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What I’ve Learned – Part II

Last year, I wrote a post about the some of the life lessons that I had learned in the two years post-graduation (or as some would call it, “real life”). The point of these is not to prove that I am some sage, or that I have the answers to a better life. In fact, none of it is particularly original, just my own understanding and application of it. The point is to help myself reflect, as well as provide insights that might make your life better. So, here’s round 2, enjoy.


Making Lists Helps

 

We all make lists of some sort, be it grocery or to-do, and I thought there was only one real strategy behind it. Write things down, check them off. Over the past year though, I’ve realized how much effective listing has helped with my mental clarity. The beauty of it is how simple it is. Here are a couple ways.

For easing stress and/or anxiety

Take a minute to reflect on the things in your life that are causing you stress or anxiety. Could be your relationship with your boss, your weight, your bank balance, something on your car you know needs fixing, anything.

Write these down. Then, ask yourself, “Can I do something about it?” If the answer is no, then this item is out of your control, and this realization can help ease your stress about it. If the answer is yes, as it often is, then write down a few small, instantly actionable things you can do about it.

For example, losing weight is a long-term challenge, but right now you can spend 10 minutes making a healthy meal plan for the next few days. Chipping away at your problems, and the satisfaction of crossing items off a list as you progress towards them is super satisfying.

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For sleep

I’ve always had problems sleeping, always. Part of this problem is how my mind starts to race about things I should do as soon as I stop giving it stimulation from the outside world.

I’ve improved lately as I’ve gotten better at sticking to a nighttime routine that emphasizes the winding down of my day. Part of this is using a notepad to write down the things I want to accomplish the next day along with specifics like how or when I’m going to do them.

Taking this burden off of my mind, and putting it onto paper helps me go to bed with a clearer, less hectic head. Try it out.

For Tracking Your Time

Making lists isn’t just about planning what you will do in the future, they can also be useful for looking back.

I spoke in the last post about how our actions reflect our priorities, and that we too often judge ourselves by our intentions instead.  By looking back on the week, and noting which days you did the things you said you’d do (exercise, read, cook at home, socialize) and which days you didn’t, you can get a clear picture of what you’re actually prioritizing to get an objective look at how you choose to prioritize your time.

Smartphone Addiction is a Real Problem

 

At its core, an addiction is nothing more than a harmful habit. That we have a habitual relationship with checking the internet for updates about everything is not up for debate. It’s estimated that we look at our phones up to 80 times a day, about every 12 minutes. How many other non-voluntary actions do you take more than 80 times during a day? I can’t think of any. If you saw someone take 80 cigarette breaks, you’d call them an addict. The harm part of things is where it gets complicated.

Because we use our smart-devices as tools that drive so much of our productivity, we don’t view them as a vice – they help add value to our lives, not take away. Like any tool, it’s how we use them that determines their value, not the tool itself. (A hammer is generally very useful, but not for eating spaghetti, for example)

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Perhaps the most damaging part of this relationship with our devices is how it keeps us from being present. Whether it’s staying focused on a project or learning a new skill, the constant pull and distraction from our phones make this difficult.

The path to completing a complex thought is more like a cliff than a trail. Every time you’re attention changes, you slip down the cliff, instead of taking a detour on the same trail. Of course, it keeps us from being present with others as well. Face-to-face conversation is how we truly connect, and you shatter that connection every time you deem whatever’s on your phone to be more attention-worthy than the people you’re with.

We’ve also forgotten how to be bored, which is an underrated ability. When we’re bored we allow our minds to wander freely where there is a greater chance for creativity and thoughtfulness. We don’t even allow ourselves a quiet moment in the elevator, in the bathroom, in a line, to be alone with our thoughts, we have to constantly supply ourselves with stimulation.

If you’ve ever been without your phone for a day or two, you know that withdrawals are a real thing as well. Not the physical kind like a drug-addict might feel, but the “I need to know something, let me reach for my phone” and the frustration of not having it. That we rely on them for so much of our daily functions is issue enough.

Try being mindful of when you’re on your phone, and if what you’re doing on it is really adding value to your life or if it’s just a convenient distraction.

Talk to Strangers

 

I’ve come to realize that one of the best things you can do to start adding value to your life is to start striking up more conversations with strangers that you come across in everyday life.

The benefits are numerous. The hurdle most people face in doing this is approach anxiety. Starting conversations with strangers is scary. We don’t know how they will react, or what they might think of us. The risk is too great.

The first benefit you get from this is realizing that there is little risk, and their impression and reaction to you doesn’t matter much after all. Worst case scenario, they have no interest and kill the conversation, and you’re no worse off than you started out with. Best case scenario, you have a fun chat with someone while you wait in the check-out line (you’re both there, you have something in common) or you make a new worthwhile connection.

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Whatever you’re looking for, be it new friends, new employment opportunities, or romance, talking to more people is how you find them, and you never know which stranger will hold the key to finding them. The only way is to start talking to them.

It makes you less cynical. It’s easy to get wrapped up in all the news about the bad things that people are doing that you can forget that most people are decent, kind people that have a story to tell.

It helps you become a better conversationalist, which is useful in every facet of life.

In short, talking to more strangers can bring so much into your life at little risk because even failed attempts will help you become more confident in approaching people and improving your articulation. At best though, you add a new relationship to your life that you didn’t have before and our relationships are such a big part of our identity and impact.

Frameworks Matter

 

The frame of mind that you’re in has a huge effect on your interpretation of an experience or your approach to a problem.

The most obvious example is expectations.  The answer to how “good” or “bad” an experience was is often answered by a different question which is “Was that better or worse than I expected?” Even objectively fun things such as a rollercoaster can seem boring if you built up expectations by waiting in line for 3 hours.

It’s a fact of human life that looking forward to something and imagining the happiness it will bring us is part of our psyche.  The anticipation can be more enjoyable than the actual experience, it keeps us going.

It sounds depressing, but a good way to enjoy more life experiences is to resist the urge to fantasize ahead and lower your expectations about them.  That way, you’ll almost always be satisfied with the outcome, whatever it may be.   How you imagine something in your head is almost never how it works out in real life.  So stop trying and do your best to enjoy things in the moment. I think you’ll find that it makes you happier in the long run.

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Another framework that I’ve found to impact my thinking is the scale at which I view myself and others.  Whenever I get especially existential, I start thinking really big picture, putting myself on the scale of the cosmos, which can get depressing.  Likewise, there’s a lot of the time where I’m thinking of myself only in terms of myself, small picture.  What do I feel, what do I want, what am I doing?  This can also make me feel isolated and unimportant.

Instead, if I pick something in between, something like a neighborhood-level view, instead of galactic or cellular level view, the meaning is there.  I matter to myself and the people around me, as much as they matter to me and it’s happening here and now.  The fact that the universe is a cold, unfeeling void does not come into this equation, I’m not viewing things at that level.

So, take time to think not just about what you’re thinking, but how you’re thinking about it, it can make all of the difference.

 


There they are, my big takeaways from the past ~15 months.  I hope I articulated them well and that you can learn from me instead of the hard way.  Feedback always appreciated. 😄 – TS 

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The Russian Reaction

The Russian state participated in destabilizing our democracy by widening political divides and trying to influence the outcome of the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump
 
This much is true.  It has been confirmed by various intelligence agencies, the recent Mueller investigation, and even by Russian trolls themselves. Whether there was outright collusion with the Trump campaign is beside the point.  
 
[I want to reinforce this, as this is what a lot of people are focussing on as a way to justify a Trump impeachment.  For the purposes of this post, I am writing about the fact that Russia is trying to poison our politics, not any possible collusion with the Trump campaign in doing so]
 
The reaction to this reality has been incredibly disheartening.  For me, it proves that we are so deep into political tribalism that there’s almost nothing that can fix it. 
 

Here’s what the reaction by both parties should have been when we learned about what happened: 

 
Republicans and Democrats agree that while they are political foes, they are Americans first and the integrity of our democracy supersedes any and all political ambitions they have
 
Indeed, by recognizing that Russia is one of our few serious adversaries in global politics, the parties are brought closer via a common enemy and seek out and squash their influence where found
 
Finally, by acknowledging that a country that wants to weaken us strategically supporting Trump, rational adults in the US agree that no one should vote for this man lest they get their wish
 

Of course, here is what really happened: 

 
Denial.  The Trump camp, and then, in turn, large portions of the GOP deny that there was foreign meddling in our democracy which was trying to help one candidate look good, and a certain other look bad.  Indeed, Trump has even tried to claim that it was Hillary that was colluding with the Russians. 
 
Acceptance and deflection.  Suggestions that we should move on, that it didn’t make that much of a difference, or that we should be focussing on different matters.
 
Encouragement.  In two forms.  One, Trump literally asking the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails.  Two, refusing to punish the Russians with new sanctions.  More on this later. 
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There’s only one thing that can allow for this disconnect between what could’ve happened in a more reasonable world, and what actually happened. That is the intense political tribalism we find ourselves in.  
 
Note that I don’t say political polarization, which is different.  You can still be partisan while still being loyal to certain beliefs and institutions.  These are the people who consider themselves conservatives, but also Never-Trumpers.  
 
Polarization has been a well-documented trend in American politics for the past 10-15 years.  The return to pure tribalism is an emerging story from the past 3-5 years. Think Brexit, the rise of far-right groups in Poland, Germany, France, and here in the US.  
 
How else could a centuries-old political party shrug when faced with evidence that they and their supporters were duped by an enemy?  Because their guy won.  Except, he’s not actually their guy.  He railed against them on the campaign trail and they fought back, at least initially.  Finally, the idea of Trump became palatable because anyone with an R next to their name is better than one with a D.  Tribalism.  
 
The worst part is, this is exactly the kind of thing that Russia is trying to exacerbate in our society.  They saw the gaps start to appear, and drove a wedge straight into it, just helping it along. 

There is a thread that connects almost all Trump supporters, and it’s the sense that they’re losing at the expense of someone else
 
Industrial workers who have lost jobs overseas. Workers who have lost jobs to immigrants. Towns who have lost economic opportunity to larger cities. Maybe most importantly, those who see their traditional view of American life being lost to new forces they can neither control or understand
 
Tribalism is the default mode for humanity. We evolved to desire to belong to a group, and then both strengthening it from within as well as defending it from without to ensure it’s survival as well as our own. Civilization, a relatively recent human invention, was our escape from this brutish lifestyle. With a focus on cooperation and individuality. Benign representations of tribes such as sports and music replaced the malignant fighting between religious and social groups. (Of course, this has always existed, but nothing like it used to) 
 
It would appear that we weren’t able to fully escape it. 
 
There are few better ways to spring somebody into action and to shut off the more rational parts of their brain in favor of more emotional ones than to convince them that their tribe is under existential threat by another, especially when they’re doing so in immoral or unjust ways.  
 
This is a great recipe for activating our monkey brains, and the Russians have been experts at exploiting it.  The most frequently and heavily shared posts online are the ones that trigger some sort of outrage, and the pattern of Russian manufactured social media behavior mirrors this.  
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“Democrats are coming to take your way of life from you!”

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A sampling of the tweets from confirmed Russian-operated account, @TEN_GOP

The internet is the perfect ecosystem for this.

Most online interaction happens inside echo-chambers because users choose who they see content from.  Therefore, not only do they see often favorable sides to the story, they rarely encounter good arguments/reactions against it. 
 
Frivolous sources go unchecked due to the nature of the internet, that is: low-barriers to entry mean that there are now hundreds of content producers and news sources.  Which ones are legitimate?  Who knows, and who has time to investigate each one on their own?  
 
The short-attention-span nature of the internet means we don’t spend time investigating sources and favors easily digestible content such as tweets and memes over more serious content
 
To make matters worse, we often use a popularity heuristic when evaluating the quality of information online.  Without spending the time or effort to evaluate the poster or the information, we often look to how many shares/likes/retweets/comments it has to help us decide.  Problem is, it’s easy to instruct thousands of bots to engage with content to skew these numbers.   The Russians know this and use it to influence us.
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This won’t stop

 
Depressingly, this won’t stop anytime soon. Why would they?  For one, it’s working, and without much effort.  The math of this is obvious for them. Spend a few million dollars paying trolls and purchasing targeted ads and in return, your greatest geopolitical opponent is destroying itself from within.  
 
They also have little to lose.  What is at stake for them in this gambit?  They already have the reputation of being a bad-faith actor, and for destabilizing countries when it favors them (see Ukraine).  Even getting “caught” doesn’t change much because the damage is already done, and this explosive news adds fuel to the fire.  
 
Perhaps the only thing that could stop them would be harsh retaliation in the form of sanctions that personally impacts Putin and his network of plutocrats.  Of course, this was on the table until Trump vetoed the sanctions bill passed by Congress.  Oops. 
 
Tech companies have also been reluctant to take strong measures to prevent further electioneering.  After all, their business models are based on user numbers – so they won’t prevent anyone from making multiple accounts, or using bots. It’s also based on ad revenue – so there’s little incentive to look into or block purchases. 
We can expect more of the same in the leadup to the 2018 midterms.
 

What can we do? 

 
So, what do we do about this?  Is there anything we can do?  
 
For one, the best way to counteract psyops is to expose the tactics being used and make people aware of how they work. Like a magic trick, it’s a lot easier to identify where you’re being deceived if you see how it works just once.  Educating people about their “troll tactics” can go a long way towards eliminating their effectiveness
 
Second, is that the tech companies that are responsible for how so many of us share and process information need to admit guilt and begin to take much stronger measures towards ensuring the veracity of the information being shared and the users who are sharing it.  
 
Third, is to take steps to ensure our electoral integrity.  The currently proposed Honest Ads Act which will help with transparency in digital political advertising.  Ensuring that our voting machines are well protected against cyber attacks.  Identifying content and talking points generated from troll accounts to stop it at its source.
 
What about tribalism in general? That is a much bigger question that is outside the scope of this post, but I think it begins with empathy, rekindling a sense of shared American identity, and a genuine attempt to understand the arguments of the other.
In summary, what we have is an enemy sabotaging our country, a President who refuses to hold them accountable because he benefits from it (intentionally or not), and a party who won’t hold him accountable for this act.
It’s this win-at-all-costs mentality that signifies to me that we’ve reached a quite unhealthy level of political tribalism in our country. The breakdown of norms around gamesmanship has turned the competition between parties into a race-to-the-bottom brawl, something that benefits no one.

 

I wish the reaction by all actors; voters, politicians, the media, etc was a brief moment of unity – which is usually the only benefit that comes from conflict. Instead, it was a sad reflection of our current cultural climate – broken.
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For Trump – It’s Good to be Bad

Does it ever feel like major events in Trump-world happen too often, too fast for us to properly digest?  I know I feel like this, and I know I’m not the only one.  In January alone, there have been numerous, bombshell stories.  
It’s hard to keep track: 
 
  • Trump tells Kim Jon Un via Twitter that he has a “much bigger” nuclear button.
  • The President’s physical exam happens among “very stable genius” discussions.
  • The release of “Fire and Fury” – the book detailing a tumultuous White House.
  • The fallout from the book includes former campaign and White House strategist Steve Bannon striking out against Trump and Trump striking back.
  • Trump calls African nations (and Haiti) “Shitholes”
  • The government shuts down for about 3 days.
  • Reports that Trump had an affair with porn star Stormy Daniels while married to Melania.
  •  Reports that Trump tried to fire special counsel director Mueller about two weeks into his job, further suggesting obstruction of justice.

 

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There’s more I’m missing I’m sure, but the fact that this took place in one month, about 8% of Trump’s presidency, is astounding.  There are three problems with so much happening so fast.  
 

1 – Opportunity Cost

There’s only so much bandwidth that both news networks and more importantly, the consumers, have to absorb all this In addition to the demands of our lives, it’s difficult to stay both up-to-date and well-informed on the current state of our politics.  Much less be able to develop an opinion, or do something meaningful about it.
You may have heard about these stories, but if you’re like me you haven’t seen for much longer than a week, and aren’t sure what the meaning was.  
 

2 – Shifting Norms

As that as this chaos goes on, it increasingly becomes the norm and elicits less reaction from us.  There are a couple terms that help explain this, outrage fatigue and the Overton Window.   
 
Outrage fatigue is what it sounds like.  Even though each of these stories is in their own right, outrageous and outside of what we expect from a President, it is difficult to maintain focus on each, especially when there is something else noteworthy every few days.  When you divide everyone’s focus, each bold action gets a little easier to take without the blowback.   
 
A dangerous side-effect of this is that with each instance of disagreement or warning for why any one of these things is bad, it can weaken the impact of each one.  It becomes a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” situation where warnings become diluted or ignored. 
 
This is often the reaction that Trump fans give to pushback from liberals.  “Typical liberal outrage, they get worked up over everything.”  “They *always* say that Trump is racist/sexist/dictatorial/stupid, get a new line” and so forth.  Trump never stopped talking about Hilary’s emails, or health, and it was constantly covered throughout the election.  What criticism about Trump should we focus on? That’s a question that takes enough energy to answer on its own.  It also doesn’t help that many of these steps by Trump are in-part designed to energize his base.  
 
In short, it becomes increasingly difficult to generate effective opposition to Trump in the public discourse.  
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Protests – Effective but difficult to maintain

 
The Overton Window is a political science term for what is acceptable in public discourse, which shifts over time. For example, gay marriage was an unrealistic policy even as early as the 1970s, yet now it’s legal nationwide.  This became increasingly acceptable over time.  Now Trump is doing the same but with his alt-right (read: far right) talking points.  Banning an entire religion from entering the country is something that is currently not within the window, but it has now shifted to make lighter bans more palatable.  
 
It’s a negotiating tactic, one that Trump is surely familiar with as a “deal maker”.  If you want something, it’s wise not to ask explicitly for that very thing, but to ask for something more.  So that when you inevitably bargain down, you get what you wanted, and the other party feels like they got a good deal (the ethics of this is a different story).  Maybe we’ll never actually get a 6,000-mile border wall, but now we have to compromise for something that would’ve been unthinkable a few years ago.  
 
It’s also driving our standards down – we’re now happy just to see Trump give a speech where he sounds coherent, calm, and rational when he’s representing the country.  What should, in reality, be the bare minimum.  
 
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3 – Distraction

There’s another part to this, that Trump’s attention-seeking personality consumes so much of our focus – because how could it not? – distracts us from some of the bigger picture. 
 
Despite his wishes, President is not an all-powerful position, it requires cooperation with other branches of government.  After initial resistance, most Republicans are now happy to empower, or simply ignore the President. It’s important to remember that it wasn’t too long ago that the entire Republican establishment resisted Trump.  Fox News, the RNC, Politicians, all eventually came to support and enable him even though they know the dangers of doing so.  
 
I think this revolution in one of our two political parties is the larger story than any of Trump’s individual actions.  It is hard to take the long-term view of things when there is so much that draws our attention in the present.  
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Little pushback from Congress, thus far

 


To be clear, I don’t think he’s doing this on purpose, mostly because I don’t believe he can hold any idea in his head for more than a few minutes.  You often hear pundits explaining some of his behavior, “this tweet was to ‘distract’ the media/voters from what’s going on in Congress”, or likewise.  It’s more that Trump’s cabinet, advisors, and various executive staff have realized that there is no changing or much restraining Trump.  All parties are content to let this continue because they benefit from it. 
 
  • Trump continues to receive the attention he craves and doesn’t have to constrain himself, which he hates
  • As the fiascos add up, each one is added to the pile and it becomes difficult to focus on any single one, which makes life easier for his staff – who might get fired if they resist. As expectations are lowered lower, it becomes easier to manage the President and the media
  • Establishment Republicans find it easier to pass legislation they’ve been eager to for decades.  They don’t step on the President’s toes, so he signs what they give him, and more conservative legislation is becoming more palatable by comparison to Trump’s ideas.  
  • The Republican donor class benefits as the tax cuts, deregulations, and tariffs are passed in their favor.  
  • Thus, everyone involved stomachs Trumps horrible behaviors and decision making, because it’s working well enough and it’s becoming self-sustaining.  

 

 

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The Koch Brothers – content to let Trump do his thing

 

 
It seems counterintuitive.  I know some people watch this happen with a sense of schadenfreude.  They’re happy to watch Trump do what appears to be shooting himself in the foot by creating difficult situations for himself, and the party as a whole.  However, I see this happening and I can’t help but feel like it a new system has been created where the people or institutions that could corral him are realizing it might not be in their best interest to do so. The problem is, it’s not in the national interest.
 
Which is why for Trump, and everyone behind him, it’s good for him to be bad – they can do it and still accomplish most of their goals. Which is bad for us.
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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.

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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.
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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.

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