Dorothea Lange and the power of bearing witness

Dear Rebecca:

I’m guessing you’ve seen this photo before. It was taken by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression, and has come to represent much about that era:

 

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I saw this picture over the weekend at the Nelson-Atkins art museum in Kansas City, Mo. (It’s a terrific institution, by the way.) It was part of a broader exhibit highlighting the Depression-era work of Lange and other photographers, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott and Peter Sekaer.

It was stunning. It was, in fact, difficult emotional work. One of these photos is a powerful document. Dozens of them tell a story, immerse you, make it difficult to leave these lives in the past.

A couple of quick observations.

• Here’s another Lange photo from the era. My only thought: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

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Oh, how we hate poor people in this country.

• These pictures were taken all within the lifetimes of my grandparents. It’s both forever ago and just that close. The conditions that millions of Americans were living in — in makeshift shacks, built from mud or items rummaged from the trash, or simply not having enough to eat an being required to flee across the country in hopes they’d find some way to make a living — are those we associate, in modern America, with “third world countries or with pre-modern ways of living in our own. Truth is: What we think of us civilization — of a largely middle-class society, anyway — is both recent and fragile.

• This may be a weird response, but these photographs made me angrier yet about McCarthyism.

Let me explain.

If you were a person surviving the 1930s, bearing witness to what was going on around you — but not privy, at this point, to the destruction of Russian life under Stalin — it seems really easy me to see why a black person or a poor person in that era might’ve embraced, for a time, Communism. It makes all the sense in the world! To be judged for such conclusions by Cold Warriors — to lose or risk losing one’s livelihood in the 1950s because one got tired of all the poverty and oppression in the 1930s — is just … ugly.

• Finally, I’m reminded of the importance of bearing witness. To see what’s going on around you is difficult, sometimes. To document it — honestly and unflinchingly — is to increase the potential for a healthy response. God bless the people who do such work.

The “Dignity and Despair” exhibition runs through Nov. 26. Anybody in the Kansas City area between now and then would do well to see it for themselves.

Yours, Joel

Going low and crying wolf: How Harry Reid helped give us Donald Trump

Dear Rebecca:

You write: “Eventually, we’ll be left only with politicians willing to always do the worst. This isn’t leadership; it’s a fear-based strategy to get and keep power, which really only becomes about keeping others out of power.”

I’ve got a story to tell, one that’s out there on the public record, but one that hasn’t been much remarked upon.

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He lied. Did American democracy die?

It takes place during the Obama-Romney campaign of 2012. During the campaign, Mitt Romney was proving reluctant — as Donald Trump was, after him — to release some pertinent personal financial information. So Sen. Harry Reid, then the leader of Democrats in the Senate, decided to make a big deal about it.

Saying he had “no problem with somebody being really, really wealthy,” Reid sat up in his chair a bit before stirring the pot further. A month or so ago, he said, a person who had invested with Bain Capital called his office.

“Harry, he didn’t pay any taxes for 10 years,” Reid recounted the person as saying.

“He didn’t pay taxes for 10 years! Now, do I know that that’s true? Well, I’m not certain,” said Reid. “But obviously he can’t release those tax returns. How would it look?

I wrote at the time that “Reid’s allegations look and smell a lot like bullcrap.”

Why? Because there’s absolutely no reason to believe that Reid is telling the truth. He’s offered no witnesses and no proof of his claims, only a “somebody told me” statement that wouldn’t get within a million miles of passing muster in a court of law. And when challenged to present his evidence, his response is that Romney can prove Reid’s allegations wrong—by releasing his tax forms.

Politically clever? Yes. Distasteful? It absolutely should be.

It turned out I was right. Reid later admitted lying, but said he had no regrets: “Romney didn’t win, did he?”

Fast forward to the fall of 2016. Trump versus Clinton. Her emails have been hacked; Trump has asked the Russians to release them to the media. It’s all very suspicious. And Harry Reid, serving out his final days in the Senate, makes his move. He writes an angry letter to James Comey.

In my communications with you and other top officials in the national security community, it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government — a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States, which Trump praises at every opportunity. The public has a right to know this information. I wrote to you months ago calling for this information to be released to the public. There is no danger to American interests from releasing it. And yet, you continue to resist calls to inform the public of this critical information.

Here’s the thing: Reid was right! He was telling the truth! We found out later that Republicans had warned President Obama they’d accuse him of politicizing intelligence if he went public with this — and Obama, probably figuring Clinton would win anyway, decided to keep his mouth shut. Reid’s letter to Comey, when made public, represented one of the best possible chances to get this issue fixed firmly in the minds of the American voters.

Only … Reid’s accusation was treated like so much bullshit. Here’s the Washington Post:

Reid is saying that he has been told the FBI has evidence of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. And he’s not just saying this information came from mysterious and unnamed national security officials; he’s saying Comey himself has left him with this impression.

But there is no public evidence to support Reid’s claim of actual “coordination” between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. And were that to be the case, it would be a scandal of epic proportions.

Asked what evidence exists of such a connection, Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson cited classified briefings.

“There have been classified briefings on this topic,” Jentleson said. “That is all I can say.”

Asked whether the letter means Comey has shared such information directly with Reid, Jentleson said, “Refer you to the language in the letter.”

This is the political equivalent of Reid lighting a match, dropping it on a dry ground and walking away.

The Post then mentioned Reid’s false allegation against Romney. And it included this old quote from Reid:

Is there a line he wouldn’t cross when it comes to political warfare?

“I don’t know what that line would be,” [Reid] said.

It was, in retrospect, a missed opportunity.

In 2012, when Reid made his first, pretty clearly bogus charges, there were no end of defenders. Why? Because, I was told, Romney hadn’t released his tax returns so who was to say Reid was wrong? And in any case, the other guys fight dirty so why shouldn’t we? We’re tired of always being the weak ones, right?

The problem being: When Reid’s credibility mattered most, when he could’ve used some “trust me” to help steer the nation on a different course, he’d spent it all on a crappy lie he probably didn’t even need to make in order for Obama to win.

Going low, politically, has its short-term rewards. It can be justified on that basis. But who wishes Americans had paid more attention to Harry Reid last fall? A lot of the same people who lauded his earlier lie.

Hey: Politics ain’t beanbag. It’s never going to be as clean as I like it. But there are costs to wallowing in the dirt, and they’re not just moral prissyness. They matter. We’re all living with how they matter now.

Yours, Joel

Douglas Koziol and the virtues of reading all the way to the damn end

Dear Rebecca:

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A conservative friend — I think we’re friends — linked angrily today to this piece at The Millions. It wasn’t hard to see why. Check it out.

So what can you do when a customer wants a book that you not only find objectionable but also believe actually dangerous in the lessons it portends amidst such a politically precarious time? If it helps, swap Elegy for any book that you find particularly insidious, whether it’s Atlas Shrugged, The Communist Manifesto, or The Bible. The question remains: without stooping to the level of crazed book-burning, does the bookseller’s role ever evolve past the capitalist exchange of money for paper and pulp? And are there meaningful ways to resist the continued sales of disastrous books?

This was offered as proof of the censorious nature of “progressivism.” And the piece’s commenters agreed:

It’s called freedom. It may be dangerous to you, or you may dislike it, or disagree with it, but none of those three personal views gives you the right to stop anyone else from reading it.

The moment you decide your role is to act as a gatekeeper shutting out the unworthy books, rather than a guide opening the door to new ones, you’re part of the problem. You’re no better than any other small-minded librarian/bookseller impeding access to books of which they do not approve.

What a load of elitist arrogant BS. And the author probably thinks they are being open minded. Keep doing you liberals.

One small problem: While the quoted paragraph above does indeed express the problem the writer, Douglas Koziol, was wrestling with, it doesn’t at all reflect his conclusions, or the fullness of his throught process and actions in getting there.

Like:

All of this is to say that I’ve yet to find a way to tactfully handle the subject. Even now, I fear that I’m slipping into a haughty and unproductive tone—that of an ideologically perfect soul who can’t seem to break through to the rubes. And that’s the last thing a bookseller or writer should be.

And:

I can hide the stacks of Hillbilly Elegy in the back (if my boss is reading this, I’m just kidding). But I suspect that the most fundamental thing I can do is also perhaps the most trite: I can try to start conversations. Independent bookstores have continued to thrive in the face of the Amazon-ization of everything precisely because of their human component, and what is more human than honest-to-god conversation? But in order for this to be effective, it would require equal parts listening. Listening to what made the person gravitate towards the book in the first place, listening while withholding judgment, listening as if I don’t know all the answers.

What a powerful conclusion! Overcoming a censorious instinct to embrace humility, embrace listening and embrace understanding! We should want much more of this in our society than we’re getting right now. We should be praising Koziol for his honesty and his conclusion.

But instead, most of Koziol’s readers are acting like folks who, having heard the setup of a “knock knock” joke without hearing the punchline, have decided to condemn the evils of doorbells. Too bad. Reading to the end could’ve saved a lot of heartache.

Still reading?
Joel

How to Go High?

Dear Joel,

Years ago, I was visiting the home of a politically conservative couple in rural Kansas. They were a generation older than me and very gracious hosts. We were on the patio, eating dinner, when the wife suddenly picked up a fly swatter and used it to smash a box elder that had landed on her chair. “Damn Democrat,” she muttered as she shook its guts into a nearby planter.

I’d never heard the term before (maybe you, a native Kansan, have), but apparently the term is used in the central states for these bugs, which appear around the time of the national political conventions.  (This may be the only time I get to use my limited knowledge of etymology and entomology in the same sentence!) But the glee with which my host smashed that bug, then swore at it, let me know that she very much enjoyed thinking about members of the opposing political party as detestable, destructive objects that she could kill.

Image result for boxelder bugs

Above, a box elder bug. What happens when we use metaphors that show contempt for people with differing political views? When are such metaphors funny or useful? When do they shape our feelings about actual people?

I tried not to give that moment too much credibility, but I replayed it many times in my mind since, especially since the 2016 primary season. Around that time, I began a side project following “Deplorable” Facebook pages, pro-Trump social media spaces that, in the words of one, are for anyone who has been accused of having an “-ism” (racism, sexism, nativism, etc.). The total disrespect that members of these boards have for others (including other members who sometimes ask them to stop with the most violently racist and sexist memes) seemed another version of smashing of the box elder bug.

And your comments earlier this week, about our race to the bottom, our movement from tribalization to demonization to the Russia scandal, reminded me of it again. You argued that both Democrats and Republicans get tribal and demonize each other. Consequently, we justify whatever means we can use because, after all, the “other guy” is going to do it too. Eventually, we’ll be left only with politicians willing to always do the worst. This isn’t leadership; it’s a fear-based strategy to get and keep power, which really only becomes about keeping others out of power. It’s a game of controlling the ball but never moving it forward, just as GOP leadership has done in these first 100+ days of the Trump administration.

I don’t think it’s too Capraesque to say that we can have leaders who do good well. We just have to want that more than we want the other things we are voting for, including racism. We have to say that playing fairly matters to us, that we won’t defend politicians who cheat, fearmonger, scapegoat, obfuscate, undermine democratic participation in our institutions, and obstruct justice. Why would we want leaders who do those things? (And, trust me on this one, there are plenty of people on Deplorable social media sites who see Trump’s lies, bigotry, and cheating as absolute positives. Their support for Trump as “God Emperor” is evidence, I think, of the need for civics education.)

Did voters get what they deserved in the 2016 election? Until the shadow of Russian interference in the election is gone, we won’t know. At minimum, though, it was clear in the primary line-up that we didn’t care enough about character to support candidates who were competent and had the character both to serve and to lead a divided nation forward toward a more perfect democracy.

Can we get there? Yes. You asked, though, how. How do we go high when they go low, whatever our party affiliation and whoever we see as the “they”?

I think we have to punish politicians who lack character by voting them out of office and calling them out when, during their tenure, they fail to live up to basic standards of civility and decency. That also means, though, that we need better options–which means more people of character stepping up to serve in elected roles, which means lowering the financial barriers to running. We can also improve civics education, making public service integral to civil life, so that the question “How do I serve?” is one everyone asks.

Rebecca

The straight line connecting tribalization, demonization, and Trump’s Russia scandal

Dear Rebecca:

I’ve been thinking about this awful tweet from the awful Dennis Prager.

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Which led me to this tweet this morning quoting a Fox News personality:

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And I’m a bit discouraged.

Let me preface: I’m not quite a “pox on both your houses guy.” All things being equal, I find liberalism superior to conservatism, and I don’t make apologies for it. But I do think political tribalism blinds us to the ways that we’re very similar to our rivals, and that awareness of those similarities is a hedge against hubris.

Among Democrats and liberals, I often hear a refrain that goes something like this: “Republicans don’t play by the rules. They’ll do anything to win, and when it comes down to it, they’ll stick with each other. Not like our side, which is weak and too willing to play by the rules. We have to be as tough as they are.”

Having spent time in the out Internet provinces of both conservatism and Trumpism, I can tell you this: Rank-and-file Republicans and conservatives say precisely the same thing about the other side. A lot. (I know what some of my liberal friends are going to say: “They’re wrong!” But they’re not, entirely.)

Best I can tell, both sides believe it. Best I can tell, neither side really examines why the other side thinks that. Everybody has their reasons, I assure you, and it’ll probably be worth examining that in another post.

But one result of our ongoing demonization is this: It removes any moral or ethical barriers we might otherwise observe. The only object is to win — or avoid losing — by any means necessary. The other guys are going to do it. We should too! All of which makes the race to the bottom a self-fulfilling prophecy. Meeting with the Russians? In a way, that’s not a transgression of the norms, but a fulfillment of what the norms have become.

How to disrupt that race? No idea. Ugh.

Respectfully, Joel

What if Donald Trump Was a Good Guy?

Hey Rebecca:

I’ve been wondering lately: What would the world be like if Donald Trump was a good guy and not a man of such transparently ill character whose corruption and classlessness infects all around him?

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A pause: I don’t like attributing character flaws to people with whom I disagree. Usually, they’re good — or good enough — people with different opinions! But with Trump, the crappiness of his character is key to the critique of him. It’s unavoidable.

Let’s apply the question to this week’s big scandal — the newly reported meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer he thought might provide Russian government dirt on Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.

If the people around Donald Trump had been both smart and patriotic, we wouldn’t be waking up this week to news that his son met with a Russian lawyer to dig up “dirt” in Hillary Clinton. We would’ve found out last summer — and it might’ve provided the boost he needed to win the presidency.

News of Trump Jr.’s meeting broke this week, adding to the appearance of a White House under siege and a legal noose tightening around the president’s inner circle. All of this — this part of the scandal, anyway — could’ve been avoided if the Trump campaign had just done two things:

• Called the FBI.

• Held a big press conference announcing why they’d called the FBI.

This approach would’ve had two advantages. It would’ve been the right thing to do. And it would’ve helped Trump look like a real American leader — someone selfless enough to sacrifice a possible advantage if taking that advantage meant doing dirty business with the country’s rivals.

There was precedent for this: Back in 2000, Al Gore’s campaign received a tape showing George W. Bush’s debate preparations — and promptly sent it along to federal investigators.

”I looked at it, and I said, ‘I shouldn’t have this and shouldn’t be looking at this,”’ said former Rep. Tom Downey, the Gore adviser who received the tape. ”I knew that it was serious stuff.”

Gore, of course, ended up narrowly losing the presidency. Trump narrowly won.

But imagine what our politics might look like right now if the Trump campaign called the FBI then held the press conference. Imagine the campaign bounce he might’ve received if he’d made a statement like, say, this:

“The Russians tried to give us damaging info on our opponent but even though that might have given us an advantage, it wouldn’t be the right thing to do for our country. We are all Americans.”

Trump still could’ve railed against “Crooked Hillary.” He still could’ve charged that her email setup as Secretary of State had made America less secure. But he could’ve put questions of collusion with Russia largely to rest, and — for once — maybe even made himself look a little more like a statesman instead of a two-bit schemer. “More in sadness than in anger” would’ve been a good look for a politician attempting to appeal to moderates.

That would’ve taken some imagination, though. That would’ve taken some moral fitness — or the smarts to try to appear fit once in awhile.

Instead, the Trump campaign played to character, choosing to pursue the dumb, obvious, “let’s screw our enemies” power move. And when that didn’t work, he went public asking the Russians to release any info they had on his opponent.

The trouble with Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency, from the beginning, has been his inability to get out of his own way. His determination to avenge slights and be in “control” — but only in the most rudimentary fashion — led him to fire James Comey, to attack the “Morning Joe” crew, to slam veterans like John McCain and to pick fights with Rosie O’Donnell, to get his pound of flesh but to almost always get it in a fashion that leaves his presidency as collateral damage.

Given the choice between blunt-force trauma and the smart, silent shiv — or merely doing the right thing and being nice people — Trump and his minions choose blunt force every time. I’m not sure they’re aware that different possibilities exist.

If Trump had tried to be a bigger, better man, he might right now have a bigger, better presidency. All he and his campaign had to do was the right thing. They didn’t. Of course they didn’t.

With disgust, Joel

The NRA hates you and me

Dear Rebecca:

I’ve been thinking a lot about the interplay between civility and justice lately, resisting the idea that we have to hate our neighbors who think differently than us, feeling like any political victories we achieve in such an atmosphere might be hollow and rickety.

But then there’s this ad from the NRA:

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(Sorry, the video is not embedding. Follow the link and watch.)

And, um, I’m terrified.

It makes me wonder if civility is beside the point. Safety is first, then justice. I see no love for their fellow citizens in this ad, no understanding – or even a care to understand – what might motivate them. All I see is hate and rage.

They hate you. They hate me. And they love it. They need it.

God help us all.
Joel