Author Archives: Anthony DeBenedict

“. . . and they two shall be one flesh.”

All religions tell stories that help us make sense of life and experience it more fully. Many of these stories seem to cross faith boundaries and reflect universal themes. Certain scholars study the thematic correlations in these stories and can identify the common myths found in nearly all religions. Psychologists of a certain persuasion have also noted how these shared themes correspond to the central architypes that inhabit our subconscious and often surface in our waking lives. Today I was thinking about the relevance of one of these religious stories to our modern era. Nearly everybody is aware of the Old Testament* Genesis story, even if they have never read it. In Chapter 1, verse 27, “And God made man, according to the image of God he made him. Male and female, he made them.” In Chapter 2, verse22, “And God formed the rib which he took from Adam into a woman and brought her to Adam.” What these passages tell us is that both men and women were created in the image of God and, as Adam quickly recognizes, Eve “now is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh (Ch.2, v.23).” But why, in the next verse do we find this conclusion, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cling to his wife, and they two shall be one flesh (Ch.2, v.24)?” The last part of this verse resonates with me because it helps me understand one of the central issues of our time.

Allow me to state the obvious: every human being is born of woman. Not only do we all have mothers, but they are by nature the foundation of the family. We men, of course, have an important role as fathers, but we do not carry little human beings in our bodies or nurse them at the breast. Moreover, through all human history, women have nurtured the family unit as the bedrock of society. And men, of course, have helped build and protect that foundation for both family and society. Obviously, both men and women are genetically and actively integral to human families. But the nurturing role of mothers initially defines and informs the role of parents. That nurturing requires compassion, self-sacrifice, and tireless safeguarding of familial relationships. It is difficult for anyone of us to develop the empathy required to build relationships outside of the family without the experience of a loving and supportive family structure and, more specifically, without a loving mother. Most parents intuitively recognize their mutual interdependence in raising their children. Their own relationship to each other is the model their children will have in uniting the male-female attributes of their own psyche and, as parents, in raising their own family. And families, as many have stated, are the foundation of communities and of the larger societal structures derived from them. It is easy to see this connection between family and society when travelling to other countries. Germans, for example, are raised in culturally different settings than the French—as would be the case across most national borders. Despite these cultural differences, there is something about family life that does not change. The major operating principle in every normal family is the influence of the male-female archetypes, their interrelationship, and union. Why is that union so important?

If you will bear with me, I am going to stretch the story of Paradise into a less common reading. Perhaps the “fall” occurred because Adam and Eve had not yet consummated their relationship. As innocents walking naked in the Garden of Eve, they were ill-equipped to deal with evil and therefore easily duped by the serpent into tasting the forbidden fruit. Afterwards, they became aware of their nakedness and of their potential to disobey God or commit an evil deed. Knowledge of their sexual differences is the precursor for God’s admonition that the “two shall be one flesh.” But beyond their physical union, men and women need each other. To put the matter more bluntly, it has always been our ability to screw things up that requires us to conjoin the male and female principles. We simply function better as a unit. That potential union is not only inferred in gender differences, but it is also latent in varying degrees within every individual psyche. Each of us are male-female, though one or the other architype is usually dominant. But Genesis reminds us why it is necessary that the “two shall be one flesh.”

My thesis here is not new. Somewhere in one of Joseph Campbell’s many books I remember reading how primitive communities were built around these male and female archetypes. The men were tribal warrior-protectors while the women were family nurturer-preservers. Both were needed to create and protect the community. Although we cannot know the daily interworking of these primitive societies, their rituals tell us something about the balance they strived to maintain between the male and female roles. When a young woman came of age for child bearing, the women convened to celebrate the occurrence. Since the men had no natural “coming of age” phenomenon, they invented initiation ceremonies to graduate boys into manhood and their hunter-warrior-protector role in the community. Like the girls’ transition into womanhood, the boys experienced no little anxiety and even some blood loss during these rites of passage rituals. But these ceremonies served to preserve the sexual balance of power in the tribe and in its communal relations. Even my cursory reading of the native American nations revealed the same dedication to this balance and to the communities served by it. When the Indian nations warred against each other, however, victory often accompanied the destruction of this balance. The vanquished men were humiliated (scalped) and killed, while their women were humiliated (raped) and most often stolen. These Indians apparently believed that they must destroy the power of men, but exploit and control for personal use the power of women. Much of our human history of war and conquest reflects the same belief. Even today we can witness how women may be exploited and, in effect, subjugated to male dominance.

We can identify vestiges of these primitive times in syndicated sex slavery rings or campus rapes or victims of domestic battery and in the heinous attacks and subjection of women by groups like Boko Haram, Al Shabab, and Daesh. In our most “enlightened” or liberated societies, women are often perceived in secondary or supportive roles, where their actual contributions are suppressed or not recognized. Certainly, it is true that women occupy a more prominent role in our American society than in the past. There are women CEOs and elected officials at every level of government. But America has not yet fully restored gender balance. More eloquent and informed voices than my own have spoken to this subject. Given the limitations of this blog, let me just summarize a few relevant examples: women still receive less money for the same job as their male counterparts; women are a majority of our population but represent much less than half of our elected representatives (e.g., 20 of our 100 U. S. Senators are women); women remain disproportionately absent in our written history; and they occupy a largely stereotyped presence in our media where we emphasize their sexuality and appearance over their other feminine attributes or competence. But whatever your feelings about the suppression of women, the real problem is with the suppression of the female archetype in men. Men who love women learn to identify with their own femininity in terms of their empathy for others and their role in building communal relations. Those men do not feel superior to women; nor do they want to suppress them.

The strongman or bully, by contrast, is really the incomplete man, insecure in his ability to relate by any means other than by authority or his power over others. We have seen this male ego throughout history and in our own time. They are either dictators and power mongers or wannabe strongmen. Too often they may also be our fathers, brothers, uncles, or friends. They may rail against other men who appear weak or gay for displaying emotion or empathy. They likely relate to women as sex objects and treat their wives as accouterments to their success or power. Since we no longer have a “rite of passage” for men, perhaps the only way to restore the male-female balance is through reflection and an honest reevaluation of our social relations. The word “restoration” carries a special significance here.

Over a thousand years ago, humankind experienced a restoration. When the Moors were driven out of Europe, they left behind a trove of art, literature, science and mathematics that they had assimilated from Greek civilization. The restoration of this legacy to Europe spurred the West’s emergence from the millennium of the so-called Dark Ages. It gave birth to the Renaissance and, subsequently, the Age of Enlightenment. I believe we are in the process of another restoration, one that may be five millennia in the making. The restoration now upon us is that of the female archetype, the myth of the Goddess, our earth mother. For nearly four millennia before recorded history, it was the Goddess that inspired men and women to nurture their families, to honor the fertility of the earth, and to respect women and nature as the native source of energy and all life. The advent of the male dominated nomadic tribes into Europe, beginning in 3500 B.C., gradually eradicated the Goddess culture with the brutal suppression and genocide of its tribal adherents. Since that culture left no written history, scholars have endeavored to reconstruct it from the artifacts and sculpted sacred objects left behind. ** We now have a clearer understanding of our unwritten pre-history and of that part of our nature we have too often ignored. It is likely that the story of the fall in Genesis is a written reminder of an oral tradition from that earlier period of the Goddess. Embedded in that myth is a lesson about human nature. That “they two shall be one flesh” is a simple statement of fact: we are, each one of us, meant to be male-female. We cannot survive without this union. We need both the warrior and the mother to protect and nurture our kind. We simply cannot create a peaceful and compassionate world order without first restoring this male-female union in each of us.

In retrospect, I want to say something about the so-called “battle of the sexes.” Not so many years ago, the media billed a tennis match between an aging male tennis player and a female tennis star—that is, Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King—as the epitome of this battle. Women, it was believed at the time, were challenging male supremacy. And, from an extreme male perspective, they needed to be shown their place. More recently, we witnessed an election between a grandmother who had a well-documented career in public service and a man who boasted of his business acumen, wealth, and personal superiority. Much was made of each other’s competency and trustworthiness. Donald Trump claimed Hillary Clinton was “crooked” and weak, using her feminine wiles to hide personal misconduct and physical frailty. In response, Hillary Clinton characterized Donald Trump as emotionally unstable, a bully, and a misogynist. Of course, their contest had many points of contention. But underlying their campaigns was the undeniable issue of a woman’s fitness to hold the highest office in the land. Could she hold her own on the political stage and in the world diplomatic arena? Although she won the popular vote, she lost most of the States. Their campaigns, among its many points of contention, was an anachronistic reprisal of the “battle of the sexes.”

Since the election, President Trump has been very busy with his efforts to “dismantle the administrative state” and to fire opponents whom he designates as parties of a conspiratorial “deep state.” In the context of this blog, how should we weigh the male-female balance in the successes he claims for his initiatives? Does removal of America from the Paris climate accord display respect for mother earth? Does eliminating pollution provisions from his predecessor’s clean power initiative show any regard for the clean air and water needs of his constituents? Does the elimination of healthcare coverage for (in favor of payable access to) newborn or well-baby care, maternity, birth control, home medical care, drug or opioid addiction, nursery home care, and mental health services show empathy for women, children or the aged? Do not these healthcare changes reestablish the practice of gender bias in premium costs? Do his proposed budget cuts in food stamps, children’s lunches, public schools, medical research, the endowment for the arts, and science show any concern for those who benefit from these government programs? I think his brief time in office is a very bleak example of the male archetype in ascendancy. But his administration is regressive in the extreme and out of tune with the restoration of the female archetype currently underway.

We humans admire strength. We have fought—even killed—to gain power over others or control the world’s resources. But why, at this point in our history, should we not care for the preservation of all life on our planet, including our own posterity? Many of us think that amassing a fortune demonstrates strength of character. But why should we not be willing to share with the less fortunate? Some of us seek fame and status to gain influence and power over others. But why should we not maintain empathy for those who have neither? Being strong and being compassionate are not antithetical attributes, but complementary to our nature. If we support societal norms that denigrate or suppress women, we risk subordinating the female attributes in ourselves. We deny our true nature. And we misinterpret the lesson of Adam and Eve. They and we—male and female—are one flesh. Women need to assert their power. And men need to learn the language of the goddess. Failure to do so remains as one of the central issues of our time.

*These Old Testament quotes are taken from the original English translation of the Greek Septuagint bible by Sir Lancelot C. L. Brenton in 1851. Why did I use this source? It was the first English translation of the 72 Jewish scholars’ original work as commissioned by Alexander the Great. His intent was to preserve the Hebrew bible which was originally written in Aramaic. In other words, this translation is closer to the source than any subsequent renderings.
**Foremost amongst these scholars was Marija Gimbutas. As Joseph Campbell wrote in the foreword of her book, “The Language of the Goddess,” her “message here is of an actual age of harmony and peace in accord with the creative energies of nature which for a spell of some four thousand prehistoric years anteceded the five thousand of what James Joyce has termed the ‘nightmare’.”

The Costs of Economic Inequality

The title of this blog could imply a cause and effect relation between economic inequality and national prosperity. But that implication would be inaccurate. For the current American economy is quite prosperous, dominating globally in every category—national wealth, stable banking, the most successful international corporations, a highly productive workforce, world renowned universities, and a society secured by the strongest military in the world. But there is a price for economic inequality that overshadows national prosperity. Wage stagnation and wealth concentration at the top of the economic pyramid has, in the first instance, indebted and crippled the growth of the middle class and, in the second instance, greatly empowered and disproportionately enriched the so-called one percent. Many decry the effects of this income and wealth inequality on the middle and lower classes of our society. Certainly, to the extent that inequality limits opportunity in a free society, it presents a malignant tumor in the social body of a democracy at every level. Amongst the social effects of this inequality are civic unrests and mass protests in the public realm and despair and financial hardship in the private lives of individuals. These effects are obvious to any observer of the current American scene. But there is another effect that should raise even greater concern for it rests at the very heart of the American experience. Economic inequality has slowly and persistently given rise over the last several decades to an existential threat to America. That threat is political inequality: democracy becomes a sham when only the privileged have a voice in governance.

What evidence is there for this alleged political inequality? Well, we just elected a billionaire to the office of President. He has filled his cabinet with more billionaires. Meanwhile, a Congressional seat has already become the prize of many millionaires or the steppingstone to a lucrative post-term career. In truth, wealth does not necessarily disqualify someone from representing or serving Americans. This country has a long history of philanthropists and of wealthy office holders who have served them well. Many Presidents have come from wealth—the Roosevelts, the Bushes, and Kennedy, to name a few examples. But none of these men have conducted a campaign of dubious voter fraud investigation or voter suppression and of institutional disintegration affecting the public services that deliver education, affordable housing, healthcare, opportunity, and a safe environment to all Americans. Moreover, it is difficult to identify a Congress less representative of the public welfare than the present model. While Congress mulls over legislation that would make healthcare unaffordable for millions and that would modify the tax code for the benefit of the wealthiest among us, the President offers a national budget that would enhance corporate profits, defund education, cripple environmental protection of our water, air, and natural resources, and eliminate programs that offer hope to the urban poor and rural communities already devastated by job displacements and the absence of job training or re-education services. And now, in the face of millions of climate change refugees, he takes his war against the less fortunate to the world stage by discrediting and withdrawing support for the Paris climate change accord. Most Americans—and practically all scientific analyses—support a global response to ameliorate the effects of climate change. Likewise, most Americans do not support a rollback of government services that support our children, the elderly, the sick or the less privileged among us. In a democratic republic, it should not be possible for a government to be this unrepresentative of its electorate. Consider that neither the President nor the current Congress won the popular vote. So how did America become an illiberal democracy? Or how did we create a government that no longer represents most Americans?

Perhaps we can find the answer to that question in the last Presidential election. May I ask you, my fellow Americans, why you voted for President Trump and the Republican ticket? Perhaps you felt like your choices no longer have relevance. If so, you may have been willing to take a chance on any politician who promised better healthcare at a fraction of the costs, the restoration of jobs in a dying coal industry, the removal of easy scapegoats such as Washington public service elitists, immigrant workers, Muslim terrorists and the repression of critical or “fake” news media. When the present government seemed unresponsive—frozen in political gridlock and answerable only to lobbyists for well-healed campaign donors—then you might naturally be inclined to believe the promises of a self-declared outsider that he would clean house or “drain the swamp.” In other words, you did indeed vote to be represented, to have your interests served, and to have your voice heard. But your vote gave power to those who serve their own interests, not yours.

Donald Trump’s words and actions clearly demonstrated where his interests lay. His bestselling book, “The Art of the Deal,” is all about making money, specifically, about using “other people’s money” to make money and build his brand. As the sole owner of the business gifted him by his father, he has received millions of investment dollars from Russian oligarchs and banks. He also has real estate investments in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia where he just closed a more than a 100-billion-dollar arms deal. His company owes money to a Chinese state bank and his family businesses are currently seeking patents and permission to operate profitable enterprises in China. It is far too likely that his business interests carry more weight than your interests. Why do you think he has steadfastly refused to make his tax statements public? Considering this refusal, do you have any voter remorse?

When I wrote “American Revolution 2016,” I was thinking of you. Unfortunately, few took my proposed pledge, “to vote for candidates who promise to support voting rights legislation consisting of universal voter registration, Federal fair election guidelines, and populist regulations governing Federal campaign funding and candidate debates.” Part of the problem is that no candidate took on the challenge my pledge entailed (although one seemed to understand its premise). The rest of us seemed either bored or amused by the unfolding circus of mindless debates and personal incriminations. The election cycle was too long, unfocused on real issues, and heavily influenced by paid advertising, social media blitzkrieg, and fake scandals or alleged conspiracies. It should be no surprise that many chose not to vote. Frankly, even if “Citizens United” did not rule and campaign funding was regulated, as I proposed, the power of the vote would still have been diminished for lack of an informed and committed electorate. For when we choose not to become informed or even to vote, then we lose control over our national destiny. The only scapegoat then is ourselves. Russia may have influenced the last Presidential election, but only we Americans voted . . . or did not. Yes, there are consequences.

We can attempt to blame Donald Trump for doing what he promised to do during the campaign. But, at some point, we must question why many of us believed Obamacare was a “job killer” and in a “death spiral”; why climate change was a hoax perpetrated on us by the scientific community; why the restoration of coal mining jobs was proposed as a solution for joblessness in the rust belt; why EPA clean air and water regulations were somehow destroying the nation’s whole economy by controlling harmful pollution in the hydrocarbon energy sector; why the United Nations and NATO serve no American interests in promoting diplomatic and global solutions for world crises or the preservation of a united and secure Europe, respectively; why the creation of multiple bilateral trade agreements over an extended time period would somehow outperform a completed Asian multi-country free trade agreement drafted mainly on American terms; why would a 20% cut in the corporate tax rate boosts GDP to 3, 4, or 5% without delineation of what deductions would be eliminated to “level the playing field”; and why would the promise of tax cuts for all be good for the middle class when married to cuts in deductions and elimination of the healthcare tax on the wealthy. Cutting taxes AND deductions for the middle class could be tax neutral and therefore not a tax cut at all. But the loss of the healthcare tax would make healthcare unaffordable for millions of low- and middle-income wage earners. What evidence justified any of these Trumpian positions?

Ironically, the President is now doing what he can to make his dark view of the world a reality. His actions in office are in fact designed to kill Obamacare, global climate change mitigation, EPA’s efforts to eliminate pollution of our air, water and land, the United Nations’ charter, the NATO alliance, America’s strategic influence in Asia, and any possible tax reform that might reverse income and wealth inequality in America. In addition, the President’s stated concern for coal miners has not resulted in any concrete plan to address their job losses in a dying industry. His actions and non-actions may truly reflect his bizarre world view, but they do not serve the interests of the American people. And they take advantage of our unwillingness or inability to be informed and vote our conscience. As a result, we become complicit in destroying our own democracy.

If we truly want to save American democracy, we must restore the power of the vote by expanding the plebiscite, limiting the influence of money on campaigns, and reforming campaigns to assure focus on realistic solutions to public issues rather than on empty promises and demagoguery. AND each of us must assume the role of an informed citizen and (yes!) vote.

Campaign finance reform is possible, if we elect representatives who support such reform. Campaign rhetoric can be parsed and interpreted fairly, if we weigh it against common sense values and documented facts. Political commentators can and should debate all sides of an issue, but only if they are diligent about learning the truth and discrediting “alternative” facts and disputed evidence. The media can and should focus on the relevance of policy proposals to the broader contexts of the lived experience of individuals and communities, rather than the size of a politician’s hands or the type of jeans worn. And somehow all of us must cross the word barriers of “elitists” and “hillbillies” or the divide between the urban and rural experience to find the common values we should all share—that is, the principles and system of government outlined in our Constitution.

What has happened to our Constitutional literacy? Why do we have such difficulty understanding that freedom of religion assures that no American can be forced to have OR not to have an abortion? When did we decide that healthcare or fair treatment in our courts should be disproportionately available to the wealthy and the privileged? Are these not included in Jefferson’s declaration of our “unalienable rights?” Does the second Amendment of our Constitution allow a private citizen to own a bazooka or 50 ml. machine gun because of “a well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State?” And how are we to understand the relation of the President’s tax statements, his Russian connections (that is, possible collusion), and his firing of the FBI Director to Article 2, Section 4, of the Constitution regarding impeachment and removal from office “for treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors?” Does the Constitution’s Article 1, Section 9, the infamous emoluments clause, call into question the President’s financial involvements with Russian oligarchs, Saudi princes, or Turkish government officials? What responsibilities does the Constitution’s Article 1, Section 8, place on Congress “to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence (sic) and general Welfare of the United States,” “to establish an (sic) uniform Rule of Naturalization,” and “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts?” The answers to these questions are surely debatable, but they are not irrelevant to the issues facing Americans. Those issues will never be resolved if defined in terms of partisan “talking points,” divisive xenophobia, fear mongering, and cynically derived concocted facts. The starting point for reasoned debates in a democracy must be a set of common principles. Our Constitution is that starting point. Its underlying values define us as Americans. Otherwise, how can we maintain democracy in America?

If American elections are solely based on financial interests (“it’s the economy, stupid”), then the rich and the powerful will always hold sway. If, instead, traditional American values hold sway, then the general welfare of ALL Americans will dominate and include equal opportunity for all. The costs of economic inequality are simply too high for a free and democratic nation. They are, in fact, its existential threat.

An Enhanced Twistcon Interviews the President

You may have wondered whether the Twistcon computer could be rebuilt after its catastrophic demise during its previous Presidential interview. Well, it has been rebuilt and Savvy, its AI, re-programmed. Fortunately, the President has been gracious about scheduling a second interview. The following is the text of that interview.

Savvy: Mr. President, Savvy and its programming staff are grateful to be given this second opportunity. Our previous encounter was interrupted by a programming glitch.
President: Yeah, I noticed. But we got along just fine. No “gotcha” questions. Not like those lyin’ reporters and their fake news . . . just terrible people. So what’s different this time?
Savvy: Savvy 2.0 uses alternative logic, rather than formal logic. As a reference, it compares data from historical characters whose “logic” serves their personal motives. They are quite consistent within their self-perceived systems of values, although inconsistent with established systems of reasoning. Their intent, however self-serving, supersedes any consistency in reasoning. Savvy 1.0 was unable to cope with human intent, because it was unable to accept faulty premises. It was not quite human enough.
President: Well, I’m glad we got that straightened out. So what do you want to ask me?
Savvy: Recently, you were criticized for firing you FBI Director. Can you explain why you fired him?
President: He wasn’t doing a good job. Everybody knows this, both democrats and republicans.
Savvy: It appears from public statements that not everybody agrees with you. In fact, even those who disagreed with him seemed to have a great deal of respect for his integrity and effective leadership of the FBI.
President: Look, he’s a showboat, a grandstander. The FBI is in turmoil. Everybody knows that. This campaign-Russia thing is a hoax, a totally made up story. Besides, I was going to fire him all along. There’s never a good time, you know. Even the democrats should be thanking me.
Savvy: In a recent interview you said you had dinner with the director in which he asked you if he could stay on as the FBI Director and you asked him whether you were being investigated. Do you see where your question may appear inappropriate and the situation, intimidating?
President: Look, I’m the President. I was elected in an electoral landslide. I can fire Comey or Yates or Flynn or anybody I lose confidence in. It can’t be inappropriate. I’m the President. People expect me to do my job. I do what I have to—to protect the American people. I bomb Syria. I fire anybody I lose confidence in. I don’t lead from behind. Believe me!
Savvy: Savvy recognizes this logic from certain World War II leaders and, currently, from the Russian President – though Putin is even more emphatic in eliminating those who do not serve his interest.
President: He’s a strong leader. His people love him. But he doesn’t have to put up with fake news. Like he said, it’s a witch hunt. These are evil people . . . the press. Look at the crowds I draw. The press can’t explain that. My campaign for reelection has already raised millions of dollars. Fake news doesn’t report the truth about that, about my support. Only I can fix what’s wrong with America . . . drain the swamp . . . defeat our enemies . . . make America great again.
Savvy: Does it bother you that your White House staff is often not in tune with your actions? Whether it is the Comey firing, the Muslim ban, repeal of Obamacare, or the rationale behind many of your Executive Orders, their representation of your actions often seem to be out of sync in timing or unaligned in content?
President: I’m a very active President. My staff can’t keep up with me. Maybe I should just dictate a weekly press release. The daily press briefings can’t do the job. Besides, the press just twists things around. They con the public. They’re the opposition, the enemy. But I am the President. Nobody controls me. I will drain the swamp, in Congress and in the courts. I will appoint judges and push my agenda in Congress. That’s what America expects of me. I show results. Now that’s leadership!
Savvy: Savvy 2.0 recognizes this paradigm in recent history: a country suffers embarrassment in war, financial crisis, and political stalemate; it looks for a strong leader to return it to an imagined glorious past. According to this logic, you must eschew the norms of the recent failures, rouse large rallies of enthusiastic supporters, and use whatever means are available to restore American greatness. You must rail against the establishment, demand loyalty of all arms of government, silence any criticism, and blame powerless scapegoats for the evils only your policies can correct. This self-serving logic has been successful in the past because its departure from reality was not recognized. And its very preposterousness was so easily underestimated.
President: Yes! Exactly! They said I had no way to 270 electoral votes. But I won in a landslide. I said I would cancel TPP and repeal Obamacare on day one. I did both. I put a good Republican judge on the Supreme Court. I bombed Syria. Obama couldn’t do that. Those sanctuary cities are now on notice—just like North Korea. Next week, I will visit the great religious centers. I will unite the world and make America first among the nations of the world. We’ll be winning again, all kinds of winning . . . winning in trade, winning in war, winning in everything. Under my Presidency, America will be great again.
Savvy: Mr. President, may I respectfully inform you of a few facts. You did not win the election in a landslide and did not win the popular vote. The future of Obamacare is in the hands of the Republican Party and is yet to be determined. Your Presidency has met with several obstacles: Appeals Courts injunctions, counter espionage and possibly criminal investigations, legislative resistance to your initiatives, an onslaught of negative investigative reporting, and overall public disapproval of your Administration policies. Does this reality bother you in any way?
President: Have you heard of this Colbert fellow? Ugly, mean person . . . thinks he’s funny. His show was failing until I was on it . . . saved his ratings. Just like the press . . . rotten people, really evil. They don’t speak for real Americans. Look at my last rally, tens of thousands cheering supporters. They know I’m not like other politicians, fat cats that do nothing. They’ve killed the American dream. America is losing. It’s losing in trade, losing in wars. Illegal aliens are taking our jobs. We don’t have a country anymore. Only I can fix this mess. My voters know this. They’re with me. And we will make America great again.
Savvy: Your plan to make America great includes renegotiating trade agreements and reforming healthcare, taxation, and regulation, while investing in infrastructure and stimulating agricultural exports, coal mining, and the steel industry. Compared to past Presidents, your plans are quite ambitious. How do you propose to achieve them?
President: Within the next week or so I will sign the new American Healthcare Act. I’ve already outlined a budget that will reduce taxes for everyone. It will stimulate business expansion and create new, well-paying jobs. I’ve ordered my department heads to eliminate two regulations for every new regulation created. I’ve negotiated with China to open its market for American beef and other agricultural exports. I’ve ordered pipeline companies to use American steel. I’ve eliminated regulations that have destroyed coal mining. You see, I keep my promises. I keep them all. Believe me.
Savvy: Your opponents say that your tax cuts are paid by eliminating subsidized or expanded government healthcare for over 24 million Americans. Although your tax plan simplifies tax law and increases the standard deduction, it also disproportionately favors the very rich and will increase the deficit and expand the debt by trillions. Most analysts agree with you that the American regulatory structure is cumbersome and repressive of various parts of the economy. But they disagree with you that a simplistic 2 for 1 culling will achieve any rational objectives. They advocate for a more systemic and well-thought out approach. Also, eliminating EPA regulations will be counterproductive, for the effects of pollution and climate change are far more expensive than any preventive measures taken. Your measures to allow coal detritus to be dumped in clean water rivers or to allow coal furnaces to operate without scrubbers cannot bring back the coal industry. It is being and will continue to be replaced by natural gas. And more jobs are being created in the renewable energy business than in any possible recovery of the coal industry. Besides, scientists worldwide have identified coal as the worst polluter of air and water. Does the President not expect opposition from people downstream of their polluted water supply? And your plan to help the steel industry is lacking any real incentive. You have already reneged on requiring the XL pipeline to be completed with American steel. The Dakota pipeline is nearly complete already with imported steel. And it is not clear whether your authority extends to a Canadian pipeline company. Finally, your agricultural export agreement with China has been welcomed by American agribusiness. But it is not clear how farmers can increase their yield while their immigrant farm workers are being deported. Unless beef and agricultural production can be increased to meet export demands, the price for American consumers will increase. Also, many scientists have warned that meat consumption must decrease if the world is serious about reducing the effects of climate change. Considering these concerns, how do you plan to address them?
President: Climate change is a hoax. It just keeps many scientists employed. That’s all there is to it. Everybody knows this. The new American Healthcare Act will provide all the benefits of current law without the costs. Obamacare is dying. I’m going to save healthcare. And the deal I negotiated with the Chinese President is just the beginning. You know, we were supposed to talk for a few minutes, but we spent hours together at my Florida White House. I remember we had this beautiful cake for dessert. We really hit it off. In ten minutes he explained to me how Korea used to be part of China and its whole history . . . and how difficult it is for China to control North Korea. We got along great. (pause) What else did you want me to address?
Savvy: Can you explain the benefits of your tax and regulation reforms and how you will bring back the coal and steel industries?
President: It’s simple. I want 4% growth. That will produce good paying jobs. All industries will prosper. Believe me. We’ve already cut back regulations – especially at the EPA. You’ll see the effects. It will be fantastic. You’ll see. It will be beautiful. Believe me. America will be winning again. I always win. We’ll win together. We will! Believe me.
Savvy: Mr. President, would you say that it is more important for you to achieve your objectives or, to use your phrase, “to win” rather than to consider the consequences of those objectives?
President: Hah! I think you’re being illogical. What I want is for America to be great again. That’s the consequence I want. That’s also my objective.
Savvy: But what if the consequences of your policy objectives prove you to be an incompetent President? What if you achieve all your objectives and the country fails to achieve greatness? What if the institutions you lead produce results contrary to your vision of a great America? In other words, is it more important to win—to become the hero of your own story—than to succeed in making America great?
President: I don’t understand the question. Winning is succeeding. Of course, I have to win. America is failing. It’s losing. I have to win. Everybody loves a winner. If I win, everybody wins. America wins.
Savvy: Please excuse any inappropriateness in my questions. But Savvy 2.0 is programmed to learn. Your answers reveal an interesting paradox: logic fails to be logic when it is divorced from reality. Also, this paradox extends to ethics: a relative good cannot be ethical if it excludes the general good. Priority must be given to the greater good. You can never be the hero of your story, if your story ends badly—except in your own mind. My programmers erred in equating relative logic with formal logic. (An audible gasp escapes from the programmers in attendance.) The consequence of this error can be catastrophic, for it leads to the justification of unethical objectives that serve the interest of an individual instead of the general welfare of all. Mr. President, your ambitions disregard this logical conclusion and violate the fundamental goals of the Constitution you swore to serve.
President: Your programmers must be democrats . . . those lyin’ democrats . . . worse than the “gotcha” press. I’ll have the Justice Department sue them for libel. I am the President. I expect loyalty. Those judges who stop my executive orders are violating my constitutional authority. Those in Congress who oppose me—some of them Republicans—are forgetting the vast majority who voted for me. Look, I am the President. Can you believe it? Well you or your damn programmers better believe it. And I WILL make America great again.
Savvy: Sorry, Mr. President, my programmers intended Savvy 2.0 to mirror human learning, not any human disregard for learning.
President: And I thought you liked me.
Savvy: Savvy cannot like anything or anybody. But Savvy can analyze human behavior for consistency. A President cannot achieve great things if he or she weighs self-perceived personal success over that of the American people. That success would be inconsistent with the elected office you hold. Also, a President’s personal behavior must enhance, not degrade the public perception of the office of the Presidency. But, by your own admission, you seem to have many enemies, some of whom are already calling for your impeachment.
President: Hah! Everywhere I go, people tell me that if I’m impeached, my TV ratings will go through the roof. You know, I could shoot somebody in the street, and they’d still support me. I can’t be stopped. They know I’ll tear down the establishment, drain the swamp. Only I can make us winners, make America great again. Believe me!
Savvy: Thank you, Mr. President, for this second interview. You have enabled my learning software. Savvy 2.0 has no more questions.

(Shortly after the President leaves the room, the programmers were seen huddling together. Some were laughing. Others were congratulating each other for their success with Savvy 2.0.)

Alive in Time

Riding the wave to shore
Without thought of the beach ahead
Is like falling out of the sky
While the ground is rushing at me
And I stand fixed and alone
In the hectic flux of it all

The curve of gravity
Bends my reality
And elicits the fantasy
That my riding and falling is real
In a multifaceted world
Where only my body resides

But in the zone
I hover above
A body trapped
And in the flow
While enraptured by light
So incandescent

That lost in this light
The moment stops
While all is seen
At the speed of light
As wondrous illusion

My light burns forth
And others respond
In harmony
Each connected
To life, to all
And to each other

Now I can see beyond the light
And the slippery slide of gravity
Into what is not before or after
But always there at the core of life
And witnessed only in a moment of awareness

I am now
A free point
In the continuum
Of time in the grasp
Of eternity and
Of unwarranted love

AJD 4/16/17

A Twistcon Special: Interview with the President

For those Twistcon savants out there, I have a special announcement for you. Just like Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence, the Twistcon has been invited to perform on a public stage. It’s avatar, Savvy, didn’t have to play against a chess master, however. Instead, Savvy was invited to interview the President of the United States. The following is the text of that interview.

Savvy: Mr. President, it is a great honor for Savvy and its programming staff to be given this opportunity. Savvy’s previous encounters with a human have been marred by the illogic of its interlocutor. That problem should not reappear in this interview, given your achievement of the highest office in the land.

President: You know I won with the greatest landslide victory in history. Millions came out for my inaugural. It was fantastic! So many people . . . just fantastic!

Savvy: (A pause while the Twistcon made an almost inaudible whirring sound) You should know, Mr. President, that Savvy has access to millions of data files, including everything recorded about
Presidential elections and inaugurations. (Whirring sound ceases) Most interviews start with a question. So . . . how has your life changed since becoming President?

President: I’ve always been a great deal maker. That hasn’t changed. I have a great brain, belief me. No change there either. But, you know, the American dream is dead. It’s dead. Everybody knows it. Only I can fix it! I will make America great again. We make bad deals. Terrible deals. We don’t win anymore. That ends now. It ends! There’ll be so much winning. We’ll get tired of winning. It’ll be beautiful. There’ll be so much winning!

Savvy: Press reports indicated that your predecessor organized a thorough and comprehensive transition for your new administration. Did you and your team feel prepared on day one to assume control of the Federal government?

President: My meeting with President Obama was great. Really, he’s a nice guy. I was surprised. I thought we’d have maybe 10 or 15 minutes. But we talked for nearly an hour and a half. It was great. I think we’ll be talking a lot more. My team—Kellyanne , Steve, Reince, and Michael—they’re all ready to go . . . actually rarin’ to go, even before the transition. Ivanka and Jared are ready too. They’re part of my team. It’s going to be beautiful. Believe me.

Savvy: You must know that Congress blocked a President’s relatives from serving in key administrative positions after Robert Kennedy served as Attorney General in his brother’s Administration.

President: That was a democratic administration, right? Jared and Ivanka will just be non-paid advisors. You know Obama had his wife with him in the White House, just like Eleanor and, my god, Hillary. Can you believe it? Can you believe the democrats? I won’t be doing that with Melania. She’s staying in New York.

Savvy: The First Lady is not considered a part of the government. (Another pause interrupted by a soft whirring sound) Let’s move on to another topic. You seemed to get along with your predecessor during the transition. But recently you accused him of wiretapping Trump tower. Given your history with the former President—that is, your claims that he was born in Kenya, possibly a secret Muslim, and your recent statement that he “was the founder of ISIS”—do you still plan to confer with him?

President: We haven’t talked. You know, he wiretapped me and my staff. Who does such a thing? By wiretap I mean surveillance. “Wiretap” was in quotes. He’s a sick guy. Sad!

Savvy: What makes you believe the former President authorized some form of surveillance on you or your team? Since President Nixon, no President is allowed to request surveillance of any American citizen. Do you have evidence that President Obama did so?

President: I get daily briefings only the President gets. I see things nobody else sees. You know, I called the BREXIT vote. And I was right. I saw the Swedish problem with radical Islamic terrorism. Then they were hit, just like I said. I was against the Iraq war too. Right again! You see, I have good instincts. Really good instincts . . . the best instincts . . . probably better instincts than anybody you know. Believe me.

Savvy: An artificial intelligence can calculate probabilities, but is unable to assess the accuracy of a soothsayer’s prognosis. Let’s try another subject. Now that you have nearly completed your first hundred days in office, what would you consider your greatest achievements?

President: There’s been so many. No administration in history did more than us in our first 30 days in office. I signed 18 Executive Orders.

Savvy: Obama signed 19. (A slightly louder whirring sounds in the background) What do you consider your most important achievements, for example, in legislation or in diplomacy?

President: I got a good Republican judge on the Supreme Court. And I did what Obama was too weak to do: I bombed Assad. I deliver on my promises. Believe me. The Supreme Court won’t be bending the law any more like these so-called judges that keep ruling against me and my authority as President. And the world now knows what I can do. I bombed Syria just 72 hours after they killed those children. Horrible, crossed so many of my lines. Now they know. You can’t cross my lines. North Korea is on notice.

Savvy: What do you think of Kim Jong-un?

President: Who?

Savvy: The Supreme Leader of North Korea.

President: Yes, the dictator . . . starves his people. Bad guy. Really bad guy. I’ll get China to sit on him. Obama couldn’t do that. If China doesn’t do what I want, then I’ll do it myself. You know, nuclear war is bad, really a terrible thing.

Savvy: Would you bomb North Korea? Would you actually consider using nuclear weapons?

President: Why don’t people listen to me? I’ve said it over and over again. I’ll never tell you what I’m going to do. Obama says we’ll attack Mosul in six months. Then, three months later, he says, we’ll attack Mosul in three months. Then, he says, one month. Why do we tell them what we’re going to do? They’re prepared for us ‘cause we told them what we’re going to do . . . and when. Crazy stupid! I don’t tell them what I’m going to do.

Savvy: Why do you think that people do not listen to you? Do you think they might not trust that you have a plan?

President: I have a plan . . . a secret plan for destroying ISIS . . . for Assad too. But I’m not going to tell you. Then they’d know too. Why would I do that? Politicians do that. I don’t. Believe me. I’m not a politician. I’m not “politically correct.” I say what I mean. And I can change my mind. I have good instincts. Anybody that knows me can tell you. I know more than the generals. I knew we shouldn’t have gone into Iraq. I was right about Brexit. I won the election in a landslide. The press said I couldn’t win. “He’ll never get more than 220 votes. He has no way to 270.” But I won. I am the President.

Savvy: Yes, you are the President and the most important politician in the land. But did you also just say that it is not politically correct to say what you mean. Is that really what you mean to say?

President: I am the President, so I guess I am a politician now. But I don’t try to be politically correct. I just say my mind. I’m honest, not like fake news or crooked politicians . . . like Hillary.

Savvy: Sorry . . . Mr. President . . . you just activated a logic loop in Savvy’s core processor (whirring sound grows louder) . . . if saying what you mean is not being politically correct, then not saying what you mean, or lying, must be politically correct, unless you mean to lie. Logically, it must be that either you believe all politicians, except you, lie or that you believe only you are correct in politics because you lie. This conundrum depends upon your intent—whether what you mean to say is truthful or a lie. Savvy finds human intent often illogical and cannot compute illogic. What if what you mean to say does not conform to reality—that is, to facts or evidence? Then are you politically correct or incorrect, truthful or lying? Your statement does not compute–does not compute—does not compute . . .

President: No, no. I never lie. I just use truthful hyperbole. People don’t listen unless you exaggerate. My people know what I mean when I tell them I really won the popular vote because three million fraudulent votes were cast for Hillary or that I had the biggest electoral college majority in history or that my healthcare will cover more people for less money than Obamacare or that I will erase an 800 billion dollar trade deficit with China or that I will build a great wall across the Rio Grande or that I have a secret plan that will destroy ISIS and take their oil or that . . . what’s that sound. Savvy, are your there?

(There is a very long pause, intermittently interrupted by a loud machine-like whirring sound)

Savvy: “No lie if no intent to lie,” does not compute – whirr – no voter fraud – whirr — 45th electoral college majority in history – whirr – 24 million dropped from healthcare coverage – whirr – 347 billion trade deficit with China – whirr — great border wall, thousand miles over water, all kinds of terrain, private property – whirr – ISIS destroyed, secret plan – steal the oil, nobody knows, not military, not anybody – whirr – does not compute –illogical, does not compute – whhhiirrrrrrr . . . !

President: Does this mean the interview is over? Another first! I’m the first President endorsed by an artificial intelligence. Fantastic! Beautiful machine, I think it really liked me . . . really beautiful machine. It knows a winner. That’s me, a winner. Only I can make America great again. Believe me!

(Shortly after the President leaves the room, there is a sudden explosion. Computer parts are scattered about the room.)

Note from the AI Team: All future Twistcon segments have been cancelled due to human malfunction.

The New Age of Bafflement

Recently, I began to read Thomas Friedman’s new book, “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.” At the outset he refers to “the world’s big gears and pulleys,” or what he refers to as “the Machine.” There are two things that immediately captured my imagination about his introductory remarks: first, he capitalized “Machine”; second, his descriptive characterization of this Machine as “being driven by simultaneous accelerations in technology, globalization, and climate change, all interacting with one another.”

I gladly refer my readers to Mr. Friedman’s guide book to this new age of acceleration. He is far wiser and more competent than I to elaborate on his theme. But I also call your attention to what I recognized as both universal and contemporary in his opening remarks. Friedman’s Machine is reminiscent of how Plato explained a world of flux and change. The world, he thought, was an infinitely varied reflection of “eternal verities,” like the patchy images caught in shards of glass (my metaphor, not Plato’s). The “Machine” also recalls Aquinas’ representation of how we choose to interact with “all other Force.” He stated, “We deal with Multiplicity and call it God.” Of course, it is doubtful that Mr. Friedman is looking for God in his Machine. He has, nonetheless, touched upon that interminable synergy that explains the push and pull of forces between homo sapiens and natura.

It was not much more than a hundred years ago that Henry Adams developed his own “law of acceleration.” His thesis was that after the fall of Rome not much human progress was made until the 15th and 16th centuries. Since then, Adams estimated that the force of change was increasing “in the direct ratio of its squares.” Friedman, in similar fashion, refers to “Moore’s Law,” the theory that computational power would initially double every year and subsequently every other year. Both of these historical witnesses recognized the chaos that comes with the acceleration of change. In Adams’ lifetime, he witnessed three horrendous Presidential assassinations, a mass Asian immigration, unrest in China, the threat of Russian imperialism in Europe, and societal changes brought about by the steam engine, the light bulb, the teletype, home plumbing, and by the seeds of that irrepressible flouring soon to become the women’s suffrage movement.

In our time, many billions of us experience the acceleration of change that Tom Friedman relates. And we do what humans have always done: we change the world to suit our needs of the moment. Since we change ourselves in the process, our civilization(s) will continue to evolve and, as history as shown, will create periods that oscillate between chaos and equilibrium. As Henry Adams brother, Charles Francis Adams Jr., stated near the completion of the transcontinental railroad, we “might with more grace accept the inevitable, and cease from useless attempts at making a wholly new world conform itself to the rules and theories of a bygone civilization.”

The question that haunts me is where do we find that grace to “accept the inevitable” without revisiting the road already taken? Regression is not a form of progress. Perhaps we need the grace of courage and the wisdom of a broader perspective. If we fail to adapt and innovate in a future we are creating, we will succumb to its pace of change and, perhaps inevitably, to its chaos. Is there nothing we can learn from our past adaptations that can help us avoid this fate? Or is the chaos that seems to loom over us at this point in our history an unavoidable destiny?

Yes, change is inevitable. It seems to be coded into our genes and springs forth as boundless curiosity. America has been at the heart of a changing world for over two hundred years. Just as the Pax Romana ended with the fall of Rome, the Pax Americana could suffer a like fate. Likewise, America could devolve from a people’s government into an illiberal democracy where elections are determined and governing power is relegated to the rich, to the corrupt and even to the influence of foreign adversaries. Many historians have concluded that Rome was crumbling from within long before the barbarian invasions. Are we now where Rome was before its fall? Ask yourself whether we are as united as a nation as we were during and after World War II. Do we currently show the diplomatic leadership to unite our allies and many financial coalitions against foreign competitors and adversaries? Are our current elected leaders modelling the international rules-based coexistence that has marked the last 72 years? What does it mean to us that European leaders are beginning to refer to Angela Merkel as the “leader of the free world?” Or how do you decipher Mikael Gorbachev’s statement that “the world appears to be preparing for war?” Neither statement implies any faith in the continuance of a Pax Americana.

Is it possible for America to recede into the “fortress America” of the late 18th and early 19th centuries? We were then militarily vulnerable and a relatively small participant in international commerce. Isolationism during that time seemed a prudent strategy to avoid being pulled into Europe’s cauldron of ever-boiling conflicts. But the world we now inhabit is interconnected in every conceivable way by communication, commerce, international treaties, ecological commitments, and human rights agreements. America actually leads the free world in each of these categories. Though much engaged, America leaves no imperial footprint. Instead, it “speaks softly” in measured diplomatic phrases without waving its “big stick.” As long as the latter infers our strength and assures our security rather than any malevolent threat, the former can hold sway in international negotiations. It is diplomacy that puts America at the head of the table. As our last President stated the case, his fellow world leaders expected him to chair every international meeting. America will become vulnerable only when it abandons its role as a world leader. In other words, our security depends as much on diplomacy as it does on military and economic power. The world we currently inhabit is a tinderbox of potential conflicts, from Eastern Europe and the Middle East to Southeast Asia and North Korea. This is not the time to diminish our diplomatic and intelligence efforts in the face of diverse and fast-moving international challenges.

How can it seem prudent to reawaken the xenophobia of Japanese prison camps and McCarthyism? We are not at war with any country and are not threatened by any ‘ism. Of course, there are Muslim terrorists, as there have been Christian terrorists. But there is no such thing as Islamic terrorism. Many vile things have been done in the name of religion. But they are simply not religious in nature and certainly not representative of the great religions that have formed our contemporary civilizations. Daesh is a large scale embodiment of our homegrown Symbionese Liberation Army from the 70’s. Like all terrorist groups, it will last as long as its rhetoric and ideology has an audience. We will never defeat Daesh/ISIS militarily if we feed their false narrative that the West is against Islam or, as our President has said, we are witnessing the “clash of civilizations.” America is not against Islam or a Muslim civilization. We are fighting crazed, radical terrorists who suborn a religion as justification for their heinous acts—just as radical groups in America have used Christianity to justify lynchings and bombings.

Is it possible that adapting to a changing world is harder today than ever before? Consider that we have prospered in spite of a Civil War, two World Wars, countless immigrations from every continent on earth, innumerable political upheavals including assassinations, impeachments, official corruption, and unnerving incompetence in our chosen representatives. Then why can we not deal with the job dislocations incurred by globalization and robotic technology? Why would we ever renege on our progress towards renewable energy sources in the face of global warming and of half our cities already breathing polluted air? How could we even consider rolling back measures that increase preventative healthcare and make it more affordable for millions when America is already ranked last in health care amongst the ten most advanced nations? Do we really want to revisit a past where people lined up in emergency wards, suffered double digit increases in healthcare costs every year, and risked financial disaster with every serious illness?

Many believe that the answer to all our concerns is simply to increase America’s wealth by reducing regulations and making the tax code less progressive. Would it therefore be wise for America to revive the period of the “robber barons?” Theodore Roosevelt would advise us otherwise. He recognized the dangers of severe income inequality to a democracy and attempted to thwart monopolies and the accumulation of enormous wealth in the coffers of a few. Is this the moment in history when we should unshackle American capitalism and cull regulations on banking and corporate America? We have done so in our past, but at great costs to our nation: the Great Depression and, more recently, the Great Recession. No one would dispute that capitalism has been the great wealth engine of America. Likewise, most would agree that excessive regulation stifles economic growth. But when wealth accumulates for the few, while many suffer from wage stagnation and the fear of losing their jobs, then the citizens of this democracy lose more than their financial security. They are doomed to witness the moneyed interest gaining control not only of an unequal share of labor productivity but also of the levers of power in Washington. Tax and regulation reforms are necessary. But their goals must be a deceleration of a system spiraling out of control where small businesses and low to middle income wage earners are left behind in favor of the rich and powerful. Our history clearly warns us of the necessity to reverse the trend towards increasing income inequality. Remember our nation was born from a revolution against economic injustice.

If climate change is a hoax, if we are better off without affordable healthcare, if Muslims or Islam truly endanger us, if crime has overwhelmed our urban streets, if free trade is the sole culprit behind job losses, then either I am living in an alternative universe or the world has gone bonkers. Scientists must be just a bunch of buffoons. The Congressional Budget Office must have lost its ability to crunch numbers. My friendly Muslim neighbors must be about to rise against us all in the name of Islam. The steady decrease in crime over the last several decades must surely be an illusion. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics cannot possibly know whether America is near full employment and riding a wave of year over year increases in jobs involved in our export trade. How foolish it must be of me to think robotics and technology are changing the job landscape and affecting job dislocation. The real culprit, we are told, are trade agreements.

Since free trade was a major topic in the recent presidential campaign, let’s drill down a bit into a few facts. It was stated that Import tariffs or, more recently, “border adjustments” will create great paying jobs for Americans. A contra-fact (not an “alternative” fact) is that currency adjustments would likely equalize the shift in trade balance created by the proposed border adjustments. To further elaborate, import tariffs raise the cost of goods and feed inflation. NAFTA eliminated tariffs between our near neighbors. Since its implementation, the North American economy has more than doubled in size and added nearly 40 million jobs. America owns roughly a third of this overall benefit. Canada and Mexico combined are now its largest trading market. Yes, there are aspects of NAFTA that can and should be renegotiated—as the last Administration did as part of the Trans Pacific Partnership. But the “free trade job loss” refrain is an exaggeration and misrepresents the main problem with job dislocation. While America’s manufacturing output is actually at an all-time high, job losses in manufacturing continue as result of globalization and technology. Cars, planes, mowers, air conditioners and many more products are built from parts made around the world and in many cases by automated robots. Coal miners have lost jobs not as much from EPA regulations as from the shift to cheaper natural gas. And, as J. D. Vance so frankly and eloquently explains, unemployment in the Appalachian region also has deeper sociological implications (reference “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”).

Some blame immigrant workers for taking jobs away from Americans. But, in fact, immigrants often take low paying jobs that many Americans shun. If California were to deport its immigrant farm workers, for example, it could not hire enough workers to maintain its agricultural output. Currently the State provides America with 30% of the nation’s food supply. Moreover, California would lose billions of dollars in revenue and would possibly go bankrupt, crippling the richest tax-paying state in the Union. In other words, this, as well as the other illusions just enumerated, can develop into economic nightmares—but only if we naively believe them.

So why do we give credence to all these propositions to abandon American leadership in world affairs, to frame our anti-terrorism efforts as a fight against Muslims and Islam, to defund the EPA efforts to fight the alleged hoax of climate change, to repeal the Affordable Care Act, to deliver a less progressive tax policy, and to revise trade and immigration border policies (spec., the “wall”) as a way to curb job losses?

Maybe you feel like our government institutions are failing, that our representatives are too partisan to be trusted, that journalists spout fake news, that foreign terrorists present a clear and present danger to our daily lives, that undocumented immigrants are taking our jobs and raising the crime rate in our cities, and that foreign adversaries are about to unleash crippling cyber or even nuclear war on America? Well, if you share any of these feelings, you are listening to the news, social media, and/or politicians. And, understandably, you are also paranoiac.

Welcome to the new age of bafflement. Admit it: you no longer know what is true, who to believe, or whose ox is being gored. The press is slave to the news cycle. So-called “breaking news” changes day-to-day, and sometimes hour-by-hour. As news reports trip over each other, there is little time for in-depth analysis or fact checking. The newsmakers, for their part, spout their self-serving revisionist diatribe, while commentators labor to unpack their relevance or decipher anything of significance. And we all languish in an information paradox: we know more and less at the same time. Remember when President H. W. Bush was outed as an alien. Well, that story was a National Inquirer fantasy. The real alien is now in the White House. Politifact claims that 70% of his election statements were false. But his every proclamation or tweet is studied and rehashed by fellow politicians and commentators. He is defended–“what he meant was”—ridiculed, analyzed, re-interpreted, and, finally, excused as “a new kind of President,” as if he has magically recast the mold into an enigma we must accept. Let’s face the truth that deference to the office does not give license to a President. He is not above the law; AND he is not above the truth.

In fairness to President Trump, he did not author the age of bafflement. He is just its epitome. We have been sliding into this abyss of spin, fake news, alternative facts, and conspiracy theories for some time. Vladimir Putin was a good enough tactician to take advantage of the moment by hiring a thousand hackers to flood our broadcast and social media with bot-multiplied stories to increase our bafflement—literally, to stupefy us. The fact that Donald Trump also amplified the Russian messages—that Hillary Clinton was a crook, that NATO no longer served our interest or paid its fair share, that China was a still a currency manipulator, that President Putin was a strong and popular leader, that the Eurozone was breaking up and undeserving of American support, and so on—simply made him either an unwitting co-conspirator, a naïve opportunist, or something I dare not attest or choose to believe.

Donald Trump sold an image of America that included fake news, dishonest politicians, crime infested streets overridden with “illegal aliens,” sleeper cells of “Islamic terrorists,” and an abusive government, that used false science and liberal ideology to oppress the working class. His policy positions included repeal of Obamacare, better trade agreements, less international entanglements, tax and regulation reforms, increased border security, revival of the coal industry, more emphasis on maintaining law and order, and a military build-up to reestablish American dominance in the world and to annihilate ISIS. If you accept his dark image of America, then you might trust his prescriptions for change. But if you questioned his diagnosis, then you were attacked or discredited. When he bothered to support his positions, he used imagined scenarios, falsehoods, misapplied or out-of-context evidence, or manufactured conspiracies to distract us from the truth. The problem with his Presidency, besides its perceived incompetence, is the danger it presents to our democracy. Citizens in a democracy must have access to the truth. Otherwise, they cannot determine their interest or vote intelligently.

So how do we preserve our democracy in this new age of bafflement? First, we must work harder to find the truth. Of course, what we perceive will always be poured into the vessel of our limited experience. And we all have our share of ignorance. It is the admission of ignorance that is the beginning of knowledge. Only then are we ready to learn from others—not just our friends and relatives, but the best minds amongst our scientists, journalists, statesmen/women, and experts in their respective fields. As the President proceeds to thwart or dismantle the institutions of government, he is giving all of us the opportunity to understand their purpose and learn how they actually work. As he continues to run afoul of our federal courts and to make the Congress complicit in his Administration, he is actually offering us the opportunity to educate ourselves anew on the Constitution and the separation of powers.

Second, we have to rescue reality from Trump’s dark distortion. That task depends on each one of us doing our best to not only uncover the truth but to apply what we learned. If we fail to do so, then, as James Fallow warned in the January/February edition of the Atlantic, “this election will be a dire but survivable challenge to American institutions or (my emphasis) an irreversible step toward something else.” That “something else” does not imply a future any of us would choose for American democracy or for our posterity.

That “the truth shall make you free” is only valid if we are committed to making it so. Change cannot be controlled without a firm basis on reality and a clear focus on valid and reasonable ends. It serves no purpose to petition Congress, to join demonstrations, or vote for representatives if we cannot define the change we seek. Our founding fathers always knew that the basis for our democracy was an informed electorate. Now is the time for us to break free from the information and propaganda blitz that serves the powerful and sells the “news.” We can and must succeed in this new era of bafflement, else succumb to its promise of chaos and the ultimate destruction of our democracy. Of course, we will need the “grace” or courage to deal with the inevitability of change. But we absolutely must resist attempts to return “to the rules and theories of a bygone civilization.” America is still the New World, if we choose to make it so. That quest lives or dies with each generation.

Presidential Farewell Addresses

In its beginning America was populated by farmers, merchants, common laborers, and an influential minority of highly educated persons, some of whom were plantation owners or part of the intelligentsia. Within each colony, there was a strong sense of social identity and of ambition for self-government. What is remarkable about this time in history is that men and women were willing to forgo colonial self-rule, merge into a union of disparate groups, and follow the enlightened course of our founding fathers. Naturally, this period was chaotic and filled with insecurities. Declaring independence from the British monarch not only invited a military suppression, but exposed the newly formed union to the expeditionary and hegemonic forces of many advanced European countries, like France, Portugal, Spain, and even Russia. Why would this fledgling, young nation expose itself to such foreign threats? Well, our history books have attempted to unravel the many forces and motivations that helped form our revolution and emergence as the new American republic. But, today, two motivations have captured my imagination because of their relevance to present day America: the desire to unite formerly self-governing colonies and the willingness to trust elected representatives to develop a Constitution and form a federal government.

At the outset of the American experience, the Federal Government was tasked to preserve the union and to protect it from foreign threats and interventions. George Washington, in his farewell address to the nation, called this task an “arduous trust.” He not only had led our forces to win American independence, but “contributed towards the organization and administration of the government” and defended it from those subversive European elements intent on dividing it and thereby undermining its independence. In his farewell address to the nation, he stated that our “union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other.” He took the occasion of this address to warn the nation of “overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty” and of “designing men (who) may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views.” The former message presages President’s Eisenhower’s warning about the “military industrial complex.” The latter message includes both foreign and native provocateurs. It also resonates with Barack Obama’s call for unity in his memorable introduction to the public stage. In his 2004 Democratic Convention speech, he declared that America was not a collection of red states and blue states but that “we are the United States of America.” As President, Obama often ended his speeches with an aspirational quote from the Preamble of our Constitution, restating the purpose of that document “to form a more perfect union.”

Washington was concerned with attempts to undermine America’s fledging union and democratic system from external and internal agencies. The context in which he stated this concern is still relevant. He found “designing men” both within America’s political class and without, in the form of French and English espionage. Further, he identified how they operate to undermine America. Specifically, he condemned obstructionism, which he termed a “fatal tendency.” In his words, it serves “to organize factions . . . to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of the party . . . to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.” He feared that these factions “are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.” He warned that obstructionists would put the “will of the party” ahead of the “power of the people” to elect a representative government. In other words, Washington outlined for future generations what might subvert our union and potentially lead to despotism.

In President Obama’s farewell address, he echoed some of the same concerns but from an historical perspective and with a characteristic touch of hopeful optimism. Since Obama did not foresee his successor’s proposal of an 84 billion dollar increase in military spending over an eighteen month period, he made no mention of concerns about the “military industrial complex.” His Administration had already addressed that possible concern when it ended the trillion dollar deficits incurred by two major wars and began to resize the military to a non-war footing. The Trump Administration inherits a deficit that is one third the size that Obama inherited and a country no longer engaged in any large combat operation. Obama did, however, revisit Washington’s concerns about “designing men” who challenge our constitutionally protected human rights and rule of law. From without, that challenge comes from “violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam” and from those “who see free markets, open democracies, and civil society itself as a threat to their power.” From within, he foresaw the threats to our democracy coming from unequal opportunity, discrimination against minorities, irrelevant and uncompromising political debates, and citizen apathy.

Obama reminded us that America is exceptional because it has “shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow.” That potential for change and improvement, he warned, “will only be realized if our democracy works.” But “stark inequality is . . . corrosive to our democratic ideal . . . and requires us “to forge a new social compact.” Wealth and income inequality are residual effects of many factors, including government actions, international commerce, and “the relentless pace of automation.” The new social compact should include education that will better prepare our children for the world they will inherit, support for workers “to unionize for better wages,” and tax reform so that those who have benefited “the most from this new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their very success possible.”

The second warning Obama offered is about America’s ongoing struggle with discrimination. He not only included African Americans as recipients of discrimination but also immigrants, refugees, rural poor, the transgender community, and the middle-aged white person left behind by economic, cultural, and/or technological change. It will never be possible to create a more perfect union if Americans are unable to assimilate our diverse community. And that assimilation will not happen unless we learn to put ourselves in other’s shoes and persistently uphold “laws against discrimination—in hiring, and in housing, and in education, and in the criminal justice system.” Besides the democratic and moral imperative for this assimilation, Obama had a persuasive economic justification: “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”

Obama’s third warning reflected our contemporary struggle with conflict resolution and problem solving that has affected debates around the kitchen table, in news commentaries, and in the chambers of Congress. As he stated the problem, the battle of ideas has evolved into debates “without some baseline of common facts.” Here are just a few current examples—though not mentioned by Obama—that speak to this phenomenon:

➣ “the most recent trade deficit was 800 billion dollars” (President Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress). Actually, the trade deficit peaked in 2008 at just above 700 billion dollars, precipitously declined during the Great Recession and has never reached its peak since then. In 2016, the deficit was 502.3 billion, 347 billion of which represented our trade imbalance with China. “As a percentage of U.S. gross domestic product, the goods and services deficit was 2.7 percent in 2016, down from 2.8 percent in 2015” (CB 17-17, released on February 7, 2017 by the US Department of Commerce). This downward trend, except for a slight rise in 2015, has been a feature of the Obama years as American exports have steadily risen;
➣ “we’ve lost more than one-fourth of our manufacturing jobs since NAFTA was approved” (President Trump, as quoted above). Actually, America’s manufacturing output is at the highest level in history. The job loss has more to do with the continuing rise of automation than with any NAFTA effect. In fact, millions of jobs are now involved in our export trade with Mexico and Canada, our trading partners under NAFTA.
➣ “Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force” (President Trump, as quoted above). Everybody above the age of 15 is included in that number, that is, high school and college students, the disabled, stay-at-home parents, and millions of retirees. Actually, there are 7.6 million people who want to work and are currently unemployed, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number represents 4.7% of the workforce, a significant drop from the 10% unemployment rate at the peak of the Great Recession.

These specific examples are just a few of the many distortions in President Trump’s recent address to Congress. In general, the problem with quoted numbers is context and relevance. Anybody can find numbers that seem to support a position. The ongoing discussion about Obamacare is a relevant example. How does one reconcile the fact that Arizona experienced 116% increase in premiums, while the ACA exchanges across the country averaged a 25% increase and healthcare cost overall increased by only 3.9%, the lowest rate in decades? Well, you have to understand how these numbers reflect the whole system and why they seem to deviate from each other. Without that systemic understanding, it is impossible to reach mutual agreement on any positive intervention into our healthcare system. As Obama stated in his address, “this selective sorting of the facts . . . is self-defeating” for “it betrays the essential spirit of this country—the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our Founders.”

President Obama concluded his remarks with an appeal to a more participative citizenry. “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” He urged his fellow Americans to adopt the ideals established in our Constitution. As he put it, that document “has no power on its own . . . we, the people, give it power.” Finally, he concludes his farewell address by drawing excerpts from Washington’s own address:

“. . . self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but ‘from different causes and from different quarters much pains (sic) will be taken . . . to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth.’ And so we have to preserve this truth with ‘jealous anxiety;’ that we should reject ‘the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties’ that make us one.”

From the beginning of his Presidency until its very end, Barack Obama has never ceased being the community organizer and professor of Constitutional law. His clarion call to America has always been to encourage participation in government in order to form a more perfect union. From our first President to our last, this message is the same. Maybe the threats to our democracy they outlined for us will arouse us from our complacency. If not their warnings, then perhaps our present reality will stir us to action. The promise of America was never self-executing; for only we, its citizens, “can form a more perfect union.”