Wise as serpents, innocent as doves, resilient as water bears

Recently read an interesting piece in The Atlantic and came across an excerpt that, to me, was one of the more striking things Obama has said (if he did, in fact, say it):

In private encounters with other world leaders, Obama has argued that there will be no comprehensive solution to Islamist terrorism until Islam reconciles itself to modernity and undergoes some of the reforms that have changed Christianity.

Now, having heard many opinions on this very same topic, given my background and experiences, I can relate that some would argue that Islam, being a Christian sect of sorts in some views, will never cease being prone to exploitation by militaristic, fringe elements, simply because it is a sect that is irrevocably shaped by its own history and explicit association with military conquest. Much like some versions of Communism, so this argument goes, Islam can only succeed via expansion, typically military.

Being neither a theologian nor a deeply learned historian, I can offer the highest cultural and scientific achievements of primarily Islamic states – e.g. the Golden Age centered in Andalusia – as a counterpoint to that view. Others would go further, and argue that primarily Islamic countries could be no different than, say, Protestant England, and consequently could overcome tribal divisions and end the sectarian warfare, eventually, that characterized England prior to unity as Great Britain.

Frankly, in my never-ending quest to please no one, I think both arguments have good points, but I have to admit that, much like the Obama depicted throughout that Atlantic piece, I lean toward the realistic approach that in the end, countries afflicted with such tribal divisions and resulting sectarian violence will have to, by and large, sort it out themselves.

The role of America is not to bring peace, necessarily, unless atrocities on a large enough scale are occurring, but help foster the conditions for peace to flourish. Additional violence is unlikely to bring that about. But that view must be tempered by the fact that self-defense begins not at home, but abroad. Obama is accordingly employing drone strikes, which I am still deeply ambivalent about. I am a Catholic, after all, and one of the clearest commandments is about killing. Such unilateral actions as drone strikes really seem to me to stretch the boundaries of what can be constituted as legitimate self-defense. The sad truth is that drone strikes are an improvement over, say, sending in American troops or even an assassin. And an even sadder truth is that it’s simply not feasible to extract people determined to foment terrorism and imprison them somewhere, as opposed to simply offing them.

But continually questioning whether or not drones should be used is what is crucial. It goes hand in hand with the only way to prevent processes and strategies from falling into ruins – continual tinkering, updating, refreshing and critically examining what is working, what hasn’t, and what can be improved. American foreign policy all too often swings like a pendulum, as the article illustrates, and even if we are in a period of retrenchment right now, especially when we consider Donald Trump’s isolationist, xenophobic rhetoric, we must not abandon being open to helping other nations and groups within nations.

As stated in the article, exertion of military power is actually a sign of weakness. The essence of power is to be able to get what you want without having to strive for it, after all. I agree with a greater focus on Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia, as Obama calls for in the article, particularly as economic alliances, shrewd investment and fostering of relations (e.g. increased student visa allotments, tax breaks for multinationals investing in infrastructure, etc.) are precisely the kind of soft power that Americans don’t necessarily seem to focus on nearly as much.

Fear is dominating headlines because, well, that’s what we’re hardwired to respond to by evolution. Accordingly, we focus on military action to the detriment of adopting more dovish policies whenever possible. Don’t get me wrong, I do think it is necessary for the U.S. to have the most powerful military in the world simply because it’s the world’s best bet for peace (unless someone like Trump gets elected), but the hyperfocus on where and when to conduct military actions and/or the agonizing over our current, long-running wars is damaging as it skews perspectives.

By nature, being an irrepressible optimist, even if deeply pragmatic, colors my outlook. But, as I’ve seen in the course of my travels and reading, my counterparts abroad have wondered where, exactly, ordinary Americans seemed to lose the sense of optimism and resilience that characterized us in both our own national narratives and our depictions abroad. Was it 9/11? Or was it the ensuing decade of neverending warfare and a brutal economic crash? Probably both, but if any one people in the world can and should reclaim that sense of ourselves, it’s Americans. It is difficult, in the face of increasing income inequality, and a growing sense of helplessness, particularly as fringe veins of rage and racism rear their ugly heads again this election cycle, but it is imperative that we do so.

Being the leader of the free world isn’t just about what elected officials in D.C. do. In an increasingly hyperconnected world, it’s about what we, as individuals, can do. It’s about engaging even on a personal level, or a local level, much like James Fallows shows in another Atlantic piece. It’s tough, and I, for one, am all too often about finally finishing the latest House of Cards season, instead. But simply participating in local elections, or seeking to stay informed in civic discourse, being unafraid to debate in a courteous fashion, is all crucial, particularly as Americans. The best of the ideals this nation was founded on are comprised of those key notions, after all.


Striving for Diversity in a Polarized World

Many others have already expounded on the potential dangers of a Trump presidency. Louis C.K.’s is one of my favorites. Others, like Robert Reich, have also written on what the campaigns of both Trump and Sanders portend for the “establishment”. In short, most of what I would say on those two topics has already been said, but they lead me in a roundabout fashion to, once again, the subtle, insidious curse of modern media consumption and centralization, which is directly contributing to the political polarization which has helped produce both Sanders and Trump.

The funny thing about the nigh-unlimited array of content anyone with an Internet connection can now consume is that it’s 1) very limited in ownership and 2) very likely to produce choice paralysis, a peculiar kind of pain.

To address the first point, it’s common for many to decry how few corporations control so many media outlets, and they have a fair point, in that if those who own such companies could agree on subtly altering people’s perceptions of issues, they could very well exert a huge influence on what you or I think. (Maybe this is happening – I’d argue in some ways it is.) I wouldn’t go so far as to cry Big Brother just yet, as instead these companies simply wish to attract more attention leading to advertising revenue, hence the sensationalism or easily palatable content that dominates nearly the entire web paired with ever-more clever algorithms that track every online path you take and try to present you with what you would like the best, based on your search and/or purchase history.

(Quick aside: it needn’t be all sensationalist content, of course, as, say, the Financial Times is just as likely to send ads your way about behavioral science seminars if you’ve shown an interest in longer, more rigorous pieces. But even if slightly more middle or high-brow, what they want to sell is narrative, not necessarily fringe, so there is an unconscious impetus for the messiness of reality to be smoothed over, which, when exacerbated, can turn into something as bad as the media cycles in presidential election years, which gloss over far too many truths and peddle half-lies to serve things that cohere with what you already believe…avoiding antagonizing you much. Okay, maybe not that quick an aside after all.)

The problem is that when you take that barrage of attention-courting content, you get choice paralysis, which people naturally sort by gravitating toward either what their friends like (as many people now consume content through their social media feeds) or by finding what’s most comfortable. Discomfort is pain, after all. Why endlessly scroll through a feed dominated by opinions you find distasteful, confusing, hard to understand or unfunny?

Well, the unfortunate reality is that doing that at least part of the time is the only way I know how to prevent personal polarization of the sort that’s helping create the political environment of today. I don’t like to read anything that is pro-Trump, but in order to even begin to understand where his supporters are coming from, I have to delve into not only his speech transcripts but also his supporters’ Twitter feeds. Many do not approve of my positions on drug decriminalization or abortion, but if they want to see where I am coming from, they will have to dialogue with me.

A diverse diet is crucial to bodily health; a diverse diet of content is essential for mental balance as well. Seclusion within, say, my circles of Catholic, somewhat socially liberal, somewhat fiscally conservative friends would make my life easy and mental stress (from defending my opinions) negligible. But how does someone like Trump even get to where he has gotten? A lack of honest dialogue between opposing camps that hesitate to venture outside the comfort of their own circles, where rural blue-collar workers feel increasingly disenfranchised and traduced by coastal elites who sneer at their religious beliefs and social customs, or, in turn, where tight-knit societies maintain prejudices for decades, relating immigration to their own economic circumstances.

This really isn’t anything new. We aren’t different from our forefathers, who ran political campaigns in the early 1800s that were as vicious, maybe even crude, as anything we see today. We have different prejudices drawing from different fears, perhaps, but otherwise, we simply have the ability to cultivate exactly what we see and hear to an extraordinary degree, and too often take it.

I do that all the time, just scanning my curated Twitter feed rather than seeking to challenge myself. When I’m being somewhat better, I read The Atlantic, New York Times, Salon, National Review, Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, Economist, Financial Times, Reason, Al Jazeera and a few others throughout the week. What’s even better is when I don’t pay as much attention to daily or even weekly news, but rather go back to books. The sheer volume of daily content is exhausting to try to keep up with, and, moreover, perverts your focus away from more accurate forecasting of longer-term trends. Sometime’s it’s good to take a step back, and see how much the daily dribble of news has shifted your long-term focus, and what your long-term beliefs have been…that’s another insidious facet of polarization nowadays, as you don’t notice how much your opinions change when they shift only every little bit.

It’s not much, but it’s a start.

A final note: One interesting side-effect produced by polarization is that either you withdraw into tighter and tighter circles, if you like to air your opinions vehemently, or you suppress to some extent, if you still wish to engage with wider circles (there are other options, of course, but those seem to be the main ones I see). Potentially, the latter can lead to the type of explosion that we are seeing evidenced in, say, Trump and Sanders. The latter seem more vocal, at least in the circles I frequent, given that I live in Seattle. But I’m willing to bet there are quite a few people I know who may never admit it, but who are somewhat rooting for Trump. They don’t feel comfortable doing so in any of their circles – an odd aftereffect of social media’s promotion of a lack of diversity as it offers many avenues for exposure, for people to pounce on “the other” and, unwittingly, succumb to the same types of nativist fear that they may well decry in those who denounce immigrants.

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