, I have to.

“Because we can…”

A few months ago, a high school friend launched a post on Facebook that seemed to rekindle an entire debate. At least it did in our little corner of the world. The debate revealed a lot about character and brought forth the three worst words in the English language. I used to think those three words were “some assembly required.” I was wrong.

In order to set this up I need to reset the debate itself. My friend was feeling raw following the death of George Floyd. I can’t say as I can blame her. The debate started over whether what happened to him was simply murder or an example of oppression. Those on the left agreed it was. Those on the right argued that the government shutting down the economy was oppression. That by itself was bad enough. Then, the discussion turned to protesting. The fact that the president was okay with gun toting nuts storming the capital in Michigan, but not okay with people protesting the death of Floyd came up. Another high school friend defended the protesters in Michigan. We tried to reason with him that bringing a gun to a protest is dangerous and unnecessary. He said we do it because we can. There it is. That’s the conservative movement boiled down to a nice bumpersticker.

Fast-forward to the past few days and the same thing reared its ugly head. A few Twitter folks were trying to defend Kyle Rittenhouse. See, he was only defending himself when he shot three people. When you point out the salient point that a teenager shouldn’t be at a protest with a high powered rifle that doesn’t register. When you question the wisdom of anyone bringing a gun to a volatile situation it doesn’t register. The fact that he had a high powered gun apparently had nothing to do with why the situation got out of hand in the first place. Why shouldn’t he have brought a gun? It’s his right.

Let’s ignore the obvious for a moment. It wasn’t his right. He was underage. There’s a reason why we don’t allow underage teens to have high powered guns. We just witnessed it this week. Still, let’s ignore that. Let’s assume he did have the right. It still doesn’t mean that doing it is the wisest course of action. Because we can isn’t good enough. Because we can doesn’t bring those two people back to life. Because we can isn’t a legal excuse for ending the life of two people. Because we can doesn’t explain taking a third person’s arm. One of the victims was shot in the back. That’s hardly self-defense.

Look at the backdrop of most of the struggles in our society in the past year and you can see “because we can” at the root of it. Lockdowns and social distancing? The hell with that. I have the right to go anywhere I want. I can walk into a store without a mask. I can print up bogus laminated cards that say I have a religious exception to wearing a mask or a health exception to wearing a mask. I have the right to get a haircut or go to a bar. I have the right to go to sporting events or church. I have the right to go to my favorite restaurant. Because we can.

Because we can ignores two very important points. First, because we can ignores the question of whether we should. It ignores the question of whether we should bring big guns to an active protest. It ignores whether we should neglect to social distance at a political event. It ignores whether we should go out in public without a mask. It ignores the fact that there are obviously consequences to all of our actions.

That of course brings us to the second point. Because we can ignores that there are natural consequences to all of our actions. This is where the buzzword “cancel culture” comes from. See, I say what I want because I can. How dare I suffer any consequences for it? How dare you deny me the right to say my offensive piece to a captive audience. That’s not how free speech is supposed to work.

Except, that’s exactly how free speech is supposed to work. I have the right to say what I want without Congress passing a law against it. The first amendment doesn’t protect from others’ reaction to my speech. The first amendment doesn’t protect me from how my employers might react to my speech. The first amendment doesn’t mean that universities or other public groups can’t cancel my appearances or fail to give me a megaphone to broadcast my speech. That’s literally not how any of this works.

So, you can decry your “cancel culture”, your “virtue signaling”, and even your “toxic positivity.” I’ll decry “because we can.” Past generations seem to understand the balance between doing what we could and practicing restraint because it wasn’t wise to do everything we felt like doing. We could all carry big guns everywhere we go. It also means we would have more shootings. We can say every damn thing that enters into our empty heads. It also means we would suffer more consequences. We could throw all safety protocols to the wind. It also means we would likely get ourselves and our families sick. Because we can isn’t good enough. Because we can won’t bring those two victims back. Because we can won’t keep Rittenhouse out of prison. It’s time to give because we can a rest.