Category Archives: Comment

When policy trumps science

The world becomes an even more dangerous place

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One of the most unexpected political developments in recent months has been the political awakening of scientists in the United States.

A normally reticent group (at least when it comes to politics), scientists are speaking out, organizing a major march and planning to run for public office. There is a growing sense that the danger posed by the Trump administration to evidence-based policy, and perhaps science itself, is unprecedented. I share this concern. The Trump administration’s actions and rhetoric appear to signal an acceleration of Republican skepticism toward scientific research carried out in the public interest.

This said, what is keeping political scientists, particularly those like me who study political psychology, up at night is not the Trump administration’s ideologically driven science bias. Rather, it is the fact that Trump himself exhibits an authoritarian style of motivated reasoning that appears to be intended (consciously or not) to consolidate his power.

This combination – institutional challenges to the scientific integrity of government employees and Trump’s willingness to disregard evidence on a variety of matters – has broad and ominous implications beyond how science informs national policies.

Science as political target

Politically motivated skepticism of science is certainly not new. As I have argued elsewhere, science is consistently a political target precisely because of its political power.

Science has “epistemic authority,” meaning it is the best method humans have available to understand what is true about the world. For this reason, policy decisions are expected to be based in large part on scientific conclusions. And as the size and scope of the federal government has increased, so has the use of scientific research in government decision-making, making it an even bigger target.

Scott Pruitt, a skeptic of well-established climate science and ally of the fossil fuel industry, will head the EPA, an agency charged with protecting the environment and health. gageskidmore/flickr, CC BY-SA

A number of actions taken so far by the Trump administration seem to portend hostility to government-sponsored science and science-backed policy. Many were alarmed by orders during the administration’s first week in office that government agencies cease all communications with the public.

But likely more indicative of the administration’s attitude toward government-sponsored research are Trump’s nominees to head Cabinet-level agencies. These individuals have less relevant expertise than previous administrations, and Trump’s Cabinet is the first in recent memory to include no one with a Ph.D. The nominee to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has questioned well-accepted climate science and worked closely with energy companies to undermine the agency he is to head.

In addition, Trump’s choice for OMB director, Mick Mulvaney, has taken a similar tack with respect to government-sponsored science aimed at protecting the public’s health. The two scientists said to be under consideration for science advisor both happen to be far outside the mainstream on climate science (neither is a climate scientist).

‘Bending’ science for political reasons

It is important to recognize that scientific evidence is not the only legitimate consideration underlying a policy decision. There may be larger ideological commitments at stake or constituents to please or (less justifiably) more strategic political considerations.

The problem for science and evidence-based policy comes when politicians and other political actors decide to discredit the science on which a conclusion is based or bend the science to support their policy position. Call it “policy-based evidence” as opposed to “evidence-based policy.”

John Marburger was science advisor to George W. Bush, whose administration was criticized for manipulating how science was used in policy decisions. Brookhaven National Laboratory

Such bending of science comes in a variety of forms: cherry-picking studies and experts that support your perspective; harassing government-sponsored scientists – via cuts in funding or investigations – whose conclusions weigh against policies you prefer; forcing government scientists to change the language of reports for political reasons.

Science bias in and of itself is not conservative or liberal, and one can find it on both sides of the political spectrum. However, if we are to avoid false equivalence, we must admit that most of the anti-science bias coming from politicians in recent decades has been from the Republican Party. This bias has been documented extensively. (One can also check out the two parties’ 2016 party platforms.)

There is a straightforward reason for this partisan difference: Much contemporary government-sponsored research is in service of a growing regulatory state. Republicans tend to oppose federal government regulation because of their longstanding representation of business interests and commitment to states’ rights. In recent decades, the Republican Party also has become the political home to religious conservatives, many of whom distrust science because it challenges biblical authority, particularly with respect to evolution.

The George W. Bush administration was arguably the heyday for ideologically driven interference in government-produced science, something well-documented in two reports by the Union of Concerned Scientists. In response to this, the Obama administration put in place various institutional safeguards to protect the integrity of science, and Congress strengthened its protection of federal whistleblowers.

But Trump’s rhetoric and actions – both before and after assuming the presidency – seem to foreshadow a return to Bush-era tactics. Trump’s Cabinet choices exhibit an unusual fixation on deregulation, particularly in the arena of energy and the environment. And both Trump and his powerful vice president have a history of making statements that are ignorant and mistrustful of science.

Danger in the rhetoric

Unfortunately, there is reason to suspect that Trump’s disdain for scientific research is not only driven by political ideology and the interests he represents. Trump clearly chafes against anyone or anything that challenges his power, including empirical reality.

Trump’s constant efforts to aggrandize himself are plain to see. In the past, Donald Trump lied about everything from the size of his home to his donations to charity. In service of whipping up a crowd, Trump has been willing to scapegoat entire minority groups and falsely question a president’s citizenship.

So far, President Trump has focused mainly on crowd sizespoll numbers and the merits of comedians’ performances. Many Americans are tempted to not take these distortions of seemingly trivial topics seriously. But this is authoritarian rhetoric.

As with all presidents, Trump will eventually face data that reflect poorly on some aspects of his job performance: for example, pollution levels, disease rates, disappointing jobs figures, etc. He has been so consistent in his dissembling to protect his reputation that it would be surprising if this behavior did not continue in the face of more serious threats. Scholars are already speculating that Trump may employ Nixonian efforts to doctor official government statistics or discourage critical scholarly study of society under his administration by eliminating NSF social and economic science funding.

Between his executive power and the power of the bully pulpit, President Trump has considerable ability to harm the scientific enterprise and quite possibly democratic institutions as well. This is a time, in my view, for scientists, and experts more generally, to mobilize. As Jack Goldsmith of Harvard Law School argues, experts play a critical role at moments like this as a “synopticon” – a large collective closely monitoring the actions of our political leaders. §

 is Assistant Professor of Government, American University. This article is reposted by permission of The Conversation.

Class warfare in Trump’s America

Boycott all political cable TV news programs

by Dell Franklin

I’m guilty of a two-decade addiction to cable TV political programs, never missing Hardball with Chris Matthews on MSNBC at 4 in the afternoon. I adjusted my day to watch Chris and felt he was an indispensable fixture of my daily agenda, especially when he came around to my views on the mindless butchery and stupidity of George W. Bush’s and despicable Dick Cheney’s bogus wars in Afghanistan and especially in Iraq, and the lies and propaganda that led up to Iraq. I even managed to tolerate Chris’s propensity to drown out his guests with long-winded personal orations and rude interruptions.

But now I have turned on Chris, turned on him with a vengeance. Why? At this point I’m probably too enraged by the Trump election to really explain why, but we can start with Chris’s fawning treatment of a mean-spirited, lying, bile-infested hater named Rudy Giuliani, an opportunist and braggart to whose image Matthews repeatedly contributed as a sort of self-proclaimed savior of New York City after 9/ll, a bilious chest-beater he allowed to treat Hillary Clinton as a common criminal, a wind-bag so supercilious, high-minded and loathsome he wouldn’t last five minutes in a common man’s tavern without being beaten senseless.

Chris also began to draw my wrath by telling us all that former GOP pundit and final Donald Trump head campaign manager and current confidante Kellyanne Conway is a  close friend of his, and allowed her to precede or follow one Trump rally after another with nauseating spins and lies which he seemed to find amusing, so enamored was he of this cutesy-cutesy perpetually grinning Christ-crazed poisonous blonde asp.

Watching Chris led me to hanging with the rest of the geniuses on MSNBC, all partisans I agreed with, though after switching occasionally to CNN and Fox News and cackling at fascist punk Sean Hannity and bully/browbeater,blowhard Bill O’Reilly, I began to feel MSNBC was, at least 50 percent of the time, broken records blowing smoke and repeating the same old tired refrains and, finally, not worth listening to.

CNN is more of the same, though somewhat tempered, but still guilty of shilling for Trump rallies and allowing them to hog precious time because it was entertaining, brought in viewers, brought in sponsors, brought in millions in profits, and resulted in the election of a veritable monster and white collar criminal as president of the country.

The Sunday morning shows are full of the identical, if modulated lies and spins, the same old tired and jaded faces and voices, the politicians stabbing you in the back or cutting out your intestines while smiling with pencil-tip eyes, these tie-wearing so-called respectable and civilized crusaders who must fabricate or embellish to be heard, to make their points, to penetrate the doldrums of a benumbed incurious illiterate zombieland American electorate needing only to be entertained, its attention span so limited from technology and just plain apathy.

Even the fair-minded, sane, brilliant Fareed Zakaria on CNN, who makes more sense than the entire pack left and right, is dispatched, the bad going with the good, like clearing out a whorehouse and jailing the johns along with the hookers, like in the old days.

I have not watched a second of this garbage since November 8. My friend John Winthrop constantly emails me with reports observed on Fox News and MSNBC and CNN about Trump’s latest appointment or tweet, these snippets inflamed with his own brand of spleen and hatred at the events taking place in America, and I repeatedly urge him to quit watching this misery before his anger kills him (he’s already had a heart attack). And of late this concern with the disaster of our politics has so sapped his immune system he is down with a brutal flu that has him aching from bone to joint.

Another reason not to watch even the nightly news, much less these programs, is the odious and now ubiquitous presence of Trump himself. The sight and sound of him is so repulsive and infuriating and downright abhorrent it drains you of your vital juices, deprives you from pleasant thoughts and harmony with fellow man, grinds your guts and mind into a writhing ball of incoherent, corrosive rage. Hell, I want to get through the day, the week, the months without losing myself in a stew of disenchantment with humanity for allowing this mercenary crackpot to be the shameful representative of our nation.

Hell, I stayed mostly drunk throughout the Reagan Administration and was salvaged health-wise because I was younger and could deal with the punishment of one hangover after another, and I had a great time celebrating my nonstop escape from reality and missing Reagan’s good old boy Howdy Doody technicolor grin while he shafted the little guy.

But now I am in my early 70s and cannot allow myself to be pissed off or drunk the whole time by watching Chris Matthews or any other of these programs or personalities, simply because I need to have some semblance of peace of mind. I get enough information out of the LA Times to know what’s going on, and I read the New Yorker weekly, and Winthrop keeps me abreast of the latest catastrophe, but mainly, if I do not have to see these people, and hear these people, and especially Trump, it is out of sight and out of mind, at least temporarily, and I can salvage some peace of mind from the country I dwell in…while waiting for the massive sledge hammer to drop and blast us back into the tragic truths of our times. §

Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he can look out over the vast Pacific Ocean lapping at his doorstep and hope for better times. For more in his Class Warfare series, visit dellfranklin.com, where this article first appeared.

Supporting the arts

Why do conservatives want to eliminate government funding?

Photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe

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Recent reports indicate that Trump administration officials have circulated plans to defund the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), putting this agency on the chopping block – again.

Conservatives have sought to eliminate the NEA since the Reagan administration. In the past, arguments were limited to the content of specific state-sponsored works that were deemed offensive or immoral – an offshoot of the culture wars.

Now the cuts are largely driven by an ideology to shrink the federal government and decentralize power. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, argues that government should not use its “coercive power of taxation” to fund arts and humanities programs that are neither “necessary nor prudent.” The federal government, in other words, has no business supporting culture. Period.

But there are two major flaws in conservatives’ latest attack on the NEA: The aim to decentralize the government could end up dealing local communities a major blow, and it ignores the economic contribution of this tiny line item expense.

The relationship between government and the arts

Historically, the relationship between the state and culture is as fundamental as the idea of the state itself. The West, in particular, has witnessed an evolution from royal and religious patronage of the arts to a diverse range of arts funding that includes sales, private donors, foundations, corporations, endowments and the government.

Prior to the formation of the NEA in 1965, the federal government strategically funded cultural projects of national interest. For example, the Commerce Department subsidized the film industry in the 1920s and helped Walt Disney skirt bankruptcy during World War II. The same could be said for the broad range of New Deal economic relief programs, like the Public Works of Art Project and the Works Progress Administration, which employed artists and cultural workers. The CIA even joined in, funding Abstract Expressionist artists as a cultural counterweight to Soviet Realism during the Cold War.

The NEA came about during the Cold War. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy asserted the political and ideological importance of artists as critical thinkers, provocateurs and powerful contributors to the strength of a democratic society. His attitude was part of a broader bipartisan movement to form a national entity to promote American arts and culture at home and abroad. By 1965, President Johnson took up Kennedy’s legacy, signing the National Arts and Cultural Development Act of 1964 – which established the National Council on the Arts – and the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965, which established the NEA.

Since its inception, the NEA has weathered criticism from the left and right. The right generally argues state funding for culture shouldn’t be the government’s business, while some on the left have expressed concern about how the funding might come with constraints on creative freedoms. Despite complaints from both sides, the United States has never had a fully articulated, coherent national policy on culture, unless – as historian Michael Kammen suggests – deciding not to have one is, in fact, policy.

Flare-ups in the culture wars

Targeting of the NEA has had more to do with the kind of art the government funded than any discernible impact to the budget. The amount in question – roughly US$148 million – is a drop in the morass of a $3.9 trillion federal budget.

Instead, the arts were a focus of the culture wars that erupted in the 1980s, which often invoked legislative grandstanding for elimination of the NEA. Hot-button NEA-funded pieces included Andre Serrano’s “Immersion (Piss Christ)” (1987), Robert Mapplethorpe’s photo exhibit “The Perfect Moment” (1989) and the case of the “NEA Four,” which involved the rejection of NEA grant applicants by performance artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes.

In each case, conservative legislators isolated an artist’s work – connected to NEA funding – that was objectionable due to its sexual or controversial content, such as Serrano’s use of Christian iconography. These artists’ works, then, were used to stoke a public debate about normative values. Artists were the targets, but often museum staff and curators bore the brunt of these assaults. The NEA four were significant because the artists had grants unlawfully rejected based upon standards of decency that were eventually deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1998.

Demonstrators protest congressional opposition to an NEA-funded exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs in 1990. David Kohl/AP Photo

 As recently as 2011, former Congressmen John Boehner and Eric Cantor targeted the inclusion of David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly, A Work in Progress” (1986-87) in a Smithsonian exhibition to renew calls to eliminate the NEA.

In all these cases, the NEA had funded artists who either brought attention to the AIDS crisis (Wojnarowicz), invoked religious freedoms (Serrano) or explored feminist and LGBTQ issues (Mapplethorpe and the four performance artists). Controversial artists push the boundaries of what art does, not just what art is; in these cases, the artists were able to powerfully communicate social and political issues that elicited the particular ire of conservatives.

A local impact

But today, it’s not about the art itself. It’s about limiting the scope and size of the federal government. And that ideological push presents real threats to our economy and our communities.

Organizations like the Heritage Foundation fail to take into account that eliminating the NEA actually causes the collapse of a vast network of regionally controlled, state-level arts agencies and local councils. In other words, they won’t simply be defunding a centralized bureaucracy that dictates elite culture from the sequestered halls of Washington, D.C. The NEA is required by law to distribute 40 percent of its budget to arts agencies in all 50 states and six U.S. jurisdictions.

Many communities – such as Princeton, New Jersey, which could lose funding to local cultural institutions like the McCarter Theatre – are anxious about how threats to the NEA will affect their community.

Therein lies the misguided logic of the argument for defunding: It targets the NEA but in effect threatens funding for programs like the Creede Repertory Theatre – which serves rural and underserved communities in states like Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Oklahoma and Arizona – and Appalshop, a community radio station and media center that creates public art installations and multimedia tours in Jenkins, Kentucky to celebrate Appalachian cultural identity.

While the present administration and the conservative movement claim they’re simply trying to save taxpayer dollars, they also ignore the significant economic impacts of the arts. The Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that the arts and culture industry generated $704.8 billion of economic activity in 2013 and employed nearly five million people. For every dollar of NEA funding, there are seven dollars of funding from other private and public funds. Elimination of the agency endangers this economic vitality.

Ultimately, the Trump administration needs to decide whether artistic and cultural work is important to a thriving economy and democracy. §

 is Assistant Professor of Art Education, Pennsylvania State University. Knochel receives funding from the National Science Foundation. This article is reprinted by permission of The Conversation.

Can’t get past the DNC’s cynicism

Please tell me what have we learned as progressives?

by Sean Shealy

It has been six months since Democrats made the greatest political blunder in modern history. It was glaringly obvious: If you nominate this person, it was going to completely demoralize the activist base, give a MASSIVE shot of political adrenaline to the Republicans, and middle America would think, “Ick! Another career politician.”

This was the political equivalent of your teenage son riding his bike off the roof of your house. You ask, “What in God’s name were you thinking?”

I understand women wanting a female president. I share that goal. And it is certainly true that misogyny played a role in this election across the political spectrum, right, center, and left as well.

But I submit you this: If BILL Clinton had been eligible to run, and had been the nominee—Donald Trump would still be sitting in the White House today.

And millions of Democrats would have stood on Clinton’s ropeline, feverishly cheering him on, working diligently to defeat the progressive candidate.

Have we learned nothing from history?

Donald Trump doesn’t keep me awake at night.

THIS keeps me awake at night: At every turn, the Democratic establishment, and half of Democratic voters, have screwed and abandoned progressive activists.

They’re happy to have us, so long as we’re working to put the Democratic establishment back into power—but the second they get there, it is this:

  • Mass surveillance police state? But we HAVE to have that, to protect us from terrorists!
  • Well, we certainly need to keep bombing people all over the world, to keep the empire going.
  • Single-payer? That’s a pipe dream.
  • Free college? What is that, some kind of communism?
  • $15 an hour? Why, that’s not realistic! You’ll just have to raise a family on $12!

And on and on and on. Ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

THAT is what keeps me sitting on my hands right now, as an activist, at a time when we are needed most.

My view is that America is going to have to be so devastated, Americans so utterly destroyed and destitute and desperate, that they will finally be forced to look at baseline, bread-and-butter issues, because they have no other choice.

Where there is hope, they can equivocate; where there is hope, they can spend their time hating Mexicans, or gays. Where there is hope, they can vote for politicians who speak in platitudes, or from paranoia, making vague reassurances about jobs and upward mobility, or promising to bomb their nightmare fantasies away overseas.

Without hope? Different story. Without hope, they will ask:

  • Where is the bread coming from? I WANT SPECIFICS.
  • My child will never go to college. WE DEMAND EDUCATION!
  • My mother died, and my child, and my wife, from lack of healthcare. WE DEMAND UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE, NOW!

These may seem like bleak, dystopian doomsday visions to many middle-class Democratic voters.

But they are reality already for millions across this country, millions who have been left behind, abandoned, so hopeless that many of them turned to Donald Trump in hopes that he would just change something—ANYTHING.

Or, barring that, burn it all to the ground.

They’re dying for progressive change. STARVING for it.

Trump won, largely, on a progressive platform plank: getting out of these insane free-trade agreements. The same agreements pushed by Bill, and Hillary, and Barack Obama. The agreements that have made Wall Street so wealthy, while devastating American workers.

The myriad ways that the Democratic Party establishment has screwed us cannot be listed here. It would be a book.

But the math is pretty simple:

1) Wall Street owned the Republican Party.

2) Reagan destroyed the unions, the lifeblood of the Democratic Party.

3) The Democratic Party then turned to the banks, which were distinct from Wall Street, for contributions.

4) In exchange for the support of the banks, the Democratic Party, under Bill Clinton, agreed to break down the wall of separation between Wall Street and the banks.

5) The banks then became Wall Street.

6) Wall Street then controlled both parties.

The Bible says, “Man cannot serve both God and money.”

Likewise, a party cannot serve both Wall Street and the interests of social and economic justice—of THE PEOPLE.

The two interests conflict. Sharply. They OPPOSE.

Somebody, please: Tell me that a gigantic, blinding light, as hot as the sun, just exploded into your brain. Tell me that you get this. Tell me that I won’t work and sweat and bleed for another four years—for nothing.

Donald Trump’s way is the way of wealth, of oligarchy, of empire.

The Democratic establishment’s way is the way of wealth, of oligarchy, of empire.

Without a clear, complete progressive turn of the Democratic Party, wealth will have its way.

Please, someone, tell me that you have understood?

Otherwise, my activism is a waste of time.

I’d rather go to the beach. §

Sean Shealy is an activist and the author of Corruption & Cover-Ups of the Bush White House Unmasked and the novel Killing Limbaugh.

The Tyranny of

Donald Trump’s official presidential bio contains about a half-dozen attempts to convince someone—probably himself—that his win was a massive blowout and not a shameful, slight fluke only made possible by the intervention of a foreign government and a domestic conspiracy to get the FBI director to interfere in the democratic process during the final weeks, twice.

This sad overcompensation—like the emergency White House press briefing called Saturday night to lie about the size of of his inauguration crowd as the largest protests in U.S. history raged against the new president—isn’t an accident.

It’s an announcement: We will do what we want regardless of how many Americans are against us.

Since Trump lost the popular vote by the largest margin in a modern times, he’s done nothing to reach out to the majority of Americans who rejected him. His cabinet is made up entirely of doctrinaire, extremely right-wing Republicans, most of them filthy rich, nearly all white and male. His hostile inaugural address proclaimed a mandate for him to act as the voice of “the people,” though he’s the least popular president to take the office is the history of polling such things.

And things are only going to get worse.

With minority support and no interest in courting anything but that, Trump is about to enact a far right agenda unlike anything we’ve seen since the 1920s.

If Trump gets his way, we are likely to see the greatest transfer of wealth to the richest in human history, though the wealth inequality in America is already nearing levels that brought out the guillotines in 18th-century France.

This transfer of wealth is not just about giant tax breaks for the rich and their kids and their corporations and their kids’ corporations. It’s not just about a massive un-insuring of working Americans that will return us to the era of discrimination against the sick. And it’s not just about the erasure of regulations that will transfer the costs of pollution and financial risk back on to middle-class.

As Trump was about to take the oath of office, his team announced plans for $10.5 trillion in cuts based on a plan devised by the Heritage Foundation—a plan that includes huge cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Defense Department. This plan would violate some of Trump’s most notable campaign promises and likely send millions, if not tens of millions, of the 48 million Americans, including 12 million children, that the government keeps out of poverty into abject despair.

What mandate does the GOP have to unwind the insurance of 32 million and turn an income inequality crisis into an income inequality nightmare?

Yes, Republicans hold a majority of seats in the House, where they lost seats despite an electoral map that has been gerrymandered for their exclusive pleasure. Yes, they hold the Senate, where they also lost seats and their 52 representatives represent millions of fewer voters than the 48 Democrats. And then there is Trump, who got millions fewer votes than Clinton but won three key states by a margin smaller than 1 percent with share of the vote less than 50 percent.

The closest analogy in history to this is the 2000 election when George W. Bush made passing gestures at unity and ended up pursuing a nakedly partisan agenda that erased a surplus, lost two wars and revealed mass incompetence.

But even W. didn’t go after Planned Parenthood. And the millions he uninsured were just the side effect of the failure of his economic polices.

Posted with permission from The National Memo.

			

When facts don’t matter

Reality becomes a toxic mess

It’s hard enough to find agreement on simple things like what color the sky is, or the grass. Image: Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory,” 1931.

by Stacey Warde

Much of what we believe—whether online, in social media, politics, family gatherings, travels, among friends or sitting alone on the toilet—is colored by our own peculiar blindness.

Nothing is quite what it seems. We make up worlds of our own, hoping they will survive the onslaught of life and reality. We build castles in the sand and, in time, they all come crashing down on our heads.

The world is much different from what we imagine, or claim, or fight and argue over, through all of our personal filters and belief systems. The way the world is and the way we see it are not the same—definitely not when rigged by our religious, political or personal beliefs.

All that, of course, can lead to discord with others, especially those who do not share these beliefs.

It’s hard enough to find agreement on simple things like what color the sky is, or the grass. But, unless delusional, contrary, or hurt in some way, no one would claim the sky is brown, not a clear sky anyway. One might say the grass is brown but that, at least, is debatable.

You can believe whatever you want, and I can do likewise, but that doesn’t make any of it true, or move us closer to agreement, and definitely won’t help us accomplish much.

Finding common ground with others can be a challenge simply by virtue of the fact that we all see things differently. Still, we try to connect, build tribes and communities. To do so, we find healthy ways to talk, disagree and grapple with our common interests without diminishing or destroying one another.

We find common ground through observation and reflection and conversation. Common ground is the place where ideas and action take shape because we can agree on something, even if we don’t share the same beliefs. We don’t have to believe the same thing to agree on simple, observable facts and from those accomplish amazing things.

It takes a civil society, able to reason, to make good things happen, not one that stays blindly devoted to fanciful beliefs and false ideas, which in turn encourage malignant behaviors and purposes. A civil society doesn’t scuttle facts to suit selfish or greedy aims, nor does it distort truths to reflect a reality of one’s own making. A civil society fosters reasoned discourse. When facts don’t matter, reason quickly slips away from the discourse and society collapses into discord and rancor.

When facts don’t matter, we risk falling into the dangerous habit of turning reality into a slippery unmanageable mess, a hazardous wasteland, in which we ignore truth, blind to observable phenomena, creating chaos and leaving scars everywhere we go, crashing and burning, making fools of ourselves.

When facts don’t matter, we have nothing to discuss. What matters is who can be the most brutal and the most clever, promoting lies and propaganda, claiming exclusive rights and privileges, including the right to violate and harm others.

When facts don’t matter, only two possibilities arise, it’s your way or my way.

Facts don’t matter when we cling to shrouds of prejudice, ignorance, and damaged egos. These shrouds—filters against reality—keep us from seeing clearly, the faces of others become threatening, and we embark on a path of destruction.

We inherited these shrouds from well-meaning but ill-informed elders, or we developed them as defenses to protect ourselves against brutes, or they were cultural standards we embraced that proved in the end to do more harm than good.

We maintain these shrouds through a stubborn refusal to accept things as they are, by seeing the world in only one way, the Archie Bunker way. “This is the way the world is…” Never to let ourselves see through the eyes of another, choosing in fact to scorn, mock or obliterate that person or that person’s vision. Lastly, we join others who share these views, complete falsehoods, clinging precariously to fictions we hope will protect us from ideas and truths and people we don’t like.

If we are to live peaceably, however, we have to find ground upon which we can agree, ground we share in common. The most basic common ground would be facts, observable phenomena, that we agree upon, that make progress possible. Without facts, we’re more likely to impede progress by fighting over who’s right and who gets to dominate.

I know how hard this is, but also how easy, to hold back prejudices and beliefs, and take a moment to listen, to attend the pertinent information and stories that come to us, and seek the deeper, darker, loamy truths about life, and learn to confront our common difficulties in a dignified way, creating a common ground in which most, if not all, of us can thrive, the sole purpose of a worthy tribe.

I know how difficult it is to remove the filters of my own blindness. Just when I imagine that I’ve got things figured out, and think that I shall remove the final shroud to reveal the “uncorrupted truth” of all things personal, human, otherworldly or otherwise—the unfiltered core, finally!—a blight, a corruption of the mind, say, a bruised ego, a past hurt or slight, throws itself into the mix. The shadow emerges and, like a Dali painting, reality once again turns into a slippery gooey toxic thing in which I lose and risk destroying myself.

Even with the best intentions, I have to fight hard to keep a clear picture before me, to set my focus on what is actual and real rather than imagined or believed.

I cannot see the pure light or truth without the correspondence and cooperation of another. I’m as blind as you, and anything that I might say can be perceived as simple nonsense or bullshit—unless there’s some way to observe and confirm and verify. With your help only, will that become a possibility.

So do not believe me when I say that I speak for truth, or know something that you don’t, or pretend that my mind has reached the heights, and that you should come along and see things my way. But please do consider the facts. Let’s discuss and agree on those for a start, and not diminish or destroy life’s possibilities by believing in or embracing a lie.

Falsehoods, lies and treachery lead to death. Even our meagre grasp on tiny bits of truth fail to rescue us from our mortal end, tainted as they are with what is false and misleading.

“There is a way that seems right to a person but it’s end is death.” That’s true for all of us.

I’ve traveled many roads, thinking that I had chosen the best course, only to wind up lost in a pretzel of circling around and around, going nowhere but getting confused and frustrated and angry, making a fool of myself, injuring others, my life spinning furiously out of control. Fortunately, I’ve had friends, family and a tribe to bring me back.

Have you heard of “death by GPS”? That’s where you get stranded in the desert and die because you trusted your cellphone’s map application more than your common sense and ability to observe facts and make well-informed choices. Through a failure of technology and belief, you observe the wrong data, believe a lie, make a bad decision, and get lost and die. It happens, even when your intentions are good.

The most well-meaning, the earthiest and most righteous among us, are prone to lose their way and stumble, missing the path that leads to a better, more secure life, if such a thing is possible. We end up in deep shit as much as as in the golden beam of bliss, all the more reason to enlist the support of our tribe and community, even those whose beliefs do not match our own.

Fortunately, my tribe and community have kept me on course, challenging me to maintain a clear vision, to think correctly and reason from a place of wisdom and strength rather than from foolhardy and fantastical versions of reality based on my prejudices and blindness.

To thrive and advance, we need a tribe and a common ground, a landscape observable by all, out of which come shared ideas, stories and practices that move us forward, where facts matter and can make all the difference in whether we live or die. §

In Election 2016, the media taught Americans how to love a dictator

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet. For a majority of Americans, feeling traumatized and terrified are reasonable responses to the words “President-elect Donald Trump.” But even if his inauguration marks the demise of the star-spangled mythos we grew up on, being catatonic is no way to spend the next four years, especially if we’re lucky enough to… Continue reading