In a previous post, I was trying to plumb the depths of the relationship between geography and our political divide. The purpose of that post was simply to explore how population density can affect how we desire to regulate the actions of those around us. And how population density therefore correlates with political affiliation. The lower the population the density, the less people feel the need to monitor their neighbor’s every move. But as you move closer to the heart of cities and towns with higher population density, the desires of the collective become paramount, and the rights of the individual diminish.
While I think this plays a big role and is certainly discounted in much of our political discourse, I would never say that this accounts for the entirety of the differences in how urban and rural populations vote. In fact, I think there’s another similarly overlooked factor, that may be even more worthwhile to explore.
a step back in time to the first urban civilizations
Recently I read a book titled Babylon: The Birth of Ancient Civilizationsby Paul Kriwaczek, which gives an overview of the rise and fall of ancient Mesopotamian cultures and how they gave us many of the building blocks that serve as the foundation for our current nations and cities. It was an absolutely fascinating read for a multitude of reasons, but I was surprised how this man’s interpretations of the rise and fall of these ancient cultures could speak so much to the current paradigm. I’ll share just a couple quotes to set the table.
“Those societies in which seriousness, tradition, conformity and adherence to long-established – often god-prescribed – ways of doing things are the strictly enforced rule, have always been the majority across time and throughout the world. Such people are not known for their sense of humor and lightness of touch; they rarely break a smile. To them, change is always suspect and usually damnable, and they hardly ever contribute to human development. By contrast, social, artistic and scientific progress as well as technological advance are most evident where the ruling culture and ideology give men and women permission to play, whether with ideas, beliefs, principles or materials. And where playful science changes people’s understanding of the way the physical world works, political change, even revolution, is rarely far behind.”
“If cities and civilizations are like machines, then it is tempting to see the Akkadian imperium like one of those fighter aircraft of mid-twentieth-century warfare, the Spitfire or the Messerschmitt 109, which owed their success and their dominance of the skies to the fact that they were designed to fly on the very borderlines of stability. When all was going well they were magnificent. When damaged in a vulnerable part, they would spin and crash to the ground. Other, more conservatively fashioned – and duller – planes could limp home even with wings and tail assemblies shot full of flak holes.”
This may just be one writer’s interpretation, but I really think he’s mapped out in just a few sentences some key insights regarding the left-right, progressive-conservative, and what is essentially at the core, an urban and rural divide.
the worldview differences in urban and rural life
For urban societies, “progress” is often the chief aim. As the author notes of these old Mesopotamian civilizations in other parts of the books, much of the city would be razed and rebuilt on average every 90 years. Iconoclasm was routine and the erection of something new (new technologies, new architecture, new gods, and systems of hierarchy) the norm. Opportunity was sought in the unknown and pursued at great cost.
As for rural communities, the desire to “conserve” the past is an instinct to do what has always been done. This is often the approach less prone to dramatic collapse. It’s known territory. Predictable. Safer. The ideals that undergird this philosophy have been tested by time and through a variety of seasons have proven to be durable. Why reinvent the wheel? Why fix what isn’t broken?
If we understand cities as a form of technology, we start to see some of the benefits and consequences to the societies, which they serve. Cities, which initially formed as a prerequisite to the collaboration required for agrarian life, serve as the basis for the division of labor, increase in the efficiency of production, and provide the setting for a melting pot of ideas and cultures that have often been the locale of our greatest innovations. However, as the author notes, like most technologies that are continuously refined for efficiency, urban societies can forget that for every successful innovation, there are magnitudes more that failed. Like throwing paint at a wall to see what sticks, there’s a good chance many of the ideas fail to accomplish their aims and leave the society susceptible to destruction. Like the fighter planes he referenced, they are designed to fly magnificently under perfect flying conditions, but a single bullet hole might be enough for everything to unravel. And yet, as the author also notes, it would be wrong to ignore the incredible benefits to humanity that have resulted from some of these innovations.
The rural communities often fail to recognize how in debt their current lifestyle is to the innovations from past urban civilizations. Modern agriculture, sanitation practices, language, mathematics, writing, engineering, architecture, metallurgy, wayfaring, medicine, the domestication of animals, organized religion, arts, theater, and athletics all find their origins in the urban cultures of history. Yet today they have all been adopted by these conservative communities and are simply assumed. Conservatives aren’t harkening back to the “golden days” of nomadic life. What they essentially are desiring to be conserved today were the successful innovations of yesterday.
And urban communities often fail to recognize how often they tend to go awry in their pursuit of progress. Nature has its limits. Like Icharus, it is possible to fly too close to the sun in pursuit of the next advancement. And there might be more conservatively minded people with the correct intuition that this striving towards a utopian vision might be towards a dead end with catastrophic consequences.
The left and the right. The progressives and conservatives. The urban and the rural. They have always been in tension and for good reason. We need an appropriate application of the two and that might not necessarily look like a 50/50 split at all times.
the symbolism of a new jerusalem
I think the imagery presented at the end of Revelation might depict it best. The city of the New Jerusalem with the Tree of Life at its center. Cities in and of themselves are not bad. Nor are rural communities. It’s a question of what’s at the center. Progress alone isn’t enough. Nor is conservation. I don’t think economic growth, diversity, inclusion, tolerance, or national pride are sufficient in and of themselves to fill that void either.
So what is the ideal, or “Tree of Life” so to speak, that societies should be centered around to be successful? What defines “success” for a society? And what could possibly unite the rural and urban parts of the population? I think those questions are really worth pondering and could possibly help us get a glimpse into the stark differences in worldview that inform the way we see one another. And possibly even help us bridge the gap and find a more unified way forward.
Although if history serves as the model, I think more likely than not, we will continue to see this division along rural and urban worldviews continue to present itself. It may be a pessimistic outlook, but it doesn’t mean these efforts to understand the other side have to be for naught.
When your full-time job is civil engineering, your work doesn’t tend to make for lively conversation at parties. This fact is only made that much more evident when you happen to be married to a nurse with years of emergency room and ambulance stories. You might be surprised to realize stories about infrastructure can’t hold a candle to the best ER stories. But it’s true, and it’s the reality I’ve learned to live with. I’ll accept your pity.
My days in the office are fairly routine. And a bad day for me pales in comparison to a bad day for my wife or many others who find themselves in a variety of other careers. It’s a relatively safe career, minus the staple I put through my finger a couple years ago. “The Staple Incident of 2019.” It doesn’t get too much more exciting than that.
I think you would understand then why my job has never been the topic of these posts. I love what I do, but it’s often difficult to explain what, in fact, I do for a living. Or to even make it remotely engaging enough for others to read.
I’ve probably been asked a hundred times, “So, if you’re a civil engineer, does that mean you design bridges?” While, yes, some civil engineers do in fact design bridges, I chose to go a different direction. I work within a different subfield of civil engineering. It’s what is often termed “Land Development” and many don’t know what that is. I’ll try to explain.
When you arrive at a Chick-fil-A or a McDonald’s to grab some grub what do you take notice of? Maybe you look at the number of cars waiting in the drive-thru. You search for an available parking spot. You take notice of the façade of the building or the landscaping around it. And maybe you catch a sniff of some fresh waffle or shoestring fries in the process.
As a civil engineer, my experience is quite different. I notice the queue length for the drive-thru and how much room is available before it causes traffic concerns. The number of parking spaces required by municipality ordinances. The orientation and design of driveways and their spacing from adjacent driveways and intersections. The location of shade trees, trash enclosures, and even the positioning of the building for visibility from major travel corridors. Handicapped spaces, striping, ramps, and walkways for ADA accessibility. The grading of drive aisles, swales, and landscaped areas. Stormwater management design and utility locations. And even building setbacks from roadways and adjacent properties. I also can’t help but notice the scent of those delectable fries…
Since getting into this field, my understanding of how commercial and residential properties are laid out and organized within a community has fundamentally changed. I’ve designed several of these lots and worked with many municipalities and developers over the past several years. Enough to gain an appreciation for what all goes into community planning. There’s a lot more that goes on behind the scenes before that new Taco Bell or residential subdivision goes in. A lot of time, money, energy, conversations, and design. Trust me it’s a lot!
One of the unexpected insights that my job has afforded me, is a glimpse into how geography or location dictates how municipalities set regulations. Zoning is in essence, exactly that. As one local municipality puts it, the purpose of their zoning ordinance “is to promote the public health, safety, morals and general welfare by encouraging the most appropriate use of land.”
“The most appropriate use of land…” The more I’ve thought about geography and politics the more I think zoning can give us a fundamental understanding of how influential geography and population density is to public policy and how much they inform our political leanings. At a time when so many are looking for ways to differentiate the left from the right via categories like race, class, religion, gender, education level and age, I think many of us are overlooking one of the biggest determinants in political affiliation: locale.
If I haven’t lost you yet, I’m impressed and thankful. I hope you’ll continue to engage me in this thought experiment, that may actually help, dare I say, humanize your political adversaries. Certainly there are inarticulate, unwise, and sometimes dangerous or downright evil ideas that can be found on both ends of the spectrum. This post isn’t intended to excuse those.
But maybe we can see that there are reasonable positions to be found by the moderates of both sides, and that these may be informed by our experiences that result from something largely out of our control – where we happen to be born and raised.
how does population density relate to party affiliation?
One quick look at an election results map of Pennsylvania from the 2016 presidential election should reveal something that’s incredibly obvious from the get-go. Urban areas voted for Clinton. Rural areas voted for Trump.
This isn’t just a Pennsylvania trend. This occurs in practically every single state.
Dave Troy, a blogger, entrepreneur, and CEO of 410 Labs wrote in his own article following the 2012 election that he was similarly interested in these trends. What did he find after crunching the data? 49 of the 50 most dense counties voted for Obama and that 49 of the 50 least dense counties voted for Romney. Not only that, but he charted population density and voting results for both candidates and found an interesting inflection point that occurred around a population density of 800 people per square mile. If you lived in an area with a population density greater than 800 people per square mile, the likelihood of voting for Obama was 66%. In areas with a density below 800 people per square mile, the likelihood of voting for Romney was also 66%. And these trends help up regardless of the state with minor fluctuations. Fascinating!
For years I thought that this trend, which seems to occur every election cycle (at least that I can remember), was an indication that the other side simply had bad ideas and that those with bad ideas happened to share a similar geographic location. That they were voting against their own interest, or at least against our collective interest as a nation. Or that maybe, these political differences that are often attributed to those aforementioned identity categories were largely responsible for urban areas voting heavily for Democrats and rural areas aligning with Republicans.
Geographical differences were secondary. Identity and ideological differences were primary.
However, voting results, which were evaluated by professors at Washington University of St. Louis and the University of Maryland and detailed in a formal paper (and summarized here) indicated that if one holds all other individual characteristics constant, an individual’s probability of identifying as a strong Democrat drops by 12 percentage points if they live in a far rural area. Likewise, their analysis suggests that a person with the same individual characteristics living in a densely packed community is about 11 points more likely to identify as a strong Democrat compared with that same person living in a sparsely populated area. Also, absolutely fascinating!
Location seems to play a role in our political leanings and this pattern is seen consistently across this urban and rural divide.
Now I’m sure some people move in and out of cities or rural areas for political reasons. There’s certainly a chicken and egg factor to this in some degree. But we cannot overlook the influence geography has. But why, and how does one’s location intersect with politics?
the prudence of different regulations
As I started doing more work in land development I began to notice some trends in how zoning regulations differed depending on the zoning district within question and that these trends seemed to map onto these political differences that were manifesting themselves in national elections. Look up your own municipality’s zoning ordinance and map and you’ll likely find a similar pattern. Very quickly you will see there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that municipalities employ.
Often, a Township, Borough, or City will identify commercial, village center, and high-density residential areas in close proximity to major travel corridors. Then as you move out of this central hub, you start getting into industrial and middle-density residential districts. And then beyond that, agricultural and low-density residential districts are often found. In many ways, each municipality is a microcosm of how our states and nation lays themselves out, with designated areas of low- and high-density development.
Each district then has it’s own set of criteria that determines how big and tall your buildings can be, what types of building uses are allowable, how far back from the roadway and adjacent properties they must be set, and even the size and shape that proposed lots can take. These regulations prevent an amusement park from being built in the middle of a residential district or an adult business from going right in the center of town. They are meant to protect the character of the neighborhood, and ensure an appropriate use of land.
But maybe what is most telling about these differences is how nuisance concerns are dealt with. Inevitably, in zoning districts like your commercial, village center, and high-density residential areas there are greater opportunities for dissimilar uses to be located adjacent to one another. A restaurant might abut a single-family home. A car dealer next to an apartment complex. A commercial garage next to a library.
What you will often find is that the zoning ordinance requires a line of dense vegetation be planted along these property lines to provide visual screening between these dissimilar uses. Usually the commercial or industrial uses are required to plant these as part of their development to prevent any light spillover from overhead lights, reduce sound and glare, and just protect the adjacent property from any excessive nuisance. There are also restrictions on the hours that lights can remain on, and limitations on how loud a businesses operations can be. When properties are more densely packed together, there is more opportunity for conflict. and the process of zoning places (hopefully) appropriate requirements in place to avoid conflict.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to see how appeals to greater government involvement would therefore occur within densely packed areas. That when hundreds and thousands of people live within a single square mile, they cannot all know one another and establish trusting relationships with all of them. Stricter enforcement and policies are required to ensure everyone stays in line to maintain the character of the neighborhood. That is if there isn’t some shared set of morals that could guide all their actions without such enforcement, which in an increasingly pluralistic society is incredibly hard to agree upon.
Conversely, in low-density areas there are less neighbors with which to have conflict. The types of uses vary far less and there’s much less turnover and change in character for the area over time. Zoning therefore is much more laxed in the prescriptions it gives for these areas. And therefore there’s no sense in undue burden placed in these districts.
I think one could therefore understand how in low-density areas, a robust and highly involved governing body is wasteful, overly redundant, or encroaching on rights. When residents only have a handful of neighbors, who they live next to for decades and have developed deep trust with, there’s less need for an external entity to regulate their behaviors. The set of morals is largely shared and the community is smaller and at less risk of nuisance from strangers.
In essence, more regulation is required in higher density areas than lower density areas to protect the social fabric. And I think this can serve as a distillation of much of the perceived competition between the two political camps.
a competition between two ideals
Every now and then, you read something that completely alters the entire framework for how you understand an issue. This passage from Daniel Moynihan, a former Democratic Senator from New York did exactly that for me.
“Liberty and Equality are the twin ideals of American democracy. But they are not the same thing. Nor, most importantly, are they equally attractive to all groups at any given time nor yet are they always compatible, one with the other.
Many persons who would gladly die for liberty are appalled by equality. Many who are devoted to equality are puzzled and even troubled by liberty. Much of the political history of the American nation can be seen as a competition between these two ideals, as for example, the unending troubles between capital and labor.”
Daniel Moynihan in The Negro Family: The Case for National Action
Liberty, the freedom to do what one pleases. Equality, the state of having equal rights and opportunities (and most recently used interchangeably with “equity” often meaning equal outcomes). Both, as Moynihan points out are ideals of American Democracy and yet so often they seem juxtaposed to one another. When does your freedom encroach on my rights? And when does my desire for equality curb another’s liberty? It’s this very dynamic that is so often at play within political discord.
Both can appeal to very basic longings we all have. And both have an essential role to play in maintaining a functioning democracy.
Quite possibly to our own detriment, our habits of increasingly appealing to the federal government to champion and impose our desired ideal, be it liberty or equality, nationally, we might be forcing values onto other communities that really aren’t in their best interest. This could be by placing undue regulatory burdens on communities that have alternative mechanisms for self-regulating. Or by resisting even small encroachments in our freedoms when more regulations may be prudent to minimize the destabilizing effects of a community left unchecked.
Politics, like zoning, probably shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach, which unfortunately in our current political discord is exactly the way many of us frame it. Liberty and equality. Rural and urban. Geography and population density shapes us whether we know it or not.
Maybe we can give our political adversaries (at least the reasonable ones) an ear. We may find there’s more substance to their positions than we are prone to give them credit. This doesn’t mean we need to adopt all their views or switch political affiliation. But maybe, just maybe, it will help us broaden our understanding of the issues, to be better listeners, and to know how to best communicate our values to someone who lives in a completely different setting.
Twin ideals in competition. Lower and higher density populations that may need different approaches to regulation. At a time when everything is divided over race, class, sex, religion, and a multitude of other identity characteristics, we miss just how influential our geographical location is. How important the location we call “home” is to our political framework.
We need to learn how to communicate across these lines. There’s a lot riding on it.
While everyday that passes can certainly be considered just another day in the books, there are particular events that you know, even as they are still unfolding, will remain the topic of conversation for years to come. The types of events that will likely make there way into textbooks. That our kids and grandkids will ask us about. That will be considered pivotal moments for our culture. The cliché phrase “we’re living through history” seems all too fitting for these trying times.
Is it an overstatement to say the rioting at Capitol Hill fits that category? Or even that much of the social strife experienced over the past year will be worthy of reflection for future generations? Events filled with opportunities to teach lessons or at least offer a snapshot of what life was like within the United States in the early 21st century?
While it’s always difficult to assess the significance of a particular event within such a short timeframe, this feels even more difficult to put into words. Was this the climax of a long-building crescendo? Or is this just another “bump” in the long road of turmoil within our nation?
How did we get here? Whose fault is this? Where do we go from here? And how could this have been avoided?
As to be expected, there are many who are quick to give answers or at least vent their frustrations. Who’s at fault? The President? His base? The party that never reeled him in? Fascists? White supremacists? The patriarchy? Fake News? The Swamp? The Deep State? It depends who you ask. But for so many in this country, still living through the fog of a tumultuous year, the answer is crystal clear. The problem is the other tribe and it has been for a long time.
What’s sad is that in almost every rant that makes its way onto social media, there are at the very least kernels of truth. There’s no shortage of reasons to cast blame on pretty much everyone mentioned previously, which is what makes this so messy. One can easily make the case, that just about everyone has contributed in some way to getting us to this point.
And so, as much as we may want to cast judgements on the events of the recent past, it may be helpful to remind ourselves that this isn’t an isolated incident that came out of nowhere. It may be even more helpful to view this event against the backdrop of larger undercurrents that have been forming within society over many years and decades. To take a step back and try looking at it from a 10,000-foot view.
As I so often do in many of these posts, I find movies and TV shows so incredibly helpful because they represent the stories we tell ourselves that both inform our culture and reflect where it currently stands. Often popular art can give us a glimpse into where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. And I can think of no genre of movies and TV shows that reflects this evolution (or maybe better put “devolution”) more clearly than the super hero genre.
these aren’t your granddaddy’s super heroes
I’ll admit. I’m no comic book junkie. The extent of my comic book reading as a kid consisted of Calvin & Hobbes, Dilbert, and The Far Side. I never really dabbled in the super hero genre. It just wasn’t my thing.
My exposure to super heroes as an adolescent was largely relegated to an occasional viewing of the Batman animated series and the live action Batman and Robin movies. You know, the ones with the over-the-top “KAPOW” and “BANG” lettering intermixed with each and every fight scene. It was enough for me to ask for my own Batman utility belt. But that was about the peak of my interest.
But my love for the super hero genre, really began with the first Iron Man movie and the introduction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I know I’m not alone in feeling this. Marvel Studios has been producing many of the highest grossing movies of the past decade, (for good reason) and continues to pump them out at an increasing frequency, no doubt to capitalize on an opportune moment while popularity remains high.
Sure the visual effects and CGI has taken current films to a completely new level of production quality than the older films. But maybe one of the most notable changes has come with the with the characters themselves.
Unlike the typical superhero trope of the past, none of the super heroes within the MCU maintain their secret identity. Ever since Tony Stark revealed his identity as Iron Man in the first movie, almost none of the characters have maintained an alter ego. There is no stark division drawn between their public and private lives. And that means for the viewer, you are presented with all of the flaws and weaknesses of the heroes.
In the past, clear lines were drawn between good and evil without much of a character arc required within the individual. But in today’s movies, although there are certainly clear “good guys” and “bad guys”, the protagonists have flaws, and deeper context is given for why the antagonists became who they are. Changes that certainly make the movies all the more engaging and are worthy of note.
But where this genre really takes a turn is with one of it’s most recent adaptations. The Boys, a very popular TV show on Amazon Prime that just finished its second season, demonstrates this shift in culture by very clearly contrasting itself against the many super hero stories of the past. And boy oh boy (pun intended), is it a doozy.
The show was recommended by friends of ours. With an 8.7 rating on IMDB, many award nominations, and considered one of the most popular shows today, this show is certainly drawing a lot of attention. And as usual in our household, Morgan started watching without me. Go figure. But I just so happened to sit down in time to catch this scene from the fourth episode which gave me an introduction into what this show was all about and I was immediately intrigued by its message.
Disclaimer: There is swearing, blood/gore, and disturbing content in this clip. The show is rated for mature audiences. While there is no sexual content in this clip, please know for future reference the show itself does contain pretty gratuitous amounts of it in the remainder of the show. In short, I don’t recommend this for kids.
I’m not sure if this scene hits you as hard as it hits me, but I can’t help but feel my stomach turn when they lie to the passengers that everything would be okay and abandon them to their demise. This scene encapsulates in just a few minutes what this whole show is about.
Clearly Homelander is a parody of Superman. Queen Maeve, a parody of Wonder Woman. There are other super heroes that allude to Aquaman and to The Flash. This whole show takes the oh so familiar concept of a group of super heroes like the Justice League, and flips it on its head. What if those who are responsible for our protection aren’t just incompetent at times, but they’re actually malevolent?
If you watch the show, you will see that this twist doesn’t just occur with the super heroes. Nearly every institution in this show is untrustworthy. A Christian organization is led by a man that is sexually deviant in private after condemning it publicly. A big pharmaceutical company is led by completely dishonest leaders and misleads the public every step of the way. Politicians are corrupt. Cults take advantage of their followers for monetary gain. Many of the relationships depicted are absolute train wrecks. Innocent bystanders killed all the time in both domestic and foreign affairs. And the show makes barely veiled allusions to many of our cultures hot-button topics like white supremacy, the #MeToo Movement, and police brutality. It has it all!
This show is at its core a thought experiment. What if we took the super hero concept and made a dystopian version of it? That my friends in a nutshell is The Boys. A show that probably would not have received anywhere near this level of popularity in the past. A show that probably won’t stand the test of time. But a show that shows so saliently what so many are feeling today.
And what’s their proposed solution? “The Boys.” A group of nobodies who have been hurt in the past by these super heroes and who group together to take down them down through not only non-violent means, but also through violence. The solution is a grassroots resistance rebelling against the powers at hand. Does this sound familiar?
The Decay of social capital
It may not come as a surprise that public trust in government has been hovering around an all-time low for much of the recent past. The below chart from Pew Research shows just how precipitously we’ve declined in trust in public officials these past 60 years.
Then one could look at the status of marriages over the past century and the waning influence it has within our society. And with the reduced rate of marriages, we have seen related patterns in the increase of babies born out of wedlock, certainly a condition that does not afford stability to the children – a storyline I would note that one can also find within the plot of The Boys.
I’m sure one could easily find similar studies showing trends for diminished trust in the police, our neighbors, clergy, state and local officials, schools, etc. And similar levels of disconnection from other institutions like church, community groups, friends and family. Despite having the ability to connect more easily today with anyone around the globe, we are more disjointed and less trusting of those around us.
Is it any wonder why a show like The Boys would resonate with people today yet almost certainly be incredibly off-putting to generations past? Is it any wonder why so many on both the right and left are resisting and rebelling against who they perceive to be the perpetrators of these conditions? Is it any wonder that many feel that resorting to violence is the only way for them to feel heard?
Social capital is rarely mentioned measure of a culture’s health. Honestly I wasn’t familiar with the term until very recently, but it is quite obvious once you hear it. Social capital is the value of the relationships within a society that not only bind us together, but propel us to live admirably and function effectively. High trust within a society reduces the need for regulation. Moral behaviors that arise from constructive relationships reduce the need for law enforcement. Social capital provides increased levels of satisfaction, stability and predictability to our lives. And it affords opportunities for the most disenfranchised to be heard when those relationships are prioritized between all levels of the hierarchy.
When societies are functioning at their best, social capital is high. Sadly many of the previous attributes mentioned do not describe the experiences for many in our nation today. In many regards, that dystopian vision of The Boys is not too far off from what many perceive to be reality. So what can we do?
so how do we build social capital again?
One may say that maybe our trust in the government in the past was too high. That the very carefully crafted propaganda of our past that afforded such a unifying vision of our country’s leadership cannot occur in this modern era, nor would we want that. Can you imagine a current president being able to hide for years their limited mobility like FDR did in the past?
Like that aforementioned change made in the MCU movies, for better or for worse, we are presented with far more of the strengths and flaws of our leaders than at any time in the past. With cameras everywhere and an expectation that communication not just come from polished speeches but from half-baked tweets, we will get an up-close view of not just their public lives, but their private lives too. In fact, with the advent of social media, we’re confronted with the best and worst of many of our peers as well. To some degree we need to learn to live with the messiness of one another that is aired out for all to see in ways it hasn’t in the past, including our leaders (not to be mistaken as an excuse for these recent riots).
But there are many other changes that have been occurring within our society over the past several decades. Many seemingly small and innocuous decisions are made by all of us that over time accumulate. The decision to continue a marriage or end it. To get to know our neighbors better or ignore them. To attend church and invest time into the community or spend every leisure hour on ourselves. To be diligent at our work or let our quality slip when no one’s looking. To be dependable to our children, parents, and friends or look out for #1. To build social capital, or to let it decay.
We didn’t get here overnight. And we’re not getting out of it as quickly either. We don’t have to live within a dystopia. But in order to promote trust in our institutions again, the people who make up those institutions have to start generating more social capital again. And violence is never constructive.
Jesus said to his disciples in the hours leading up to his execution, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
Jesus found himself within the midst of a very harsh culture war and instead of resorting to violence he encouraged his disciples to seek a new way. The Boys glorifies violence as its solution to the problem of malevolent actors. Jesus proposed a different, albeit far more costly and difficult way to approach others, even our enemies.
To continue to invest in others, even when it’s at the cost of yourself. Those aren’t the type of heroes we glorify today. But those are the heroes we need to turn things around. Then, and only then, will we actually begin to see and feel indications of healing. And maybe, just maybe, we will look back at these recent events as the pivot point towards something better.
I forgot just how much I dislike election years… But as November 3rd gets closer and closer, the temperature gets up all the more. Tensions are running high for most everyone and I’m no exception.
Over the last several years since this past presidential election cycle got underway, I have on several occasions wanted to write something but didn’t quite have the words to say and decided to take the path of silence. This post is very much an outflow of my own internal processing over these past four years. I didn’t post it before because I didn’t want to incite any anger or hurt anyone, a seemingly impossible task these days. That decision to hold back was probably for the best. To take four years to step back, read some history, listen to some new voices and barely scratch the surface of trying to understand how we arrived at this juncture has been fruitful. Maybe even now I should be holding my tongue, but we’ll see how this goes.
It’s probably good for you to know upfront that I didn’t vote for either Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton this past election. Yes I did vote, but I did not give my endorsement to either candidate. This isn’t something I’m necessarily proud of (as I’ll discuss later). I share this because I hope you see that I’m coming at this issue with a relatively moderate view. No one is truly unbiased, and pure centrism isn’t necessarily an ideal to be lauded at all times, but I’m doing my best to write that way. We have enough divisive political content. I want to try and offer something different.
It’s a difficult topic to write on without angering someone but I hope I can pull this off. Here we go!
there Are Only (REALLY) Two Options
If you had to choose between eating a warm slice of apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a handful of dirt (not that crushed Oreo’s and pudding concoction) which would you choose? I think all reasonable people that don’t have a gluten allergy and lactose intolerance would take the pie and ice cream over some gritty dirt in a heartbeat.
But what happens when the choice is between that warm slice of apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a chocolate cake filled with hot fudge? All of the sudden the decision gets more difficult for most people. The conclusion becomes more situational… What did I have for dinner? Am I around people who will judge me for a particular food choice? Did I have enough fruit and vegetables today to justify all that chocolate?
While for some people, election decisions may feel like a choice between eating pie or dirt, others may relate more to the choice between the pie and cake. During a year like this, I think these people who see overwhelming positives to both candidates are a minority. I’m sure for many others it may feel like a choice between getting a gut punch or a kick to the shins, where neither option is ideal. For even the most staunch supporters of a particular candidate, how often is it because the other side seems all the more unbearable.
When a decision comes down to only two candidates who represent platforms that cover such a wide range of topics it should be much more complicated and situational than a choice between pie and dirt. The two-party system presents a false dilemma fallacy. The notion that this is black and white often keeps us from understanding the complex decision others, like us, are trying to make.
There are so many issues that have substantial complexity to them and deserve discussion and dialogue. The economy, national security, supreme court justice nominees, racial and gender equality, border security, immigration, education, tax policy, environmental regulations, energy policy, the criminal justice system, abortion, foreign relations, religious freedoms, cyber security, and now pandemic response just to name a few.
There are people who dedicate their entire lives to studying just one of these issues and come to different conclusions on the right way to address them. Every person who voted for Trump does not necessarily have the same opinions on all of the topics. And neither does every person who voted for Clinton. I think I’m safe to presume the same applies to this election.
If you completely align with one party’s beliefs, it makes the choice much easier. And sure, there are certainly reasons why a general consensus forms around each party’s platforms with general acceptance among wide swaths of the population. However, while aligning entirely with a party’s platform may make for easy voting, you may wish to consider if it should really be that easy. Considering party platforms have changed considerably over time (compare party platforms to what they believed even a couple decades ago), what’s to say they won’t continue to change? And does that mean you will change your beliefs to align with an ever-changing platform? Where is your anchor set?
Let’s remember we’re reducing a lot of complexity to just two (sorry third-party candidates) choices for most elections. Assume that other people are giving as much thought to this complexity as you are. They may not be. But it’s certainly a more charitable starting point if you presume they are and I would argue more productive.
you live alongside people on the other side
I have friends and family who hold views on both sides and I’m sure almost all of you do as well. Especially over the past few years, I have consistently heard people paint those on the other side with a broad brush. “Anyone who voted for X is fill in the blank.” Stupid, greedy, racist, lazy, ignorant, bigoted, unpatriotic… you get the idea. I’m sure most of you agree with me when I say this is incredibly difficult to listen to because we know people we value, respect, and look up to who fall on both sides of the political spectrum and we don’t think they fit these stereotypes.
Many of these people are incredibly bright, kind, generous, well intended, and patriotic people and fall on differing sides and there’s a reason for that. Picking a candidate to vote for is a very complex decision that people have to make. That doesn’t mean that people might vote for someone for reasons that are not admirable. But my experience has been, that more often than not the reasons given have been very much commendable even if they seem unsound.
When we see those across the table as people who are doing the best with what they know and believe to make a choice for the betterment of the nation instead of adversaries with malevolent intentions, we can change the tone of the conversation. I think one of the best reminders we can tell ourselves is that most people are trying to make the best choice for our nation and their communities and families and may come to a different conclusion than we do.
I know I’ve changed my views or at least broadened my understanding of topics over the last several years. I’m glad others have been patient with me as my views have evolved. I’m sure in the future I will look back at myself now and will see areas where my thoughts have changed. And very likely other views that have become more firmly established. That’s how we all work through these topics. I think we should extend that same patience to others that we expect for ourselves.
the morals of our leaders are important but not everything
It would be much easier if we only had to vote based on the issues, but we also take into account the temperament, morals, and likability of the candidates during an election. I think it is on this issue that we have seen the most strain. I realize those last two statements weren’t exactly the most cryptic but please stay with me.
For those that highly value the demeanor of those in leadership, cracks in authenticity and morality can be crippling to their view of that candidate and the party they represent. As a result, it can be easy for them to criticize those who support that candidate and are sometimes unable to understand how they could ever vote for them. On the contrary, those that highly value the policies and platform of the candidate can often overlook the implication of words and actions and do not always see that the way a leader carries themselves has a significant influence on the temperament of the nation.
Voting for a particular candidate does not mean someone endorses every act the candidate does and every word they speak. Someone who criticizes a candidate for an act they do or word they say should not, by extension, condemn all who voted for that candidate. Likewise, those who voted for the candidate should be able to make criticisms when they have been wrong and not take offense when others criticize the candidate.
As an example, FDR despite being a lightning rod for divisions in politics, is still considered one of the most highly touted presidents in our nation’s history for his ability to lead through incredibly trying times. He and his wife Eleanor championed a lot of causes, especially during World War II, that greatly improved the quality of life for women and African Americans in particular and were incredibly gifted at shaping the direction and sentiments of the citizenry. If you have a chance, look up just how many listeners he had for his fireside chats. People wanted to hear from him and be encouraged with his words during trying times.
Despite his ability to lead the nation, he had his own personal failings. FDR had an affair while married to Eleanor with Lucy Mercer before his presidency. In his final months before his death he spent time with Lucy without Eleanor’s knowledge or consent. After his death when Eleanor found out, as you can expect, she was crushed. In addition, he could be incredibly shallow in his friendships, use them for political gain, and abandon them like when health issues arose for Missy LeHand, his personal secretary. In addition to the failings in his personal life, the internment of Japanese citizens and rejection of Jewish immigrants during World War II are widely criticized today. A leader who was, and still is, widely celebrated for his accomplishments had his own personal shortcomings that are often overlooked.
Even the presidents that are often most praised have failed at times. My intention is not to stain FDR’s presidency but instead to highlight the mixture of good and bad that can happen at the same time.
All presidents, even the best ones, have had morality issues throughout history. Every person in the world, to varying degrees, has done something immoral in their life. That’s the complexity of the issue of morality. That doesn’t mean we diminish those errors or look past them. It also doesn’t mean we allow that to cloud our judgement so that we condemn those who supported that candidate or all other actions of that leader.
Party lines have to disappear when it comes to these issues of morality like adultery, lying, and slander, otherwise our credibility is lost. We should try our best to consistently judge the actions of our leaders while also having an understanding that every leader who has lived and ever will live has failed or will fail at some point. We are imperfect people led by more imperfect people. It’s therefore a given that there are always going to be morality issues and we’ll have to learn how to respond to them. We have to view every political leader with the same level of objectivity, regardless of party if we want those around us to respect our views. Once double standards occur, the ability to have productive conversations is hindered.
The tactics politicians and mainstream media use do not work for friends and family
Every time I was at the “judgement-free zone” of Planet Fitness, I would find it a bit humorous when watching CNN and Fox News up on the TV screens in front of me with their “Breaking News” and “Fox News Alert” ribbons at the bottom of the screen. Ever notice how those are on for nearly the entire shows even when incredibly trivial matters are discussed?
I’m sure we’ve all heard the story of the Boy Who Cried “Wolf!” right? When everything is urgent or alarming don’t we lose a sense of what topics are actually urgent and alarming? Or when one side is painted as being exclusively responsible for all the issues our country is facing, isn’t it easy to fall into tribal tendencies? Unfortunately, the media is largely driven by the number of eyes they can get on their content. And what has proven to be most lucrative is a form of reporting that is meant to be first and foremost entertaining to the masses.
Sure reality TV shows may be entertaining, but a culture can dissolve quickly when every household starts to reflect these same values and devolves into reality TV shows themselves.
Politics, similarly, are driven by the desires of the masses. FDR didn’t necessarily want to detain the Japanese Americans in internment camps or turn away ships carrying Jewish refugees during World War II. He decided it was politically advantageous to follow the opinion of the masses in these decisions because he would be up for reelection in the future. Andrew Jackson, a populist candidate elected by the masses for his heroics and selflessness in war, is now widely criticized for his treatment of the Native Americans, when at the time his decision to eradicate them from their lands was the popular decision among Americans.
Even Abraham Lincoln, who wished to give the Emancipation Proclamation earlier than he did, decided to wait about six months for the tide of the public to match his desires and values before giving the proclamation. Many people in the north were not ready for the idea of emancipation. Abraham had to wait on them to work through their own beliefs and for the appropriate moment to present itself. Politicians are walking a fine line of making the decisions they think are right and what decisions the public wants them to make.
In that sense, they can often serve as a mirror to ourselves. They to a certain extent embody the values we broadly hold as a culture. And that should scare all of us.
The hotly contested shouting matches that are often depicted in political debates and on the mainstream news is in a similar position. They are walking a fine line of making the decisions they think are best and what the public demand is. There are clearly benefits for them to be outraged and aggressive, otherwise they wouldn’t do all the theatrics. That same approach to discord does not benefit us in the same way.
We’re dividing over these issues. Finding our echo chambers and refusing to come out. The aspects of politics and media we most despise are due, at least in part, to the culture we have fostered. If we can change our demand for better forms of political discourse, maybe we can turn the tide. But it starts in the little conversations with the friends and family we have disagreements with.
So what now? When I said I wasn’t necessarily proud of my decision to not vote for either party’s candidate it was because I feel like I should have been able to look at all of these factors and make a decision that would actually endorse a candidate in contention. I knew my vote wouldn’t change the outcome in 2016 and didn’t want to contribute to the election of either candidate. I had a gut punch/kick-to-the-shins outlook on the election and said “no thank you” to both. I plan to vote for one of these two candidates this year, and I’m not particularly thrilled, but I think there’s value in contributing to which platform is, in my opinion best for the country.
That being said, we can also fall into the mistake of thinking all change must start from the top of our government. We tend to assign all our praise and hope or blame and misery to the people in power. Unfortunately that mindset only feeds this issue more as the public becomes more and more dependent on the input and direction of these politicians and media that feed these thoughts. Patience, which I think is key to unity, can only occur if we believe the world won’t end if our candidate doesn’t happen to win.
In closing, I would like to offer one memory that I have that has left quite an impression on me. Just before my friend’s wedding ceremony, the pastor said a prayer for my friend asking God to help them develop a marriage that would positively influence their families, which would positively influence the community, which would positively influence the regions and then the nations.
How we treat those around us has a far more profound impact on our quality of life than any past, current, or future presidents, supreme court justices, or congressmen will ever have. People have lived good, fulfilling lives in the midst of all types of government systems throughout history. That’s not to say politics or advocating for the things that are important to us don’t matter. And that’s not to say that different government systems don’t influence the quality of life of their citizens. I’m saying that a good life starts in the closest relationships we have, and the fruit that comes from those relationships is what will nourish and build up our families, communities, and nations even in times of political division.
Change can be a long and arduous process, but it starts at home and works it’s way up from there. And that is what I am most hopeful for because it’s this type of change that we have the most control over.
In 10 years, when new people are in office and we look back at this chapter of our lives, will the discord we allowed between us and our closest friends and family over politics really be worth all the division we have sown? If not, maybe now is the time to change.
One of the most compelling television series to air in the last decade and a half was Breaking Bad. The show displayed so brilliantly what happens when Bryan Cranston’s character Walter White, realizing he has terminal cancer, makes a seemingly altruistic decision to make and sell drugs during the time he has left to provide for his family when he’s gone. While this choice certainly had risks associated with it, he felt this was the best thing he could do to ensure the security of the family. However, his cancer goes into remission but he gets sucked deeper and deeper into the life of crime and the viewer is left conflicted. At different times rooting for Walter’s success and at other times his demise.
Walter White’s descent can be traced back to that initial decision to deviate from society’s more widely acceptable path for life. He lived for all intents and purposes a decently innocent and moral life beforehand. He was a good family man who loved his wife and son with disabilities dearly. But he decided he had to give up on teaching as his primary way of earning income to lead this double life where he cooked and sold meth to ensure his family’s financial security. A decision most would say was immoral but complicated by the good intentions behind it. But that one decision led to a cascade of subsequent effects not just for him but everyone around him. And the show so aptly demonstrates all that can come from one seemingly innocuous decision.
Joker, however, tells a much more harrowing and dark story. For how profound Breaking Bad was, I think Joker gets even closer to the heart of many questions we are asking today? What if this descent cannot be traced back to a specific decision made by the individual, but instead a complete letdown by their society around them? Is the Joker bad? Is he good? And what does this movie say about the healthiness, or unhealthiness of our culture and politics today? I think it’s these questions that make this recent Oscar award-winning film one of the most fascinating and timely movies to come out recently.
have we been lying to ourselves?
In elementary school, I can still remember the cheers we used to shout to start all of our pep rallies. “You can do anything you set your mind to!” “Together we can make a difference!” “Believe that you can!” Even as adults, we continue to give ourselves and one another similar pep talks. Our Facebook news feeds are filled with them. Little slogans we use to encourage one another through the grind of life.
And sometimes these sayings aren’t explicitly stated but are implicitly embodied within the very fabric of our culture. We remind ourselves that we live in the land of opportunity and that anyone can live the “American Dream” if they work hard enough and take advantage of their opportunities. While these mantras may be more questioned today than at many other times in our nation’s past, we cannot underestimate the power of promises like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on how we interpret the state of affairs today and on our aspirations for a better tomorrow.
But what happens when the things you set your mind to don’t happen? Or when there is no community you can find to connect with, let alone find a sense of purpose or meaning within? Or when it seems you’re very spirit has been crushed to the point where you don’t think you can keep going? When sickness or mental illness serve as a stumbling block? When the family you were raised in did not provide the upbringing that could lead to the same level of success as those from other families? When the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness seem to be a farce?
Joker presents us with this very conundrum. Arthur Fleck, the man who eventually names himself The Joker, cannot find assistance through his medications, social workers, family, friends, coworkers, strangers, or even the heroes he looks up to. He is an impoverished man with mental disabilities who represents what can happen to someone caught up in the perfect storm of social ills. He’s an outcast, despised, misunderstood, forgotten, and invisible to the world around him.
The entire movie shows how even a man with good intentions can tailspin down into the villain we know so well. He worked hard, but it didn’t pay off. He tried to find community and invest into relationships, only to be betrayed. And he started off with so much hope only to descend into absolute despair.
One of the sad realities of this film that the viewer must contend with is that there are many “Arthur”s in our midst and there have always been. Have we been lying to ourselves and to them all this time with cliché platitudes that everyone can just pick themselves up by their bootstraps? The viewer is left struggling to answer the question, who is to blame for what happened to Arthur?
turning today’s narratives upside down
Leading up to the release of Joker, there was much concern from many in the media (left and right) that this film was going to be dangerous. That this film, just years after the shooting at a theater in Aurora, Coloarado at a screening of The Dark Knight, could serve as the inspiration for similar incels. There were fears that people would rally around the Joker character, who epitomizes the upside-down world of an oppressed social outcast who becomes the ringleader of anarchists.
None of us should want to see a replication of that Aurora tragedy occur. And we should be very wary of the power of ideas to inspire action in people, both good and bad. But good art is intended to move us, and as demonstrated by the film’s numerous awards and the clear impact it had on viewers it seems to have done it’s job.
But I think there were other aspects of this film, that for good reason would make so many fearful of how “dangerous” this film could be. But dangerous in a different way. Dangerous because it breaks down all of the simple narratives we often cling to for comfort.
Dangerous because it attacks the idea that firearms are a fail-safe to crime and injustice in our world. All it takes is a firearm falling into the hands of the wrong person to create chaos.
Dangerous because it shows that even if you pour lots of tax dollars into the “social safety net,” it doesn’t guarantee that the social workers actually serving on the frontlines will necessarily provide the humane care and concern people require.
Dangerous because the easy storyline of “you reap what you sow” or karma don’t always work. Are we really comfortable admitting that sometimes bad things happen to well-intended people and it might not be their fault? Or that bad things may come down the road to us for reasons out of our control?
Dangerous because it makes us acknowledge that people who fall outside our typical oppressed categories can still be hurt. Arthur doesn’t fit the typical mold of who we consider to be oppressed in today’s society. But I think we would be hard-pressed not to see him in that light by the end of the movie.
Dangerous because almost no one is portrayed as a good person in this movie regardless of race, gender, or class? When we are so often looking for easy lines with which to divide ourselves between good people and bad people, Joker pulls the rug out from underneath us. It’s like looking into a mirror and realizing we’re all in this together, and we all together, are terrible neighbors to one another.
Dangerous because when someone cannot find any mobility within the social hierarchy available to them, they may, and often will find ways of revolting and finding their place in a new upside-down hierarchy. A hierarchy based on anarchy. How much more upside down can it get than by seeing a clown hailed as a hero? A person so far on the outskirts of society exalted as king?
And dangerous because, just like in Breaking Bad with Walter White, the viewer is given good reasons to empathize with Arthur. Something that can be incredibly unsettling. This feeds the inversion of our worldviews.
what is the solution?
As it is with every election year, these conversations about who should be elected and which party should assume leadership in Washington reaches boiling points. This year will be no different. These elections serve as a battle over ideas regarding what is best for society. The two ends of the spectrum often championed as the best solutions to our social ails are most often represented generally by the terms capitalism and socialism (or democratic socialism if we want it to sound nicer).
But you will find very little overt messaging within this film as to what their recommended solution is to this predicament? The movie actually says very little politically actually (which was another reason many media outlets were wary of this film). In fact, the movie seems to content to leave its viewers in a deep feeling of despair at the end with questions still lingering. Is there a solution to this problem? Will this movie serve as prophecy of what is to come for our society? Are we staring into the headlights of an oncoming train without adequate time to jump off the tracks?
If anything, I think the big question this movie asks is what would it have taken to prevent Arthur from taking the path that he did? And if we think that’s as simple as a limited government with a free-market system or a democratic socialist system with a big enough safety net we’re kidding ourselves.
Can any presidential candidate or political party change how we interact as neighbors with one another? Not just with the ones who return the favor, but the ones who cannot? That’s not to say politics cannot or do not play a role. They can and are important. But this movie strikes at something deeper and more profound. Something upstream of politics.
Where do we find our source of motivation today to treat each other well, especially the ones we tend to write off as not deserving it?
an alternative upside down kingdom
By the end of the movie, Arthur finds his identity as The Joker. He finds his acceptance and affirmation from others and takes his seat at the throne as leader of the crime and uprisings within Gotham.
This storyline isn’t without historical precedent. Riots have often served as a referendum on the state of affairs within a society. But I don’t think riots, social upheaval and massive deconstruction (both physically and metaphysically) are the most sustainable way or healthy way to respond to the issues the Joker presents us with.
Could religion, which is suspiciously absent from the movie, offer something here to help?
There’s an interesting passage in John 9, which has echoes of the story of Job, where Jesus encounters a man blind from birth. His disciples ask him “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” to which Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
Throughout his ministry, Jesus is turning people’s understandings of the world upside down. Good standing in this life did not necessarily mean good standing before God. And poor standing in this life did not necessarily mean someone could not be found within the Kingdom of God.
In a society so often described as a dog-eat-dog world and governed by karma, or the retribution principle, Jesus further exemplifies a new way of looking at others and understanding the world. An alternative worldview that has for thousands of years served as a motivation for people to love their neighbors well. And a worldview that I would argue actually gives rise to stories like Joker.
We have to reckon with the fact that this movie would never be popularized within Nazi Germany or the Roman Empire (I know they didn’t have movies). There was no attention given to the lowliest. In fact, the Nazi’s were adamant about wiping out the very weakest in society for the betterment of the human race. This idea of taking care of the weak is so significantly tied to the ministry of Jesus.
And now this movie is wrestling with the question of how do we motivate ourselves to care for the disenfranchised as we quickly deconstruct our religious foundation within society? That’s why this movie is so poignant and relevant today.
So… Not every negative outcome in someone’s life is of direct response to something they or their family did wrong. There isn’t anyone who is too non-religious, oppressed, forgotten, betrayed, or hurt who cannot be reached by the restorative touch of a God who is rich in mercy and full of compassion for anyone and everyone.
And maybe, just maybe, the works of God can be displayed in the least of these. That God can choose the foolish things of this world, even a broken down man like Arthur Fleck, to shame the strong. That’s the type of motivation that I believe can actually change lives and change societies.
If you’ve ever been to the Judgement Free Zone of Planet Fitness you would know that in addition to their free Tootsie Rolls and Pizza Mondays, most of their gyms have a row of televisions in front of their treadmills, ellipticals, and exercise bikes.
The TVs are set to a variety of channels usually including the staples like ESPN, HGTV, and ABC. And of course, they always have on both CNN and Fox News.
I would often be listening to music or a podcast, but every so often I would take a look up and see what the banners at the bottom of each channel’s screens indicating they were discussing. The ironic thing about being able to watch both channels at the same time was being able to see two incredibly different messages about the same event. Whether it was the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, Dayton and El Paso shootings, Freddie Gray incident, or the latest political or economic developments, these two news providers rarely presented the same take on the same event that we were all watching.
They serve as a clear indication of the divide we all are wrestling with today. How can we see the other sides viewpoint? Can we have good, meaningful, and respectful conversation? I think we can even though the news can make it very difficult for us to get there.
how is the news different today?
Consider how long the news used to take to get around the world. Prior to the telegraph and the photograph, stories took significantly more time and effort to communicate over distance let alone publish, print, and distribute.
I cannot honestly say that it is all doom and gloom when it comes to the news. Today, the news does a great job of providing us with stories from all across the globe. Today stories are heard from people who previously would not have had the means to do: the downtrodden, the outcasts, the oppressed, and those tucked away in the farthest reaches of the globe. Where previously, the economics of getting a story out would have been cost-prohibitive for these people, today they have a microphone to quickly reach out to the greater society outside their immediate community.
Additionally, we can’t help but ponder the benefits of being able to engage with people of other nations. Within the past century, we have gone from not really understanding many of the people from other corners of the globe, to being able to communicate with them with ease. This connectivity has in many ways helped us to a greater extent “humanize” the strangers that we would have never met or interacted with previously. These technologies have provided great benefits to society and we cannot forget that.
Similar to the introduction of the printing press, the telegraph, photograph, television, and now the internet that have drastically changed the pace at which we receive our news. Stories and photos are now, to exponentially greater degrees, able to be mass-produced and distributed. Instead of the daily periodical, news runs continuously 24/7 and now an article published a day ago (sometimes even hours or minutes) seems like ancient history.
However, as it is with most new technologies, there is almost always a flip-side to its introduction to culture or at least unforeseen side effects. Consider how automobiles allowed for quicker and more enjoyable travel, but also changed dating forever and brought about the automobile accident and the need for new infrastructure. Or how even something as seemingly trivial as a clock and our ability to measure time can change how we interact with nature, the seasons, and how we structure our days. New technologies inevitably cause changes in culture.
So often we hear people saying the media is particularly ugly today. Yet I think you can look into publications from early in our nation’s history like those of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and find similarly argumentative and ugly disputes to what we find on Fox News and CNN today.
There are many implications of these new technologies, but two in particular that I think are incredibly relevant to this conversation on social justice issues. I think it’s the medium and quantity of news that is so starkly different and can present issues.
the medium for the news matters
A quick example of how the medium of television has changed our methods of communication in the past century is demonstrated by this ad for the Model T and the following commercials from 1951 and 2013 for Ford.
What I find so fascinating is how that 1951 Ford commercial shows a blend of the former paper advertisement and today’s almost complete lack of words and reliance on imagery. The narrator is walking you through step-by-step the benefits of purchasing this particular car similar to the paper advertisement for the Model T. However, the Mustang commercial has pretty much no narration, some musical background, and is basically saying this car can reflect your inner personality. We cannot diminish how starkly different these two messages are.
A literate culture prioritizes a linear thought process. It has to, because you are organizing words in publications and books in a way that constructs a logical argument. The reader needs to follow the train of thought. You may notice that the 1951 commercial’s narrator sounds like someone reading from a book or script. How robotic sounding right? However, this dialogue is a reflection of the medium that up until then was most widespread and used for communicating. Everyone to a large extent spoke that way because it was primarly through reading that they engaged with the culture. Newpapers and books offered this type of logical approach then and they still do today.
However today, we see how this new medium of television has drastically changed how we communicate because it has taken over as the primary means of communication. Most of us don’t talk in a similar way to the narrator from the 1951 commercial because television has replaced written forms as the most often used medium for communication. A shift towards the prioritization of imagery, music, emotions, and symbolism that unfortunately undermines the linear logic that used to be prevalent in a more literate society. I think we can see how our news has shifted in a similar way.
the mass production of sympathy and disappearance of empathy
I spent my last post criticizing how our political system is affecting our discussions on social reform and justice topics. But it wasn’t through the political sphere that I first engaged with the Freddie Gray story. The news got to me first. Within hours of the unfortunate incident, we were immediately presented with video and interviews from people on the ground. Journalists offering the first takes on what was unfolding.
One of the emotions that struck me initially as the events surrounding Freddie Gray’s death unfolded on the television screen was that of pity. A feeling of sorrow for the unfortunate and sad events surrounding him, his family, and others affected in similar confrontations with police. Maybe you had similar feelings. I had never met Freddie Gray or anyone in his family nor anyone who had experienced a similar situation. Yet I was saddened by the news.
The eye opening thing with revisiting my draft blog post four years later is, my sense of pity did not drive me to make any changes in my personal life. I didn’t seek out Freddie Gray’s family to offer support. That’s not to say I should have, because that probably would have come across as strange and unwelcome. I didn’t go into my local community with the intent of starting a conversation regarding police and minority relations. I’m not a cop or related to one nor am I a minority so this wasn’t really salient to me and in the busyness of live that opportunity never really presented itself. My pity drove me to nothing new other than dwelling on the sad situation that unfolded in Baltimore.
I’ve noticed for myself that pity on it’s own isn’t sufficient to drive change. It’s a passive emotion. It doesn’t help me to move towards anyone. Honestly, after a few weeks following this event, I had largely forgotten about it. Even when visiting the city a few years ago, I can’t recall this event popping into my memory. It took me rereading my post to remember.
Neil Postman in his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” said the following of how our news functions today:
“Since we live today in just such a neighborhood (now sometimes called a “global village”), you may get a sense of what is meant by context-free information by asking yourself the following question: How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve?”
I don’t share this quote to reduce the significance of a lost life. Quite the opposite. My point is what he mentions in the beginning. That what we now consider a neighborhood is what we could really call a “global village.” We used to only have the ability to interact with our immediate geographic community. When we would have heard of a death, it was almost always someone in our community and therefore we could in person provide support to those grieving. In that context pity can serve a role because there’s an opportunity for action.
Today though, news as tragic as what occurred in Baltimore is displayed before us on a nearly daily basis, and as a result it becomes normalized. Habits get created where the news of tragedy are routinely met with no response but maybe a short bout of outrage. We cannot help but trivialize and reduce the significance of the death when we get important news in the quantities that we are. This isn’t to say the Freddie Gray story isn’t important. It’s to say we are getting too many important stories like these with no substantial conversation happening to help us figure out what to do with all this information.
And by the next day our pity has been transferred to some other heartbreaking story. The latest shooting. The latest kidnapping. The latest murder. The news has no shortage of sad stories to share. Similar to the economics of politics, the news profit with viewership. And sadly, the tragic stories seem to sell.
A few years ago I had actually been pretty worn down with an excessive intake of the news and dwelling on the tragedies of the day. Something I’ve had to consciously try to take a step back from. My wife, Morgan shared this video with me a few years ago that she had seen in one of her classes at school. I found it quite helpful for me. It’s a short and beautiful illustrated video depicting the difference between empathy and sympathy. I would say that sympathy as described in the video is synonymous with my use of the term pity in this post.
I think television today is able to generate a lot of sympathetic responses from its viewers. The news is constructed in a manner that inundates us with context-free information and stories that will not cause us to alter or plans or come alongside those who are going through difficult times. Stories though that are very emotionally charged and the videos shared elicit responses similar to the Ford Mustang commercial.
Television turns these stories into entertainment and allows us to dwell in the mire and muck of the saddest of all tragedies that we often cannot enter into and engage with in person. Pity in this scenario only pulls us all down with no real opportunity to pull ourselves and the victims out of it. It moves us towards a state of sympathy not empathy.
The news is not structured in a way to serve us in figuring out how to think about these stories. It often does not present a logical argument for how to think about these topics and presents a hyper-emotional view on them. Even when the news tries to provide a logical argument, they are held to a 5-minute segment, which is nowhere near enough time to really get a substantial discussion going.
The news brings the miseries of the world into our living room but often makes us numb to them and provides no thorough discussion on the implications of these stories or how we are to respond. And in the process how often are we distracted with these national stories and we overlook the people in need of empathy living next door or possibly in our own household?
It’s not that the news is all bad and has no role in finding these solutions. The problem is that we have allowed them to become the primary mode through which we hear about these topics and then we let channels like Fox News or CNN construct the narrative we are supposed to believe about these topics. I just do not think the news can adequately prepare us to appropriately respond to or understand the implications of these tragedies. And when current technologies produce a more emotionally charged form of communication, it becomes much more difficult for us to have the patience to hear each other out.
So where should we go for good conversations on these topics? I will explore a couple principles I think are key to recreating this sense of community in my next post.
Well if you’re a Phillies fan, you’ve probably found the past few months pretty frustrating. It seemed like we were set up for a competitive season with off-season acquisitions and early season success, but the wheels have since fallen off and we sit in a position of hoping to land a wild card spot unless some unlikely and fortuitous changes occur. On top of that we may lose our beloved Phillie Phanatic. Not the outcome many of us Philadelphia sports fans had hoped for or envisioned for the season.
The trading deadline is in the rear-view mirror and some fans were left scratching their heads. Why didn’t the team make more significant moves to acquire greater talent with the hopes of making a bigger push into the playoffs? They could have sold some of their minor league prospects to acquire major league talent to try and win now. But they didn’t. Why not?
In some paradoxical way, these professional sports teams are competing for this season and for future seasons as well. There aren’t awards for major league teams who have continuous success over several seasons, except for the number of championships won. However, there could be an argument made for the value of the teams that win consistently over long stretches of time. Teams that aren’t just peaking for one championship season and then diminishing into the position of the lowliest of teams like the Miami Marlins, who are dreadful yet still seem to find a way to best our Phillies this year.
Mortgaging the future for one season is not always the wise decision even though this season is the one the fanbase is most preoccupied with. Somehow the Sixers got fans to look forward somewhat patiently for success years in advance. But most often, especially in Philadelphia, there is a push from the fans to win now. But the front office for the Phillies made the decision that going all in this season, even if it aligned with the wishes and desires of a fanbase to win as soon as possible, would likely compromise any opportunity in the near future to bring home the World Series Trophy. In a sense they are playing two different games at the same time. There’s a competition to win this year’s championship, as remote as those chances are, but also remain competitive in the long term.
We don’t just see this in sports though. In some way, this is an application of delayed gratification similar to the habits of saving, investing, working out, and eating healthy. We try to establish these habits, that require effort and often sacrifice in the short term to provide health, prosperity, and success in the long run.
It’s a principle that seems lost in how our politics work today especially on difficult topics like social justice. Our political system is currently constructed to offer and profit off of immediate gratification and is capable of trading away the long term health of the nation in an expedient effort to obtain something in the now. Essentially, playing for this season and mortgaging our country’s future in the process.
And the general public is adopting a similar temperament to those of the Philadelphia sports fanbase: that brotherly love and patience we are so beloved for. Hopefully we don’t all wind up throwing snowballs at Santa. Feels like we’re really close to that happening.
ProgressivE POLITICS and the narrative it proposes
Progressivism implies a particular perspective or narrative. The inclusion of the word “progress” in it’s name indicates a direction. Change. Fluidity. Flux. The opposite of staying put. It insinuates that where we currently stand is insufficient and that we need to move towards a new place – arguably a better place.
This idea in and of itself is not a bad one, right? There are plenty of issues we can identify around us. No shortage of problems to be solved. Why wouldn’t a progressive mindset be a good, even necessary one? We should try to change to fix issues where possible. To be content with where we currently are would seemingly be to cast a vote in support of the very problems we are observing. and to be accepting of the way things are.
Progressivism, as a political and social platform however, is different. Although they are the side advocating for social justice and reform, I think they are undermining their ability to create the desired change in the process. While both the left and the right have a significant role in the political tension and mudslinging we all see and experience today, I believe it is progressive politics that have elevated the discord to another level.
Before you click away, please give me a chance to explain. I did not vote for Trump. I’m no alt-right white supremacist. I hope everyone reading this who knows me could attest to that. Yes, the right has been blocking all of this necessary social reform with great fervor and they have many problems of their own, that I may write about in the future. The bigger problem with our ability to have conversation on these specific topics of social reform, as I see it, is the resulting attitudes towards one another largely as a result of the progressive platform gaining prominence and I have data to support that conclusion.
Take a look at these statistics from the American National Election Studies (ANES) from 2018 on racial bias.
As you can see from the graph above the more liberal white people consider themselves, the more negatively they feel about white people. The more conservative, the more positively. Also, consider that the moderates also lean towards favoring their in-group. Yeah, yeah, yeah… people on the right are white supremacist, and people on the left see white people accurately as perpetuating the systemic sins they have committed… Let’s look a little deeper.
The real game changer is this next graph.
White liberals are the only group surveyed that views there own race less favorably than other races. Every other subgroup views their own race more preferably than other races. And it’s not a small difference. You could make the argument everyone else is racist… or I think you could draw a more likely to be accurate interpretation that there is something incredibly unnatural occurring within the left wing of our politics today, especially among white people. If you can do the math as well, you will see that there isn’t a drastic difference in how positively white conservatives and white liberals feel about out-group people, which I think is important to note.
Yes, both political parties have a role in the lack of productive conversation we are having today, and these stats don’t mean every white liberal hates white people, but I think these point to a stark trend. I think the progressive platform especially it’s white proponents, for all of it’s own self-proclaimed compassion, are sowing a lot of negative feelings towards others. And it’s these negative feelings that will make the platform unsustainable over the long run, and maybe in the very short term, undermining their own goals in the process.
So what is it specifically about progressive politics that creates these attitudes? The platform, which still emphasizes the need for change and flux within society to move to a better place, focuses on the preeminence of social reform to carry this out. It takes this idea that problems exist and says that through the political realm, almost all issues can be resolved or must be resolved. That change to society must come largely through legislation. That our laws dictate the ethics and direction of our nation, and that without these in place, we cannot make progress. We cannot take steps towards the ideal, towards the utopia we envision, in any other way.
As Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said in one of the recent Democratic Presidential Debates in response to Maryland Representative John Delaney regarding his statements that her platform was “impossible” to implement:
“I don’t understand why someone would go through all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to tell us what we can’t do and what you won’t fight for.”
It was a quote that was largely applauded and celebrated. Several media outlets were praising Elizabeth Warren for standing up for what the party was for and this quote was considered a death blow to John Delaney and his more moderate stance on these issues.
Right now, especially within the Democratic Party presidential nomination race, there is a fight to show how willing you are to advocate for causes without needing to really address the plausibility or methods of pursuing such ends. The more kind and compassionate you sound towards the most lowly members of society, the higher you are in the status hierarchy. It sounds good. It sounds compassionate. It makes for good sound bites. And it is completely understandable why this would sound worthy of support to a lot of people. I probably would have aligned with some of these ideas myself about four years ago, if you read that snippet from my previous post. I bought into this mindset as well.
Progressive politicians advocate for change at the highest levels of government and in the most powerful institutions. That if we can just get the right people in place and the right policies, everything will fall into place. And it isn’t just in politics. I listened to two keynote speeches at colleges this spring advocating that the young adult graduates advocate for these social reforms to be brought about. With the time they were allotted before the young audience, the most important message the speakers wanted to convey was encouraging students to fight for these causes with expedience to make the world a better place. To take on these large systemic issues. Quite a lofty task to entrust to these young adults as they enter a new chapter of life.
The problem is not that these topics or policies are being raised or considered. We should discuss reparations. We should discuss gender equality and if there are barriers for certain minority types from being involved in society. There is merit to discussing these types of policies. The problem, in my opinion, occurs when this political platform serves as a meta-narrative of sorts because then the policies become elevated to ultimate importance to resolving the woes of society.
If the story of our nation can be boiled down to power struggles, how quickly power can be obtained, the institution of new policies at the highest level of government, and that policies are the key to the improvement of well-being and the ushering in of the utopia, who’s to say we shouldn’t rush the process as quickly as possible?
Right, why shouldn’t we fix everything now? That’s what they are promising to do if they are elected. Why shouldn’t we demand it? We see what’s wrong. The problems are self-evident (or so we say). Just throw some legislation at it and we can all go on our merry way. If the wealth of our nation could be more evenly distributed. If the top positions within companies were evenly split between all races, genders, sexual orientations, then we could achieve the equity of outcome that everyone deserves. That only through this approach can we finally right the wrongs of the past and get to that utopia we so desire.
And what about the local community. The family unit. The individual. These smaller and seemingly less powerful entities are of little to no consequence in light of the most powerful institutions. They have no role or responsibility in progressive policies. The individual is reduced to their identity. Gender, sexual orientation, race, age, etc. and are merely a statistic. You are a byproduct of everything that’s been handed you, both the good and bad. Some are privileged and some are oppressed. The individual, the family, the neighborhood are just along for the ride with the social tides and at the mercy of whoever happens to be at the helm of the most powerful institutions in society. Better hope the right person is in charge or your group is screwed.
At that point don’t the ends justify the means? At the end of the day it’s about “progress.” We know what the utopia should look like (or at least we tell ourselves we do). We can create policies to get there, and there’s no reason to wait. These ideas are laced within political discourse. It’s why we have lost patience with the other side. They are standing in the way of progress. (Cue the anger and resentment.)
Yes, there are problems in our society. Yes, some can be fixed with laws. But do we really want to buy into the narrative progressivism provides though? Do we want to put all our eggs in the basket of legislation oscillating in the 4-year tide of presidential elections for solving our problems?
By believing these problems, which progressives usually consider to be significant, can be resolved within any one- or two-term presidency is in an ironic way diminishing the breadth and depth of these very problems. Politicians are playing checkers when we should be playing chess. They have different goals than society at large and have to craft their platforms to appeal to the most voters and motivate them to get out and vote, or as Hillary Clinton would say, Pokemon Go to the polls.
And most politicians seem willing, like an unwise professional sports team, to mortgage the future for the sake of votes now. They are willing to let the sentiment of the nation and our ability to have discussions and community across party lines get destroyed to capitalize on the next election. This isn’t an issue with one party. It’s a real problem with politics, and becomes much bigger when we let politics host all the conversations we are having and become the governing meta-narrative of our society.
One of the unanticipated benefits of keeping a blog I have discovered is having the ability to revisit some of the ideas you held in the past. Similar to how a familiar song can help you instantly recall memories of your past, rereading what you wrote can remind you of what you used to be concerned with and how you previously thought about certain topics. A little blast from the past in a way.
For every post that I have published there has typically been at least one other left in draft form and unpublished. Sometimes these drafts weren’t posted because the ideas weren’t fully formed. Sometimes I wasn’t comfortable with the language I was using and was a bit afraid to share my thoughts. Sometimes I thought the post wound up being really boring and wasn’t worth sharing. Whatever the reason for not publishing these posts, they have been a joy to reread recently. Did I think and feel about these topics in the same way today? Would I have said things differently?
One old draft in particular caught my attention. This particular one was drafted shortly after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, which was a little over four years ago. You may remember that riots occurred in the aftermath of his death. Tensions flared because this unfolded during an especially volatile time nationwide with police and African American relations in the spotlight. I grew up not too far outside that city. I frequently visited the Inner Harbor with my family for Orioles games and with classmates to visit the aquarium. I have fond memories of the place so this story in particular caught my attention.
I figured I would share a snippet of that draft post I wrote at that time.
“The riots that have occurred. The fires. The stones thrown at cops. The stones thrown back at the rioters. All over a lost life. A young man very similar to several others who have experienced similar stories in these past months and years. The story is too familiar. It’s too repetitive to be a coincidence. There is a huge issue at hand. And both sides are aggressively making their cases that the other side is completely wrong, uncaring, barbarian, and deserves punishment. And if both sides keep pushing, fighting, and pointing fingers, I don’t see us moving anywhere anytime soon.
I’ll admit that I have been wrong. Growing up I thought that everyone had the freedoms to be able to take advantage of opportunities and turn things around for themselves but I’m realizing more and more that I was wrong. There is a clear inequality that exists between classes in this society that is contributing to the issues we’re seeing and it’s one that should be addressed.“
Some loaded words there… especially for me. I’m not usually one to use heightened language like that, but there it was. I never finished this post. I didn’t offer a solution by the time I finished writing. I didn’t have a suggested stance or disposition to recommend beyond realizing myself that issues were present and a feeling that something (whatever that something is I don’t know) should be done.
I’m not exactly sure where I intended to take the rest of the post at that time, if I had a resolution in mind, but the sentiment and feelings I had I think are evident in this passage: that not all of the tension and violence between law enforcement and members of the African American community should be attributable to individual responsibility on part of the African American community. My reasoning was a realization that there were significant class differences, perpetuated by longstanding issues of racial discrimination, rooted centuries in the past in slavery, and still propagating in segregation and discriminatory behaviors up until just a few generations ago. That systemic racism is a real thing. Even though I wouldn’t define myself in this way at the time, I was, as some would say, “woke.”
I never shared this at the time. The post was never finished so I’m not sure if it was because I was fearful to share these thoughts, or just that I hadn’t finished grappling with them. So why am I sharing this now? With the Democratic presidential debates underway, the topics of social justice, reparations for slavery, gender equality and equity are all hot button topics of discussion and the conversation can often get heated around these topics.
Questions arise… How much of people’s struggles are due to systemic issues out of their hands and how many are the result of personal choices? How much disparity between economic and social outcomes are attributable to race, gender, class, and what we would now consider the errors of our forefathers? Should we try, and if so how do we try, to mend and heal the wounds of the past? Is legislation the appropriate, or even a plausible approach for making amends?
I found this recent article by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times to be quite interesting and I think a politically balanced overview worth reading on the topic of reparations. Among the many interesting tidbits she shares, she notes that economist David H. Swinton estimated in 1983 that 40 to 60 percent of the disparity between white and black incomes are due to historic and ongoing discrimination. Additionally, she mentions that as the Civil War ended that General William T. Sherman made a promise to redistribute a large section of land along the Atlantic Coastline to black Americans recently freed from slavery that had the support of Lincoln. But that plan was later rescinded by President Andrew Johnson. And on top of that she made reference to the reparations we made after the Japanese internment camps ended and those made by Germany to the Jewish people as examples of reparations previously executed. One considerable difference I’ll note though, is that these reparations were made almost immediately after the cessation of the harmful acts. They were handled much more rapidly than the case being discussed in America today.
I only share that to say that there is credibility to the statement that the sins of the past have bearing on the present and that there is precedence for reparations in similar cases and we, as a nation, previously considered them shortly after the abolition of slavery. I am not prepared to give a vote to support or disparage either side of this particular debate. These are incredibly complicated issues and warrant a large investment of time, study, and conversations with others. A sufficient investment I don’t feel I have made yet to date.
But I do want to explore how we discuss these issues. I believe this question of how we converse is the bigger underlying issue to be addressed, and one that, if addressed, will help us navigate through these incredibly complex issues like social justice, equity, equality and reparations. Because let’s be honest, is there really a debate or discussion occurring on these topics currently?
In my next post I’m going to explore what I believe are the two biggest threats to having a productive conversation on these topics. And then I want to share in the following post a couple of overlooked and undervalued principles that I think are necessary to help us move in a more positive direction. These are incredibly sensitive topics and ones that I intend to handle delicately. I hope you’ll join me in this conversation over the next few posts as we explore these issues of social justice and reform. And hopefully some good conversation can result. That we can make an investment of time, thought, and conversation in trying to grapple with these incredibly important and difficult topics.