Election Eve 2016

I write these words from Bangkok, Thailand, on the eve of the 2016 presidential election in the United States. In about 32 hours, the entire global population will rejoice that the American election is finally, at last, over. If we put half the energy and ink that went into analysis of this election into actually addressing our problems, we might make some real progress. It has become nonsensical, the endless campaigning and jockeying. Do we really need two years to get to know our presidential candidates?

Santiago, Cuba (January 2013)
Like many of you, this campaign has been deeply troubling to me. More worrisome than the deficiencies of the individual candidates is what the race has revealed about the United States. First, we are swimming in a cesspool of misinformation, and we refuse to acknowledge fact when it contradicts our existing worldviews. Democracy falls apart when voters base their decisions on bad information, and we’re doing exactly that. Did we not read 1984 in school? “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” I’m not sure Orwell’s dystopia was any worse than our situation today.
Here he is, folks, the Republican nominee for President of the United States.

Regarding the clip above, how can any English-speaking human over the age of about 8 not acknowledge that what Trump describes is almost precisely the opposite of the truth? Having rated over 500 individual claims from the two major-party candidates, PolitiFact has Trump giving us true or “mostly true” statements just 15.4% of the time. Hillary Clinton’s statements were rated true or mostly true 51% of the time. (Note: “false equivalence” is a problem in much political analysis done today. We can acknowledge that both candidates have done their share of dissembling, but those truth-telling rates are not remotely similar. While we get “truth” from Clinton just over half the time, we get the same from Trump only once or twice every ten times he makes a claim. Not sure a baseball analogy is apt, but consider the difference between batting .510 and .154. Edit: Brandon Gross pointed out in a comment below why this isn’t particularly apt. .510 is rarely attainable in baseball. We should expect much better of our political leaders.) (Second note: I can understand why people were initially drawn to Donald Trump—dissatisfaction with the status quo, the outsider status of a non-politician, willingness to speak his mind, the appearance of business savvy and success… But the notion that he is a truth-teller is patently and observably false.)

In addition to the misinformation coming from the candidates themselves, we have a slight problem with garbage information on the internet. Need I explain? Rumors, innuendo, unsubstantiated claims, clear falsehoods: they’re everywhere. There’s a lot of blame placed on the “mainstream media” here, but this one falls squarely on our shoulders. We have shunned boring, balanced news for the salacious and sensational. They give us what we want, and we overwhelmingly prefer to be told we’re right rather than hear the honest truth.

While I don’t see a quick solution here, we can start by looking ourselves in the mirror and asking, “Might I be wrong? Have I done my own homework here, or am I simply regurgitating what others have claimed?” We need to reclaim pride in critical thinking, in questioning our sources, in doing a bare minimum of research ourselves. And we need, at times, to humble ourselves by saying, “I was wrong.”

(As a personal example of this, let me refer to the popular meme from earlier this year claiming that Donald Trump stated in a 1990s interview that were he to run for office, he’d do so as a Republican because Republicans “are the dumbest group of voters in the country.” I saw one confirmation of this and assumed it was fact. It was not. Trump never said this. Yet, the statement has been posted and reposted tens of thousands of times; I didn’t post it publicly but referred to it in a chat, almost immediately doing a bit more due diligence and discovering the hoax. I was wrong. Donald Trump needs no embellishment; whoever created that falsehood hurt his/her own cause and weakened American democracy in the process.)

Flags at the Monument, Washington DC (April 2009)

If you believe in government by the people, the truth must be more important than being right. And please beware of rumors. If we all buy into every conspiracy theory that fits our existing biases—without having ample evidence of its truth—we’re doomed. Can I say with certainty that Hillary Clinton is incapable of knocking off her political opponents? No. Do I think the evidence for this is laughable? Yes! I’ve never seen a shred of credible, substantiated evidence for this and find it remarkable that people would base their votes on a belief that Clinton is so evil that she’d have her opponents killed.

So that’s point #1: This campaign has left us awash in misinformation, and we too often fail to question the pablum we read and hear (along with our own biases) when it comes to politics, policy, and the controversial issues of our day. #2: We are being hobbled by fear (some of it warranted, some unwarranted) that is increasing nationalism and eroding one of our nation’s greatest strengths.

Sebilj, a centuries-old wooden fountain in Sarajevo, Bosnia (February 2008)

As many of you know, I have spent significant chunks of my adult life outside the United States. From Mexico to India to Italy to Syria, I’ve spent at least a third of my life abroad since turning 30. Apart from my family, this may be the greatest blessing in my life for the perspective it has given me. I’ve seen the beauty of other people and places, but I’ve also become better aware of what makes the United States special.

Despite all the nationalist rhetoric we hear today, one of the traits that made America unique from inception was the very absence of nationalism (edit: this is poorly worded – we were plenty nationalistic in other ways, but the Declaration of Independence itself claimed rights for human beings regardless of citizenship or place of birth): Among our foundational tenets is a belief that all human beings are deserving of basic dignity, freedom, and rights. (Yes, the text read “Men”—and even at that, only men of a certain skin color were afforded those rights in practice—but shortcomings aside, the aspirational sentiment was that every human being should be afforded basic opportunities and rights.) The text didn’t read, “All Americans” or “All people born within American borders.” All Men. All people.

Children in Aleppo, Syria, six months prior to the onset of war. Which are still there? Which have lost loved ones? Which are alive? (November 2010)
The respect garnered by the United States among people around the world in the 20th century was not solely a result of the country’s wealth or military might. Those were undoubtedly contributing factors, but what earned respect was a belief that the United States didn’t act solely with its own interests in mind. One can argue the truth of this perception, but there’s little doubt that it existed. From the Marshall Plan after World War II to Bosnia in the 1990s, the United States seemed, at times, to act as if it cared about non-Americans, as if it wanted to act positively around the world. We Americans certainly believed that, and we took pride in working to do right by others.
My fear is that in the quest to “make America great again,” we are undermining the very thing which made us admired around the world: a foundational and operational belief that regardless of your place of birth, the color of your skin, or the religion you follow, you are worthy of dignity and basic rights. I get the need to focus on our own issues; I readily acknowledge the blunders of foreign policy we’ve made in places like Iraq. But to start erecting walls? To care only for our own? To preserve the rights and well being of Americans without regard for others? That is not America to me. And in addition to not squaring with American ideals, I believe it would be a strategic mistake to withdraw from the world.

S-21 Prisoner #162 (of some 14,000, seven of whom left the prison alive), Phnom Penh Cambodia. Among the goals of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was to return Cambodia to its prior glory. The country’s agrarian past was to be reclaimed, and it would become entirely self-sufficient. To pull this off, the regime killed off intellectuals and ultimately starved ordinary people. Some 20-25% of the population died during the war, and trust eroded entirely. Nearly 40 years later, Cambodia is finally beginning to recover.

Point #3: This election has revealed that we still have major issues to deal with involving race. Life is different for black men in America today than it is for others. Yes, I believe in individual responsibility. No, there is never an excuse to shoot a police officer because of perceived personal or institutional racism. (NEVER!) But to not see that black men are perceived and treated differently? Difficult for me to comprehend. Black Americans were denied education and opportunities from the founding of the nation until, well, now! Our culture is a product of our history, and the most serious problem we have with racism today is not the KKK or white supremacists—it is subconscious, institutional bias that affects us all.

Most cops, I believe, are good people. Yet when situations get tense and pressures mount, the centuries of past injustice rise to the subconscious surface and take their toll. *And unlike the rest of us, situations get tense and pressures mount for police officers on a regular basis.* Cops are no more racist than any other group in America (in fact, they’re probably less so, as they often deal with people of various backgrounds on a more regular basis than most). It’s just that the consequences of the age-old institutional biases bite harder when you’re responsible for public safety and carry a gun.

Yes, blue lives matter. Unequivocally. But black lives matter too, and we’ve never given them much respect. We are taught to stand and salute our servicemen and women. We are socialized to respect police officers. But our culture teaches us to fear black men. Not overtly or openly—but indirectly. Even where they are most openly embraced, this is a problem. Black athletes are rewarded for being more aggressive and “scarier” and tougher than anyone else on the field or court. To some extent, this perpetuates the problem. Even where they succeed, black men are feared. (And at times, they play into the stereotypes themselves. We reward toughness and aggression—that’s where our adolescents see transcendent success—so naturally we get more of that behavior.)

But I digress. When it comes to race, we’re still not always working to see the world through the eyes of the other—and the underlying tensions have risen to the surface during this campaign. (I focused entirely on black men here. That’s not to say there aren’t biases against black women and many others. One could argue that bias against Mexican-Americans has been on display more prominently in this campaign cycle—but given tragic events that have resulted in the loss of both black and blue lives in the recent past, I chose to focus there.)

Wall art, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico (October 2015)

For better or worse, I’m out of time. (Literally hopping on a flight two hours from now, and I’ve got to get to the airport!) I had several other points I wanted to make. (It is a shame that the United States of America won’t be united in celebrating its first female president, assuming that is the outcome. We had a moment of unity with our first black president. I was on the Mall that day… Such a big deal for us, a Madam President…) Perhaps because I avoided comment during this entire election season (until now, I hadn’t made a single public statement here about Bernie, Hillary, or Donald Trump), I felt like I had to take a public stand. There are many other issues I’d love to address, but let me close with this:

Having been frustrated with this campaign from beginning to end, I still have hope for the future. In fact, part of the problem today is that America has lost its sense of optimism. When did we become so pessimistic and fearful? Yes, there’s been difficult change thrown our way in recent years. Yes, our middle class has struggled. But we used to educate our way out of change-induced economic struggle. We didn’t look back. We taught for the future. And we believed in and relied on one another. My Republican grandfather counted Democrats among his best friends. How much of that is there today? We lose all trust, and our society will crumble. We fail to have a functional Republican party (or some other credible alternative), and the diversity of perspective (along with healthy checks on liberal biases) will be lost.

Rather than making my last word here a statement about how I’m voting, I’ll instead offer up a thank-you. For all the publicity and glory we give to politicians and celebrities, the people who shape our lives most directly are those we interact with everyday…

Scott Dorr, I am sitting in Thailand today in part because of a report I wrote about Vietnam in your classroom when I was sixteen years old. I sometimes refer to it as the first “real” report I ever wrote. Agent orange. I don’t know how you cast your last presidential vote, and I don’t much care. It doesn’t change the fact that you—and your wife—have touched so many, many lives. I was debating this weekend how to thank you. Considered asking Zach if I could sneak in to catch a ‘Hawks game with you later this year. But then it donned on me: you’ve been a public school English teacher for your entire adult life. I’d just write a little essay. 😉 (Consider it unfinished. I got to just three of my six points, am throwing in photos at the last minute, and won’t even have time for proper editing. Of course, that may well have been the case in high school as well!)

Photo in the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Although the effects of chemical defoliants used in Vietnam are still not fully understood, they have been blamed for birth defects and health complications among both the Vietnamese and American servicemen and women. War always has hidden costs.

For what it’s worth, the greatest lesson I learned from you was not good writing structure or proper grammar. (Let’s be honest—your corrections needed correcting on occasion.) It was the challenge you gave us to think for ourselves, question assumptions, and dare to be different. I work with university students in Southeast Asia now, mostly from Myanmar. The most common response we get to an application question about what isn’t taught in school but should be: critical thinking. (Doris, sex ed makes frequent appearances as well.)

I do not envy what you’re going through, cannot fathom what your family is enduring. But allow me to offer up one sliver of consolation: so often in life, we never have a chance to say thank you. With you, we get that—and so do you. So thank you, sir, for all your years of service and dedication to youth and education. You made a difference. Thank you, sincerely. Godspeed.

Cristo Blanco, Cusco, Peru (July 2008)

1 bình luận về “Election Eve 2016

Trả lời

Điền thông tin vào ô dưới đây hoặc nhấn vào một biểu tượng để đăng nhập:

WordPress.com Logo

Bạn đang bình luận bằng tài khoản WordPress.com Đăng xuất /  Thay đổi )

Twitter picture

Bạn đang bình luận bằng tài khoản Twitter Đăng xuất /  Thay đổi )

Facebook photo

Bạn đang bình luận bằng tài khoản Facebook Đăng xuất /  Thay đổi )

Connecting to %s