Author Archives: Donald Ellis

Understanding Israel

[D1] No group drags hate around in its wake like the Jews and their burdensome anti-Semitism. Throughout history anti-Semitism has found its way into every stratum of society. From the rich theoretical and intellectual tradition of Marxist ideology, to the ignorant and hate filled skinheads who are the distorted prodigy of the Nazis, anti-Semitism rears its ugly head.

Even though there is strong global support for Israel, along with the Iron Dome defensive rocket system, Hamas has been gaining ground in terms of public and international support. Curiously, this radical group–committed to terrorism and illiberal governments–is meeting with success. One indicator of this success is the extent to which that spectrum of the political left, which never met a minority group that it did not consider oppressed, has gathered its forces to criticize Israel and, shockingly in my opinion, defend Hamas.

The response from various faculties around the country is troubling as more universities are unsettled by the Faculty Senate, graduate students, and campus groups of various sorts who want to advance a political agenda. Bari Weiss in her book How to Fight anti-Semitism takes comfort in one thing with respect to right wing anti-Semites, they don’t hide their face. Their goals are blunt and clear. That makes it easy to recognize anti-Semitism where it stands. Now we only have to do something about it.

The quality of the discourse finding its way out of campus meetings in particular is most disappointing and even shocking with respect to its rhetorical stance and subject matter. These documents are full of exaggerated statements of fact, a surprising confusion about Jewish history and culture, a failure to understand Israel, simplistic conclusions about Palestinians as doe-eyed innocents, state-sponsored terror, and disingenuous arguments pertaining to solutions to the conflict.

These failures also come wrapped in some statements that refer to “Jewish supremacy” or the fact that Israelis and Jews consider themselves to be superior to others, a statement that comes perilously close to being anti-Semitic. The world seems to have forgotten that Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005 removing every Jewish Gazan and leaving Hamas and residents of Gaza to manage themselves. Right wing Israelis warned their more liberal brothers and sisters that this would be a mistake. That Israel would lose security. Gaza has turned into a launching pad for rockets into Israel. And then, when Israel is required to defend itself (a right anyone recognizes), Hamas and those sympathetic to Hamas claim to be exempt from blame or responsibility.

We have here the classic attribution error: Supporters of Hamas conclude that when Hamas is behaving aggressively it is because they are forced to by Israel’s oppressive behavior. Consequently, their violence is moral and just. And when Hamas is being conciliatory it is because they are protecting their citizens.

And then there is Zionism – supposedly a settler colonialist ideology rooted in Jewish superiority that is predatory. The truth of the matter is that Zionism says nothing about superiority and is little more than a statement about the belief in supporting Israel and developing Jewish culture, history, arts, and humanities. There is no long-term plan or core document that lays out the conditions and the principles of Zionism.

The statements about Israel are a form of disinformation; that is, information that is intentionally meant to deceive. The implications of this disinformation are not minor because the spread of disinformation and its introduction into undeveloped countries and audiences that have no alternative discursive possibilities can have serious effects. This is especially true in an era of social media where information travels fast and furious.


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Top 10 Anti-Semitic Slurs: Anti-Semitism or Legitimate Criticism of Israel

Posted by Donald Ellis

Below is the list of top 10 anti-Semitic slurs from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. All but one of these contributions for the year concerns me. I always look at the statements and spend a moment chagrined and admittedly a little shaken that such discourse actually characterizes the consciousness of certain individuals and groups. But that aside, the slurs bring up the tension between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. This is a fine interpretive line that speaks to the issue of Israel as a legitimate target of political criticism, and the use of such criticism as an anti-Semitic tool. Moreover, it’s an excellent example of the distinction I like to make for students between perspective and bias. Top 10 Anti-Semitic Slurs.

Look at #9 by Jakob Augstein who is a contributor to Spiegel online. There is currently a bit of a fury in Germany over the decision by the Wiesenthal Center to list Augstein here. Augstein is a respected journalist and surely doesn’t belong in the same categories as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, the Golden Path, and Farrakhan. Moreover the issues of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, powerful political lobbying, and conservative trends in the society are legitimate issues worthy of discussion and argumentation.

One can be a respected journalist raising legitimate issues and still be quite misleading, exaggerated, and uninformed. I do not think these comments by Augstein rise to the level of Anti-Semitism and do not think he should have been lumped in with the likes of the other 9 contributors. His words and style are inflammatory and certainly lacked nuance. Comparing traditional observant Jews to the sort of “Islamism” that is triumphalist in nature and promotes violence is a silly comparison based more on exaggerated rhetorical strategies rather than fact. An unfair and unjustified moral equivalency is typically the rhetorical strategy used by those characterized more by bias than perspective. The same sort of exaggeration applies to the claims about the undue influence of the Jewish lobby. It is true that the Jewish lobby in the United States is effective and strong but it does little more than successfully defend its interests in a democratic manner. There is a Saudi lobby and a Pakistani lobby and on and on. The Jewish lobby engages in the democratic process and does so successfully. But the argument that Jewish influence distorts foreign-policy is based on the assumption that there is a “correct” foreign-policy that is being subverted. If a group wants to counter the influences of the Jewish lobby then organize and come up with better arguments.

Again, I think Mr. Augstein is critical of Israel and does not do a particularly good job of defending such a position – and there is plenty to disagree with – but the charge that the statement in #9 is anti-Semitic is unjustified. Jews and Israelis who are overly sensitive to the potentialities of anti-Semitism must also work to make the distinction between a perspective based on legitimate issues critical of Israel and anti-Semitism. Staining someone with the charge of anti-Semitism, when it is only a knee-jerk response and not clearly justified, shuts down legitimate debate about Israel as a political entity and strangles the communication process.

We have to do the hard work and make the distinction between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel on the basis of argument and substantive issues. Sure, some critics of Israel are blatant anti-Semites. Showing movies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is clearly anti-Semitic; the vacant eyed whack job surrounded by guns holed up in a mountain cabin somewhere who blames the Jews for the world’s problems is anti-Semitic; comparing Israel to Nazi Germany is anti-Semitic. Even the apartheid comparison is problematic. A careful and considerate comparison between Israel and South Africa, on the basis of the best political theory and history, does not justify in any way such a comparison even though there are issues of difficult population concentrations they continue to grapple with.

Rush Limbaugh is gone and The Presidential Medal of Freedom is Officially a Joke

{With the slightest of modifications, the below was posted in February of 2020}

Rush Limbaugh died this week. One of the worst and most damaging public figures ever to disgrace modern media is gone.  The Presidential Medal of Freedom is now officially a joke. You can note the decline in American culture and the thorough degradation of public political discourse by drawing a line punctuated by those who have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom– Edward R Morrow, Jonas Salk, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks– to the current recipient Rush Limbaugh.

Perhaps no person is more responsible for larding American political discourse with hate, factual distortions, and the death of civility than Rush Limbaugh. He is Donald Trump lite. Limbaugh came first; he set the stage and established the context for Trump.

Limbaugh is a rank racist who wanted to make sure that the core of the Republican Party identity was white. Trump’s preoccupation with Obama’s birth certificate was an attempt to de-legitimize Obama, rooted in the fundamental racism of Rush Limbaugh. Trump went after those young black men (the Central Park Five) brutalized by the police with a fury and a determination that thoroughly exceeded what was justified. But these young men were black and that made them an immediate threat to Trump. Rush Limbaugh was blatant about portraying the other side (Democrats) as not a respected adversary but a dangerous enemy that must be eradicated. The other side was, as far as Limbaugh was concerned, irredeemable and must be eliminated. The only appropriate response is to burn with hatred.

Limbaugh continued his racism by labeling any piece of legislation from Obama as left-wing extremism designed to get what they deserved. This played on the fears of the populace by suggesting that an angry minority group was trying to overtake the political process. Notice how frequently Trump compares a legislative item of his own to Obama or the “previous administration.” Trump is more interested in delegitimizing Obama than he is in his own agenda. Again, this betrays his fundamental racism that he can’t avoid.

Limbaugh taught Trump that you can call people names and then laugh about it as if these things were harmless. Limbaugh cruelly told a joke about Chelsea Clinton who was 13 years old at the time. Trump is nothing if he isn’t callous, crude, and feeling deserving of the right to label somebody. He learned well from Limbaugh.

Rush Limbaugh created the subculture of talk radio. A subculture characterized mostly by anger, name calling, and the belief that anything someone believes strongly enough must be true. The Limbaugh subculture has devolved into narcissism and cults of personality fueled by the talk radio subculture’s big brother – Fox News. Any sensible concept of truth has evacuated. Just as Limbaugh successfully twisted the perceptions of journalism and media, Trump has convinced large portions of the population but most of the news is “fake.”

Just when you think Trump can’t do anything more offensive or crude, he awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh.

Trump will fade away

There seems to be a lot of gnashing of teeth about Trump returning to politics, building his own party, or running again for office. But Brookings got it right when they identified nine possibilities for Trump’s future: fail in a leadership grab of the Republican Party, unite his MAGA supporters into a political operation (good luck with that), continue calls for insurrection, start his own communication company devoted to misinformation, become the next Sarah Palin, get convicted by the GOP, disappear in a swamp of criminal charges, go to jail, seek refuge someplace else.

I would not worry about Trump’s future influence. He is finished and will not be a significant player in the future. Granted, he did get 73 million votes and that sounds like an indicator of a popular person who could generate a following. But it won’t happen and here’s why:

Trump’s base is small and extreme. They do not represent anyone except for a collection skin heads, racists, and angry macho guys who are full of misinformation and confusion about what it means to live in an American democracy.

Donald Trump is actually quite disliked by most Americans and he leaves office with a 39% approval rating along with polls showing that the majority of Americans thought the Senate should convict him and disqualify him from holding future office. Even though he was not convicted the final vote count was the most bipartisan in history. Trump will be remembered as the instigator of a coup that came close to assassinating the country’s leaders and seriously disrupting the government. He has the lowest approval ratings of any president since 1945.

Most Americans now see Trump as a vulgar talk show host who was completely ineffectual and unprepared to be president. The stories coming out of the White House by former staff members are striking in their embarrassment of Trump. He never demonstrated respect for those around him by actually learning something. And it has always been clear from the beginning of Trump’s campaign that he had a distorted sense of reality and little experience in any sort of institution building. This included the debates in which he just tried to disrupt his opponent or use a tactic that substituted bluster and aggression for deliberation.

Talk of building another party, a Trump party, is a pipe dream. Constructing such political movements requires coordination, effort, and management skills that Trump certainly doesn’t have and is not interested in acquiring.

Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud have further detracted from his credibility. His inflammatory rhetoric has been cited as a contributory factor to the armed insurrection at the US Capitol. His childish hold on the claim that the election was stolen is additional evidence that Trump lives in an alternative reality. He believes he can construct the truth just because he says it.

Trump’s victory in 2016 was an aberration and he even made it to the primary ballot by a lucky confluence of circumstances which included an overcrowded primary that split votes and made it easier for him to stand out. He is a defeated one-term president who won in 2016 by a razor thin margin. In 2016 he had a very unpopular opponent and help from Russia and the FBI director. He lost the popular vote and won three key swing states by a hair. They were easy to turn in 2020.

Trump may parade around for a while as the charismatic deposed leader but soon no one will pay attention and he will fade away – as it should be.

Trump’s Progeny: anti-Semites

No group drags hate around in its wake like the Jews and their burdensome anti-Semitism. Throughout history anti-Semitism has found its way into every stratum of society. From the rich theoretical and intellectual tradition of Marxist ideology, to the ignorant and hate filled skinheads who are the distorted prodigy of the Nazis, anti-Semitism rears its ugly head.

Voltaire, for example, is important to humanity as a foundational intellectual of the Enlightenment—the moment in history when science and reason were elevated above the irrational belief and traditionalism of religion and royalty. Individual freedom is the cornerstone of secular culture, and names such as Voltaire are now shorthand for rational and liberal thought.

But Voltaire was also a compulsive anti-Semite, using multiple texts to place Jews well outside the great civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome, and indeed beyond redemption. Voltaire pronounced concerning the Jews: “They are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts, just as the Bretons and the Germans are born with blond hair.” In another essay, Voltaire concluded that the Jews deserve to be punished, for this is your destiny.”

Why is it that anti-Semitism can weave its way into the most elevated intellectual thought and then back again to rank hatred? Anti-Semitism pervades cultures at all levels: the Jews killed Christ, were responsible for the bubonic plague, used the blood of Christian children for their Passover ritual, and it goes on.

Interestingly, in the 1300s it was noted that the Jews were dying from the bubonic plague at a slower rate and blamed for causing the disease. The claim that all the Jews left the World Trade Center just before the planes hit the building seems to maintain a historical consistency that paints the Jews as blame full tricksters worthy of annihilation. If the Jews did die at a slower rate of bubonic plague it probably had more to do with the tradition of ritual handwashing before eating bread, bathing, or the Sabbath.

This long history of prejudice against the Jews was in full force on January 6th when a group of white supremacists stormed the capital building in a somewhat pathetic effort to take over the government.

Photos and video of the rioters show some with attire bearing the words “work brings freedom” – a translation of the Nazis’ infamous “arbeit macht frei” written above the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau. One fellow was wearing a T-shirt that said “Camp Auschwitz”. On the back of the shirt it said “staff.” So this guy sees himself as overseeing the extermination of Jews at a concentration camp. And he takes pride in such identity.

The protesters, egged on by Trump, smashed windows and broke through police lines to take control of the seat of US government, as lawmakers met to confirm President-Elect Joe Biden’s election victory in a vote Trump said was rigged.

Surely a group of right-wing white supremacists who storm the capital building with violence in their hearts would not pass up an opportunity to express themselves.

Bari Weiss in her book How to Fight anti-Semitism takes comfort in one thing with respect to right wing anti-Semites, they don’t hide their face. Their goals are blunt and clear. That makes it easy to recognize anti-Semitism where it stands. Now we only have to do something about it.

 

 

Trump and Fake News

 

Mind you, I give Trump no credit for knowledgeable and skilled use of  social media. And even though I will examine his use of fake news this does not imply that Trump has conscious strategic understanding of what he is doing. This analysis concerns new media. The perpetrators of fake news or propaganda can easily find like-minded supporters who confirm each other’s perceptions and pre-existing prejudices. So fake news can become “reality” very quickly and easily. Trump benefited tremendously from this phenomenon. He would take the crowd size estimate at a political rally and deny it immediately claiming the crowd was bigger than the newspaper reported. They, according to Trump, reported lower numbers because they were prejudiced against him and not because it was an accurate calculation. Trump accused the media (e.g., the New York Times) of publishing fake news (crowds were smaller than they actually were)

Fake news is directly responsible for intervening in the civic sensibilities of the state. When Trump tweets that the news is fake, he is redirecting attention away from social goods such as public health, immigration policy, health insurance, or some other social value. This results in purposeful and systematic renegotiation of attention. Often, ignoring certain issues is just the policy position a political leader takes and this is exactly what the Trump administration did with respect to detention of immigrant children, government health insurance programs, Russian spying, and was even part of government’s approach to the Covid crisis.

 

Fake news causes information disorder. It contaminates the news streams. Figure 1 represents three types of information disorder discussed by Wardle (2020). Fake news can be simply misinformation where the information problems are unintentional and characterized by mistakes and inaccuracies that were hard to avoid. Or, it can be somewhat more extreme and be disinformation which is increasingly nefarious because it is fabricated deliberately. Disinformation causes

confusion and pollutes the social media with the intent of deliberately harming others. And the third is malinformation which is intentionally designed to cause harm such as deliberately revealing personal information. The key point here is that fake news, which influences the information environment in some way, is more complex and pernicious in the modern technological world. That some news is user-generated means that the collection and interpretation of such information is already predisposed toward certain presuppositions and power relations.

Fake news takes on a serious philosophical bent because it concerns the distinction between truth and post truth and the destabilization of objective facts. And fake news is particularly insidious with respect to open democratic societies. It has become increasingly important to all forms of social media that, as a whole, constitute the political talk of the culture. Fake news is similar to propaganda and propaganda is distorted political speech. Fake news is thus political speech and the quality of such political speech is dependent on the quality of a democracy.

Consequently, fake news is instrumental in determining who talks to whom and becomes a significant force in the determination of democracies and their trajectory.

Wardle, C. (2020). Journalism and the new information echo system: Responsibilities and challenges. In fake news (Ed.) Zimdars, M. & McLeod, K. (pp) 71-85. MIT press.

Fake News and The Semantics of Post Truth

This enigmatic term – “post truth” – has been around for some time now and it is confusing for most people. Since the Oxford English Dictionary concluded that the concept of post truth was significant enough that it was identified as word of the year in 2016, we are certainly justified in trying to make more sense of it. What does it mean and how did the concept of post truth get so central to the interpretation of some important ideas in contemporary culture? It is no accident that the concept of post truth exists at the same time as ideas such as fake news. What follows is an explanation of post truth and how it informs the notion of fake news.

Briefly, post truth is the idea that objective facts are not so important in shaping opinion as opposed to emotional appeal and personal beliefs. The “anti-maskers who refused to wear a mask or quarantine during the Covid crisis because they didn’t recognize the validity of the science behind immunology or network theory are one example of a group of people who represent a post truth mentality. Some theorists have argued that political policies are no longer developed on the basis of facts and the distinction between fake and real is unimportant. Consequently, democracies become emotional political processes.

If facts become unimportant or nonexistent then they become victims of a strong social construction; that is, it becomes possible to have everyday citizens be the determinants of what gets defined as a “fact.” There is something terribly paradoxical about this. Facts are supposed to be the sine qua non of stable truth. If anything should not be subject to the whims of human emotion and variability, it is facts. How can you argue that facts are pushed to the background and unimportant? Are not facts supposed to be stubborn and true? The answer, within the post truth theoretical tradition, is “no” facts are subject to the same social influences as any other construct and hold no privileged position in political discourse. Facts can be redefined, manipulated, and reinterpreted to mean anything and the key issue is how many converts can I create.

Trump set about the business of delegitimizing the press. Of course, the press is the one institution that holds Trump’s feet to the fire. The single institution that fact checks him, exposes his lies and manipulations, and records his indiscretions. So, it makes sense that he would go after the press and he did so by making the distinction between fake news and real news. Of course, real news was only stories supportive of Trump. Anything critical was labeled fake news.

Facts are under siege. They are becoming highly politicized where people express their own facts – what they believe to be facts or want to be facts – in order to turn the concept into a rhetorical weapon. The term fake news is a good example. It is appropriated by political actors in order to attack opponents. The concept of “fake” is no longer a measurable or precise definitional question but one of political authority because the issue is who gets to control the definition in order to use it for his or her own purposes and is therefore in a position to dismiss others.

Trump’s appropriation of the term fake news is so extreme as to be laughable. A skilled manipulator of meaning will exploit certain commonalities of meaning in order to lend them some credibility. Those who accuse liberals on the left as being socialist have been effective because certain concepts and ideas that emerge from the political position termed “liberalism” do in fact have at least some similarity to positions emerging from theories of socialism. That is why those who attack liberals by deploying the word socialist have been successful. They conflate the two terms (liberal and socialist) sufficiently such that the relationship between the two terms is plausible and the narrower more aggressive and distasteful ideas associated with “socialism” are more easily transferred to “liberalism.” But Trump declared even before the election that if he did not win the process was rigged. He baldly asserted the “fact” that there were election improprieties even though no charge was ever accepted and not a single claim supported.

It is clearly possible to cite more precise meaning and fact-based issues that distinguish liberalism from socialism, but this is not my concern at the moment. Because the role of communication is so central to democracies, these democracies are saturated with disagreement over what is “real” and what is “false.”

Part 2 of this essay will examine the nature of democracy and how one discourse follows another in terms of how much accepted disagreement it can tolerate. I will clarify how post truth rejects a rational political discourse that results in consensus; thus, post truth contends that maintaining a multitude of political voices, all contained in their subjective reality, is a more accurate reflection of the work of democracies and must grapple with the idea that logical and rational problem-solving is the definitive approach to managing differences, which is the goal of democratic processing.

Civility is More Than Good Manners

We must continue to underscore the concept of “civility” for democratic deliberation and political problem solving. It remains the case that too often civility is thought of as a simple nicety that makes things more pleasant and is the result of little more than good manners.

It is no accident that as civility declines in our polarized political culture argumentative complexity and sophistication suffers. So how do we attenuate this marked drop in civility and break the cycle of mutual incivility? How do we get both policymakers and ordinary citizens to at least approach the deliberative ideal? Alas, it is possible to make progress in this area.

Deteriorating civility causes citizens to be less trusting of democratic institutions. Institutions lose credibility and appear to be failing when they are characterized by diminished civility. Moreover, the spectacle of incivility draws attention away from the core content of the conflict. Citizens pay more heed to the displays of incivility than they do to the content of the messages exchanged between the conflicting parties. And, when participants in the democratic process are not paying attention to the core issues, they are more influenced by stereotypes and partisan cues which serve as reptilian responses that are not comprised of the thoughtfulness we desire during deliberation.

Three Tips on How To Be More Civil

Start with even a modicum of respect. Liberals often think conservatives are unevolved and less educated. And they waste no time communicating this. And conservatives believe liberals to be out of touch and naïve. Any conversation is going to be improved if I feel the warmth of your affection and respect. Everyone develops a political consciousness over time that is the result of multiple influences including family, education, social environment, and ethnopolitical identification. Take the time to understand, to quote the vernacular, “where someone is coming from”. Personally, I’m interested in why people believe what they do and how they came to those beliefs. Consequently, I find it useful, more respectful, and less likely to drift into extreme polarization if I ask questions and make contributions in a more engaged and circumscribed manner.

Listen fully, and don’t stop listening just when you hear something you disagree with. You have to treat yourself as a filter sifting through ideas but ultimately letting it all filter through before responding. Otherwise, you run the risk of quickly categorizing the other person and then never getting beyond those category boundaries. Civility will be emergent if the other person(s) in the conversation is convinced that they have your attention. Maintaining this attention, and the attendant civility, requires cognitive effort.

Ask a lot of open-ended questions. I am often surprised at the willingness of some people to blurt out an opinion that is clearly harsh and rigid with no consideration given to the context or presence of others. Just go to your neighborhood bar that has the news on television – a rarity these days for just the reason I’m talking about – and see how long it takes for somebody to curse at the screen and yell at Hillary Clinton, or Obama, or Trump. If I ask a question such as “What do you mean by that…” or “Tell me how you came to that conclusion…” or “What do you think about some issue” then these questions are going to open up the other person and require them to expand on challenging assertions and charges. Making confrontational accusatory statements or directly challenging the other result in two troublesome possibilities, namely, the categorization of the other which narrows the relationship between the two, or the perception of interpersonal threat which exaggerates differences and creates even wider gaps differentiating the two parties.

Learning civility helps people become explicable to each other and makes for deeper conversations. Ideally, the parties to the confrontation would engage in reciprocal conversation such that they would express themselves in a such a manner that they find out more about what they believe themselves. The interactional self finds its own image and the other in the network of interactions that he or she occupies. Civility is foundational. So, next Thanksgiving confront your right-wing uncle or your left-wing cousin in a manner consistent with the civility necessary for reflective conversation.

How Did We Allow Trump to Happen?

Yes, Trump lost the election. But he got 74 million votes: That means there is still work to do. There has been much analysis of Trump –his style, inelegance, crudity, and manipulation. But there has been considerably less analysis of the audience side of the relationship. What is it about our culture that allowed Trump to thrive and be elected in the first place?

I’m concerned about and threatened by the general intellectual (rather anti-intellectual) nature of our citizenry. Trump was a historical mistake, an anomaly, a monster from another planet, the trickster capable of fooling the creatures that grow in democracies.

Our democracy, and the Constitution that warrants it, is designed to manage and control differences. That’s what systems of control do. Political cultures are composed of differences and those differences can be exaggerated and out-of-control with asymmetrical power relations, or they can mollify differences. And the history of our democracy is one of expanding inclusion; that is, demagogues like Trump are held in check while the legitimate political class tries to understand the makeup of the electorate.

The citizenry of a democracy is supposed to hold primary agency and need to be prepared given effective educational and socializing systems. In a word, too many Americans (shall we say 74 million of them) were easily duped or at a minimum failing the cognitive requirements of sound political decision-making. I typically ask someone who voted for Trump what it was they were imagining. Given his history of corruption, fabrications, narcissism, and moral turpitude what justified a vote for Trump. Usually, and this is the case with the Christian right also, they recognize Trump’s character but do not care. How did we develop into a political culture that does not care about respect for others and generally moral behavior? There are three areas that must change in order to avoid future “Trumps.”

First, our polarization stretches us to opposite poles of opinion. The guardrails protecting us from extreme language and exaggerated points along with poor evidence-based reasoning have come tumbling down. People express themselves more extremely and make it impossible to find common intersections of agreement. Polarization is not the same as disagreement. The participants in our political culture must learn to disagree and maintain respect for an opponent that is an adversary and not an enemy.

Secondly, we have damaged one of our founding creeds which is pluralism. Our anxieties over cultural differences continue to deepen even in the face of calls for diversity in a society replete with messages about respect for differences. Structural discrimination is a continuing problem and will be dependent on civic practices of persuasion over coercion and toleration rather than resistance.

Finally, I have a gut feeling that our educational system is failing many students in the basic practices of democracy especially argumentation and decision-making. There should be a redoubled effort to return to teaching strategies of rhetorical practices and the benefits of evidence-based reasoning.

Teaching public life and the opportunities for an increased unity of public goals is a direct response to the threats of Donald Trump and will guarantee a citizenry prepared to resist the demagogic aspirations of some future Trump.

The left and social justice overreach

 

I have been interested in, and somewhat put off by, that spectrum of the left that considers their moral status to be so fundamental to the principles of the democratic state that they become almost fascistic in their expression and implementation of these principles. The belief that society is saturated with illiberal forces and it is the responsibility of the left to constantly surveil and adjust these forces such that the political system moves more toward equality and ethical pluralism.

In the truly moral political society asymmetries in power and access to resources (both symbolic and material) are to be subject to equalizing forces. In other words, if an ethnic, religious, political, or social class group holds particular power, then that power is to be attenuated.

There are two classes of power, one economic and the other symbolic. Economic inequality is difficult to manage unless the state is described as highly centralized or socialist and the economy is centrally managed. The issue of how centrally managed an economic system should be is the subject of persistent political debate. The political parties typically organize around these issues with liberal parties favoring more central management in pursuit of social goods and weakening of debilitating group differences, and conservative parties relying less on managed government.

 But other inequalities are symbolic and refer to differences between group status and the perceptions of group rank and significance. This is where ethnic, religious, or social class differences develop into stereotypes and distorted perceptions of others and result in unequal groups and the resultant group tensions. So, racist speech on campus is considered harmful because it attacks the goals of education, inclusion, and it interferes with rational discourse. The key issue here is how much difference do we tolerate. And the attempt to manage these groups – typically by changing language – is what is referred to as political correctness or PC. Tactics and strategies are controversial such as speech codes, language policies, and restrictions on how one speaks in the workplace etc.

This is where the left slips into repression operating under the guise of group sensitivity. This is the area of social justice overreach. Pre-scripting in the form of a speech code is nothing less than prior restraint where language and communication are censored first and examined later.

The logical extension of speech codes, prior restraint, and group identity rights is state-promoted conformity. This results in support for the liberal state to counteract oppression and inequalities in the name of justice. The state becomes 1984-ish and coupled with restricting individual liberties rather than increasing them, which was the original liberal goal. Consequently, the left’s attempt to smooth out inequalities and enhance social justice, ends up doing just the opposite.

But it gets worse. In the leftist postmodern conception of social justice anything that claims to move us toward truth or a more accurate reflection of reality (such as science, or reason) becomes disreputable because it is a hegemonic system that is destined to reproduce its own power. Thus, the left has again overreached.

The liberal agenda is noteworthy in its attempt to moderate differences and more equally distribute justice and fairness. And even some sort of soft censorship might be acceptable. But when the liberal left institutes policies and infrastructure designed to forcibly oversee the use of language, that is engaging in illiberal behavior on the basis of the misguided notion that such oppressive behavior is justified.

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