Civility or Avoidance?

There has been a great deal written about “civility” in the political discourse of the chattering classes, lately.  I’ve written some of it myself.  But what is “civility”?

I think most people would respond with some version of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous phrase with regard to obscenity in 1964: “I know it when I see it.”  He was mocked, and rightly so, for championing such an utterly subjective standard.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition is hardly more helpful:

1     archaic training in the humanities
2a : civilized conduct; especially : courtesy, politeness

  • bemoaned the decline of civility in our politics
  b a polite act or expression

  • lacked the little civilities and hypocrisies of political society —Roy Jenkins
  • The men briefly exchanged civilities before the meeting began.

I’m all for training in the humanities.  Frankly, I think a bit more of that, and of education in general, would heal a lot of the ills this country faces now.  but I don’t think that is what people are talking about when they talk about civility today.  Rather they are looking at that second definition.

And that seems hopelessly subjective as well.  Who is to define what is “civilized conduct”?  Miss Manners?  Dear Abbie?  Or courtesy and politeness, for that matter?

Don’t get me wrong, I think there is definitely a place for courtesy and politeness in society.  I also think there is a strong reason most norms of society were established.  You could say, with some justification, that they are an essential part of the glue which holds our society together, along with the rule of law.  That glue is what keeps us from constantly attacking, verbally and physically, all with whom we disagree or who are different from us.  That keeps us from a time when the strong rule the weak with an iron hand, and the majority can oppress the minority at will.

So civility is not unimportant.

But it is also not sufficient to face the threats we have now.

Politics has always been a bare-knuckle fight, filled with aggressive, alpha dog men (and recently a few women) who have frequently tested the bounds of normal “civility” in their quest to advance the causes they believe in, or just to accumulate more power.  However, until the coming of Donald Trump, they were somewhat restrained by the normal rules of society.  They might stray across the line occasionally, but those who were successful always eventually returned to the norms of “civilized” behavior, either voluntarily or because public opinion forced them to.  Those who did not were eventually rejected and repudiated by the American people.

Trump is different.  He has met no norm of civilized society that he is not prepared to break.  He doesn’t occasionally cross the line.  He obliterates the line and celebrates the fact that is doing it.  He clearly believes the line doesn’t apply to him.  So far, it is hard to argue that he is wrong.  A huge portion of his support comes from people who adore him not despite the fact that he is nasty, bigoted and petty, but rather BECAUSE he is nasty, bigoted and petty.  At least so long as he aims his nastiness and bigotry at people other than them.  People they don’t like.

And, yes, it is the absolute height of hypocrisy for anyone who voted for Donald J. Trump to accuse anyone else in he world of “incivility”.  The very idea of that would make me roll around on the floor clutching my sides in fits of hilarity.  It would, if those same people had not made him our president.  Instead, it breaks my heart and moves me to the verge of tears.

Just as it breaks my heart that some of those who oppose him think the best way to do so is to engage him on his level.  I love them for their courage and their commitment to face down all that is wrong in America today, but they still break my heart.

That does not mean that I believe we need to remain silent in the face of the very real damage being done to our democracy by the wannabe dictator and his sycophantic cult of personality.  Far from it.

They deserve and more than deserve every bit of derision, every harsh condemnation, every verbal counterattack they receive.  They have it coming and then some.

I still think there are some lines that we shouldn’t cross, like Samantha Bee and Robert DeNiro’s vulgarity and like refusal of service to Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the Virginia restaurant “The Red Hen”.  But my reason for believing we shouldn’t cross those lines is not because I disagree with the sentiments of those who crossed them.  Rather it is because I believe they are deeply counterproductive.  They too easily feed into the narrative that Trump is no different from anybody else.  That both sides are equally vulgar and nasty.  That loyalty to tribe is more important than character in our leaders.

That thinking, perhaps as much as anything else, enabled Trump’s rise.

But those of us who have long respected civility, who believe that character in our leaders is important, and that some rules of behavior ought to be respected need to find an appropriate response to Trump and the threat to democracy that he represents.  Perhaps our old notions of civility need to be revised.

We need to speak up loud and clear in response to every fresh outrage, every blow that Trump strikes against minorities, the poor, the rule of law and against democracy itself.  We need to not shy away from using accurate labels and strong terms like racism, bigotry, white nationalism and white supremacy when they are well-deserved, as they are just about every day.  We cannot let the need for “civility” deter us from speaking truth to power.

If we do, that’s not “civility”.  That’s just conflict avoidance…or appeasement.  We have a responsibility to speak out loud and often when we see wrong being done.

Maybe someday we can restore a broader definition of civility.  I certainly hope so and this November gives us a golden opportunity to take a step in that direction.

Until then, I don’t really have it in my heart to completely condemn those who cross the line in criticizing Trump.  But it still makes me sad, and I worry that it is plays right into his hands.




Sticking with the Game Plan

I think virtually everyone would agree, even if they cannot agree on who is to blame, that America is in a nasty mood these days.  We are deeply divided and a snarl is more common than a smile when we encounter people on the “other side” of our great divide.  I confess to frequently feeling angry myself, and sometimes letting that slip into my own language in interactions with people who push my buttons.

I don’t apologize for the former.  I think there is plenty going on in America that people should be angry about.

I do feel ashamed about and apologize for the latter.  I need to be able to handle my own emotions better.  We need to be able to disagree without insulting, using profanity and calling people vile names.

Comedian Samantha Bee and actor Robert DeNiro both attracted attention and condemnation recently for using aggressive and profane language to express their disgust for the policies of this President.  I agree with the disgust.  Not with the way they expressed it.  Bee has the graciousness (or at least the savvy) to apologize and retract her statement, but DeNiro has doubled down on it.  And it depresses me that many people cheer him for it.

Now you can certainly argue that many, many Trump supporters, and Trump himself  have said far worse and said it far more often, and point out their hypocrisy.  That’s undoubtedly true.  We all remember the frothing hatefests that surrounded Trumps campaign appearances.  But it’s not a justification for doing the same.  And it is incredibly counterproductive.

President Trump’s success was made possible, in large part, because many people saw his opponents as just as bad as he is.  If all politicians and political viewpoints are corrupt, immoral and unethical, why not vote at least for the one that you think will advance your pet causes, whichever they may be?  Or why vote at all, if you cannot vote for someone you respect and admire?

The cold hard facts are that political cynicism, which fuels low voter turnout, plays into the hands of conservatives and the Republican Party.  They cannot win any competitive election in which there is high voter turnout.  The poll numbers have said that for years, and it is even more true under Trump.  That is why they work ceaselessly to depress voter turnout in any way they can.  And highlighting angry, hateful speech by liberals is an important part of that campaign.

It’s absolutely not fair that one party can insult and belittle their opponents in the most vile and profane ways and pay little to no political price for it, while the other party is punished deeply for doing the same thing.  That hypocrisy and imbalance makes me even more angry, and the tribalism and propaganda that make it possible deeply sadden me.  I understand the desire to lash out and rage against the injustice.

But it doesn’t work.  It may be cathartic, and it may satisfy those who already agree with us, but it does not impress anyone whose mind is not already made up.  Rather it pushes them away.  And that will doom us to failure.

I’m not saying that the outrages of the Trump Administration should be ignored.  To the contrary, we must not ignore them.  We must respond to and condemn each and every one of them.  But we can’t lash out and use Trump’s own weapons against him.  They just don’t work for us.

Anyone who has a brain and a conscience already has many reasons to oppose Trump.  Adding more is fine, but unlikely to move many votes.

What is needed is not just reasons to vote against Trump and the party which spawned him and is now utterly dominated by him.  What is needed are positive reasons to vote for liberals and Democrats, particularly when we get to the next presidential election.

Part of that is showing we can be better than Trump.  That we can strongly oppose what he stands for without stooping to his level.  That we can criticize without insulting.  That we can ignore the insults made against us.  That we stand for something more than just a change in who’s in charge.

So it’s time to put on our big boy and big girl pants, and give people a reason to vote for us, and not just against Trump.  And part of that is proving that politics does not have to be as nasty, insulting and demeaning as it has become over the last few years.

In sports there are teams that benefit from slowing a game down, making it more physical, and from throwing their opponents “off their game” with dirty tricks.  I would submit that the Republican Party of today is just such a team, and they are very, very good at it.  Perhaps the best.  To beat them, we need to avoid falling into their traps and engaging on their level.  In sports parlance, we need to play a game that emphasizes skill and speed, instead.  Policy, rationality and compassion are our best weapons.  We need to bottle our anger, not be provoked, and “keep our heads in the game” to quote every coach ever.

Or we lose again.

The Destruction of the Community of Democracies

What we are seeing now is nothing less than a radical realignment of America’s foreign policy.  Under the guise of “America First” the Trump Administration is steadily destroying the post-war network of military, trade and political alliances among the world’s major democracies.  This network was created and sustained over decades by every single Republican and Democratic administration since WW II.  This network carried the U.S. to its greatest prestige and power in the world, and is responsible in no small part for the prosperity and peace we and much of the Western world have enjoyed.  Due to this network, the idea of another world war among the major powers of Western Europe or Asia, such as ripped the world apart twice before it was created, is now virtually unthinkable.  These nations turned their back on the dangerous siren call of nationalism to build something together.  And they all benefitted.  Most of all the United States.

Trump is busy turning it all to ashes.  With threats and bullying he is driving wedges into all of our alliances.  He doesn’t understand any of it, nor does he seem to want to understand any of it.  In his ignorance and his spite he is behaving like a two-year old having a tantrum, lashing out around him and causing destruction to everything within his reach.  He is surrounded by sycophants, enablers and incompetents, and those few advisers he has who know better are unable to sway him or control him.  He is destroying the work of men far better than he.

And what will he replace it with?  I don’t think he knows or cares.  It does seem obvious that he is most comfortable with dictators and autocrats around the world, from Russia’s Putin to Duterte of the Philippines.   He admires their “strength”, derived rom the fact that they crush all dissent.  He dismisses their human rights abuses.  He is jealous of the pomp and circumstance that they celebrate their rule with, and jealous of the way they deal with their critics.  He seems to wish he were like them.

And they are delighted.  The enemies of America are rejoicing, particularly the Russians.  Their prayers have been answered.  They have been trying to undermine the Western alliance system for many years.  And now the person who should be leading that alliance system is doing it for them.  The investment they made in helping him win the Presidency is looking like the best investment they have ever made.

It is not too late.  Damage has been inflicted on the institutions of the Western alliance, just as damage has been inflicted on our own democracy in America, but those institutions, both international and domestic, were built strong and robust.  They can take a fair amount of damage before buckling completely.  But their endurance is not limitless.

There is no doubt that the post-WW II Western alliance system cannot stand forever without American leadership.  If and when it falls, we will enter a new and much more dangerous and unpredictable era of our history.  An era in which nationalism, the force which ripped the world apart so many times, again becomes dominant.  When narrowly defined self-interest dominates the policies of the great powers again.  Only now those great powers are all armed with nuclear weapons, or could be quickly if they so desired.

The Trump Administration is not just playing with fire.  They are building a bonfire which could consume the world.

We need to take away their matches.  That begins in November with the election of a Congress that will be a real check on his dangerous and ignorant plans.



The Challenge of Hate Speech in a Free Society

Must a tolerant society also tolerate intolerance?  This a is a question all free societies wrestle with, and there are no easy answers.

Most Americans are probably unaware of it, but our respect for free speech in the United States is pretty extreme.  They know, of course, that many countries of the world do not enjoy the same rights we do in the United States, but I think they imagine that is just in the countries that have authoritarian or non-democratic governments.  But that’s not the case.  Nearly every country in the world takes a less expansive view of free speech than the United States.  Most countries have stronger libel laws, for example, making it easier for the press to be sued for publishing things that are untrue.

Most also have laws that limit hate speech much more than the United States does.

That doesn’t mean that they are horrible places where the rights of the people to speak out in unpopular ways are under constant threat.  They’re not.  They are places with histories different from our own that recognize the undeniable truth that hate speech is a corrosive that damages all of society when left unchecked.  It is a grave threat to the stability and health of any democratic nation.  Their position is perfectly understandable and defensible.

But I have never agreed with it.

It is without doubt that hate speech is a vile, damaging and obscene thing.  It is a tremendous challenge for any democratic society.  It cannot and must not go unchallenged, particularly when it is aimed at minorities and other less advantaged groups by members of the dominant group.

But it shouldn’t be illegal.

For many years it was my job to push the official USG policy on hate speech, which can be summed up like this: Bad speech (hate speech) should be countered by good speech.  Every time.  By all good and responsible members of society, and especially by government leaders and by members of the dominant social group.  We have preached that standard to other countries for many years, and have held them to account with condemnation when they failed to do so.

I believe in this standard.  Hate speech, in my opinion, should not be banned, but it must always be countered and condemned.  Immediately.  By all right-thinking members of society.  Without caveats or reservations.  Without consideration of political alliances or tribalism.

That is where we currently have a problem in the United States.  The first reaction of many people, taking their clues from right-wing propaganda and our current government, is not to condemn hate speech, but rather to condemn those who protest against it by making the ludicrous allegation that protesting hate speech is a violation of the right to free speech.  That is wrong on many different levels, but the most important one is that the first reaction must always be to condemn the hate speech immediately and without any reservation.

Without that condemnation our right to free speech is meaningless.  Hate speech, if not countered by near unanimous societal condemnation, and particularly by condemnation from our leaders, can destroy us as a society.  The right to free speech must be accompanied by the courage and commitment to ostracize those who engage in hate speech each and every time, if democracy is to survive in America.

This administration and its supporters have fallen far short in this regard, and have engaged in some of what is arguably hate speech themselves, on more than one occasion.  That needs to change, or we need to change this administration when next we go to the polls.

True American Exceptionalism

We Americans have always taken pride in the fact that our country is a pretty special place.  Within our foreign policy that has frequently taken the form of what is called “American exceptionalism”, the idea or conceit that we have a special place in the world and are different from other countries, better even.

Now. certainly not everyone agrees with this notion.  There are those who point to our frequent hypocrisy, our foreign policy missteps, and our failures of morality and ethics to show that we no different, and no better than any other nation.  They make some very valid points.

But I don’t agree with them.  I have always believed in American exceptionalism.  If I hadn’t I could never have spent nearly three decades serving my country as a civil servant and diplomat.

There are a lot of things that make America special and different from other nations.  The most obvious of these is our sheer power.  We are, at the moment, considerably more powerful than any other nation on Earth, in terms of political, economic and military power.  No other nation comes close, and none of them will catch us any time soon.  All of that is obvious.  In my years as a diplomat I witnessed time and again that America is now, has been for some time, and will be for some time to come, the country whose support and participation is needed to accomplish almost anything of import, be it a military mission, a trade deal, a human rights accord or an environmental agreement.

But if that were all that made America special, I would not have felt moved to serve my country for so long.  What makes us special is the ideals on which we were founded.  Ideals that include democracy, freedom and human rights.  And the idea that every person in the world should be able to enjoy them as we do.  We haven’t always lived up to those ideals.  Far from it.

But sometimes we have.

Sometimes we have, in ways no other nation was or is capable of.  We have done good in the world, and not all of it was for purely selfish reasons.  We have led the world in a mostly positive direction, despite our many failures.  We have worked for peace and security, respect for human rights and for the spread of democracy.  And in turn, that has served our own selfish interests very well – the bipartisan consensus of the last eighty years or more in which we have embraced leadership in the world have been the time when America has thrived the most.  That is not a coincidence.  Others have worked for these causes as well, but none with the impact we can have because of our power.  Our leadership has been and still is necessary.  Without it, the world becomes a more dangerous place, a place dictators and aggressors feel more emboldened and where rights are more likely to be abused.  A world where democracy declines.

That is the true meaning and purpose of American exceptionalism.  That is why I served my country for so long and am proud of my service, as I am proud of my country.

That’s also why I am so saddened by the foreign policy of this Administration.  It clearly does not define American exceptionalism in the same way I do.  It focuses only on the power and the short-term interests of America, and ignores our ideals and is apparently ignorant of our long-term interests.  It seems to want to turn America into just another country, only stronger.  It has abandoned leading through persuasion and diplomacy and abandoned our allies in the process.  In its place it has installed the foreign policy of a bully, full of threats and unilateral actions designed to force others to our will.  It will undoubtedly achieve some short-term successes in that way, but at tremendous long-term cost both to ourselves and to the world.

It shouldn’t be a surprise.  One of the dominant personality traits of Donald Trump is that he is a bully.  No surprise that he should behave in the international arena just as he does in every other aspect of his life.  As with most bullies, however, I suspect he is a coward at heart.  And you can see the signs of it, in the way he backs down from other bullies in the world, like Russia and China.  Even worse, he seems to admire them in a perverse way, perhaps because they can be greater bullies within their own countries than our system allows him to be.

Clearly, there are many people in America (and there always have been) who do want America to be exceptional only because of its power.  America First has been a pernicious slogan for many years, discredited many times but always coming back.  Xenophobic nationalism and bigotry are difficult monsters to slay and I don’t know if we ever will be able to do so permanently.  They tore the world apart twice in the last century, costing millions of lives, and yet they still creep back now.  In America, Trump is their champion.

So, for all those of us who agree that America is exceptional and for those of us who would just like it to be, we need to decide why we want it to be exceptional.   To put it starkly, do we just want to be feared or do we want to be respected?  Do we want to lead or do we just want to bully?

America voted for the latter in 2016, and that is part of why I felt I needed to leave government service rather than serve an Administration whose foreign policy is based on short-sighted nationalism.  We have a chance to correct that mistake and restore true American exceptionalism in 2018 and 2020.  We need to seize that chance.


Helpful Hints for How Not to Be Accused of Racism

In my discussions with many, many conservative white Americans over the last few years, including friends, family and acquaintances, one thing has come through to me very, very clearly.  Boy, do they hate to have it said or even implied or hinted at that anything they say or do, or anything they believe might be even the tiniest bit racist.  That is especially true of their political choices.

Of course, we know that these people could not possibly have even the tiniest bit of racism in them because the entire history of our nation is devoid of racism.  White people in our country have always treated people of all races with complete and total respect and equality, and even if they haven’t, all of that stuff is long in the past and has no relevance to Americans today.  I mean, we elected a black President, right?

So, now that we have established that conservative white Americans are definitely in no way even the tiniest bit racist in their actions or beliefs, we can move on to the obvious truth.  They are just misunderstood by people who are either not conservative, not white, or (horrors!) both.  The things that conservative white Americans do or say are not racist at all, but just being taken that way.  The poor liberals and minorities are just being deluded by the mainstream media and the intellectual elite that has written our history.

All that said, perhaps I can offer some advice to conservative white Americans who wish to avoid the unpleasantness of having to defend themselves against doubtless unfounded accusations of racism.  Such confrontations are so unpleasant and emotionally trying that it would be best if they are avoided, right?  I mean, who needs people “playing the race card” on you all the time?

So here are a few things that I think you should do to avoid being misunderstood and having to defend yourself, because those poor misguided fools who watch (or God forbid read) the mainstream news and have the intellectual arrogance to actually study our history might think something you say or do is kind of racist.

  1.  Make sure that the only time you mention blacks, Hispanics, Muslims or any other minority on your social media is not when you are condemning something one of them or a minority of them did.  They irrationally assume that because you do not do the same with white people that that’s kind of racist.  Crazy, huh?
  2. While we’re on social media, make sure you don’t accidentally re-post memes from white supremacist groups, especially those that don’t have every little detail correct.  The liberals and minorities are absurdly sensitive about that.  If you do post such a thing accidentally and are called on it, remove it immediately and apologize for it, since it was obviously just an honest mistake on your part and how could you possibly know where it came from and that the content was full of lies?  I mean, it’s not like there are any tools on the Internet to verify such things, right?  And it seemed like it might be true to you, so that’s almost the same thing.
  3. Avoid using Confederate symbols in your posts.  Liberals and black people are really touchy about that.  They seem to think just because historians pretty much all say the Civil War was about slavery, and that the Confederate battle flag was not really used at all until it became a symbol of resistance to the Civil Rights Movement (which of course you would have supported if you were around then, unlike conservative white Americans of that time), and that most Confederate monuments were similarly erected at a time when the South was resisting federal efforts for racial equality, that such admiration for the symbols of the South are indications you secretly support racist groups rather than just symbols of regional pride and or the spirit of rebellion.  Oh, and this is doubly true if you aren’t from the South.
  4. Try to avoid criticizing black protesters who have the nerve to object when the police kill some minority member or beat them up, and it turns out they were unarmed.  The liberals and minorities have this absurd notion that there is endemic racism in our justice system just because a bunch of studies say so and they have all these statistics that nobody can understand to back it up.  You can maybe get away with criticizing violence at these demonstrations, but if you do, make sure you can show examples of when you supported protests that weren’t violent.  Minorities and liberals have this absurd notion that conservative white Americans have never supported racial justice movements.  That can’t be true, of course, since Martin Luther King has a holiday and a statue in Washington now, and it only took seventeen years for all the states to recognize the holiday.
  5. When there are violent clashes between white supremacists and counter-protesters, remember to also condemn the real racists if you are going to condemn  the violence and be sure that everyone knows that you do not see moral equivalence between racists and those who condemn racism.  Otherwise someone might get the ridiculous notion that you actually sympathize with the racists, which of course you don’t.
  6.  Don’t invite people widely seen to be racists to speak at your universities and civic events.  Liberals and minorities might think that you actually support their ideas, when you know that you are really just supporting their First Amendment rights.  I mean, the fact you read their stuff, attend their events and applaud when they speak is just a sign of your own intellectual flexibility and curiosity and common good manners, right?
  7. Finally, don’t vote for people who have actually done many of these things and are also widely seen to be racists.  It’s amazing how just because you vote for someone, then some people irrationally assume you support the things they say and do.  Obviously you are voting for them because you think either that they have been misunderstood (over and over again) or misrepresented by all those reporters and intellectuals, or because you think that they will do a good job despite their open racism.  I mean, you’re a white person, so you don’t have to make opposing racism a top priority, right?  Because it’s not that big a deal, at least to you, and why should it bother you if only other conservative white people see it that way?  But still, it will be misunderstood by all those liberals and minorities who think it should be a big deal, so better safe than sorry.

The Cyrus Fallacy

Certain evangelical leaders who are deeply involved in politics have been pushing the theory for some time right now that President Trump is akin to the biblical and historical figure of Cyrus the Great, who was anointed by God and freed the Jews from their captivity, enabling their return to Jerusalem and the reconstruction of the Temple.  Their motive for doing so is to reinforce Trump’s strong support among the white conservative evangelical demographic group, which some thought might waver as Trump’s crude and definitely ungodly language and behavior in both past and present continue to be highlighted.  They use the example of Cyrus to show that even a non-Christian can be used by God to advance his plan.

In that last point they are absolutely correct.  Repeatedly in the Bible non-believers are used, wittingly and unwittingly, to carry out God’s will.

After that, however, the analogy falls apart utterly.

First off, Cyrus was no Trump.  While he is a figure of ancient history, he is a very significant one, and much is known about him.  Cyrus was, by most accounts, a conqueror, a statesman and an enlightened ruler who respected and protected religious and other diversity in his empire.

Trump is none of those things.  He avoided military service (or any service at all before being elected President).  He blusters and blunders through foreign and domestic policy, lying and misspeaking on a daily basis, and his entire presidency has been a series of scandals and disasters that have divide our country as rarely before, alienated our allies and emboldened our enemies.  His entire candidacy was based on a backlash against diversity in America, and its most defining characteristics are its crackdown on immigration and its rampant endorsement of racial and religious bigotry.

More importantly, however, regardless of how enlightened Cyrus’s rule was, the Jews had no choice but to depend on his good will and charity.  They were a captive and enslaved people with no control of their own destiny.  They did not vote to put Cyrus in power and could not influence and thus were in no way responsible for any of Cyrus’ actions.

That also is not the case now.  Conservative white evangelicals voted for Trump in large numbers, and are one of the groups most responsible for bringing him to power.  They do indeed bear some responsibility for all of his actions and policies, from his racism to his assault on the poor, from his misogyny to his corruption, from his repeated marital infidelity to his constant lying.  Their votes made everything he has done possible.  Their continued support and intent to vote for him again means they endorse his subsequent actions, or at least tolerate them.

Cyrus is praised in the Bible because he did what was right for the people of God.  The only way you can say the same about Trump is if you believe that the only issues of any importance in Christianity today are abortion and homosexuality.  Two issues on which our Lord and Savior said not one single solitary word in his three years of ministry.

Trump is no Cyrus, and today’s evangelicals are not in the same powerless position as the Jews under Babylonian rule.  They have choices and will be held to account for their choices.  That thought should lead to some fear and trembling.


Thoughts and Prayers

I’ve been thinking about the phrase “my thoughts and prayers are with you” a lot recently.  It’s something I say a lot.  As a person of faith it has meaning to me.  When I say it I do pray for the person involved and I definitely wish them well.  It is the kind of thing Christians and others of faith say to people who are suffering, and whom we want to know that we love them, care about them, and want things to get better for them.  Sometimes we back up the sentiment with other actions to help the situation, but sometimes prayer is the only thing we can do to help someone.  And I do believe in the power of prayer.  I have felt it in my life and seen its effects on the lives of others.  I’ve also seen heartfelt prayers go unanswered, and I do not understand why, but have faith that someday perhaps it will be made clear to me.

Nonetheless, this phrase has now become discredited in many circles.  People say, with some conviction, that it is merely an empty platitude, a meaningless sentiment used to appear sympathetic while actually doing nothing concrete to help.

I have to admit that hurts.

This last weekend, I went to the March for Our Lives in Washington, with several hundred thousand others.  The rejection of the phrase “my thoughts and prayers are with you” was prominently displayed on many signs, and mentioned by some of the speakers.  It was mocked to devastating effect in a video montage of president after president using the exact same words to comfort America after a devastating mass shooting.

It hurt to hear those men mocked, even attacked, for saying the same thing I say with such frequency.  It also made me sad that this might turn some people away from God.  I found myself growing defensive, found the need to defend the use of the phrase, to point out that, for a Christian, it’s not just a phrase, and that saying it did not mean that nothing else would be done to help.

To my relief, most people knew that, and understood why I felt hurt and defensive.  So I listened to them, and began to understand why the phrase angers and frustrates so many people.

They don’t get angry and frustrated when average people say it, people who have limited, if any, power to do more than pray.

They get frustrated and angry when people who do have the power and influence to do something say it.  When those people say it over and over again.  When those people do nothing else to help, when helping is very much in their power.  When they reject, against all statistical evidence, arguments that anything even can be done.  When they attack those people who want to do something about it.

I think I am beginning to understand.

The anger is reserved for those in power who use the phrase and never go beyond thoughts and prayers, when they could be doing so much more.  In that case, the phrase does indeed ring hollow, and it is natural to question whether the feelings behind it are even authentic.

They very well may be, for many.  Not every person who is opposed to gun control is unfeeling, and I am sure some of them, perhaps even most of them, genuinely believe that nothing can be done or that gun control would be counterproductive.

They are wrong.

But that doesn’t make them evil and it doesn’t mean that they are insincere.  It means they are human.

But it also got me thinking about assumptions, including the assumption that the rest of us, who are mostly let off the hook because it is assumed we have no power to do anything other than wish people well and pray for them.  Thinking deeper about it, I realize that assumption is also wrong.

As Americans we are never truly powerless to change things.  It is one of the blessings of living in this country.  We have the power to speak up and make ourselves heard, as a bunch of teenagers from Florida have just done.  We have the power to write and argue and advance policy proposals.

And we have the power to vote.

That is the most important one.  Americans have favored stronger gun control laws for many years, but politicians have actually moved against that trend, loosening them tremendously during my lifetime.  And yet they are still re-elected year after year.

There is a reason for that.  The power of the pro-gun lobby is actually the prime case study for the ability of a passionate minority to consistently get its way over a more complacent majority.  For most gun rights advocates, this is THE issue that determines their vote.  In comparison, until now, for most of the people who would prefer stronger gun control laws, this has been one issue among many, and it does not determine their vote.

That needs to change.  The kids from Parkland understand that, and they are determined to keep up the energy through the mid-term elections, and beyond if necessary, to make sure that the passion factor of the equation equals out and the majority finally prevails.

I will stand with them.  My challenge to all those others, like me, who use the phrase “my thoughts and prayers are with you” is to do the same.  To not just stop with thoughts and prayers.

By all means, keep praying, and keep wishing the victims of senseless violence well.  But don’t stop at that.



Shed No Tears for Rex Tillerson

I awoke this morning to the news that Rex Tillerson had been fired as Secretary of State and that Mike Pompeo was President Trump’s intended replacement.  Despite the fact that the State Department is where I spent nearly thirty years, and is still an institution that I care deeply about and believe is vital to our nation’s security, I really had no strong reaction.  It was kind of … meh.

Much of the analysis today is centered on two themes.  First, that this was the inevitable replacement of a relatively independent actor with a partisan loyalist.  Second was the idea that Tillerson, during his brief tenure, earned the distinction of being the weakest and perhaps the worst Secretary of State in modern history.

Both are undeniably accurate.

Tillerson was never a Trumpkin, although he, along with many others like Kelly and  McMaster, dutifully sold his soul and toed the erratic party line to get and maintain his positions, perhaps hoping to do some good or at least restrain bad.  Most who knew him said that Tillerson actually held great contempt for Trump.  When it came out that he had privately referred to Trump as a “moron”, I knew his days were numbered.  He lasted actually considerably longer than I thought after that.  Trump is never one to forgive a slight or an insult.

All that said, what did his humiliation and the selling of his soul get Tillerson?  Precious little.  I’m really not sure why he wanted the job, unless he thought he could use the position to advance the global interests of ExxonMobil, the company where he spent his entire career before that point.  I’m even less certain why he thought he was qualified for it.  He had neither any academic nor professional background in foreign affairs, other than representing the interests of a multinational country.  He had no background or record of public service of any kind.

In short, he was completely and utterly unqualified for the job.  Worse, he was arrogant enough not to recognize that he was completely unqualified and did not seek or value the input of the professionals at the State Department who were qualified.  He, like most recent Secretaries of State, in a very disturbing bipartisan trend, brought in a group of personal aides and political appointees who were only marginally more qualified, and leaned heavily on them for advice, rather than on career professionals.  Political loyalty was valued more than expertise.

The results were predictable.  Tillerson accomplished almost nothing in his year or so at the helm of the largest and most competent foreign ministry in the world.

And he inflicted incredible damage on the institution.  He came in with the preconceived notion that the State Department was too large, and thus did not resist President Trump’s petulant demand that it be gutted.  Talented senior diplomats, including me, chose to leave rather than serve this unworthy President and disloyal Secretary.  The influence of the State Department over foreign policy ebbed to the lowest point in post WW II history, and our foreign policy suffered as a result.  Under Trump’s direction, and with Tillerson’s inconsistent and ineffective attempts to be relevant, we have alienated our allies, given aid and comfort to our enemies and generally destroyed America’s once-lofty standing and reputation in the world.

So I shed no tears for Rex Tillerson.  He was an arrogant, unqualified man who got in over his head and did a great amount of damage to the State Department and American interests in his short term in office (you could write that same sentence about many of Trump’s cabinet picks).  He became exhibit number two (Trump is exhibit number one) in making the case that business skills and government skills are entirely different and success in one area does not easily translate into success in the other.

Unfortunately, I do not think things will improve under Pompeo, a partisan political hack and Trumpkin bootlicker who also has thin experience and qualifications for the job.  At least I can be happy for my colleagues at the CIA, who apparently will once more have a professional in charge rather than a political hack.

As for Tillerson, he can go back to Texas to lick his wounds and perhaps reflect on why it is never a good idea to sell your soul.  Some might find him a tragic or sympathetic figure.  My eyes will stay dry.

Hypocrisy, Danger and … Hope?

Choose your adjective.

It is infuriating/disgusting/hilarious/mind-blowing to watch Republicans suddenly do a 180 degree pirouette on the advisability of direct talks with rogue terror-sponsoring nations, now that President Trump has announced that is precisely what he is intending to do.  For years they have excoriated any Democratic politician who hinted at anything approaching negotiations, saying that doing so was a sign of weakness, and a surrender of important principles.  They made some very good points about the unreliability of North Korean leaders as negotiating partners and highlighted repeated violations of past agreements by the North Koreans.  Their success in making their point was impressive, and many Democrats agreed with them.  As a result, no recent American administration, Republican or Democratic, has agreed to direct bilateral talks with the North Koreans without significant preconditions.

Until now.

President Trump’s sudden conversion from a man who repeatedly rejected negotiations with North Korea and believed the solution lay in piling on more sanctions (like there is really anything left to sanction) and making threats of war is enough to give anyone whiplash.  And much of the Republican Party has suddenly made that conversion with him.  It’s a wonder they aren’t all walking around Capitol Hill wearing neck braces.  I guess being utterly without principles does give your policy neck a bit more flexibility.

But I’m not really mad about it, because the result may be worthwhile.  I’ve always been of the opinion that talking to our enemies hurts no one and nothing.  Talking increases the chances for understanding and progress, and in and of itself harms nothing.  I’ve never supported the policy (urged by conservatives, consistently when Democrats are in power and somewhat less consistently when Republicans hold the reins) that talking is a sign of weakness or gives “legitimacy” to our enemies.

I don’t really know what is going through Trump’s head (and I’m kind of thankful of that), or what his reasons are for his sudden reversal, but to some extent I don’t care.  Whatever the reason, it presents an opportunity we have not had in some time.  It certainly annoys me that if President Obama had tried to do the exact same thing, Republicans would have branded him a traitor, a spineless weakling and worse, but I can get past that for the possibility of real progress toward peace in Korea.

It is just a slim possibility of course, and there is considerable danger in these talks as well.   I have no confidence in Trump, an ignorant man who does not show any desire to learn, to negotiate on our behalf.  Only a few of his closest advisers have the experience and knowledge necessary to advise him well, and I pray that those few are able to guide him as he enters talks with very high stakes.

The North Koreans may be playing this just for the advantage in prestige it will give them.  They are very likely to renege on any commitment they make.  They undoubtedly believe they can take advantage of Trump’s inexperience and lack of knowledge to advance their own goals.  These are givens, but so long as you know that going in, they aren’t showstoppers.

Any sane person should also worry about the possible explosive fallout from putting two combustible personalities like Trump and Kim in the same room together.  Trump is never one to forgive a slight, and Kim has called him a dotard and vowed to destroy him.  Kim, on the other hand, is also notably volatile and has reportedly had many who criticized him killed.  And Trump has called him short, fat, a maniac and a madman.  Doesn’t sound like a match made in heaven.

On the other hand, perhaps they are kindred spirits who can come to an understanding.  Generally understandings reached between two such people have not been of great benefit to the world (think Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), but that’s not a certainty.

What is a certainty is that our long policy of opposing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs through diplomatic isolation and ever tougher sanctions has been a complete and utter failure.  North Korea is a nuclear power now.  We have to deal with that new reality, as it can’t be wished away.  Maybe it’s time to try something new, like talking.

Don’t get me wrong, I think these negotiations are unlikely to result in any real progress,  but they’re worth a try.  For once Trump’s instincts might be right.  There is at least a hope for something positive to come out of it, hope that has been utterly missing from our North Korea policy for a long time.

Doesn’t change how I feel about Trump.  He’s still a racist buffoon and an abomination that should never ever have been elected.  I won’t ever like him and won’t ever stop working to see he is defeated in 2020.

But I wish him well in his talks with Kim, and I’m glad he is having them.