09 February 2017

Benefit of the doubt, part two

"Our future Lomonosovs might be
right in this hall."
-- Khudainazar Yunusov
Welcome to Lyceum 7 for the Lomonosov conference
(a regional academic competition for all school grades
and subjects, in honor of Mikhail Lomonosov)
Greetings from our city's superintendent of schools,
Elena Mitkina
... and from the president of the regional biology/
chemistry/ecology teachers' association, 
Khudainazar Yunusov
Participants and jurors came from all over
Moscow Region
Holmes and Watson explain the origins of Britain's
image as "Foggy Albion"
Receiving a science certificate
A certificate of recognition for her national costume
Our rector congratulates foreign-language
My thank-you certificate as a juror. The event took
place last Tuesday here in Elektrostal.

Last week I set myself the task of honestly applying the "benefit of the doubt" test to the administration of the USA's new president. The practical point of this exercise is to distinguish my urgent doubts about his leadership from both the blind fury and the undifferentiated ridicule directed at him.

If we doubters can earn trust through our fairness, is it naive to expect that Trump supporters will also give us the benefit of the doubt? Will they be able to see that we are motivated by love of country and democracy, rather than obsessing on the need to ridicule their hero?

Drawing on the benefit-of-the-doubt challenges I listed last week:

Are my complaints about Trump simply a matter of interpretation?

A fair question. I interpret the words and behavior of political actors based on a few assumptions, and fairness requires me to reveal those assumptions:
  • top public officials (and their families) should not benefit financially from their service, beyond statutory pay and benefits,
  • they should be scrupulous about the Bill of Rights, equal rights for all, the equal protection of the laws, due process, separation of powers, and the continuity of international agreements,
  • they should staff their administrations with the most competent people available,
  • they should not lie or be casual about the truth,
  • they should conduct themselves, and their advocacy and disputes, with dignity befitting their high office.
Are these reasonable expectations? And am I being ungenerous in judging that the president has failed to meet any of them? Is there or is there not a risk to our national institutions and civic norms if we simply allow more benefit-of-the-doubt time to see if things straighten out?

One more note: I believe I have applied these same expectations to previous presidents, including those I voted for.

Am I biased out of resentment because I voted against the winner? Am I a sore loser?

I am not exactly sore, but I'm admittedly very unhappy. My list of reasons for not wanting Trump to be president was based on his behavior before the election -- his bombast, defensiveness, assertions made out of thin air, aggressiveness, unwillingness to be transparent about his financial obligations, association with alt-right nationalists and racists, and frequent statements that he preferred to make decisions based on his own instincts and intelligence rather than study and advice.

If his behavior since assuming office had shown me that I'd misjudged him, I hope I would have had the fairness to admit so. Instead, his behavior in office to date confirms the doubts that I had.

Again: what am I missing? Is there evidence that my election impressions were either wrong or are severely disconnected from what we've seen since January 20?

Isn't the president simply doing what he promised?

OK, fair enough. On a verbal level, he made some explicit promises ...
  • shut down illegal immigration,
  • reject trade agreements unfavorable to the USA,
  • question collective security arrangements where the USA pays an unfair share of the cost,
  • fight crime, restore law and order,
  • eliminate over-regulation,
  • restore our deteriorating national infrastructure,
  • replace the Affordable Care Act,
  • nominate a worthy successor to Justice Scalia,
  • prioritize the fight against Islamic terrorism.
Each of these promises has positives and negatives, and there are ways that I could argue in favor of any of them. But they all involve incredibly complex trade-offs. I don't see Trump doing his own homework or appointing colleagues who are committed to the necessary study, consultation, and public discussion. Worse than that, he doesn't even seem committed to establishing accurate baseline data on which to measure future results. The murder rate and net illegal immigration, for example, are already at or near historic lows for recent decades.

The Gorsuch nomination may be an exception. And the Republican party in Congress (interpreted generously) does seem to realize that replacing ACA will require a lot of hard work. But so far I see no presidential leadership encouraging similar hard work in the other areas I summarized. Without that hard work, it's hard to trust that new initiatives are actually going to lead to improvements rather than external trade wars, cruel consequences for refugees and their families, collapse of international collective security, and repressive police and civil rights policies at home.

On a more tacit level, he seemed to be promising that the era of caring about political correctness is over. Is this a worthy promise? Since political correctness is just a jaundiced tag for sensitivity to vulnerable and historically marginalized people, do we really believe that those who voted for Trump can only gain by reducing or reversing the gains made by others? This seems like a sour, mean, even tribal approach to the dilemmas of our economic, class, and social diversity. Tell me if there's another, more positive, way to interpret Trump's antipathy to political correctness.

I believe that the disastrous initiative of temporary immigration bans is a good example of fulfilling this tacit promise. On the face of it, the ban was totally unfit for its stated purpose. The disconnection from reality was illustrated by Trump's public reasoning for the stealth implementation: if the ban had been rolled out over a week, bad dudes would have boarded those airplanes. Since nobody at all would have boarded those planes who hadn't already been carefully examined, there was no danger that miscellaneous terrorists would somehow jump the queue and crowd on board to take advantage of that week's notice. To prevent an entirely symbolic and fictitious danger in the service of this tacit promise, real-life risks, agonies, and humiliations were unnecessarily imposed on hundreds, potentially thousands, of families. What is untrue or biased about this summary of the situation?

Isn't Trump simply being a businessman instead of a politician?

The "businessman" pose is disingenuous for at least two reasons. First of all, for years he has engaged with politicians on behalf of his businesses, to the point of publicly explaining that his financial contributions to politicians are for the purpose of purchasing influence. He has done whatever it takes to make politics work for him. This isn't necessarily always wrong and certainly it's not unprecedented among businesspeople, but it means to me that he can't pretend to be an innocent newcomer in the world of politicians.

Secondly, not all businesspeople are created equal. Some are known for their ability to cast visions, to empower their colleagues and employees, to add value for society as a whole, and to lead very complex organizations through periods of market shifts and social change. If these are valid markers for a respected business leader, which of them applies to Trump and his branding activities, his marketing of conspicuous consumption, his beauty contests, and the racket known as Trump University? His appeal is not in the same league as the inspirational leaders of today's best businesses; it's more like the "Magic Rich Man" who appears to give a finger to the liberal establishment as he bestows his bounty on those less fortunate.

How am I not being fair? Is there a nicer way to describe this circus?

Why haven't I included a single positive development in my sour lists?

I hereby promise to do so when it happens. I'm not joking -- it's possible that a bipartisan plan for infrastructure restoration will emerge with Trump's encouragement; he may after all keep his promise that the future health care financing plan will be both better and cheaper than the ACA; and in each of the disasters he appears to be igniting, he might change his mind (or have it changed for him). He might even discover a sweet middle place in between the American imperial interpretation of global collective security and the complete collapse of the post-WWII world order that has so far prevented WWIII. Sessions may neutralize all our misgivings with a full-throated defense of voting rights. I promise to cheer.

In the meantime, he and his administration may also make dozens, even hundreds of correct decisions each day, as did every administration before him. Why should I praise him for that? It's his job.

I said that I wanted to distinguish my dissent from blind fury and undifferentiated ridicule. One of the enormous dangers of having a divisive and combative president is the degradation of our political culture. We need to stay sober and prayerful and retain perspective. There are leaders in this world who are much worse than Donald Trump, but even they should be prayed for every day. Fury and ridicule may gratify something in us during distressing times, but these times demand something very different: prayer, vigilance, and focused resistance, coupled with the humility that allows us to confess error and cheer when things go well.

We cannot praise diversity and at the same time ridicule Trump's supporters and refuse to engage with them. To refuse this engagement in favor of ridiculing them and their hero is to participate in the degradation that we fear Trump is causing.

Friday PS: I advocate this engagement to resist degradation in political culture, and because it is the way of love, but I am under no illusions concerning the possibility of convincing masses of people to question their selection of a hero.

Some Trump supporters will no doubt review and revise their decision, but many will not. Loyal members of his base are not evaluating him by criteria we share, such as those I've mentioned above. In fact, his violation of those criteria enhances his stature in their eyes. He perfectly expresses their disdain for the norms of political behavior. The America they want to restore never actually existed and cannot be recreated, and their new isolationist America is unsustainable, but I can't detect much capacity or desire to think critically about these incongruities instead of putting their hopes in a dynamic superhero who will do their thinking, or at least their disrupting, for them.

If this seems unfair, please explain why.

You'll be glad to know Trump isn't an evil genius.

A wonderful resource for maintaining perspective: The Planetary Society and its weekly podcast (which I never miss), Planetary Radio.

Another podcast: Sean Guillory has outdone himself, providing a fascinating interview with Jeremy Morris, author of Everyday Post-socialism: Working-class Communities in the Russian Margins. At $80 for the e-book, I am successfully resisting the temptation to buy it immediately, but I highly recommend the interview. Morris provides insights that ring true from my own experience of Elektrostal; but, more than that ... unlike so many so-called experts on Russia, he radiates affection for his informants and their community.

How many times can the USA lose its innocence?

Walking with refugees on the Resurrection Road.

Law and religious freedom in Russia: an overview of where things stand today.

Recent article on Quaker discipleship now available in Russian: English, Why I Give, and Russian, Почему я отдаю.

The circle will not be broken.

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