Saturday, May 27, 2017

Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish, and Short

 
President Donald J. Trump pushes Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic out of his way.

It took so little time.

I am a humanist. I believe in the essential goodness of human beings. I believe that, given the chance, humans will choose community over isolation, charity over selfishness, mercy over condemnation.

I am also an American patriot. I believe Americans are blessed with an openness, a generosity of spirit, and a dedication to human rights that, given the chance to shine, can guide the rest of the world toward a future that is far better for all human beings.

With all of that said, I have to admit that the last six months have me questioning whether either of these belief systems has any merit.

So buckle up, reader. I've got a lot to say here, and it's not going to be easy going for either of us.

To begin, let's go back 38 years, to the first semester of my freshman year at Willamette University. Two of my new friends were taking an interdisciplinary seminar in the humanities. One day over dinner, they were joking about a philosophical text which was to provide us with one of our most lasting catch phrases: Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes, and more specifically, this passage:

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
The context is a discussion of the deficits of "natural law," i.e., the condition humanity would be in without any governing entity to promote the common good. I must admit to not being acquainted with Hobbes apart from this passage, which my friends further reduced to that final clause, mis-remembered as "cold, nasty, brutish, and short." Reading it today, I could not help but see a scathing indictment of the America imagined by the Trump regime's first proposed budget--which, it has to be acknowledged, could have been written (except for Ivanka Trump's pet project family leave entitlement) by the House Freedom Caucus. I don't believe that proposal will have any real influence on Congress's dysfunctional budgeting process, but it's useful as a snapshot of the White House's true priorities--if they actually have any, apart from stroking the ego of the President.

Whether or not any twisted proposal in that budget comes true, there is no denying that the America of May 27, 2017, is a place far less amenable to the commonweal than the America of November 1, 2016, a country far more Hobbesian in the darkest sense. So I've decided to use those Hobbesian adjectives as the framework for the rest of this essay, as each one of them describes well the dystopia into which we are descending.

Solitary: Since his first days in office, the President has been depicted as having a lonely life in the White House, wandering around in a bathrobe, continually distracted by Fox News, increasingly furious with his hand-picked staff that they can't make the investigations go away, can't sway the news media (even Fox!) to treat him more generously, can't make Congress get its act together and pass bills for him to sign. His wife and youngest child have stayed in New York City. He rails against the unity of dissent against his policies, his rhetoric, his very right to be in the seat of power. He has withdrawn American support from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade alliance that would actually increase America's economic power in its dealings with Asian nations; belittles the role of NATO in keeping Russia from overwhelming Europe; and will most likely pull the U.S. out of the Paris Accords and, if he can, the Iranian nuclear treaty. He would much rather deal with nations bilaterally, browbeating them into coughing up a "better deal." He has no appreciation for the progress and prosperity that come with open borders, free trade, and global cooperation. This isolationism will ultimately hurt most the people who elected him, as it renders their lives poorer and shorter.

Poor: There is no escaping the truth that every policy Trump has sought to enact will drive his core voters deeper into the very poverty they elected him to combat. His ignorant insistence that he could craft a health care system that would be both cheaper and more comprehensive than the Affordable Care Act is crashing against a House bill that, if enacted, will do the opposite, driving 23 million people off insurance rolls, and raising individual rates for middle class workers in their last decade before retirement by as much as 800%. The AHCA would gut Medicaid and the Food Stamps program. At the same time, travel restrictions--even without the implementation of the Muslim ban--are cutting deeply into every American business that has anything to do with tourism. The only Americans who will truly benefit from Trumpist priorities are those in his social class, the 1% who least need the enormous tax cuts he seeks to fund by canceling health benefits for those who elected him.

Nasty: It's been a long time since a Republican President did anything that really helped ordinary Americans live better. In fact, the last President to put in place any policies that promoted the common good was (ahem) Richard Nixon. But no President in my lifetime has so single-mindedly sought to hurt so many Americans--scratch that, so many human beings--for the benefit of so few than Donald Trump. In his first days in office, the slapped-together travel ban caused would-be immigrants who, when their planes took off, had everything in place to be welcomed on arrival, to be turned back when they landed. Families are being torn apart by the INS, mothers separated from small children, young people being arrested and deported for having a broken brake light on their cars. Trump speaks cavalierly of bleeding Obamacare to death, holding the lives of millions hostage unless Democrats give in to his demands. His budget proposal would eliminate all federal funding for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and a host of other programs that make the country more civilized. His cabinet secretaries for the environment, housing and human services, education, energy, all seem hell-bent on dismantling their departments rather than implementing programs that benefit all Americans. His Attorney General has scaled back civil rights protections, choosing rather to rabidly enforce marijuana prosecutions. His Secretary of State is the first in generations not to promote global human rights. This is, without a doubt, the meanest, nastiest regime to take power since the days of slavery and western expansion.

Brutish: Following on from the meanness and nastiness that is infecting this country, there is no denying what is happening to the identity of many Americans. The day after the election, teachers noticed a change in our students. They seemed to be channeling a loss of hope that their parents were feeling, and it was reflected in their behavior. There were more tantrums, more acts of defiance, more aggressive behavior. As the year progressed, I found myself writing more referrals, contacting more parents about behaviors that were getting out of control. (I will put one disclaimer here: even as my job has become more difficult, it is still leaps and bounds easier to teach in this new job than it was in the job I left behind. I can't imagine what it's been like this year in a high-poverty district like Reynolds.)

What I've seen in my students has parallels in the news stories that, increasingly, cause me to shake my head, as the "deplorables" proudly claim their perceived right to misbehave, often violently. Just last week, a special election in Montana culminated in the GOP candidate physically assaulting a reporter who asked him a question he found uncomfortable. More disturbing than the act itself--which, make no mistake, stands out as one of the most bizarre election moments I can remember, and for which there is simply no excuse--was the rush of conservative pundits to make excuses, to go along with the campaign's spin that the very asking of the question was a form of assault on the candidate. On election night, Congressman-elect Gianforte took a moment in his victory speech (low voter turnout, and a large number of early-voting ballots, made the scandalous incident's impact on the outcome too small to turn the deep red district blue) to lamely apologize for what he'd done. Any real consequences are unlikely to come from House leadership, who in the Trump Era are willing to excuse any behavior that, if properly addressed, might diminish Republican power. Perhaps Gianforte's day in court will render him more sincerely humble.

This growing brutishness has to be laid at the feet of the President himself, whose boorish behavior has repeatedly gone unpunished. Trump has boasted of being a serial sexual assaulter, has encouraged his followers to attack reporters and protesters, has cozied up to white supremacists, has embraced murderous autocrats, and is rightly viewed by people the world over as an embarrassment. Last week at the NATO summit, the Narcissist-in-Chief shoved a prime minister out of the way so he could be at the center of a photograph. Watch the video and tell me you wouldn't discipline a child who so blatantly bullied a peer.

The phenomenon is spreading even to the liberal havens of the Pacific Northwest. Yesterday in Portland, three passengers on the MAX light rail were stabbed, two of them to death, after trying to talk sense to a white supremacist who was verbally abusing two Muslim women. And that leads me to my final exploration of a Hobbesian adjective for what human life is when there is no benevolent state to unite and look after the interests of citizens:

Short. Without the health benefits provided by the Affordable Care Act, millions of Americans will experience poorer health. Without the protections it imposes on the insurance market, many will be priced out of coverage. Those with pre-existing conditions will have little recourse. Those too poor to afford even the worst coverage will wind up back in the emergency room, where they were before the ACA expanded Medicaid. That drain on hospital resources will send the nation back into its out-of-control medical inflation spiral.

But beyond health care: in a culture that is becoming alarmingly brutish, more Americans will lose their lives in hate crimes that are treated as just crimes. With a government that refuses to acknowledge the existence of racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, classism, any of the bigotries that drive Americans apart from each other, and instead demands police forces to arrest the least violent members of society because there are problems with their documents, while being headed by a demagogue who promotes hatred with every word he speaks or tweets, there is going to be a jaw-dropping increase in violent crimes.

Several weeks ago, Amy and I saw Marc Maron perform at the Aladdin Theater. For the first half hour of his set, Maron expressed everything I've been feeling since November 9: the horror of checking my news feed, wondering "What's he done now?"; the fear of our hugely over-armed nation stumbling into a war that will kill thousands, and take years to extricate ourselves from; the even deeper fear that this monster could, on a whim, launch nuclear missiles at a foreign leader who didn't accord him the respect he mistakenly believes he is owed. Maron said it all, and I felt a wonderful sense of release at having it expressed. There were good moments throughout the show, but that first part was more than worth the price of admission.

And then I went back to what I had been doing: checking the news every break I get, wondering what's coming next. This is a frightening time for many. The man who controls this country is a chaos monkey, and at any moment his handlers could lose their tenuous grip on him. Thus far, the nation has been protected by the impartiality of the judicial branch, coupled with the courage of the news media and the dysfunctionality of the Republican party.

There's no telling how long those dikes can stay in place. Given what I've witnessed in my classroom, on the highways, and in the news, it won't take much to send this country spinning into chaos. We are on the brink of every libertarian's dream: a nation of individuals going at each other without government support. Thomas Hobbes, righting in the seventeenth century, saw such an experiment as doomed to failure. Just the first birth pangs of it tell me he was right. I shudder to think how far we may get into it before cooler heads finally prevail, and help us climb back out of that pit as we reclaim our better nature as Americans, global citizens, human beings.