stubborn binaries, killing us softly

In honor of election day fast approaching, and the political frenzy it brings, this week’s essay is a repost from about a year ago, when I challenged the death grip binaries had our thinking and acting in the public sphere. Sadly, we still seem to love binaries, so much so that instead of loving our enemies we love to have enemies. As long as we continue to assume we all fit only on one side or the other, we are part of the problem. I hope this reminds us that there is a better way forward.

 People love to say our country is divided, and it certainly seems to me that it is. The more interesting observation for my money, however, is on the nature of that divide. I’m sick of the old ones—and they don’t seem to fit anymore anyway. Democrat/Republican, urban/rural, public/private, rich/poor, Christian/all-the-others, progressive/conservative, yuppie/hippie, dominant/minority, those who “get it”/those who don’t…they’re all examples of binary thinking that strike me as rather simple, and frankly, as evidence of unexamined thinking. 

 And yet, I have whole-heartedly rolled around in such binaries for the last politically-crazed year like my dog in freshly laid mulch: with a relish that is both nauseating and a little baffling. So why? Why do we refuse to bring our life experience, which is most definitely un-binary, to bear on the way we describe the tensions we feel with each other? Why do we pretend that all who kneel do not respect those who served our country, while all who stand do not care about those marginalized by injustice? The answers lie in understanding the foundational ways in which we relate to and contextualize each other. 

 Our tribal instincts are exacerbated by our immersion in segregated communities.  While most of us live, play and worship in racially and economically segregated spaces, almost all of us connect online in politically segregated arenas. Our ability to respectfully approach others with curiosity is severely hampered when we only hear attacks about “them.” The dependence many have on social media to connect with others and validate their own value tends to be—at best—equal parts sincere engagement and performative pandering. We know this, and feel it in our souls even as we compulsively check our feeds for extrinsic encouragement. There is a place in each of us that understands we are complicit in participating in this bullshit exchange-space, and this is the place from which our cries for authenticity arise, even as we exchange our own experience of ambiguity for binaries that exclude others and comfort us. 

 That for many, President Trump’s shoot from the hip style is refreshingly authentic is hilarious for some and devastating for others. Some of us know him as an honest and authentic outsider, unsullied by the “swamp.” Some of us abhor him as a fundamentally selfish and unethical hypocrite, amazed daily that others can’t see through the show. The former group, despairing in the inability to feel heard and respected by society, celebrate the President as embodying the authenticity they crave. The latter group think Trump’s election reflects a great mistake, a blip in our otherwise just and thoughtful democracy. Absurd as it is, the alienation they felt in the last eleven months overwhelms any notion of connection they shared with fellow citizens. Instead, they buy into binaries. I sometimes resonate, feeling the fabric of society had been torn, and that I no longer belong to, or even understand those who live on the other side of the lines we draw between us. 

 For some who allow binaries to define their views of community, they now gravitate toward a new view: that the President exactly reflects the reality of the sentiments held by voters. In short, Trump is America—or should I say, ‘Murica—and we deserve him. This may very well be true, and there is certainly daily evidence to support such a claim. We are hateful and mean, consumed with self, entitled victims.  We are, in fact, bad at taking care of each other. But we are also really good at it, and my contention is that binary thinking prevents us from recognizing both of these facts. Thus, viewing the era of Trump through such extremes is insufficient and, frankly, does not offer an analytical framework nuanced enough to understand this moment. Could it be that we are all selfish jerks and compassionate neighbors? Could it be that we are all presenting lovely masks of ourselves and taking strides toward authenticity? 

 This brings me, with great pleasure, to the person and persona of Josh Tillman, aka J. Tillman, aka Father John Misty. A folk singer/songwriter/rocker, Tillman presents the most interesting tableau of meta-authenticity I have come across in a spell. While creating and performing critically and popularly acclaimed music, Tillman is loathed by many who dismiss him as a self-obsessed crackpot philosopher who waxes poetic about the nature of performance in America today. Yes, maybe. But his awareness of self, his self-mockery, his ease with conflicting ideas even as he articulates them passionately, makes me a fan. He deconstructs society’s impulses even as he deconstructs his own drives, all while acting boldly on those drives!  It is hilariously refreshing to hear him think out loud. For Tillman, the notion of binary thinking is outright absurd, a shoe that does not fit any foot in the kingdom. 

 Reading about and listening to Tillman, where ambiguity and nuance organically infuse every thought, offers a clear juxtaposition with destructive and ill-fitting binaries. In processing through this last year, it is evident that we have, as an American culture, adopted what I call a binary cycle, in which our basic notion of self worth arises out of belonging to one side, and this becomes the rubric by which we judge others as well. Our thinking about others, and, importantly, about self, is dictated by binaries. Extremes certainly helped elect our President, but they have also reduced us to thinking almost exclusively in terms of us and them. Tillman is a reminder that these binaries, and the biases to which they give birth, are, in fact, the foundation of our fractured society. This is why American society has fallen with no means to get up.

 (But there I go again.) No we haven’t. Our society is not defined primarily by our binaries.  We demonize “them” all day long, but we are also a compassionate people who often care sacrificially for others. In Nashville, TN, in the midst of the travel ban on majority-Muslim countries and the halting of refugee resettlement, agencies who work with immigrant and refugee populations were flooded with volunteers and donations. Also in Nashville, gun violence has risen dramatically in parts of the city inhabited mostly by minorities. While many people with power seem oblivious to this crisis, some of us are starting to notice curiosity among those who heretofore have refused to link gentrification, education and development policies to the displacement, disruption and despair of many marginalized communities. I see evidence everyday that we all have a capacity to care about “them.” We the people are totally selfish and greedy, and generous and compassionate. We are not a binary, and when we think of ourselves and others through a binary lens we lose sight of ourselves and destroy the very fabric of society that still holds us together.

 So this is my call, in honor of  those who kneel and stand, and in thanks to our dear Father John, to invite more of us to join his conversation. Can we begin to recognize how binary thinking dehumanizes ourselves and others? Can we reject totalizing statements and replace them with curious listening? Can we create new habits of recognizing our commonalities before only seeing divides? Can we endorse candidates whose policies and rhetoric suggest we all belong together, as we vote for people to represent us, rather than down a party line? Paying honest attention is a good antidote for thinking in simple binaries.

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.

on inauguration day

thoughts on the transfer of power

This morning our country witnessed the peaceful transfer of power, from one President to another.  The power did not just move from one man to another, it moved from one vision of the world, one set of core beliefs, to one, although obscured and unknown in many ways, that is certainly very different than the vision proclaimed for the past few years.  While the title and power of the Presidency has certainly been placed upon the shoulders of Donald Trump, I am hopeful that his vision for our country will not supplant the vision of his predecessor. 

I must recognize that I am predisposed, and biased, toward an inclusive vision of our country.  I am a person of faith, and my approach to others is foundationally shaped by the movement of God toward all people created in God’s own image.  I believe that my value, indeed all of humanity’s value, is rooted in the dignity of our creation, guaranteeing that we are all made with equal worth and promise.  I am not more valuable because of the work I have done; indeed, I know that my accomplishments are a reflection of the foundation of privilege into which I was born.  Because I believe my redemption comes from Christ, I am also fully aware that my knowledge of God, my dependence on God, my purpose within God, is only possible because God moves toward me with forgiveness, sacrifice and grace.  This awareness gives me no choice but to move toward all the people around me with a similar sense of forgiveness, sacrifice and grace.  This bias, which I fully own, leads me to align myself closely with the vision of Barack Obama, and to reject the vision of now President Trump.

I fundamentally believe that I am stronger and wiser and more resilient when I am confronted with and impacted by the diverse perspectives of others.

I fundamentally believe that I am stronger and wiser and more resilient when I am confronted with and impacted by the diverse perspectives of others.  I fundamentally believe that the opportunities and prosperity of others do not threaten my own in any way.  I also fundamentally believe that my own prosperity and security require me to give others the same privileges I enjoy (I realize that I have lived a life of abundance and it is a privilege to not feel threatened by the growth of others).  

President Trump disagrees.  He has consistently argued that immigrants are destroying the American way of life, and that corrupt and selfish government has bankrupted this country in order to build and bolster other countries. These statements and decisions are manifestations stemming from a belief that immigrants and all other nations are takers at best, and out to destroy America at worst.  His vision, I think, is a direct reflection of “American Exceptionalism,” that is, the idea that America was founded on a grand idea, and that our ability to reject our colonial founders, establish a lasting democracy, and quickly rise to become the leading world power means that we are God’s chosen people and THE global authority—morally and otherwise—in a way impossible for other nations.  While this idea is certainly gratifying, it can lead to a certainty that our perspective is uniform, and always correct.  When we encounter a perspective that confronts ours, or find evidence that we have not behaved as the exceptionally correct and magnanimous power we believe ourselves to be, that exceptionality, indeed our identity, feels threatened.  This foundation leads, I believe, to President Trump’s posture of chronic defensiveness, and although it starts at a national level, it results in a fear and rejection of individual others.  Because I see through a frame of appreciating and moving toward others in curiosity, I have to challenge his policies and rhetoric that encourages the demonization of others.  Will you join me?

President Trump’s inaugural address has been called a Populist Manifesto.  Indeed, he offered a prescription for healing the divides his campaign speeches widened by saying, “when you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” 

He called out the selfish corruption in Washington, and this year he consistently promised to never again forget the countless people our government has left behind.  Any honest look at our country, our history, and current reality will confirm President Trump’s wise assessment that our country does not actually value all “the people.”  I am thankful he acknowledged this inequality, and appreciate the attention he has given to those who have struggled to find a place in our rapidly changing economy and cultural norms.

His vision for our country and his promises to “drain the swamp” or that they “will be forgotten no more,” however, do not line up in any way with the decisions he has made during his transition.  First, 15 of his 20 cabinet-level nominees are white males.  These men, most of whom are millionaires who have been very politically active, are Trump’s most trusted advisorsI see their uniformity of class, race and gender as a sobering reminder that President Trump does not know or value perspectives different than his own.  Many of the men he has placed in his cabinet and on his top advising team have no track record of remembering those Trump rightly claims have been forgotten.  It is troubling to me that he has surrounded himself with people whose life experiences mirror his own, and I have to challenge the notion that the best professionals in every sphere are white males.  Will you join me?

I see their uniformity of class, race and gender as a sobering reminder that President Trump does not know or value perspectives different than his own.  

My other concerns are more specific, and involve economic prosperity, tax rates and regulatory reform.  Wealth inequality has been growing, as middle and lower income earners’ wages have stagnated, while investors and owners’ wages have increased.  Since 1963, the wealthiest Americans’ net worth increased 6 fold, while the bottom 50% barely grew at all (Urban Institute).  In fact, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), our poorest 90% must share 24% of the country’s wealth.  President Trump is right!  90% of our country has been forgotten!  While technological advances continue to present challenges to our work force and model, the greatest blow to our economic stability came in the Great Recession, precipitated by rash and greed-fueled decisions made by members of the financial industry.  These decisions were permitted because laws regulating the industry had been repealed.  Knowing that the removal of these regulations paved the way for decisions that caused the global economic crisis—felt most destructively in middle and lower class homes—Trump has promised that one of his top priorities is to deregulate the financial industry.  Moreover, his tax plan shows no consideration whatsoever for the ones he calls “forgotten”: the CBO predicts his tax plan will raise the incomes of the top 1% by 10% or higher, while the tax impact on middle and lower classes will remain unchanged.   In this and so many other arenas, his cabinet picks and policy commitments prove his real vision to be quite the opposite of the promises he made in his inaugural address.  Because I reject the notion that deregulating industries and lowering tax rates for those who provide capital will cause wealth to “trickle down” to the rest of us (a notion never successfully demonstrated in America), I have to challenge his policies based on the premise that if we trust the guys at the top with more power and money, the rest of us will be okay.  Will you join me?

Despite my grave and worthy concerns, I have committed to keeping an open mind as our new President is sworn in.  To that end, I must say I am heartened by the inclusion of Rabbi Marvin Hier, who uttered the following maxim at today’s ceremony: “A nation’s wealth is measured by her values, not her vaults.”  This notion feels endangered by our current power structure, and yet these words continue to articulate an idea many Americans want to embody.  Whoever our President, most Americans also want to be part of a government by and for and of the people.  If this is true, we must join together now and demand policies—not just promises—that demonstrate these values.  Will you join me?