autocratic tendencies: is the president changing us?

Next week, Helsinki, Finland will host a Trump-Putin Summit. President Trump has requested that he be guaranteed a meeting with Vladimir Putin in total privacy, with no witnesses present. As these two leaders come together, I am saddened by their apparent similarities, and even more grieved by the impact they have on the rest of us. A year ago this week, Presidents Trump and Putin met face to face for the first time during the G20 gathering in Hamburg, Germany. In an article juxtaposing violent protests with that friendly and longer-than-planned encounter, in which both parties accepted as fact assurances repeatedly disproven by professional journalists and intelligence agencies, Edward Lucas, writing for CNN, reports “the sight of two autocratic, media-hating leaders with dodgy business connections getting together.” He describes Putin and the President of the United States, our President, with the same words: “autocratic”, “media-hating” and “with dodgy business connections.”

While it is easy to lament the similarities in these two leaders, and the abandonment of an honorable ideal that President Trump represents in my view, I am more concerned with the trickle down effect I see him having on the cultural norms of Americans. What happens to a society when there is no expectation of integrity in the leaders upon whose discernment we depend? What happens when strength and leadership are proven through unchecked power and unilateral decision forcing? What happens when people in power decide who is safe, who is human, and who is welcome, while all others are treated as hostile, animalistic and terrifying? What happens when differences of opinion are demonized and multiple angles of an issue are excluded as biased, fake news? 

I’m afraid that “what happens” in these hypothetical instances are the things we see happening all around us. Our multi-branched government can’t function with an autocratic leader, and inciting violent disdain for reporters who challenge authority undermines a society that theoretically champions our 1st Amendment. Despite the perspective coming from the White House, encountering diverse perspectives strengthens my ability to appreciate others, increases my understanding of complicated issues I need to navigate, and contextualizes my experience as an adult living in Nashville, TN in 2018. Autocratic leadership forgets that we need each other. I suspect that a quick glance at any of our pasts demonstrates the idea that we are all encouraged, challenged, matured, helped or advanced by the input of others.

We know what our President refutes. Humanity only works in community.

We not only need others, we specifically need people whose experiences differ from ours. During last year’s G20 Summit, my 13 year old learned to ride a motorcycle at my parents’ farm. My dad taught me to ride when I was 8, and his bikes had not been started for years. While I could teach my son the delicate rhythm required between the clutch and gears, or the ins and outs of cranking, braking and balancing, I did not have the experience required to take a carburetor apart. Luckily, my dad does, so my son not only learned to ride a dirt bike, but how to take apart, clean and rebuild a carburetor as well. Yes, I could teach him to ride, but no, I could not have started the bike in the first place without my dad’s distinct experience and expertise. We need each other.

Nevertheless, I see evidence, modeled best by our President, that our society is functioning in a way that meets difference with not just skepticism, but outright disdain. This is a failing strategy. Surely each of us knows our experiences would be severely limited if we refused to hear or learn from the people around us. Knowing this, we must expose the idea of being “autocratic” as a terrible way to lead. Deriving all knowledge exclusively from the self is limiting. When that self has unchecked power, it leads to tyranny, and is an affront to American governance.

Autocracy is decidedly not democracy. Nevertheless, consider: Are we moving toward autocratic ways of thinking and acting? We see these traits in our President as he discredits a disagreeing judge, refuses to follow the suggestions of an office created to help him manage his affairs ethically, insults people who approach a problem from different angles, ignores experts, uses Twitter to bully and even fire supporters, shames allies and dismisses professional reporters as irrelevant and dangerous. We cannot change his habits. Indeed, it appears we cannot even challenge his proven track record of unethical speech, action and business deals. Even as we find ourselves powerless in the face of such autocratic and media hating habits, we can actively resist our tendencies to follow his lead. 

Just as importantly, as a person who has been offended by our President dozens of times, I also speak to those of us who self-righteously claim to be nothing like him. Sure, it is easy to spot friends who make life choices based on a foundation of fear and mistrust of the ‘Other.’ Sure, it is easy to roll my eyes at people whose news sources prove to be driven not by facts and thoughtful reporting but by allegiance to a specific perspective. Sure, it is easy to pity people who live in a virtual hivemind, only trusting those who share a single perspective.

Here is the kicker: I do the same! I have autocratic tendencies! I belong at the Trump-Putin Summit!

Am I capable of dismissing the perspective of a person I disdain? Am I capable of thinking I know all, that I am best equipped to make a decision without consulting others? Am I capable of behaving unethically in certain parts of my life, while galloping across the moral high ground when it suits me? Am I capable of distrusting someone because of a stereotype, or ignoring experiences that challenge a notion I hold dear? Yes, to all of the above, yes.

In short, all of us have a part to play in resisting powerful leaders who could do us harm. Rather than railing on about how Trump and Putin deserve each other, lamenting how low the US has fallen in the eyes of the world, perhaps each of us should do a personal inventory, examining our own “autocratic”, “media-hating” and “dodgy business dealing” spots.  Those of us most appalled by our current regime might just fit right in. Changing norms change people unless they resist.

the state of us: in defense of context, take two

A glitch in our system prevented this essay from going out. I share it here again, because context matters....

Jon Stewart is a brilliant thinker and satirist, and in my view the public sphere is less informed without his voice.  When he ran Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, pollsters claimed that a majority of millennials looked to Stewart for primary news; he was their information source.  Many older Americans decried this as a sign of the decline of our country’s intellectual rigor, or of the lack of seriousness and discernment young people possessed.  To be fair, Stewart himself adamantly claimed he was not, nor did he try to be, a trusted source for news.  He is a comedian, and that is all he claimed to be.  However, I think Stewart regularly offered us something news agencies—and most people—lack: context.

How do we come to know the things we know? Could the answer illuminate the sources of our alleged divide?  Our fractious citizenry is a result of our inability to contextualize our unique realities.  We live in circles largely segregated along economic, racial, ethnic and political lines.  These lines, invisible though they may be, are powerful, and they keep us from interacting regularly with people whose experiences and backgrounds are largely different from our own.  We love to yell about the problems this insulated living causes. “Get out of your echo chamber!” “You live in such a bubble.” “You only reached that conclusion using confirmation bias.” The list of accusations goes on, even though our divided communities ensure many of us DO live in bubbly echo chambers. 

The work of self examination required to recognize my bias, to trace its roots, and to mitigate its impact, can be exhausting.  Nevertheless, we cannot be responsible stewards of our citizenship without contextualizing our experiences with the experiences of people who live very differently than we do.  For instance, if my view of police is based on the positive experiences of white friends who live in safe, wealthy areas, then I might passionately defend all policemen as dutiful servants who are patient, respectful and levelheaded in every instance.  On the other hand, if my view of police is based on the negative experiences of black friends who live in a part of town overlooked by investment, then I might passionately accuse all policemen of being overly aggressive and suspicious, more likely to use force than to have a conversation.  Without the context of another’s point of view, our perspectives become reactionary.  In every interaction, we need to recognize our own perspectives and then intentionally contextualize those opinions with the thoughts of others.

The way we access information also demonstrates our need for contextualization.  Increasingly, we are consumers of “the media” rather than informed citizens who advocate for important ideas and people.  We are reactive to sensation, rather than intentionally engaged in the diverse realities of living in America.  I don’t blame us for this reactionary living.  The onslaught of information to which we are privy is overwhelming.  Most of us lack the capacity to curate which information is helpful or necessary, so we give that job to trending social media feeds, and to companies who own news stations and papers.  Without knowing we have done it, we allow them to decide what is necessary, or what angle matters.  Some do a better job than others at providing context for the information they share.  However, we often consume what they present as isolated fact, rather than discovering an independent, historically rooted and thoughtfully framed context.

The point here is not to demonize “the media.”  As David Dark often says,  “there is no the media.”  Rather, we are all implicated in a system that keeps us uninformed, spoon fed with snippets that make us furious, stripping away both nuance and context.  We are implicated because we consume our news in this way, like cows huddled in a corner rather than exploring the expansive field before us. 

How might we shift from passive acceptance to actively contextualizing our views of the world? A few thoughts:

1)   Take inventory of the ways you engage news.  Do you spend energy informing yourself, or do you accept arbitrary knowledge of the school board, affordable housing accessibility, limits to religious freedom, state of welfare, and the condition of your state’s guns laws? Observe your pursuit or avoidance of “news.”

2)   Think about that pursuit or avoidance.  If you avoid the news, is it because it feels too “political” and somehow dirty? If this resonates with you then know you are surely not alone. However, consider this: The ability to insulate yourself, protected from any policy decision your government makes, is a privilege not enjoyed by many who struggle pay check to pay check.  It is also worth noting here that when you make a habit of giving your political power away, it is very difficult to get it back.

3)   If you think most news sources are terribly biased, consider sampling all of them.  Rather than repeat attacks of, “Fake News!” or “They have an agenda!”, take time to listen to a variety of sources. If you believe that a certain outlet is overtly biased yet successful, it behooves the informed citizen to spend time getting to know those powerful voices.  When you listen to disparate voices it might make you angry, but it could also provide context for you to understand the many forces at play around a given issue. Such exposure might help you communicate well with people who lean differently from you.

We live lives largely contextualized by the people we know best, and by news sources we find agreeable.  Such self-referentially rooted context is no context at all, and leads to the passionate defense of positions not fully explored.  As citizens who share a country, we fundamentally understand we share spaces with others.  As long as we value only the opinions of those who are the most like us, we will continue to react badly to those who have a different way of experiencing or seeing the world.

Note well that the forces around you do not provide context; indeed, if you are weary of today’s reactionary blaming, do the work to contextualize your own experience with the experiences of others.  Contextualize your acquisition of news with outlets who spin in service of a different power.  It is the job of each of us to build a bigger table, invite others to have a seat, and then share our experiences.  If we do, perhaps we can stop reacting with anger and blame for people who dare respond differently.  Offering your story to the stories of others will bring insight to our shared concerns.  As Jon Stewart once mocked cable news, “This portion of our program is brought to you by… Context. It’s the shit you have in your tape library that gives seemingly isolated instances perspective."

the state of us: in defense of context

Jon Stewart is a brilliant thinker and satirist, and in my view the public sphere is less informed without his voice.  When Stewart ran Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, pollsters claimed that a majority of millennials looked to Stewart for primary news; he was their information source.  Many older Americans decried this as a sign of the decline of our country’s intellectual rigor, or of the lack of seriousness and discernment young people possessed.  To be fair, Stewart himself adamantly claimed he was not, nor did he try to be, a trusted source for news.  He is a comedian, and that is all he claimed to be.  However, I think Stewart regularly offered us something news agencies—and most people—lack: context.

How do we come to know the things we know? Could the answer illuminate the sources of our alleged divide?  Our fractious citizenry is a result of our inability to contextualize our unique realities.  We live in circles largely segregated along economic, racial, ethnic and political lines.  These lines, invisible though they may be, are powerful, and they keep us from interacting regularly with people whose experiences and backgrounds are largely different from our own.  We love to yell about the problems this insulated living causes. “Get out of your echo chamber!” “You live in such a bubble.” “You only reached that conclusion using confirmation bias.” The list of accusations goes on, even though our divided communities ensure many of us DO live in bubbly echo chambers. 

The work of self examination required to recognize my bias, to trace its roots, and to mitigate its impact, can be exhausting.  Nevertheless, we cannot be responsible stewards of our citizenship without contextualizing our experiences with the experiences of people who live very differently than we do.  For instance, if my view of police is based on the positive experiences of white friends who live in safe, wealthy areas, then I might passionately defend all policemen as dutiful servants who are patient, respectful and levelheaded in every instance.  On the other hand, if my view of police is based on the negative experiences of black friends who live in a part of town overlooked by investment, then I might passionately accuse all policemen of being overly aggressive and suspicious, more likely to use force than to have a conversation.  Without the context of another’s point of view, our perspectives become reactionary.  In every interaction, we need to recognize our own perspectives and then intentionally contextualize those opinions with the thoughts of others.

The way we access information also demonstrates our need for contextualization.  Increasingly, we are consumers of “the media” rather than informed citizens who advocate for important ideas and people.  We are reactive to sensation, rather than intentionally engaged in the diverse realities of living in America.  I don’t blame us for this reactionary living.  The onslaught of information to which we are privy is overwhelming.  Most of us lack the capacity to curate which information is helpful or necessary, so we give that job to trending social media feeds, and to companies who own news stations and papers.  Without knowing we have done it, we allow them to decide what is necessary, or what angle matters.  Some do a better job than others at providing context for the information they share.  However, we often consume what they present as isolated fact, rather than discovering an independent, historically rooted and thoughtfully framed context.

The point here is not to demonize “the media.”  As David Dark often says,  “there is no the media.”  Rather, we are all implicated in a system that keeps us uninformed, spoon fed with snippets that make us furious, stripping away both nuance and context.  We are implicated because we consume our news in this way, like cows huddled in a corner rather than exploring the expansive field before us. 

How might we shift from passive acceptance to actively contextualizing our views of the world? A few thoughts:

1)   Take inventory of the ways you engage news.  Do you spend energy informing yourself, or do you accept arbitrary knowledge of the school board, affordable housing accessibility, limits to religious freedom, state of welfare, and the condition of your state’s guns laws? Observe your pursuit or avoidance of “news.”

2)   Think about that pursuit or avoidance.  If you avoid the news, is it because it feels too “political” and somehow dirty? If this resonates with you then know you are surely not alone. However, consider this: The ability to insulate yourself, protected from any policy decision your government makes, is a privilege not enjoyed by many who struggle pay check to pay check.  It is also worth noting here that when you make a habit of giving your political power away, it is very difficult to get it back.

3)   If you think most news sources are terribly biased, consider sampling all of them.  Rather than repeat attacks of, “Fake News!” or “They have an agenda!”, take time to listen to a variety of sources. If you believe that a certain outlet is overtly biased yet successful, it behooves the informed citizen to spend time getting to know those powerful voices.  When you listen to disparate voices it might make you angry, but it could also provide context for you to understand the many forces at play around a given issue. Such exposure might help you communicate well with people who lean differently from you.

We live lives largely contextualized by the people we know best, and by news sources we find agreeable.  Such self-referentially rooted context is no context at all, and leads to the passionate defense of positions not fully explored.  As citizens who share a country, we fundamentally understand we share spaces with others.  As long as we value only the opinions of those who are the most like us, we will continue to react badly to those who have a different way of experiencing or seeing the world.

Note well that the forces around you do not provide context; indeed, if you are weary of today’s reactionary blaming, do the work to contextualize your own experience with the experiences of others.  Contextualize your acquisition of news with outlets who spin in service of a different power.  It is the job of each of us to build a bigger table, invite others to have a seat, and then share our experiences.  If we do, perhaps we can stop reacting with anger and blame for people who dare respond differently.  Offering your story to the stories of others will bring insight to our shared concerns.  As Jon Stewart once mocked cable news, “This portion of our program is brought to you by… Context. It’s the shit you have in your tape library that gives seemingly isolated instances perspective.”