What does it mean to be patriotic?

What does it mean to be patriotic?

This is an important question that our country is grappling with uncomfortable ways. One of the most remarkable characteristics of politics in the age of Trump is the shift from policy disagreements to cultural ones.

Trump’s most recent diatribe, this one in Huntsville, Alabama, is yet another example of this. Trump is struggling right now with poor polling and a next 6-months of political challenges that offer very few wins. What does he do to keep his appeal and distract us? He starts a culture war.

National pride is a defining characteristic of both culture and personal politics. If you knew nothing else about a person other than that they drove a pickup truck with a large American flag flying on the back, what would you guess about that person’s political leanings?

Patriotism is a proxy that drives a lot of other beliefs and behaviors, it’s why it’s so important. It’s why it is such a feature of the current divide in our country. I want to argue that what Trump and his supporters call patriotism is a poor replacement for the real thing and that redefining our sense of what means to be patriotic is vital.

 

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Patriot? 

 

I’m going to go 4th-grade-book-report and lay out the basic definition of patriotism as “love for one’s country”. I do so because I want to focus on “love” in that sentence. It is one those words that has so many different definitions and interpretations as to almost lose meaning.

You can have the lighthearted kind of love that you have for your favorite foods. You can have heartfelt romantic love. However, the best analogy to develop our definition of patriotism is the loving relationship and mother and child have for each other.

Patriotism is the mother’s love for her child. She wants to protect it, but she’s also eager to identify flaws so that she can improve them. She’s proud of the strengths but acknowledges the weaknesses. Ready and willing to defend her child, but knows that it is not always appropriate.

That is the kind of ownership, responsibility, and care we need to have for our country.

Nationalism is the inverse. What defines the relationship between a child to its mother? The love is unconditional and the loyalty unquestioning. She provides me with so much, that even though she’s not perfect, I will become enraged if you disrespect her.

This is the kind of toxic relationship some have with the country. They demand absolute loyalty from everyone who wishes to partake in its society. (“If you don’t respect the flag then you can get out!”)

Some people have more love for symbols of patriotism than they do for the actual country they represent. The flag is the most obvious of these. There are other symbols that we, unfortunately, associate as being “American” and thus patriotic if you like them, and unpatriotic if you don’t. Guns, apple pie, football, military, etc.

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The current Colin Kaepernick situation is a perfect embodiment of this difference. Why are people so mad at him? He uses the platform he has to passively protest about a cause that he cares deeply about. He loves his community and his country, so he wants to see if protected and improved. Mother to a child.

People are angry that he could “disrespect the flag.” Yet, he hasn’t harmed anyone, done anything illegal or immoral, merely protested a symbol of the state. Patriotism is not blind love for country, unconditional support, unquestioning belief. That is nationalism, jingoism. Child to its mother.

There is harm delivered and justice denied to American citizens every day, yet athletes exercising their first amendment rights is what offends them?

Of course, none of this is actually about the flag or the anthem. Kaepernick and others are not protesting a piece of cloth, they are protesting racial injustice, especially how it is carried out in law enforcement and our legal system.

“Love the country, not the government”

I get the idea, and it’s a sentiment that I can get behind, but we misunderstand the difference between them. It is appropriate to protest the flag as a form of protesting the government, you cannot separate the two.

A country is not some ethereal entity to conceptualize about. You only need a few things to be a country. A piece of land, a sovereign government, and recognition from other countries. America was established on a document that laid out the rights the government would ensure, and rules for itself. If someone violates your rights, it’s not a bald eagle that swoops to save you, the rule of law established by our government enforces that they do or face punishment.

The flag and the anthem are supposed to represent the ideals America was founded under. If the government isn’t living up to those promises, then it is right to protest them – to bring attention to those shortcomings.

We’ve also somehow come to the conclusion that the flag=the troops, and that by declining to salute one, you’re belittling the other.  This is not only untrue as no protestor has mentioned the military, but ignores the fact that we haven’t fought a war to “defend our freedoms” in nearly 80 years and 40% of the military are minorities who have a stake in these protests.

I’m sure forced obedience to symbols of the state was not what the Founding Fathers had in mind back in 1776.

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Conclusion

Patriotism is: Genuine love for your country. The kind of love that encourages care, development, constructive criticism of its institutions, including the military and police.

Patriotism is not: Blind and unconditional support for the nation.  Nor is it defending mere symbols of the country over its actual citizens.

It’s not espousing maxims about what it means to be a “true American” (there’s no such thing) or defending the status quo because it fits your definition of America.

It’s about working to improve our society for all Americans and protecting our democracy from those who seek to silence it.

In this, kneeling NFLers are American patriots – Trump and his loyalty-demanding sycophants are not.

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Charlottesville

Another week, and another sad one for the state of our democracy. Each week seems worse than the last. Even though the cacophony of scandals should lead up to a crescendo of action by Paul Ryan – nothing concrete has yet to happen.

I usually only take the time to post on here if I know I have something worth saying and worth reading. I have a dozen half-assed drafts sitting in my Evernotes. This is different though, the events of the past week are monumental enough that I have a few thoughts to share that are important enough that it’s worth writing if it even changes one person’s behavior.

False equivalency

Twice in the past week, Donald Trump has made shock waves throughout the news cycle with his insistence that “both sides” are to blame for the current violence and protests. Now, blaming counter-protesters to neo-Nazi’s for violence is like blaming chemotherapy for violence against cancer cells. There’s definitely some action going on, but one side is clearly in the wrong.

This is an egregious example of false equivalency, but I hear similar retorts all the time. People in America are terrified of coming off as biased – for good reason. We rightly recognize that whenever someone is overly critical of one side and not another, they are probably being unfair in their argument. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started a critique of the right, only to be interrupted to be reminded of the ills of the left.

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The first and most obvious response is that two wrongs do not cancel each other out. You can acknowledge the flaws of the right at face-value without trying to rationalize it by pointing to others. The “well, they did it too” argument is a poor one for a toddler, much less a political party and the adults trying to defend it.

The other response is that it is also irrational for us to always seek the middle ground between two polars. In an era of such political polarization and dysfunction, it’s tempting to reject both the left and right and find some balance between the two. There’s been a sharp increase in the number of people identifying as independents or moderates. I’d say it’s because to even publicly declare yourself as a Republican or a Democrat today makes you look too biased.

This is known as “argument to moderation” and it is a fallacy just like personal bias is. To stand up and say, “both sides are irrational, I’m above this bickering so I will stand in the middle” is in itself irrational. So instead of being a blind neutral, take a second to recognize that one political party nominated, elected, and supports someone who sympathizes with white nationalists. For that, they are in the wrong and you can criticize them for it, full stop.

Trump and his supporters are masters at manipulating this. They’ve been able to equate actual fake news – that is fabricated content meant to slander or cause outrage – with the occasionally biased news (CNN, Washington Post, etc.). Now, they are going to equate the “alt-right” with a new term, the “alt-left”. One wants to kick brown people out of the country, and one wants universal health care (something nearly every other OECD country has) but I guess they’re the same. They’re also grouping everyone who wants to protest Nazi’s (which could be almost anyone) into a political group with an extremist connotation to delegitimize them.

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There’s also a lot of scare-crowing going on amongst both sides. Though once again, it’s not the same. Those who marched on Charlottesville last weekend do not represent the entire “right” in our country. Likewise, Antifa or the more extreme counter-protestors do not represent the “left” either. Yet, the candidate of the Republican party has the unrelenting support of one of these groups and supporters like Bannon and Gorka in the White House.

Free Speech

Free speech is inherent to democracy, it is hard for either to exist without the other. I’ve always considered myself to be a free speech absolutist. I love the work of John Stuart Mill, the more open and free debate is, the better off our society is.

However, I’ve recently had to wrangle with this belief in light of the protests in Charlottesville as well as those who claim to be 1st Amendment Activists. I understand and sympathize with them. It is a very slippery slope when you start to silence certain voices or opinions. The point of protecting free speech is to ensure proper public debate, which ideally leads to proper policy.

What happens when that speech is antithetical to our society? If we can say that at the very basis, our society is founded upon the ideas that

  • all people are created equal
  • they get equal protection under the law
  • as much as we can – give people equal access to opportunity to add to that society

Then the groups that gather and march to spread ideas of exclusion and violence towards others based on appearance or creed is in sharp contrast. There are two responses to this type of speech. One is to say (as Mill would) that even bad speech is good in the long run because when we refute it, it helps to strengthen the original position. This is the view I would’ve had in the past.

There’s the second response, which is that it falls under the harm principle, which is an important free speech caveat. You cannot, for instance, yell “FIRE!” in a crowded theater which creates a mob or say, incite violence. Watching the Vice coverage of the Charlottesville protests, and it is clear that these people are asking for violence and they got it. One of them drove his car with the intent to kill and was successful.

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In this way, democratic society can create the seeds of it’s own destruction by allowing movements such as this to grow – because it doesn’t give itself the means to contain it.

So… should we deny the free speech of the radical right by denying their permits, pushing them out of public places, insist that institutions such as universities and business not book their speeches, etc? Unfortunately yes. Until they can prove that their speech isn’t inciting violence against minority communities (which has significantly increased post-Trump).

These people aren’t looking to elevate the level of public discourse, it most cases, they’re looking for legal protection to say mean things about people who don’t have the political or legal capital to stop them. We don’t have to silence them, but we don’t have to give them a microphone either.

2017

As a final note, I’m tired of seeing stuff like, “Wow. I can’t believe this is happening in 2017.”

Progress is not guaranteed. The natural state of the world is shitty. Innovation happens because we invest in education, research, and technology. Social progress happens because we make small steps in changing attitudes and legislation. The arbitrary number on the calendar does not give us anything – we have to work for it.

Which brings me to the conclusion for all of this.

We still ultimately get the government we deserve. The quality of our society is dependent on the citizens that make it, that’s all of us. If we’re committed to being more rational in our debates, to elevating the right voices and being steadfast in our commitment to our communities, then we will be fine. If we continue to stay neutral, to stay silent, to stay complacent, then we will continue down this dark path.

At First Glance

Have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect?  It’s a psychological theory that can be summed up as: unintelligent people don’t know they’re unintelligent, and may even think they’re smart.  Meanwhile, intelligent people underestimate their abilities or at least acknowledge the limits of their current knowledge or intellectual ability.  In the words of Dunning himself, “People don’t know what they don’t know”. 
 
You probably have anecdotal evidence of this in your own life, a friend who knows the truth about climate science or how best to stop terrorism despite having no background in either.  Meanwhile, it is Socrates who once (maybe, nobody knows) said, “I know one thing, that I know nothing”.  
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This came out big-time in the election of Donald Trump.  
 
I know it’s wrong to call a politician and his supporters ‘stupid’ because you disagree with them, but my disagreement is not the only reason I’m calling them out.  Objectively, one of the highest correlations to support for Trump were having only a High School Diploma.  So, in one measure of intelligence, educational attainment, they were. But there’s another reason I’m calling them out. 
 
A theme of their support was the anti-elitist, anti-intellectual attitude that has been a feature of conservatism for a while but never this prominently.  
 
Americans are woefully uninformed on most policy issues.  Most have their blurb they’re ready to give people about hot-topic issues like gun control or gay marriage, but those are outliers.  There are a myriad of policy issues that are full of various complexities, be they legal, political, moral, or otherwise.  In my experience, most people cannot name their representatives, much less the details of what they’re voting on.  
 
Trump spoke very plainly, and very boldly about his policies and they stuck. Part of the reason for that is that they were simple and easy to grasp.  They made sense on the surface level.  
 
True to Dunning-Kruger form he also said things like “we’re going to do healthcare, we’re going to fix taxes, we’re going to build a wall and it’s going to be so so easy”.  
 
It’s almost as if Trump looked at the presidency and went “pfft, that’s easy, they’re messing up, I could do that!” akin to an amateur seeing a professional golfer mis-hit a drive and thinking they could walk up and put one 300 yards down the fairway.  
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A lot of times, politicians shy away from too wonky of talk, they know must people don’t care about the particulars of policy – they want to hear the actionable outcomes.  Which is why you hear “We’re going to do X reform because Y platitude”. Inaction is DC also played a part – when little was being done to address people’s concerns, easy ideas that would appear easier to implement take hold.  
 
It was almost as if they were saying, “You liberal elitists, with your expertise, aren’t getting it done, don’t you see how easy this is?”  
 
There’s a problem with these type of ideas and it’s that they’re a bit like trojan horses to our brains.  Simple statements are easier to understand, and therefore easier to accept.  We don’t have to think too hard about it, it makes sense to us at first.  
 
There within lies the problem. There are a lot of things that are true even though they don’t make immediate sense, alternatively, there are a lot of things that make sense that aren’t necessarily true.  
It’s easy to laugh at them now but think about people in the Bronze Age who held it as fact that the earth was flat and was the center of the solar system.  “Look,” they would say, “the ground as far as anyone can see is flat, and balls don’t start rolling on the floor.  There’s a simple way to explain the movement of the stars around the earth.” 
 
So it goes with Trump’s policy ideas.  He offered simple and bold answers to complicated questions and people hopped on board.  The problem being that all it takes is a little more digging to see why they’re not actually productive. 
 

The Wall

 
How do you stop something from getting somewhere?  Simple, you put a sturdy physical object in-between your two points. 
 
Alas, that’s not how any of this works.  First, net immigration from Mexico has been near 0 since 2008.  Secondly, most people don’t climb over or through the existing border when they do cross.  They come as tourists or on short-term visas, and over-stay their temporary access.  A wall would do nothing to stop this.  A wall wouldn’t be terribly effective even if that weren’t the case, unless all 2,000 miles of it were constantly monitored.  A difficult and expensive task to solve a nonexistent problem.  
 
TL;DR – A wall is good at stopping things from moving, but that’s not how immigration works at all. 
 
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Terrorism

 
It’s easy to tell that Trump still sees war and conflict as it is often portrayed in movies, what warfare scholars call 2nd-generation war.  That is, large-scale industrial war where the aim is to eliminate the enemy’s capability to fight by destroying their resources.  That could be soldiers, natural resources, or even the will to fight.  As evidenced by his proposed military budget, he wants to buy the big-ticket shiny items like planes, ships, tanks, and helicopters that would be effective in 2nd-generation war
 
The problem is that the fight against terrorism and organizations like ISIS are anything like the above, for two reasons
 
One, this is asymmetrical warfare and it is fought much differently.  The weaker side plays to it’s strengths, hiding amongst civilization, trying to make small but devastating strikes, and bleed out their opponents.  It’s why untrained soldiers with pick-up trucks and AK-47s can be successful against the most advanced military in world history.  More ships and helicopters will do nothing to aide in this fight. 
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Two, is that we need to face the unfortunate truth that we will never truly end the fight against terrorism, but we can do the best we can to temper it’s flames.  Instead, Trump’s idea is to fan them.  What motivates someone to become a radical?  It’s not an easy answer, but it’s not hard to see how someone who has nothing else to live for when their family and economic prospects are suppressed or killed by what they see as the oppressive West would turn to extremism.  
[Side-note: In March alone, bombings authorized by Trump have been responsible for up to 1000 civilian deaths.  I’m sure the extremists will stop now.]
 
I’ve always despised the notion that “they hate our freedoms”. That was nothing more than an attempt to demonize our enemies.  They hate when we kill their civilians from the skies with faceless drones, and torture potential innocents in places like Abu Grahib
 
Trump sees an enemy and thinks, we’ve got the firepower, lets blow em up.  That answer is far too simplistic and is clearly counter-intuitive.  
 
TL;DR – Wars against terrorists in the 2010s are fought differently than wars against the Russians in the 1960s-70s.  Trump does not know this.  
 

Economics and Jobs

 
It’s hard to know where to even start with this one.  A theme of his lofty promises is that he rarely laid out HOW he was going to accomplish them.  A big detail if you ask me, but his supporters never seemed to mind.  It felt good to hear him say that he was going to bring back their prosperity so they didn’t want to question it, and they believed his was powerful enough to get it done
 
Trade is a complicated subject, so I won’t do a deep dive here, but it’s clear that his ideas on trade were lacking deeper understanding
 
First, is yes, that our globalization-era trade deals hurt some sectors and workers worse than others.  That’s a trade-off (no pun intended) that you have to accept.  When EVERYONE can buy cheaper appliances because they’re made overseas, we’re better off because we can spend those savings on other things important to us.  Were some people hard-done by this?  Yes, but that’s the capitalism that we profess to love so much, right?  The problem was that the companies that benefitted didn’t re-invest in their employees.  If they used those savings to offer re-training or education subsidies to help people move on in the new economy, we might not be in this mess right now.  
 
More evidence that he can’t see past the surface level on this issue is his obsession with trade deficits.  It’s true that we have a large trade deficit with China, but that’s like me saying I have a huge trade deficit with the grocery store.  I do because I get a lot of value from shopping there since they have goods I want at a preferable price to anywhere else.
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The US economy, now intertwined with the global economy, has a vast number of moving parts and variables.  Governments play a vital role as the largest spender, often the largest lender, and the rule maker, but the role the gov’t has in the economy is often overplayed.  
 
A lot of conservatives have this fantasy picturing the economy as a pipe in which productivity and value flow. If they can just unclog the red tape and taxes holding it up, BOOM – the jobs and capital come bursting out.  May be true to an extent, but issues this complex rarely have such simple resolutions. 
 
TL;DR – You can’t put trade policy into a simple zero-loss game.  
 

Foreign Policy 

 
I like this one because a lot of people get caught up on this.  “America First”  Who would disagree with that, right?  Why are we taking care of others problems when we have so many of our own?  
 
Similar to the trade issue, too many people want it both ways.  They want a job manufacturing dishwashers for $50k with benefits but they want to be able to buy a toaster for $10.  People want the US to be the foremost leader in the world, to help shape the future in the image we like, but they don’t want to pay for it
 
Yes, we spend to protect certain countries, patrol the seas, develop other countries economically and more.  The return we get is not as straightforward as a dollar sign that Trump would love to see.  I don’t know what the value of having free and open seas to trade in is, but the ROI is huge.  
 
When we send humanitarian aid to struggling countries, we do it because (IT’S THE RIGHT THING TO DO) it creates good-will with a country that they will remember.  It’s why you give sugar to your neighbor, it doesn’t cost you that much but it goes a long way.
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When we offer economic development to 2nd world countries, it’s because countries with more wealth are usually more stable, creating a better international environment and with the hope that it will allow them to buy more of our goods and services in the future
 
These returns are not immediate, sexy, huge, or even ensured, but they’re worthwhile. 
 
TL;DR – We pay to help make the world more stable and prosperous.  The benefit cannot be measured directly in dollars. 

Conclusion

It’s when we accept ideas easily that we should be especially critical of ourselves and our own thought processes.  Unfortunately, human brains are lazy and don’t want to do this often.
To be clear, this happens to everybody.  Yet, Trump voters who were frustrated and confused by DC were more susceptible to boisterous lies about fixing it than others.
Trump, to his credit, is an excellent marketer and sold his ideas well.  Like any conniving salesman however,  the reality doesn’t measure up – and we’re all paying the price.

Presidential Thoughts

So, maybe you’ve heard, we got a new President today.

Admittedly, I’ve somewhat dug my head in the sand post-election day but the inauguration events brought a handful of thoughts to my mind.

I have hastily collected them below.

Can we make political speeches great again?

Does every major speech have to remind us what the purpose of a democratic society is? “Together we’re going to make America great again, we’re giving the power to the people, this is for you” There’s a version of this line in almost every speech by politicians. It must be effective because it’s all you hear.

It’s vague enough for anybody to fill in the gaps to their own liking, it’s optimistic, and (most) everybody supports a principle like “we should diffuse power amongst citizens to prevent abuse” so nobody is going to argue with you. It’s a cop-out and we should all be demanding something more substantive by now.

We also got stuff like, “Americans want good schools for their kids, safe neighborhoods, and good jobs” Yes, Donald, nobody is saying otherwise, it’s how we do so that makes the difference.

Can we talk about protests?

Protests were a defining factor of this last cycle. Protests against candidates, anti-protests, the various organized demonstrations, etc.

Let’s get this clear, the expression of free speech and the power of dissent against political leaders are the bedrock of American democracy. Hell, America began as a protest.

The general attitude I see some people express towards protests is confounding.

“Whiners, stop complaining.”

Yes, protest is a form of complaint, but it is a totally acceptable and useful form of action in the face of what you see as injustice.

“Get a job.”

1 – You can take time off of work to attend events that are important to you.

2 – Not everybody works normal or full, M-F, 9-5 hours, allowing you to protest.

3 – Even if you are unemployed, does that make your voice in democracy less meaningful? After all, isn’t the economic hardship of so many Americans a driving cause of Trump?

“You’re not going to change anything, go home”

In fact, peaceful protest is often one of the only things that has brought about meaningful change.

Now, people who cause any kind of destruction or violence are in the wrong, but we should be supportive of all protestors. It’s really one of the most patriotic things you can do.

I hope Trump succeeds, or do I?

I’ve seen a lot of people on social media offer up the comforting sentiment of, “I don’t support him but I hope he succeeds because his success is our success”.

Is it?

Because for me, Trump’s success = reversing climate action and agreements, wasteful spending on a wall or military ‘rebuilding’, deporting millions, overly-aggressive foreign relations, and more. In this sense, I hope he is a colossal failure.

Or, if you mean the traditional duties of the President, defending the Constitution, American interests at home and abroad, so on, then sure, I hope he succeeds. It may be useful to delineate in the future.

What actually worries me.

One of the worst parts of this past election cycle was watching Trump routinely lie, exaggerate, ad hom, and incite in his debates and speeches. The voters and the media literally couldn’t keep up with it. The constant barrage of misinformation and spin diluted each scandal to the point that instead of them building on top each other, we couldn’t focus on anyone and he got away with all of them.

All of which means he has no incentive to stop.

I’ve criticized liberals in the past for being too eager to jump into outrage. We’re going to have to pick and choose our battles here. If there’s a protest, hashtag, op-ed, celebrity video about every policy action of his then we’re going to commit ourselves to the same downfall.

How will Trump’s messaging change?

I say that because it’s clear now that the man himself will not change. What will be interesting is how his message changes. For 18 months now he has lashed out at how bad things are and how poor a job the current government is doing. It’s always easier to criticize, isn’t it? Well, now, he’s in charge, so there are no fingers to point or blame to assign.

Wait, I take that back, he is absolutely going to blame everybody but himself when he fails to deliver on his numerous lofty promises.

Still, no longer will he be able to rail against the establishment of which he is now a part, and he won’t be able to just talk about the things he is going to do. As it’s been said many times, running for office and actually running a country are immeasurably different jobs, let’s see how he does.

Despite it being the defining phrase of the campaign, we never got an answer on when exactly the last time America was great, and what will have to happen for it to be great again. This vagueness will serve Trump again when he’s able to declare in two years that America is finally great again, signaling his administration as a success.

Who cares what the social, economic, and political situation is in a few years, haven’t you heard? Facts don’t matter anymore. Approval ratings? Rigged. Unemployment numbers? Inaccurate. Media? Crooked. I expect much of the same distortion and lies that powered him to the White House.

My only optimism.

So many people were upset with the current state of affairs in Washington that they were ready to throw a sledge-hammer in the shape of Trump at the whole system. Apparently, the idea being that it couldn’t get much worse so let’s just break it all. Well, we’re about to see how much worse things can get, because they always can.

When the debt spikes because we cut taxes while spending ‘trillions’ on infrastructure and weapons while not touching Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security.

When jobs and incomes don’t rise because he tries to resurrect an economy that hasn’t existed in 30 years.

When the dysfunction in DC increases because federal agencies aren’t run by experts in their fields but Trump’s sycophants.

When the world becomes more unstable because the strongest country in the history of the world pulls out of global affairs.

I just hope all of his fans realize that electing a willfully ignorant, petty, vengeful, billionaire to solve their concerns was a massive mistake and we can all learn that lesson moving forward.

America Won’t be Great Again

Expectations play a large role in our judgment of any experience.  Ever pick up a cup thinking it was Sprite but when you took a sip, it was Coke?  Gross, right?  Coke tastes good but it was the expectation and the harsh difference that made it taste so bad.

Okay, not a great example but it applies to anything, most notably entertainment.  Hyped movies rarely live up to it, rollercoasters aren’t nearly as fun when you had to wait 3 hours to ride it, etc.

I think this applies to most people’s expectation for our country too.


The oldest Americans today are 90-100 years old, and they probably didn’t come into political consciousness until their mid teens.  So the collective memory of American’s is about 1915-2017.  Hey, that’s a pretty good time period for America.  Look at what happened in that time:

  • We won a World War
  • The advent of the Automobile
  • The advent of the Airplane
  • The Roaring Twenties
  • We won a second World War
  • We won the Space Race
  • We won the Cold War
  • The advent of the internet

 

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The 20s looked fun

 

 

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Can you believe how much space airline passengers used to have? 

 

 

New Yorkers Celebrate Japan's Defeat
VJ Day – New York

 

 

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USA! USA! USA! 

 

Basically, the 20th Century belonged to the US.  We came out on top of every major conflict and were the birthplace of some of the most important inventions in history (with maybe the notable exception of the TV). Of course, there were some disastrous happenings, the wars themselves, Vietnam, Watergate, and more.

On the whole, however, we did a lot of winning and then took advantage of that to do some more.  Post WWII, the other large economic powers had to tend to too many wounds to compete with us.  The one exception being the USSR, and our fierce cultural, economic and military battle with them fueled a lot of productivity and innovation.

Then, around the mid-80s, we began to pull away and no-one could hold a candle to the US as a world power.  Around the same time, emerging economies such as those in Latin America and Asia provided cheap labor and cheap goods flooded the American marketplace. Then the internet brought new innovation and efficiency.  Man, 1980-2000 was a good time to be an American.

 

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Why Americans are pissed, in one graph. 

 

This gave birth to the notion of “American Exceptionalism”, the idea that there was something explicitly ‘special’ about America. That it was just destiny that we would come to take our rightful place as world leaders.  More notably, the brand of American Exceptionalism pushed by Reagan and other neoconservatives that it was American culture that allowed us to dominate.

This American century ended abruptly with 9/11.

Now, we were fighting an asymmetrical war, and then another one, and we’re not good at these.  (Think Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, ISIL) Meanwhile, European economies have fully recovered and large economies in Asia are starting to become more competitive.

 

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The cost, in trillions, or our ME exploits is still being counted. 

 

 

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Chinese manufacturing has been good, and bad for the US

 

What did Trump insist early and often during his campaign?  We don’t win anymore.  This message clearly resonated with millions of people.  It makes sense.  For most of his voting bloc, they lived in a time when all we did was go from strength-to-strength. If their understanding was that American culture was responsible for the Ws, then it must be the changing of American culture that is responsible for the Ls. “When America was whiter, had more ‘traditional family values’, more religious, whatever, the country was more successful.  We won wars when we ‘bombed the shit out of them’ and rolled in with tanks and troops. Let’s go back to that.”

This explanation is far too simple and just wrong.

Yes, we won 3 wars.  Yet, we showed up late to the first two and had the benefit of the two largest oceans and friendly/weak neighbor countries surrounding us.  That’s just luck.  No idea or invention is made on its own but is built upon a long line of succeeding innovations and improvements.  The bombs that won us WWII and the rockets that put us on the moon were made largely in part from the work expatriated European scientists.

Look, American ideals – liberty, opportunity, fairness – definitely play a role in attracting talent and facilitating the developments that put us on our trajectory. Besides, it’s not like we’re the only ones who can claim them.

Empires rise and fall, everybody knows this, and America is no different.  This is because what works in one era doesn’t necessarily work in another, they collapse under their own weight, infighting, etc.

 

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The Fall of Rome

 

For the first time in a long time, we aren’t able to use our outsized influence to get our way in international affairs, and we’re not handling it well.  This was inevitable, it’s not like we could pick fights with every emerging economy to ensure we never had a competitor. Also, it benefits us when other countries develop as well.  They can buy our goods, they’re more stable, rising tide, all that.

We need to get comfortable with the idea that we’re not going to be able to set the rules and agenda of the world in our favor much longer.  We had a great ride and deserved much of our success, we were spoiled.

We now have a choice.  We can commit the same mistakes of history by desperately trying to hold onto power, forsaking our future by trying to hold onto the recent past, and blame each other for the downfall instead of seeing the bigger picture. Or, we can use the considerable soft power we’ve built over the past 100 years in conjunction with our remaining hard power to position ourselves into a more realistic role in the world.  One where we are one of the many leaders and participants in global initiatives, not the bully in the room.

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I’m fearful, because I think we’re probably going to choose the former, and other countries will remember how aggressive we were for so long.  I’m not necessarily spelling doom for the US. We’re always going to be a top 5 nation, we’ve built up enough advantages for that, but the days of being numbers 1, 2, and 3 are over.

Changing the attitude of millions of Americans is not easy, but if we keep acting like the world is ours to mold into a shape we like, and continue to make flailing attempts like electing a man like Trump to keep it that way, we’re in for a lot more hurt.

 

Dear America, it’s Time to Break Up

 

I love America.  Or, at least, I used to.  I’m not talking about the post-9/11 fueled jingoism or even general American culture, but the pure idea of it.  To see America so divided and full of animosity today breaks my heart, it really does.

When I’m free of the distractions of the daily grind, my mind usually snaps to the current polarization crisis we’re facing.  The one in which many Americans are more willing to believe and support Vladimir Putin, the individual with the most power and intent to harm the West, than our own President and our many government agencies – simply because he likes their candidate more than the other one.  Or, whether you agree with the statement, “It’s wrong to mock those with disabilities” apparently depends on who you supported too.

I’ve toiled over how we could fix this, using what I’ve learned about politics, society, psychology, etc. and I’m not the only one.  For a long time, I thought it would be cyclical, that partisanship would rise, then people would see how toxic it is, and retreat, as it has in the past.

I sound just like someone who is in a relationship that’s over but doesn’t know it yet.


One of the many lessons of this election is that there are two very different America’s.  There are a lot of demographic graphs that illustrate this but they all tell the same story.

There’s the coasts, large metropolitan areas, and swaths of the Northeast and Northwest that are more liberal.  Then there’s the rest.  Just look at this comical version of the election results.

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Giant parts of the Midwest, Southwest, Heartland, Appalachia, and Deep South missing. Now, those areas are sparsely populated, but the point remains.

Here are some of the highest indicators of Republican support in this election.

 

  • White
  • Less educated
  • Live in a rural area
  • Religious
  • Work in “old economy” jobs such as agriculture, manufacturing, trades.

This election was marked for it’s lack of actual policy discussion and focus on cultural trends and anti-establishment rhetoric.  Those on the right didn’t have many policy agreements and many had reservations about Trump.  There was one thing they could get behind and that was hatred of Hillary Clinton -which made him tolerable.

This ‘Us vs Them’ mentality and win-at-all-costs tactics lend more credence to the notion that our political discourse is more of a war and less of a debate.

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Americans are already self-separating.  Gen-x’ers and millennials have flocked to urban areas for economic opportunity but also so they can be amongst similarly minded people, experience diversity and inclusiveness, and incidentally become more exposed to some of the benefits of a robust government – parks, public transportation, efficient services, etc.  This is basically the opposite of Trump voters who were downright vitriolic about minorities, are incredibly skeptical about government (and other democratic institutions apparently) and far more socially conservative than the typical 20-40 year old today.

This is manifesting itself socially as well.  This Pew report on partisanship is well worth your time but some of the findings show that people on different ends of our political spectrum don’t even want their children marrying the other, and they don’t necessarily want to be neighbors with one either.  This was in 2014 as well, I can only imagine what this chart looks like now.

 

screenshot-2017-01-11-16-59-46Basically, we just don’t want to be together anymore.

And here’s the thing, that’s fine.  

People look at places like the Middle East and wonder how there can be so much continuous conflict. Scholars will tell you it’s due largely in part to arbitrarily placing ethnic tribes into nation-states where friction and eventually fighting was inevitable.

 

We’re undergoing something similar in America today.  While there are 50 states, there are really 7 to 11 “tribal regions” in the US (depending on who you ask) and yet we try to resolve their conflicts in one federal system where no-one feels truly represented.  Is there really any surprise that there’s gridlock at the federal level when we try to include places like Portland and rural Mississippi into the same discussion?
The country has always had disagreements, but culturally, we are moving farther apart and concentrating into the areas where each group feels more comfortable.  Is there anything inherently wrong with that?

 

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This is what author Colin Woodard thinks America actually looks like
Thomas Jefferson once said, “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

 

Well, as a society, we are bursting at the seams.  Two parties have been dating amicably for nearly 200 years but it is clear now that they don’t want be with each other anymore.  [I know different parties have risen and fallen, rebranded and realigned throughout history, but for brevity’s sake, I’m just saying two] So, before we end this relationship with anything resembling a fight, let’s just acknowledge that this isn’t working any longer and it’s okay to go our separate ways.

Look, I know this is next to impossible, but systems of government rarely last this long. America is a relatively young country but we do have the oldest surviving constitution among democracies, and yes, that’s something to be proud of.  It’s like driving a vintage car.  The fact that it’s lasted so long speaks to it’s original quality and other companies copied the model.  But your friends have the modern version and they’re tired of yours breaking down on road trips and the repairs are getting too expensive.  Time to acknowledge what it was good for and move on.

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Let’s not do this again, please. 

It’s hard to get American’s to agree on anything political today, but if there’s one thing, it would probably be something like, “The current system of government is broken, isn’t getting the results it needs to and it harms both our prosperity and security”.

If we live in a democracy, and most of us agree that our government needs serious change, then why can’t we bring about this change?

To be clear, like any breakup, I’m not happy about it, but we should rip the band-aid off now.  Everyone gets what they want.  Smug liberals can create their Western-European style of society, conservatives won’t have to deal with them intervening and telling them what’s right, and we can all be friends.  We could become an EU like group of semi-autonomous states with free trade, movement, and communal defense.

To use another light analogy, it’s like living with somebody you thought was going to be a good roommate.  You still like them and want to remain good friends, but it turns out you had too many differences to live in such proximity.

So, c’mon America, let’s break up already.

What I’ve Learned

The first few years out of school are unique.  Until this point in your life, your life has been pretty structured.  3 years in Middle School, on to High School.  4 years High School, move on.  Your goals and metrics of success and plain and constant, it’s all very straight-forward.

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It isn’t exactly uncharted territory.  People have set sail into the ‘real world’ for generations now, but for each person, that journey is unique.  Before, you could only move the rudder a few degrees usually with someone over your shoulder. Now, it’s just wherever you choose to steer.

I’m getting side-tracked here. The point is that these first few years are great learning opportunities because it is so different, your choices and their consequences are your own.

What follows are the most important lessons I’ve learned in the past two years.  Nothing here is especially novel, but I do have my own interpretation of them.

Hopefully, you find these useful in this new year.


1 – Simple and easy are not synonyms. 

They are easy to conflate but it’s essential to understand the difference.

For example, losing weight is simple.  Consume food at a calorie deficit, cut back on carbs and sugar especially, be consistent and eventually, you will lose weight.  Doesn’t mean it’s easy.  Temptations lurk, routines are shaken, discipline and motivation are tested, patience is difficult.  Likewise, saving money is simple.  Make a basic budget, buy discount items, do research into cost-saving techniques.  Easy?  Not always, for many of the same reasons above.

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2 – Motivation is fickle, discipline is not. 

This follows because it is related to the point above.  Anything worthwhile takes patience, consistency.  Simple concept, difficult to execute.

Nobody is motivated all the time.  Even a truly great athlete like Michael Phelps wasn’t motivated every day to wake up at 5 AM and jump into a cold pool to exercise for four hours.  However, he was disciplined enough to the point where it didn’t matter.

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Habits are a powerful tool. If you can use the little bit of motivation you have to fuel the discipline to do something unpleasant for a few weeks, the habit will be created and you can kick your dependence on mustering motivation to accomplish things.

People that appear super-motivated are just motivated enough to deal with the pain of creating multiple, more difficult habits.

3 – Most of the time we chase desires and run from problems.

You know what sucks?  Thinking about the difficult things that truly distress you.  Who wants to spend their time wrestling with some of the uncomfortable thoughts about your personal problems (your job, relationships, meaning) or societal problems (cultural conflict, global warming, injustice around the world)? At best, you feel inadequate to address these problems, at worst, you become depressed.

Our society is filled with ways to distract us from facing our problems.  Of course, there’s always been entertainment, but more so now, we turn to quick hits of social media on our computers or especially on our phones.  They can go with us anywhere so we never have to be alone with our thoughts.  Whether it’s a bit of entertainment, validation, information, whatever – they’re just temporary fixes, highs, papering over the cracks.

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Here’s some tough love.  You’re always going to have problems, no one is going to solve them for you, and you can’t ignore them away.  Be honest with yourself and your problems, where they came from and what it will take to resolve them.  Trust me, the sooner you just suck it up and start chipping away at these, the better.

4 – What it really means to make the most out of anything.

God, you hear this so much it’s almost lost all meaning.  “Just make the most of it!” All cheery like it’s that easy.

I think the right way to frame is to not let anything be fully a negative.  You are going to be in shitty situations, that’s just inevitable.  Sometimes they’re going to be your fault, sometimes not.  Regardless, you’re usually the only one who has the power to make it better for you.

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Make a mistake, that’s fine, just make sure you learn from it.  Break your hand, that’s just an opportunity to become ambidextrous.  Flight delayed by hours?  That time is going to pass no matter what you do, might as well use it to do something you’ve been waiting to have a few hours for.  Even if you’ve utterly wasted a day, you can spend a little time prepping to make the next day better or text your Mom that you love her.

Shitty things are shitty, but exactly how shitty is up to you.

5 – You are the sum of your actions.

Intentions are great.  They’re fun and easy.  I intend to be a lot of things.  A good musician, writer, friend, athlete.  We love to judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions.  However, you will be defined by your actions.

Each of us makes hundreds of decisions every day.  Most of them are small and it’s easy to justify them as inconsequential enough to take lightly.  Picking up a snack in the office or fast food a couple times a week seem too small to make a difference but they add up.

Deciding to spend your free-time watching an hour of television doesn’t seem so bad but after a few months you’ve now got a couple days worth of TV and everything has an opportunity cost.

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Maybe like most people you intend to be healthy, wealthy and wise, but if the hypothetical person above sounds like you, don’t be surprised when a year later your savings aren’t what you thought because $8x2x50=$800, the 200 calories from snacks keep the weight on, and instead of practicing a skill you watched TV.

In total, your actions will reflect your values.  You may tell yourself and others you care about being well-read, but if you spend your time browsing Facebook instead, then you value that more.  That’s fine, just acknowledge it.

You are the sum of your actions, every action, so watch them carefully.

6 – Self-reflection is important.

Like I explained before, it’s easy to get sucked into a routine where you rarely sit and think about your life, your beliefs, values, etc.  You can go full months where you simply cycle from attention-grabbing aspect of your life to another without taking a break to evaluate.

One nice thing about being a student is that things were nicely structured.  Even if you disliked a class, teacher, subject, whatever, you knew there was a definite end to it, which makes it easier to stomach.  The next step on your ladder was also laid out.

The rest of our lives are nothing like this.  You can be in a job or industry for 4 months, 4 years, 4 decades.  You just don’t know.  There’s no structure for telling you to move on, there’s no grade system to let you know how well you’re doing.  You’ve left the well-marked kiddy pool for the murky ocean.  It’s up to you to take the time and diligence to figure this out for yourself.

Do I like where I am and what I’m doing?  What would I change about myself or my setting?  Am I where I thought I would be?  Where do I want to go now? What are the things I care about and what can I eschew from my life?

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This advice is especially unoriginal because Socrates urged this 3000 years ago but its wisdom keeps revealing itself to me.  Complacency and ignorance of our own selves come easily.  Fight this with routine examination of yourself.


Right, so I don’t mean to pontificate and I hope this doesn’t sound preachy.  It’s always good advise to learn from others, so I hope you can take something from this and let me know what you’ve learned recently.