Trolls against Compassion

In watching the Republican Tax Deform bill works its way through the institutional process, I can’t help but see trolling in play.

Online, a “troll” has been determined to be a person that understands human psychology, and uses it to disrupt functioning social systems. They have all the tools necessary for compassionate engagement, but choose to use them to cause fear and pain.

You see this in the tax bill crafted by Ryan and McConnell. After accounting for the additional $1.5 trillion in debt that will accrue to the public during the lifetime of the program, only the rich will benefit from the bill.

Every successful troll claims a beneficial intent, and we see this advancing in the Republican policy program. Ryan and McConnell want to create a fiscal crisis so that they have a remit to cut middle-class entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. This is a program that has been pursued by the Republican Party since the Reagan era. America’s $20 trillion public debt was amassed due to tax cuts for the rich advanced during eras of Republican control. They created the public debt, and now claim it as the reason to cut benefits established and paid for by the middle class.

To understand why these trolls are not exposed, we have to understand who benefits from their strategy. It is the financial system. Large money-center banks suck at the teat of government debt. They profit every time a government bond is sold and redeemed – and long-term deficits means that those redeemed must be replaced by new. They profit from fiscal irresponsibility in Congress. The same is true of our trade deficit: every time an American buys a Chinese product, dollars must be converted to yuan, which flow overseas and then come back to America as dollars that buy our government debt. Every step in that process makes money for the financial industry.

What should be alarming is that profits enjoyed by the financial industry accrue from the exchange of dollars that does not add value to our economy. The value of the dollars does not change – they simply move from place to place.

Wall Street is effectively a tax on Main Street.

What is painful is to realize how deeply this psychology has migrated downward into our economy. Payday lenders make short-term loans against future earnings, sometimes charging as much as 1/3 of the loan value for bridge financing that lasts only a week. In Kansas, the most successful franchise (raking in billions of dollars in profits) was started by three brothers that claimed Native American sovereignty to get around state regulations that prohibited predatory practices. Eventually, the FBI stepped in to tear down their empire. But as the empire collapsed, the remaining brother took the protected financial data and created a list of fake debt claims that were then sold on to the debt collection industry.

Yes, many debt collectors are no longer paid by claimants. They actually pay for debt listings, and do little to verify the validity of the claims. The Tucker family made millions by selling the fake debt claims to multiple debt collectors. Those debt collectors had mouths to feed and mortgages to pay, and the only way to make good on their investment was to get money out of the people whose private financial information they had acquired. The FBI is now investigating the abusive practices of the collectors working against those false claims.

The abusive behaviors of the financial system, libertarian politicians and online trolls are linked by another factor: their behaviors harm people that they don’t know personally. Safely at a distance, trolls reach out through our communications infrastructure to wreak havoc in the lives of their victims. The don’t have to confront the mounting desperation of individuals and communities ground down by their hunger for money or power. They simply acquire wealth that they use to finance the careers of politicians that oppose regulation of their industry.

This is what makes men like Paul Ryan so pitiful. They believe that they must be doing something good because people tell them that they are taking on a problem that poses an existential threat to our country: the federal debt. But the people that applaud his determination are those that engineered the creation of that debt, and that benefit most from its existence. The true motivations for their investment in politicians such as Ryan is to ensure that their wealth is protected when the system collapses.

Trembling underneath this juggernaut of debt, there are those in American commerce that still believe in producing goods for consumption, and that compete to create value for their customers.  Working in the automation industry, I am conscious that the work that I do displaces workers, creating distress from a distance much as does the financial industry. But being involved with the creation of goods and services, I do feel the pulse of that part of the economy.

The mantra that is evolving is hopeful. On the surface, that is hard to see: robots are displacing blue-collar workers, and artificial intelligence is threatening knowledge workers. What remains for people to do, then, is to ensure that customers are happy and successful, building a base for repeat business.

In other words, while the masters of the universe troll society, on the ground people are focused on learning to care for each other.

The Deformation

What do you call it when legislation is crafted in secret by people that do not accept input from the primary stakeholders?

As explained by health care and insurance providers, it wasn’t Health Care Reform, it was Health Care Deform. As delineated by the Congressional Budget Office and academicians, it’s not Tax Reform, its Tax Deform.

The Catholic Reformation was a counter-reaction to Church practices that sold paper declarations of forgiveness for sins, financing wars for control of the papacy.

Our government is now controlled by men who have demonstrated the inability to inspire by example the behaviors that they expect to see in their constituents: independence, initiative and creativity. Invoking the heartless god of “free markets” as the source of solutions they cannot themselves design, they and their financiers fall back upon fear as their tool of choice. As society collapses, they justify their dominance by reference to the brutality of the under-class that they arm.

If they could perceive themselves as God does, the leaders of the party that rules our nation would be terrified by the terrible deformations they are creating in their souls. There is no pill for that, no amount of money that God would accept. You have made our government into a pustulent boil of selfishness. You will not be purged on judgment day, for there will be no need: you have chosen to isolate yourself from the saints that you persecute. When they enter into paradise, you will be left with the dehydrated husk of the planet you have raped.

Am Misbehaving

Teri Gross, interviewing a young female actor/writer/director tonight on Fresh Air, had an uncomfortable dialog concerning male role-models that have now been revealed as sexual predators. The discussion focused on the challenges of not saying “the wrong thing,” with “the wrong thing” never being elucidated. Presumably it would be something that could be interpreted as hateful of men in general, or dismissive of the human depth and value of the work of some of the men involved, or offensive to men that they might want to work with on future projects.

So they preferred to say nothing.

This contrasted with the All Things Considered interview of women from lineage of three generations that have worked in Hollywood since 1960. They spoke frankly about the problem of sexual harassment and what it takes to avoid degradation. They had direct experience, and so had a specific human story to tell.

In both contexts, their attraction to Hollywood was explained as a reaching for the opportunity to create dreams. Remember that these are successful creators, so they have not hit the wall that causes most workers to hate their jobs after they turn forty. That wall is the gate that narrows when the cost of providing opportunities to all qualified people exceeds the available resources. When opportunities for professional growth thin out, what characterizes those that stay the course?

I would hazard that it’s not just the opportunity to create dreams for others, it’s the link between their work and the expression of their own fantasies. The more powerful those fantasies are, the greater the commitment to their craft.

Perhaps the most disturbing experience I have had in church is being told by a pastor that I was not welcome because when I meditated on the cross, everybody in the congregation felt that they were being sexually harassed. To love someone is to affirm their personality – and if they find more joy in sex than in compassion, they will channel the energy that way.

Couple this to the desire of a director or producer to associate and control beautiful people – the people that we love to watch on the screen – and the adoration that we tender to our media figures is going to amplify their worst habits. The more we adore them, the worse their conduct will become.

The problem is related to the problem Jesus faced with his disciples. The disciples believed that they needed Jesus to tell them what to do, just as consumers of entertainment believe that they need someone to give them dreams. Jesus complained of the “little faith” of his followers because they didn’t believe in themselves. He died, was buried, rose and ascended to convince them that they should cast off their doubts and love others.

Rather than fixing our gaze on that story – the true and heroic testimony of the redeeming power available to all that choose to love – we choose to fill our dreams with fantasies that can’t possibly be made true. In seeking to entertain, Hollywood doesn’t create dreams, it creates illusions. Those that suckle on its teat shouldn’t be surprised when those illusions are pierced, unmasking the self-serving motives of all those that peddle illusion – and exemplified by those that have clawed their way to the top.

Our government is also riven by corruption – politicians don’t have the power to solve our problems, so they peddle illusions. And we are disappointed in our relationships, because we operate under the illusion that someone else can change our soul when that is work that only we can do in collaboration with God.

We’re not going to end exploitation by shaming people, or throwing them in jail. There will always  be replacements.  We’re only going to solve the problem by recognizing illusionists when they appear in our lives, and putting them off with “That’s all very nice, Donald, but I need to pray for a friend before I go visit them.”

Virgin Shield

Roy Moore, Republican candidate for the Senate seat vacated in Alabama by Jeff Sessions, is under attack for his conduct towards underage girls while working in the district attorney’s office during his 20’s and 30’s. In responding to the accusations, Moore appears to be taking the advice of Steve Bannon, who led Trump around the Access Hollywood (“Grab ’em by the pussy”) debacle. Bannon advised to deny everything and double down.

Moore’s supporters have done their best. On the political level, they charge that the revelation of these claims only four weeks before the election reeks of political manipulation by the Democrats and liberal media (the charges were given national airing by the Washington Post). Others note that the acts, even if committed, have expired under the statute of limitations, and so have no bearing on the election.

Before the scandal, Moore achieved notoriety for his defense of Biblical principles. He was removed as a sitting judge for refusing to honor a court order requiring the removal of a Ten Commandments display he had installed. Appointed later to the Alabama Supreme Court, he was removed again for refusing to enforce the US Supreme Court decision upholding same-sex marriage.

So the political arguments have been supplemented by theological arguments. Co-religionists have implored voters to show Moore Christian forgiveness. Others have compared his suffering to that of Christ on the cross.

But the ugliest justification is that the Virgin Mary was only fourteen when she was married to Joseph, and so there is Biblical foundation for older men to pursue young girls.

There is so much wrong with these arguments. Forgiveness is wonderful, but that does not extend to empowering those that do wrong. Women also suffer persecution, and to suggest that Moore is being persecuted is like unto a suggestion that Herod is persecuted.

But the one that hurts the most is the parallel drawn to the relationship between Mary and Joseph. That relationship was not considered unusual in the era – in fact, the principle concern of the parents of an adolescent girl was to ensure that she was established safely in marriage to a decent man. Moore was not married to his victims.

But neither was the Holy Spirit. I’ve heard this issue raised before at a non-denominational Christmas service. The preacher attacked the whole idea of the immaculate conception, stating that “God doesn’t molest little girls.” Trevor Noah took this to its ultimate conclusion on Monday night, observing that the parallel offered by Moore’s supporters seemed to suggest that Moore was seeking to conceive a Messiah, giving new meaning to the idea of a “Second Coming.”

This upsets me because I don’t see Mary as a passive vessel. When women are allowed to choose, beautiful consequences result. The angel Gabri-el proposed a solution to the problems that beset Mary’s tribe, and by extension the whole of humanity. Mary’s humble response was “Here am I.”

Events during Jesus’s ministry emphasize this message. Presented with the paradox of the life in paradise of a woman widowed successively to seven brothers, Jesus observed that in that age everyone will make their own decisions about marriage. When Margaret complained that Mary was not helping with housework, Jesus encouraged Margaret to take also “the better part.” Finally, when a woman appears to anoint him with oil before the crucifixion – as were the kings by the high priest – Jesus rebukes the charge of hypocrisy (“the oil could have been used for the poor”) with the simple statement “She has done a beautiful thing for me.”

That Mary made the decision to bear Jesus when she was only fourteen may seem strange by our standards, but it was her choice. Moore didn’t share that choice with his victims. Mary’s choice carried with it the possibility of prosecution under the law of her day. Safe from criminal prosecution, Moore would do well to learn from her courage and humility, ask personally for forgiveness, and bear the consequences in the court of public opinion.

Foreign Commercial Policy

As with others, I have been concerned to see the shrinking of the State Department under the Trump Administration. The President of the American Foreign Service Association, Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, has penned an editorial (to be published in the December issue of Foreign Service Journal) that summarizes the self-inflicted wounds on our ability to conduct foreign policy, and demands that we ask “Why?”

I see two reasons. The first, and lesser, is Trump’s preference for the military option in foreign policy. I believe this is rooted in two realities: American has by far the most powerful military in the world. Trump is a man of simple judgment, and so doesn’t need to reason much beyond that. Furthermore, he is undisputed commander-in-chief of the military, which is why he has so many generals in his cabinet. They are bound to do what he commands them to do. What more could a narcissistic megalomaniac want?

Constitutionally, the president’s control of the military is constrained only by the requirement that Congress declare war. Unfortunately, since 9/11 the military has been operating on a global remit to wage war against terrorism, which under the rubrik of “state sponsored terrorism” can be interpreted to mean almost any hostile act.

The second reason to destroy the State Department is more insidious. Trump doesn’t reveal his tax returns because they document his participation and profiteering in money laundering, often in collaboration with leaders from other nations. Trump’s motive is to clear the barriers to such conduct, barriers maintained in large part by investigators hosted and supported by our foreign service.

As CEO of Exxon, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson bragged that Exxon was a supra-national power. He thumbed his nose at American sanctions against Russia, and undercut repatriation agreements intended to ensure that African dictators allocated for public benefit a portion of resource extraction profits.

Trump and Tillerson are both united in their intention to minimize political interference in the ability of US business to profit overseas. My sense is that they look at Iranian resurgence – led by the corrupt Revolutionary Guard – and increasing Chinese hegemony on the international stage – led by the corrupt People’s Army – as evidence that American power can be sustained only if military and commercial policy are fully aligned.

Tillerson is gutting the State Department to create conditions under which that alignment can be established. In part, that is a rational response to global realities, but it has the undeniable side-effect of supporting the construction of a global kleptocracy. For Trump, that is the compelling motivation.

The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe and Its Lessons for Today: An Interview with Daniel K. Williams

In the form of an interview with Daniel Williams, Millennial offers the most sympathetic articulation of the pro-life stance that I have encountered. The experience of the original activists – proponents of the liberal theory of universal human rights – is typical of the experience of the Pharisees confronted by Jesus: any attempt to use law for moral ends allows hypocrites (such as the fiscal libertarians of the GOP) to suborn those impulses.

The proper approach is that of Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” That generation did confront their error, seeing many of their brethren convert to Christianity – including Saul on the way to Damascus.

So should we look at the problem of abortion – as a teachable moment that might not change the heart of a desperate woman, but that should change her behavior, hopefully bringing her closer to God as a result.

Williams’ final paean to life also rings hollow in my ears: babies are not priceless because their genetic code is unique. They are priceless because they represent an opportunity for self-clarification of a soul. We do have responsibilities as parents to optimize the conditions of that opportunity. That is best informed by abandoning the categories “pro-life” and “pro-choice” and choosing to be “pro-creation.” Pregnancy should be a conscious and considered joy, not an accident.

Millennial

What was the pro-life movement like before Roe v. Wade? In Defenders of the Unborn, Daniel K. Williams, history professor at the University of West Georgia, provides an essential overview of the pro-life movement in this period. Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed Williams on his groundbreaking book and its implications:

The pro-life movement is often associated with conservatism, but could you talk a little bit about the roots of the movement?

The modern American pro-life movement, which originated in the mid-twentieth century, was the creation of Catholic Democrats, most of whom subscribed to the social ethic and liberal political philosophy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.  They believed that the government had a responsibility to protect the rights of minorities and provide a social safety net for the poor.  They viewed the unborn as a minority deserving of legal protection, but many of them…

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Words, not Bullets

Response to Leah Libresco’s opinion piece out at WaPo: I used to think gun control was the answer. My research told me otherwise.


The answer to what?

The gun control issue is about more than gun-related deaths. It is about the relationship between police and the public. It is about the psychology of our public spaces. It is about respect for democratic process and the methods used to create social change.

For far too long we have allowed the NRA, which contributes $54 million a year to sympathetic political organizations, to create a carte blanche remit for the gun industry to poison our political dialog with advertising that promotes hostility, suspicion and fear – all with the goal of building a deeply-rooted need to possess ever-more-powerful tools of violence.

This is the real problem. An assault weapons ban is merely the low-hanging fruit that all politicians should be willing to embrace as a means of defining what is acceptable in political dialog. No one should feel a need to own a military-style weapon. That so many of them are sold is a testament to the control that the gun industry has over our culture.