First the Verdict, Then the Trial.

As evidence of climate change continues to accumulate, the case against taking action becomes increasingly difficult to understand. Consider the fact that when we perceive ourselves to be threatened by foreign aggression—evening cases where the threat is not immediate or existential—we don’t hesitate to react swiftly and decisively. Why does a threat of environmental disaster not produce a similar resolve?

One answer is that the debate is being manipulated by corporations with an enormous financial interest in maintaining the profitability of the fossil fuel industry. Insofar as big oil is the most profitable industry in the history of the world, that explanation certainly satisfies the test of Occam’s Razor. While it’s clearly one of the factors that applies, it’s also clear that it’s not the only one. After all, there are plenty of loud voices opposing action on global warming that have no particular relationship to the oil industry.

Reagan_delivers_inaugural_address_1981I’d like to suggest a complimentary explanation, one that doesn’t get much attention from “serious” pundits even as it amplifies the oil industry’s arguments and simultaneously motivates opposition to action on the climate from people with no particular affinity with big oil. And it all starts with Ronald Reagan and his first inaugural address.

As he was preparing to take the reigns of the government of the United States, Reagan made a pronouncement that was stunning in its recklessness but nevertheless went on to become a rallying cry for America’s right wing:

Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.

Reagan’s condemnation is broad and unequivocal. His formulation doesn’t condemn “intrusive” government or “overreaching” government or even just “big” government. Reagan’s speech condemned government, period. Over the years, the quote has been repeated so often that its familiarity tends to obscure how toxic and irrational the message is if we take it seriously.

Randian fantasies aside, it is only government that stands between us and chaos. It is only government that guarantees our freedoms and secures our rights. Government is the necessary predicate to civilization. And it is the essential foundation for building any sort of  broadly shared prosperity.

Can government overreach? Of course. Can it become corrupt? Obviously. Can it be unresponsive or even hostile to its citizens? No question about it. But it should be obvious that the answer to these problems is not to abandon the idea of government but to improve it.

I’ll come back to these points in future posts but, for now, let’s return to Ronald Reagan. As the focal point of modern conservative ideology, Reagan’s pronouncement became gospel for a generation of right wing pundits and politicians. Railing against the boogeyman of big government is a great deal easier than undertaking the hard and endless work of fixing it.

But what happens when you’re confronted with a problem that is so big and so critical that it requires a concerted effort from a big government in order to fix it? That is the question that clearly confronts us today when it comes to the environment. If the problem really exists as it’s currently perceived by scientists then it’s a problem that demands a big government solution.

But what happens when an ideology and the demands of an emergency are at odds? Well, that’s precisely where we find ourselves today and that, unfortunately, is the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this post. It is the aversion to government that Ronald Reagan articulated in January of 1981 that is paralyzing us today.

Said differently, today’s conservative movement has adopted a political stance that’s reminiscent of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland: “First the verdict, then the trial.” If big government is axiomatically bad then any solution that involves big government must be categorically rejected.

Of course, that stance is a tough sell when the problem that’s approaching is potentially catastrophic. In such a case, a much more promising strategy is to pretend that the problem itself simply doesn’t exist. And that is what today’s right wing has chosen to do.


The Holy Grail of Voter Suppression in Florida

Following the 2010 elections, newly empowered Republican majorities in several states began enacting measures designed to suppress voting among demographic segments that were not likely to vote for the GOP. The requirement for a state-issued picture ID is one such measure but there were others. Still, if the objective of these measures was to stop certain groups of people from voting altogether then they weren’t as effective as their proponents probably hoped.

But GOP leaders might find a reason to be encouraged right here in the Sunshine State. In pursuit of its unabashedly partisan ends, Florida’s GOP-dominated legislature seems to be developing a secret plan for ultimate victory. In fact, it may be on its way to getting potential Democratic voters—across a wide swath of demographic segments—to stop coming to the polls not just for one or two elections but for a generation or more to come.

voter-idThe most recent clue to what’s going on is the erupting controversy about an amendment to the state constitution that was passed by voters last year. Seventy five percent of Florida voters voted for Amendment 1 as a mechanism to force the state to allocate funds for the acquisition and improvement of endangered land and water. (For comparison, pick whatever presidential landslide you’d like—Johnson vs. Goldwater, Nixon vs. McGovern, Reagan vs. Mondale. None is anywhere near 75 percent.) You’d think that such overwhelming support would be difficult to ignore, especially since it was expressed in the guise of a constitutional amendment. Game, set, match for conservationists, right?

Not exactly. I’ll let the Miami Herald tell the rest of the story:

Even though the measure created a $700 million pot of money (about $10 billion over 25 years) that taxpayers want to use for conservation and acquisition, legislators have made clear they are going to spend only a small fraction of that imminent windfall on buying land to protect. Proposals mentioned from the House and Senate this week amount to just $26 million and $57 million, respectively, to buy land.

In other words, the voters’ clear intent and overwhelming support is being ignored by a legislature that’s determined (as one friend put it) “to do everything possible to continue selling our natural heritage to the highest bidder.”

In civics class, such a scenario would be outrageous. In Florida, though, it’s just business as usual. Voters here have clearly expressed themselves over the years years on a variety of issues including education funding, class sizes, and fair districting. But in every instance, the Florida legislature has chosen to ignore the will of the voters, often expressed in numbers almost as overwhelming as the Amendment 1 vote.

So, Florida obviously suffers from bad government but how does that then become voter suppression? Through a psychological mechanism known as learned helplessness.

By definition, learned helplessness occurs when someone learns that he or she cannot control their situation and therefore stops taking action to avoid the negative negative consequences. Said differently, learned helplessness reflects a person’s conscious or unconscious decision to stop trying because they believe that trying doesn’t help. It’s what happens when you believe that you have no control or influence over your outcomes.

Returning, then, to the subject of voting in Florida, provides some important context for speculating on what effect it will have on progressive activism when one successful effort after another to mobilize voters—even stunningly successful ones like the Amendment 1 campaign—yield results that are indistinguishable from failures.

As the will of the voters on progressive initiatives gets blatantly and repeatedly ignored, the most likely scenario is troubling. The outcome that the GOP-majority legislature would clearly prefer is that progressive activists just stop trying to effect change and progressive voters would simply stop voting. And if that happens, it has the potential to reach a level of effectiveness that no previous voter suppression scheme ever hoped to approach.

If Florida legislators are allowed to bully voters into a state of learned helplessness then they’ll have achieved the Holy Grail of Voter Suppression. A deliberately cultivated case of learned helplessness could mean that potentially progressive votes might not be suppressed for just an election cycle or two. They could conceivably disappear for a generation or more. And if it works in Florida, the cynical technique would certainly get fast-tracked in other GOP-controlled states.

There’s a point at which partisan wrangling turns into something else, something more problematic. The Constitution says, “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government…” When voters clearly and emphatically express their will and are then ignored, then those voters aren’t getting a republican form of government (though they are getting a Republican form of government). That’s bad for Florida and, if it’s allowed to stand, it will be bad for the country.

Right now, the political directionality of this issue points to an attack on progressivism but this is much bigger than simply a partisan issue. The credibility of our governance is at stake. Voters need to unmistakably see that their participation can make a difference. If we tolerate a system in which participants learn helplessness—that their efforts ultimately don’t matter—then the real problem isn’t that the GOP might win. The real problem is that ultimately we would all lose.

Let This Be Our Last Battlefield

On January 10, 1969, in one of my favorite episodes, the original Star Trek TV series obliquely tackled the subject of racism. In the intervening forty six years, I’m not sure that anyone has nailed the arrogance and inherent irrationality of racial bias as clearly or as effectively.

Whenever I see someone like Charles Murray pontificating about race on television or when I read any of the vapid diatribes—dripping in thinly veiled racism (or, frequently, not so thinly veiled racism)—that appear regularly in conservative media, Frank Gorshin’s pitch perfect performance pops into my mind. His performance is over-the-top but, when you think about it, no more so than Louis Gomert or half the writers at National Review.

Random Thought (May 3rd, 2015)

We can—and should—have big debates about important ideologic questions (every one a variation of “How can we perfect our society?) but I think think it’s important to address a single, fundamental question at the beginning of the whole conversation:

What constitutes “winning”?

I’m not smart enough to have all the answers but I think it’s a question that clarifies what’s at stake when we make difficult choices (and we will always have those to make).

My own feeling—and it’s a position I’d argue for strongly—is that “winning” for us as a society means figuring out how to get everyone over the Finish line. Not just a few people, not even most people. Everyone.

We haven’t won anything until we’ve figures out an answer to this difficult question, until we stop being willing to sacrifice people who—for whatever reason—aren’t able to fend for themselves.

Are Buddhism and the GOP compatible?

“Elephant in the Meditation Room?” (no online link available) is an article that appears in the latest issue of Shamble Sun. The author, Christopher Ford, is a senior counsel for national security policy at the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, an ordained lay Buddhist chaplain, and a life-long Republican.

Dr. Ford wastes little time in stating his basic premise: “Buddhism doesn’t have to entail political liberalism. I would argue that a thoughtful Buddhist’s engagement with the socio-political world can lead to a quite conservative sensibility.” I’d like to respectfully suggest that the opposite might be closer to SUN-May-2015-Basic-Goodness-340pxthe truth. Dr. Ford might agree with me, though, that a more productive discussion would result if we defined our terms more clearly.

For example, in defense of his argument Dr. Ford points out that “Buddhist ideas of right conduct are consistent with some of the traditional social mores of Western culture.” That’s certainly true, as far as it goes, but the implication that liberalism and traditional social mores are somehow incompatible is misleading. I understand Dr. Ford’s desire to embrace traditional values but I quarrel with his attempt to appropriate those values for the conservative cause. They are universal values that transcend political ideology. They’re as foundational for certain brands of liberalism as they are for certain brands of conservatism.

A lynchpin of Dr. Ford’s position is “Not Knowing,” one of the three tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order. This tenet calls on Zen Peacemakers to “give up fixed ideas” about themselves and the universe. But surely giving up fixed ideas is not the same as being unwilling to make value judgments about what we see going on around us at any given moment. The Dalai Lama provided a more practical model for “Not Knowing” when he was asked about the prospect of science contradicting Buddhist doctrine and replied, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.”

The concept of Engaged Buddhism, it seems to me, is predicated on the idea of embracing a responsibility we all have to help each other. In fact, among the convert Buddhists that Dr. Ford describes in his article, there’s a likely explanation for why they tend to be — in his words— “overwhelmingly liberal.” I’ll suggest it might be because “Not Knowing” is not — in their minds — the salient characteristic of Buddhism. The salient characteristic of Buddhism in my mind (and, I suspect, in the minds of many other American convert Buddhists) is compassion.

And it is on the issue of compassion that I believe Buddhism and American political conservatism begin to diverge dramatically. It’s not that conservatives aren’t personally compassionate. They often are. It’s that they favor policy prescriptions that don’t take compassion into account. (Of course, many conservatives sincerely believe that their policies produce better outcomes all up and down the economic spectrum but in the spirit of “Not Knowing,” surely there’s a point at which a generation’s worth of data makes that theory no longer tenable.) For many of us, the effect of Buddhism is to heighten our awareness of the need to infuse our public policy choices with empathy and compassion.

My biggest disconnect with the article is on a point that, perhaps, isn’t one that Dr. Ford himself meant to make. Though the article’s title refers obliquely to Republicans, Dr. Ford never brings partisanship, per se, into the conversation. He refers to Buddhism’s compatibility with “conservative” principles, not “Republican” principles. I might disagree with that conclusion but it’s a reasonable position (and one which Dr. Ford isn’t the first to take).

On the other hand, if the question switches to one about today’s Republican party as an institution, I’d argue that there is little basis for any kind of ongoing affinity between it and American Buddhism. Name whatever issue you’d like and the Republican Party likely supports policies that are at odds with Buddhist principles. For example, to his credit Dr. Ford admits that “progress is affected by people’s external circumstances” so that “there is some role for government in preventing these conditions from becoming catastrophically bad.” That fundamental observation would be controversial in today’s Republican Party. (I wish I were exaggerating.)

The Buddhist aversion to waging war is also an important area of fundamental incompatibility. So is climate change. So is factory farming. The list is a long one.

The impression given by this article to the contrary (and, again, underscoring that the text of the article itself did not mention political parties), I cannot imagine Buddhist practice resulting in the embrace of any of the ideas that characterize the Republican Party in 2015.

There is one point on which I suspect Dr. Ford and I probably agree. I believe we’d both be pleased to see all of our policymakers become more acquainted with Buddhist principles and practices. Of course, he and I have different ideas about what a more widespread embrace of the dharma might look like in the political arena over time. But I, for one, would like to see dharma practice proliferate as widely as possible — and I’d be willing to take my chances with the political outcome.

One of my favorite projects ever

Two years ago, as Florida was gearing up for election season, I got a call from my friend Steve Barnes who was then chairman of Seminole County’s Democratic Party. Steve knew that I’d done media work in the past and asked if I’d give him a hand putting together an ad for Florida’s 29th congressional district, one of three districts in Seminole. I’d have jumped at any chance to work with Steve but, for a variety of reasons, this opportunity was particularly appealing.

Steve’s original idea was to create some kind of A Clockwork Orange takeoff. While that was an intriguing idea in a number of ways, I thought we should aim for something a little more… mainstream. Eventually, we decided on a format based on the original Law & Order. I think it’s fair to say that we both liked the idea but neither of us loved it. One afternoon, I got a call from Steve with a tweak that put the spot over the top. The ad was always going to be about the closing of Longwood Elementary, a huge issue in the district that transcended partisan politics. What was appealing about the Law & Order approach was that it allowed the “prosecutor” to make a rapid series of dramatic points that reflected how parents and kids felt about what had happened. Steve’s idea was simple and brilliant: “Let’s make the prosecutor a kid!”

The rest, as they say, is history. We were able to find an incredible collection of young actors, most of whom had never acted on camera before. We got the whole thing shot in a couple of hours and it turned out even better than we’d hoped. The young man who played the “prosecutor” was the only cast member who’d ever acted before… and his experience showed. When the ad was unveiled on YouTube, it created so much buzz that it got featured on a couple of the local news shows and several local political web sites.

I always feel fortunate when I can look back on a project and, after the passage of time, still feel that it turned out well. That was certainly the case here but, as is so often the case with projects that yield exceptional results, this one was a genuinely collaborative effort. But more important than that, it was a blast!