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To Save Democracy, Restore The Virtue of Honor

Do the words “honor” and “honorable” have useful meaning anymore?  That’s a serious question.

A friend who teaches at an elite college has observed that entering students for the last several year appear to be unable to articulate what honor means and are marginally interested in learning more. 

College honor codes, where they exist, don’t set standards to be lived up to, but obstacles to be overcome.  And why not?  It’s obvious to most onlookers that success in politics and business is based on deception, cheating, and manipulation for the benefit of self-interest.

New students are often introduced to the ancient foundations of honorable morality in the works of Plato, Aristotle and the like.  If they’re lucky, they also get more from the Bible, Buddhism, Taoism, etc. For reasons that escape me, faculty are increasingly unwilling to teach anything from the Bible, but not from other holy works.  I sat in on a lecture in political philosophy at another college where biblical references were met with blank stares of incomprehension from students who had not the least hint of what the Bible contains, but I digress.

Honor and to be honorable was an enduring moral value for thousands of years, although the meaning changed with the passing of time.  The Socratic understanding of honor, according to my philosopher friend, had more to do with clarity of meaning in what one said and did: what we might call integrity with a twist.  By that I mean integrity based on the thorough examination of what one means in the words one uses to verify that they are true and valid.

It seems like a reasonable place to begin, but it’s not obvious to many of us today that what some ancient Greek had to say has merit in the 21st century, especially if he can be lumped into the discredited category of old, dead white men. 

To be fair, the suspicious have a point.  We’ve used and abused the word honor, and beat it into the dust.  “It’s an honor to be with you.”  “You honor me with your presence.”   “Will you love, honor and keep her/him…until death do you part?”  “The Honorable…” (I’ve held an appointed office with the honorific). “On my honor I will do my best…”. I have the honor of introducing …”. We use the words honor and honorable in ways serious and trivial, sometimes as little more than filler words in a meaningless social ritual.

If Socrates was right about the necessity of thorough examination of meaning for words to have validity, then words that have been trivialized by their haphazard use and multiplicity of “meanings” cease to have validity.  Maybe that’s what has happened to honor.  

Does it need to be reclaimed?  If civil discourse and American democracy are to be preserved, then yes it does, but maybe by other names.

Trustworthiness, honesty, truthfulness, and integrity are possibilities.  But each has problematic limitations. 

Consider trustworthiness.  One can be trusted to be honest or dishonest.  Mr. Trump demonstrated that he can be trusted to be dishonest in almost everything he does, and yet his followers value his trustworthiness and surrender their moral souls to him. There can be no deception or obfuscation in the honorable trustworthiness needed for democracy to thrive.

An honorable person is a truthful person.  Truth, in this case, means that what is said can be reliably verified by available evidence.  According to the oath administered in court, truth comes in three sizes: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  How do they differ?  According to an old analogy the truth is that you are wearing a new tie.  The whole truth is that it is purple with neon pink polkadots.  Nothing but the truth is that it is the ugliest tie ever and you look silly wearing it.   Sometimes the truth is enough.  No more need be said.

Honorable trustworthiness and truth are closely related virtue of honesty.  To be honest is to engage with others without guile or deception; to be a person whose word can be relied on, who does not cheat even when cheating can be advantageous.

It all adds up to integrity.  Besides being trustworthy, honest and truthful, a person of integrity speaks and acts with the good of the other in mind.  Whoever the other is can rest secure knowing that persons of integrity will not intentionally do them harm, and will try to do them good. 

The predictably cynical response is likely to be, “What kind of sap-sucking, saccharine, do-gooder crap is that? Get real.  That’s not the way the world works.  It’s dog eat dog, and no one can be trusted, not really.  Look out for yourself the best way you can.”  If the cynic is right, there is no place for American style democracy, and the best hope for mutual safety is autocracy.  That was Hobbes’ conclusion, and it seems to work for Putin, Xi, and a few others.  But in most places it devolves into societies of corrupt rival camps violently dueling for primacy.

Not everyone is so cynical of course.  Some indifferently dismiss honor and honorable as old fashioned morality that’s nice to have around as long as it doesn’t interfere with whatever opportunities life might present.  They are the ones most easily seduced by authoritarians who promise to remove the burden of excessive morality from them.

We can’t allow cynics and the indifferent to dictate the future of our nation if we want to preserve representative democracy that encourages self-reliant individualism by building up communities of equitable justice for all.  It requires honorable leadership raised up from an electorate that values honor and knows what it means.

Will we do it?  The outcome is uncertain.

If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing Right

My sisters and I were raised on fatherly aphorisms, the same ones he had been raised on: The best grease is elbow grease; If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right; Know what you’re going to do before you do it; Never say I can’t do it.  There were more, but you get the theme.

I was thinking about dad’s aphorisms while pondering the city road debates that have raged for decades in the community I lived in for twenty years.

The long running complaint was their poor condition. Today’s city leaders were held accountable for poor decisions, made long ago, to overlay as cheaply as possible deteriorating streets and unused streetcar rails on the grounds that cost conscious conservative leadership was saving the people from higher taxation.  As the decades rolled on, the cheap solution began to fail, aided by city councils that kept maintenance overhead as low as possible.  Huffing with disgust, morning coffee conversations and letters to the editor blasted incompetent city leaders and staff, demanding to know why it was allowed to happen, and asserting that, had they been in charge, it would have been done right the first time.  

About ten years ago the public discontent with road conditions rose high enough for the city to implement a decade long plan to repair and replace aging infrastructure: water and sewer mains, bridge and streets, doing it right this time.  It was widely supported and very popular – for a while.   As predictable as fog in December, public voices began to complain about road construction all the time everywhere.  It was inconvenient, hurt some businesses, and costs were “out of control” – they weren’t.  The usual voices began to sing a new tune: “Our streets are good enough. We don’t need the best in the west.  Good enough is good enough.  A few bumps and potholes are OK.  We don’t want to pay for infrastructure we may not live to use.”  

In other words, some portion of the current tax paying public was willing to repeat the short-sighted, do it on the cheap mistakes of the past, laying the burden of doing it right on some future generation.

It’s one small example from one small city, but it exemplifies the attitudes of members of Congress who think spending as little as possible to patch together a deteriorating national infrastructure is good enough.  To them, new ways of understanding what infrastructure is, along with the technologies that define it, is an unaffordable boondoggle.  While not in the majority, they have the ability to stop more ambitious plans for doing it right.  Their patch it up to be good enough mentality heralds the predictable decline of the nation’s ability to compete in world markets, provide citizens with greater economic opportunity, and erode overall quality of life, all in the name of conservative fiscal responsibility.  

They seem unable to comprehend the idea that it’s a guaranteed high return investment to spend generously repairing and replacing old infrastructure, while building new infrastructure to meet new needs of the nation.  

The do it on the cheap crowd has been aided by answers to an annual Gallup Poll question: Is the government doing too much or not enough?  Fifty-two percent of respondents say the government is doing too much, which is about what they say every year.  Which government?  What is too much?  What is not enough?  Those are not questions that get answered in the media, and for good reason. They’re difficult to dig out of the data, if they’re there at all. 

I’m a tad pessimistic about the outcome.  Biden’s infrastructure plans are much needed and almost too late in coming.  Initial popularity is too easily undermined by scary stories about debt and taxes that have little merit.  The nation has struggled since Reagan  and the Silent Majority (that was neither silent nor the majority) with two incompatible ideas.  One is that small government and low taxes are the most important  protections of American individualism, defense spending excluded.  The other is that the United States is and must remain the strongest, most advanced nation on earth.  

The two ideas cannot both be right any more than cheap street repairs in small cities can serve the needs of a thriving economic and cultural future for generations to come.

Once upon a time America claimed it had a continent spanning manifest destiny to become One Nation with liberty and justice for all.  Fingers were crossed behind the back to reserve to  states the right to act as independent countries as much as possible (as in Texas, A Whole Other Country). It never worked well, and works not at all today if we want to have a strong United States of America.  In the 21st century we are either going to be One Nation in which national needs are met with a federal response, or we begin the slow decline of every preceding empire until we go down in history, not as Rome, but as the Ottomans: too decadent, too cheap, too politically corrupt.  Trump set us on that path.  His enduring presence and faithful followers suggest  the process may be accelerating, aided by McConnell, Manchin and the like who put lust for personal power above the good of the nation.

Dumping Throw Away Society

We live in two kinds of throw away societies.  One began in earnest around 1950, but the other is thousands of years old.  The more recent version began with the advent of single use convenience items advertised as “use it and toss it” combined with aggressive advertising for each year’s new car model, and social pressure for the newest of new fashions.  It was quite the thing for a while.   Television ads featured the time saving convenience of using and tossing in favor of the new and improved.  That was sixty or seventy years ago.  We didn’t give much thought to what it meant to dirty our own nests.  Our hands and houses were clean and neat, our lives renewed with new cars and trendy clothes.  The trash just disappeared.  What seemed like a marvelous convenience became a tidal wave of environmental destruction threatening lands, waters, and air.

There is more awareness now of our foolishness, although awareness has not seemed to have been translated into different behavior by much.   

When what is convenient to the individual becomes so important that it subsumes individual responsibility for the good of the community, what makes community possible itself becomes a case of use it and toss it.  That’s what extreme libertarianism, exemplified by Trumpism, has come to.  It isn’t simply a threat to American democracy, it’s a threat to community itself.  

The older form of throw way mentality is more entrenched; it’s been with us for thousands of years. It’s our willingness to throw away other people with little moral compunction.  Humans in every age and culture have used others and thrown them away.  It’s barbaric.  Surely, our modern minds protest, that was a long time ago; we’re not like that anymore.  I wonder.  Our nation was founded in part in the belief that exterminating and subjugating its indigenous people was morally acceptable.  They were throw away people.  Chattel slavery was ended not even two hundred years ago.  Slavery is the ultimate use it and toss it scheme in which slaves are disposable commodities.  In the absence of slaves, we’ve done much the same with immigrant and wage labor.  Truth be told, we’ve done the same with newly minted professionals, perhaps most obviously in higher education.  In our own time we face the problem of throw away children bounced from one foster home to another until they reach eighteen when they are thrown away. 

Too much of what is acceptable in contemporary American society is an offense against our most cherished American ideals, but the throw away infection is not ours alone.  There is no country, nation or culture that isn’t affected in the same way.  The human capacity to inflict inhuman violence on one another knows no limits and respects no borders.

It’s hard to understand how something so obviously and morally wrong can endure with the complicity of those who know it’s wrong. 

What I know is this: it’s inconsistent with everything Jesus proclaimed, and incompatible with what it means to follow Jesus in the company of the body of Christ, the Church. 

If following Jesus is something Christians want to take seriously, their words and deeds must show some degree of discipline in respecting the dignity of every human being and the sacredness of creation.  What could that mean for Christians in the United States in these times?  I suggest it means moving toward more simple and sustainable life styles. It doesn’t mean giving up convenience or living like monks.  It does mean making responsible use of possessions as stewards who try to balance the good provided to them with the good the same possessions might provide to others.   As a simple example: less buying online and more shopping locally while remembering the wisdom of Lake Wobegone’s Pretty Good Grocery Store where “if they don’t have it you probably don’t need it.”

Frankly, that’s the easy part.  The harder part is separating one’s self from thousands of years in which throwing away other human beings has been tolerated, even by self-proclaimed Christians.  To proclaim the dignity of every human being is to reject all that demeans other persons. Today, that means not only children and the usual menu of racial prejudices, but also refugees, immigrants, and undocumented residents.  It will invite the raging ire of caterwauling voices obsessed with secure borders as an excuse to fortify America against any further diversification of the population.  So be it.  Following Jesus always involves the way of the cross, which is none other than the way of life and peace. 

The Eyes have It: Part II

My first trip as a person with impaired vision was a success, albeit not without some anxiety.  Being able to see but not see is surreal .  It’s not that I couldn’t see the highway and traffic on the way to the airport, but not clearly, and certainly not able to help navigate as Dianna drove. At the airport I wasn’t able to check myself in and being unable to see clearly, needed a paper boarding pass, rather than using my airline app with an electronic pass. The more crowded the airport got, the more difficult it became for me to discern where I was, or where I was going.  My scope of vision changes with the amount of ambient lighting and background colors.  Outside on a clear day, I can see most everything, if not anything in particular.  Inside the airport concourse, my scope or field of near blindness expanded to cover all but peripheral edges. As long as I followed Dianna, all was well.  

The first leg went well.   Richmond’s airport is laid out in simple straight lines.  COVID has limited the number of flights, and our early morning departure was one of the first.  We flew to Newark for a change of planes.  There is nothing simple or uncrowded about Newark, especially in one of the old concourses that end in tight circles of gates and waiting areas, with commercial kiosks in the middle.  The airport’s interior is not well lighted.  Gate numbers in black letters on large yellow background were all but invisible to me.  We picked out a place to sit, and with a little instruction on where to look, I went off to the toilet.  I found it OK by following the line of men walking into it.  Finding Dianna on the return was more difficult.  It began with the wrong gate number followed by moving along looking for the familiar landmark of silver hair. It wasn’t quite like a little kid having lost his mom in the super market, but not that different either.  Anyway, there she was, right where I left her.    

We made it.  I don’t think I could do it on my own yet, but I’ve seen completely blind persons traveling on their own, and I’m not completely blind, just a bit impaired, so why not?  Time with family was a delight. The return trip was not as anxiety producing as I knew, more or less, what to expect.  Dianna led the way, checked us in, and we were off. Transferring again in Newark, I once more made it to the men’s room and back without mishap…

Traveling and moving about in unfamiliar locations, I have learned a bit more about the limits of my vision.  After a long day of intense effort to “see” things, my eyes tire out.  They refuse to do the hard work and beg for rest, after which they are willing and able to give it another go.  So what’s next?  In December, we are taking a train trip to New York and in January, the long flight to Maui.  As long as it’s the two of us with Dianna in the lead, it should be a snap.

Elected from the States for the Nation: Manchin & AOC

A democratic republic such as ours depends on a legislative assembly in which the collective ethos assumes, and is committed to, making legislative decisions for the good of the country.  Parochial interests are expected to be represented and reflected to some degree in the final product.  They are not expected to establish the rule by which the final product succeeds or fails. 

Legislators are elected from their individual states to serve for the nation.  As such, our government is not a loose confederation of autonomous states where each negotiates for their own exclusive wants in competition with the exclusive wants of other states.  That was tried once with the Articles of Confederation and it didn’t work.  Europe tried it for several centuries.  It took two world wars to convince them there had to be a better way to avoid internecine war and cooperate for the greater good.

I expect most readers to wonder why such an obvious and well known fact needed to begin this essay.  Well, it seems the obvious and well known is hidden from stiff necked legislators who should know better.

Throughout our history members of the legislative assembly were sufficiently committed to their duty and diverse enough to tolerate oddball outliers, and even well organized efforts of subversion, but times have changed. 

Long running organizing to move the nation toward autocracy with a democratic veneer has been successful enough to create the hard core polarized legislative politics characterizing the last thirteen years. Into this new legislative ethos, the outliers gained power.

As an outlier, Senator Joe Manchin, in his stiff necked way, insists he was elected from West Virginia not for the nation, but for West Virginia only. In an evenly divided Senate with Republicans dedicated to stopping everything, regardless of its value to the nation, Manchin has become a dictator of one by making the interests of West Virginia, and only West Virginia, determine his willingness to vote for or against anything.  Curiously, his take on what is good for West Virginia is seriously flawed, but that’s for another time.  

Manchin is not an ideologue. Ideologues are inflexibly wedded to a rigidly narrow world view.  Castro was an ideologue and in his shadow, so are the adherents of Trumpism.

Manchin is no ideologue, but he gives the ideologues everything they want with his unwillingness to work that which is good for West Virginia into what is good for the nation.  He seems unable to comprehend how important it is for a final decision to integrate some portion of what his state needs with portions of what other states need to produce legislation that puts the good of the nation first.

Manchin would do well to learn from Bernie Sanders.  Gadfly social democrat that Sanders is, he’s learned to fight hard for what he believes right and good for the nation, and to negotiate for what he can get.

As long as I’m taking a shot at Manchin, why not fire one over the bow of House progressives led by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC).  Unlike Manchin, she is reported to be something of an ideologue willing to sabotage negotiated compromises that fall short of her ideological ideals.  That’s fine with the GOP opposition who are happy to cheer her on.

House progressives desire to be the voice of the working class too long subject  to the whims of Republican policies that treat them like disposable, cheap labor commodities.  They mean well, but Trumpists, using old fashioned fascist propaganda, have beaten them to the punch.  Trump may no longer be able to command 74 million voters, but Trumpism has a solid hold on many millions who have been convinced that, in the name of protecting their rights and freedoms, they should surrender them with unquestioned loyalty to autocratic rule.

House progressives will lose unless they learn two things.  One, how to negotiate in good faith with less liberal members.  Two, how to speak to working and middle class voters in plain language that addresses their deepest fears and desires. 

Patience and Anxiety

About a month ago, I had a sub retinal hemorrhage in my one good eye which created a blind spot in the part of my vision that focuses on reading and writing.  Peripheral vision remains OK most of the time, although changes in light and numbers of moving objects in my field of vision can severely effect what I can and can’t see. 

Thanks to my doctor, wife, and a handy neighbor, I now have a handheld device that allows me to read and a large computer monitor that allows me to write in an exaggerated font that can later be adjusted  down to an ordinary size for printing or publishing.   

Open space outdoors has become my favorite place to feel like sight is more or less normal.  I can take in the panorama without having to focus on a particular spot. 

Whether my condition is temporary or permanent is yet to be known, but the likelihood tends toward permanency.    As a result, these last few weeks have forced lessons on me about patience and anxiety.  

Patience may be the hardest.  Before this incident, like others who go about with mobile phones, tablets and laptops, I filled vacant time with whatever diversion the electronic world had to offer.  Keeping up with the news, reading long articles, or wasting time with Facebook and Twitter could fill hours.  Now I find so-called vacant time consumed with sitting and thinking.  Time dedicated to tasks is greater than it used to be.  Hurrying is not an option. It takes a long time to do the things that have been my daily routine. Morning Prayer cannot be skimmed through.  Reading the news from a dozen or more sites is out of the question.  I have to choose two or three articles and skim the rest by listening to radio.  Reading email has become a matter of deleting anything to which I’m unwilling to devote five or ten minutes.  The usual assortment of everyday household tasks has been pared back to the essentials that can be done well enough without seeing details.

I’ve become dependent on my wife for a lot things that have to be worked into her schedule, which is already filled with the important matters of her own life.  A feeling of greater dependence and less contribution is frustrating, requiring a more robust discipline of patience than I’ve been known to possess; it means learning to be more patient.  Patience, for me, has to do with time management and the illusion that I am its master.   I am no longer that master.  I have to wait for the time it takes for things to happen.  Being punctual and not wasting time was a sign to myself that I was a more effective user of time than the average person. Now I have less control over my time.  The use I want to make of it has to be accommodated by time being managed by others, and by the tasks themselves.  For instance, my new electronic reading device makes it possible to read, albeit slowly, but not to read all things.  It takes more time to find things in plain sight.  Putting toothpaste on a toothbrush takes extra time. Preparing a meal from a recipe takes a lot of time.  The god of time is being deposed as the ruler of my life.  That’s not said as an excuse for sloth, or disrespect for intruding on the time of others.  It’s recognition that patience is not one of the virtues of which I can be proud, but I’m learning.

For me, patience is related to anxiety.  Not having control over time makes the near future less predictable, and raises anxiety over what will happen next.  There’s anxiety about whether I’ll lose yet more of my sight.  Familiar things have become strange, even unavailable, and that creates more anxiety.  A few days ago I was dropped off at a restaurant for my first “unsupervised” outing with a group of retired men from church.  It was a little like a first day of school.  Would I recognize anyone?  How would I order lunch?  Would someone give me a ride home?  It went well, no need to have wasted energy on anxiety.

Being visually impaired is not blindness, but the distorted and somewhat veiled field of vision creates an odd new reality for me. Too many moving images competing for attention feels like an assault on my senses and gives me a tinge of vertigo – its own sort of anxiety.

So the cure for vision induced anxiety is for me to spend time in quiet reflective prayer, mentally composing new things to write, and rehearsing lectures I may or may not ever give.  

Well, this isn’t what I started out to write, but it’s what has come out. Leaving it here, I plan to return to more normal subjects next week.

Breaking Out and Breaking In

We’re often urged to get out of our comfort zones as a way to learn and experience something new.  But let’s face it, comfort zones are, well, comfortable, safe places to be in an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous world.  Besides, not all things new are worth learning or experiencing.  Relating to comfort zones is personal space.  It’s the physical and emotional space that sets boundaries for intimacy or distance that we’re willing to allow others into our lives. 

In Mark’s gospel, heard in many churches a few weeks ago, Jesus taught some important lessons about comfort zones and personal space.

The stories had to do with a Syrophoenician woman in the region of Sidon on the Mediterranean Sea and a deaf man in the region of the Decapolis east of the Sea of Galilee.  As the story goes, Jesus decided to take a few days off by traveling from his home area of Galilee to the seaside area near Sidon.  There his solitude was interrupted by the Syrophoenician woman who pestered him to cure her daughter, which eventually he did.  Within a few sentences, the narrative has Jesus through Galilee into Decapolis, a good ten days’ walk from Sidon, where he encountered a deaf man and restored his hearing.

A great deal has been said and written about what Jesus said and did in those two linked episodes, but I think it’s equally important to pay attention to the context of his location, because it offers opportunities for insight on the question of comfort zones and personal space.

The way the gospel is written, it’s easy to assume the Syrophoenician woman was a foreigner, an alien intruding on Jesus’ personal space.  In fact, it was Jesus who was the alien foreigner and in a very peculiar place at that.  She was at home in her own territory, a native of the place.  As a Syrophoenician, she was a descendent of Israel’s sometimes ally but most often enemy.  For Jesus to go into her land for a brief getaway was to break out of his comfort zone, leaving the sanctity of his personal space behind to enter a potentially hostile place.  In like manner, when Jesus had crossed back over his own land into the region of the Decapolis, he entered gentile territory that had seldom been friendly with Israel. 

We often talk about the importance of breaking down walls that separate us from one another with the expectation that we will welcome the stranger into our midst.  But in the case of these stories, Jesus broke out of the walls defining his comfort zone to enter the zones of the other, meeting them as they were, in the place where they were.  He brought the kingdom of God near to them, but never pressured them to convert in the usual way of understanding conversion, or to leave their home territories to follow him into the strangeness of his home territory. Moreover, he allowed his personal space to be invaded by the demands of strangers to whom he was a foreigner.         

We have no idea what the woman did after her daughter had been healed.  I imagine she joyfully proclaimed what Jesus had done for her to anyone who would listen, and many who had no interest one way or the other.   

The deaf man, we’re told, went off to proclaim throughout the Decapolis what God had done for him. 

If we are to be followers of Jesus, we must certainly do what we can to break down barriers of separation and welcome the stranger into our midst.  But we must also be willing to break out of our comfort zones to enter places where we are the alien foreigner with no ulterior purpose but to meet the other on their own terms.  Bearing the presence of God’s grace, we are to have no other motive than to be a blessing as blessings are needed. We are not in another’s place to change them into our likeness or to demand that they follow our ways.  We are simply to allow God’s presence to accompany us in whatever way it will.  That means being willing to let our own personal space become more permeable than is likely to be comfortable for us.

Jesus’ way was the opposite to the ways of a typical American missionary who sought to enter others’ comfort zones and personal spaces, as if they were the alien foreigners. Missionaries acted as enlightened purveyors of salvations according to the customs and standards of their own comfort and space, all the while assuming their own to be the universal standard against which all others were deemed alien. 

Following Jesus out of our comfort zones and personal spaces requires leaving hubris behind, carrying only the confident humility that, alien foreigner though we may be, we are also bearers of God’s presence.  It can be done only with humility and respect for the people and places into which we go.

With that thought in mind, consider that the stranger whom we welcome into our newly refortified spaces may be the one bearing God’s presence into our midst, rather than the other way round. 

Restoring American Credibility

The U.S. has a credibility problem made the more difficult as it learns how to deal with the new rulers of Afghanistan, who also have a credibility problem. American pundits whine that the Taliban know nothing of human rights and inflict barbarian social standards on women and children. That would be bad enough, but they also dislike music, entertainment, laughter, and other unseemly behavior. When you pause to think about it, they’re not much different from American Puritans of the early colonial era, but that’s for another time. The point is, the U.S. also has a credibility problem. We cannot rely on the Afghans’ word to be more tolerant and inclusive. But our creditability lies in our human rights record by operation of secret prisons, to torturing incarcerated prisoners, bombing funerals and weddings, and trying to force a new way of democratic life on the people through military force. That’s a part of the Afghan legacy most of us would prefer to ignore because it’s so antithetical to all that we say we believe in. Indeed it is, but there it is and we have to face it.

If that was our only credibility problem, it might not be so bad, but it isn’t. I can’t lay a finger on when our international credibility began to fray, but the big tear came with the Iraq War that was entered intro through lies and deliberately manufactured rumors about weapons of mass destruction and Iraq’s alleged involvement in 9/11. The blatant reality of those lies was soon made known to the entire world, which brought into the open the question of whether the word of the United States could be trusted. What saved us, at least in part, was the general feeling that President Bush was an affable nice guy who simply got in over his head. Contrary to Republican blather, the Obama years did much to restore America’s International standing, even if it was increasingly clear that the Afghan War needed to be ended.  All that changed with the advent of Trump’s administration that tromped over diplomatic  protocol, abused leaders of allied nations, cozied up to dictators of nations intent on doing America harm. Making it worse, Trump demonstrated that Americans were capable of electing to the presidency a functionally illiterate with a junior high grasp of history and an inability to communicate with anything more sophisticated than aggressive insults and fantastical promises he obviously had no intention or ability to deliver on. 

It’s a problem the Biden administration has to wrestle with. There’s no way around it. It can’t be wished away.

The first step to restoration of American credibility is recognition that good ends can’t be achieved through violent means. Violent means may be necessary to stop even more violent attacks, but they can’t do more than that. To achieve good ends requires something more. Consider one of the times in human history that that was understood, the end of World War II. Wise minds understood that the best hope for  enduring peace was to help Germany and Japan recover social stability and economic prosperity. The same went for other nations that suffered the inhuman destruction of war. It meant knowing and honoring the existing institutions and cultural practices that were central to each nation. As scripture commands, when one’s enemies are hungry, feed them; when they are thirsty, give them something to drink. Among our many failings in Afghanistan, we were unable to learn, understand, and honor the cultural way and institutions of the land, to use that knowledge and understanding to provide resources needed for them to rebuild their societies enabling them to participate in a 21st century world as authentic Afghans.

As a side note, having listened to a multitude of military experts and representatives opining about Afghanistan, it’s become clear that it’s hard for people well trained in military ways to envision other tools and means other than their own. 

Rebuilding diplomatic relationships with other nations is another much needed step. It means more than restoring a well trained and highly motivated foreign service. It means that national leadership has to adopt a public narrative that is less obscure and evasive. I know that’s the core of diplomatic speak, but it leads the pubic to be suspicious of hidden agendas not in their best interests, and therefore to be publicly opposed.  At the same time, it means avoiding ‘Trumpspeak’ that threatens like a schoolyard bully. Forthright honesty can be expressed without pandering or threatening. Mistakes can be honestly admitted without groveling.  Moreover, too often, I suspect, our diplomatic efforts have been harnessed to corporate trading opportunities that, however useful, are not always in the best interest of other pressing needs: environmental protection, labor conditions, public health, etc. The United States of America does not end in ‘Inc’.

My fear is that Trump’s bellicose blundering continues to be popular among too many voters and Members of Congress. It’s something I have a hard time grasping, but juvenile cowboy mentality is beneath our dignity, and a sure way to undermine whatever credibility we retain.

Progressive Failure to Communicate With the Voters They Need: a one person anecdotal case study

Progressive politicians and liberal interest groups have a blind spot that costs them votes and elections. They’re enthusiastic about warning of the danger right wing candidates pose to democracy, and they’re right about that.  They’re enthusiastic about rebuilding conditions needed for local and national success, and they’re right about that too.  But progressive leaders don’t listen well between the lines to working people who are tired, frustrated, and worried that the little they’ve worked so hard to build up is in jeopardy.  They express it in ways that can sound reactionary and ill informed, but listening between the lines reveals deep wants and anxieties that need to be addressed because they’re also the people whose votes progressives need to win elections.

As an anecdotal case study, consider a long time acquaintance, a young family man who had been successful win the building trades.  From framing to finishing there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do well.  It’s an unpredictable way to make a living, so about fifteen years ago he went to work in an old fashioned, blue collar, unionized job.  He’s the kind who gets his hands dirty working on things that merge strength and skill with high technology.   There aren’t many jobs like that these days and he’s glad to have one. 

He’s an intelligent guy with world views well formed by a lifetime of exposure to the virtue of individualism, the value of small government, the unfair burden of taxes, and the laziness of those on welfare.  He takes the benefits of post war liberalism for granted.  His entire life has been submerged in Reagan era propaganda that for him set the standards for the way things should be.

He’s worked hard to care for his family and has little respect for those who don’t.  He believes government handouts are mostly a waste of his taxes, and is largely unaware of government programs that help underwrite his employer and others in the region.  He’s been told often enough, and so believes, that the government doesn’t care about blue collar workers.  Likewise, he’s been convinced government is loaded with untrustworthy, self dealing politicians who favor the rich and elite.  He believes people in the upper classes, intellectuals, and elites in general have disdain for folks like him who work with their hands.  Why does he believe it?  The media have said so for his entire life.  

His experience and everything he’s heard add up to a conviction that if one doesn’t stand up for one’s rights and freedoms, they’ll be taken away.  The thing is, he’s no MAGA hat wearing Trumper.  He’s not into conspiracies.  He’s not easily persuaded by right wing news sources, but he watches Fox and listens to talk radio.  Whatever being woke is, it’s unlikely he will ever be woke.  He doesn’t think or care much about race or racism.  He does think and care about street crime and violence.

He’s one anecdotal case study, but my guess is that he’s legion, and can’t be easily pigeonholed into blue or red boxes.  He’s certainly not a right winger.  On close examination his legion is maybe center right, if there is such a thing. 

When he makes his political voice heard, liberals argue with him about how misinformed and prejudices he is.  They talk in generalities about what’s just and good for the country, but not about how that can be just and good for him.  And therein lies the problem: what does he think would be good and just for him?  Why not ask him?

He wants to do the right thing, but doesn’t want to be coerced into doing it.  People like him were the backbone of the Democratic Party only a few decades ago.  Open the door, give him good reason to enter, invite him in, but don’t shove him through it.

What might progressive thought leaders do to improve their chances of gaining votes from people like him?

The vaccine issue is illustrative. When government engages in anything that directly affects one’s person, it has invaded personal space at the most intimate level.  However good the policy, it must tread a careful balance between force that limits freedom and invitation that nourishes it.  Folks who believe they’ve been disregarded or disempowered by government office holders abusing their powers don’t like to be bullied.  Liberals have been long aware of that regarding the non white population, but the same dynamic is at play among many who identify with the working class.  The difference between acceptance and rejection is in the words used and the actions that give the words credibility.

If there is one thing my anecdotal case study holds dear, it is the Constitution, and his understanding that he has a constitutional right not to be told what’s best for him and his family.  Of course that’s not what the Constitution is about, but that’s not the point. The point is that one’s desire to do what’s best for one’s family is a deeply held value, a worthy value.  Policy proposals need to be presented as means to improve the ability to do what’s best for one’s family.

It’s all reasonable and obvious, but recent campaigns seem blind to it.  Liberals promote grand schemes and big policy initiatives, each of which may be vitally important to the future of the nation.  But they avoid explaining in concrete, tangible ways how their plans will benefit real lives.  Perhaps most important, unless the liberal agenda can be presented as preserving and protecting individual rights and freedoms, the wary will consider them suspect.