Saturday, January 14, 2017

Unmoored (tl;dr)

The signs are everywhere. Herr trump says he doesn't need to divest business interest or release taxes because the public doesn't care and isn't interested, and the counter-argument is to cite statistics that yes, the public does care.That's swell-- but isn't the point that we have rules and laws and even Presidents are supposed to follow them?

Our discourse about ourselves as a country has come unmoored, detached from any side of dock or shore or anchor; we're blown about by the winds of personal impulse, tied to nothing but our similarly unmoored tribes.

The continuing Russian hacking-blackmail-influence dustup finally broke my brain. If you are anti-Russian, but pro-CIA and do believe that the hack actually happened, that means you belong to... which tribe, again? Can you guess which tribe would be saying things like "You can't trust the agencies that told us about WMDs" or "We should embrace friendship with Russia" or "It's unpatriotic to dis the FBI"? I'm not sure I can anymore, and many people have lost their bearings trying to keep up-- and that's before we even get to the business of sorting out which facts your side believes are facts today.

That's because most sides of the argument (and I'm not even sure how many there are any more) have stopped trying to understand what is actually happening and, as with most hot topics in the US today, have dug in on whatever side they are on. There are no rules, no guiding principles, no ties to anything except whatever the people running your particular movement have decided is your position.

This is (one of) my problems with Movements-- too often things descend into an argument about which people are pure enough, right enough, aligned enough, to deserve our loyalty or fealty. The Reformsters have had their ongoing sturm and drang about maintaining the coalition between left and right. On the public school side, there are frequent arguments about whether or not certain figures desrve the respect they have, or should be cast out into the darkness because they haven't taken the right position on A or X.

I have never understood these arguments, these quests for purity. First of all, you know who sees the world exactly the same way I do? Nobody. Second, you know who in this world I give my unquestioning fealty and allegiance, whose word I will absolutely accept and follow, no questions asked? Nobody. You know who I expect to follow me without question and agree with whatever I have to say without debate? Also nobody. You see the pattern.

Let me talk about some things I believe.

You cannot use other human beings as your moral compass. That includes yourself. Your moral compass comes from your principles, your values, your beliefs, your understanding, your vantage point, your empathy and apprehension and comprehension, and all of these things must be tuned and retuned and examined on a daily basis. You make your decisions based on your principles, your compass, and not on how you feel about other people who are arguing for A or B or Q or X.

Anyway. How did we become so unmoored that we talk about the laws governing the highest office in the land as if they are just a matter of debate and preference? How are we so unmoored that facts no longer matter? How did we become so unmoored that a whole raftful of Americans now have the political position, "I don't care what he says. Whatever he says, even if it's contradicted by established fact, even if it's exactly what I decried in someone else not so long ago, I agree with it." How did we get to a place where we no longer believe in the rule of law or the lawfulness of rules?

I blame my generation (okay, it's possible that this business goes all the way back to Thoreau, but I'll stick to proximate causes). As long as we've been able to shoot off our mouths, we Boomers have been guided by the idea that you must Do The Right Thing even if it means breaking the rules, and we  meant to be guided by principle, but we too often slid into believing that if we were good and righteous people, well, then, whatever we wanted to do must be okay. I've always been struck how Bill Clinton and Junior Bush both operated without shame, even when caught misbehaving, certain that they were good and righteous people and therefor they couldn't be screwing up. No Nixonian hiding behind the Office ("If the President does it, it's not illegal").

This has become Normal. watch any tv show from NCIS to Grey's Anatomy and watch people in positions of power and authority just shred rules like tissue paper. I've always maintained that Americans were largely unalarmed by finding out that the government collected and sifted through phone records because they watch it done all the time on shows like NCIS-- but, you know, it's good guys violating your rights, so it's okay.

This self-guided dismissal of the rules (I don't need to follow the rules as long as I follow my conscience") has, ironically, led to an explosion of rules. Because, personally, I don't need a lot of rules because i am guided by my conscience-- but Those People over there? I'm pretty sure they're going to screw things up unless we slap some stronger rules on them. And instead of building those rules on principles, we build them on personal preferences, like a harbor tie-off that is just  a free-floating buoy that is not tied to anything itself.

That explosion of Unprincipled Rules for Those People in turn feeds the decay of rule-following, because when someone slaps you with a stupid rule, you're just that much more inclined to dismiss not only the importance of following that rule, but of following any and all rules. So, more rules, and more rule ignoring.

But trying to live by trotting out your principles and values and then analyzing the situation for every single situation-- well, that gets tiring, and lots of folks are in situations where having to choose is hard because no choices look good (like, say, the last election cycle). So instead of tying their ship to something stable and solid and anchored in the earth's crust, they just look for someone to hook onto, so they can just follow along and not have to navigate for themselves any more. And the more everything else in the harbor looks like the chaos of a million unmoored crafts, the more appealing it is to tie off to someone who declares, "Follow me. Let me steer you. I will keep you safe and on course." And that just leads to a bunch of arguments about which such boat is the best one for everyone to hook up to, instead of talking about how we should all just find our own moorings.

For teachers this has been particularly challenging. We are by nature fans of rules. We like them. We expect our students to follow them, and we are inclined to follow them ourselves. But the rules have been turning ugly and capricious for a while, rules that are unmoored and unattached to any principles of education, any facts about educating humans. We've been coming to understand that we must either navigate for ourselves or hook our craft to a loose buoy that will drag us right over the falls.

Rules that are not anchored in principle are just expressions of personal power. And that challenges one of the foundations of our society. We were a country built on rules anchored to principles, explicitly rejecting the idea of rules based on personal power, and now we are beginning to realize that we have been inching toward autocracy for a while, and we're, maybe, just about there.

As a classroom teacher, I deal with this by making sure that I'm operating out of principle, and that I examine all of my assumptions and ideas regularly, including what input I gather by reading, listening, paying attention.

As a person, I've been doing this work for years, not because I'm some sort of highly-principled virtuous person, but because I'm not. I've done stupid things, hurtful things, terrible things, and I would rather not do any more, and I have learned the hard way that autopilot is not my friend.

There are people I trust a great deal, people whose judgment I value and whose point of view I consider worth examining. Not all of these people would agree with each other, and there isn't one of them whose judgment I would follow blindly (though a few come pretty close-- hi, honey!) I don't think I will ever reach a point in my life when I can say, "All right then-- I know everything I need to know about that." I work hard to be keep myself connected to principles and values that I can trust, and I like to think that my moral compass is pretty well-tuned, even as I am fully aware that every person who ever did a terrible thing was sure their compass pointed to true north.

In some ways, I see all of this as the central huge challenge of teaching today-- how do we help bring students up to be able to find their way in a society that has become unmoored. "Just follow the rules" or "Just do the right thing" or "Always trust the authorities" were once standard childhood advice; now they seem ridiculous. How do we help young humans find their way when we can barely find our own? How do we help young humans find a way without telling them which way they are supposed to find?

Is it too hokey to say that love, empathy, kindness, and unselfishness are a help? I don't think so, though clearly those are not values in ascendance in Trumpistan. I don't know if we ever get back to a place where our ships are safely moored, anchored to something solid and true. Maybe the best we can hope for are reliable compasses, and if that's true, then I think we could find worse metaphorical compass points than love, empathy, kindness and unselfishness. That's my hope, anyway.


  1. This is why someone like Glenn Greenwald has taken such a beating on the left these days. His core principles have remained the same since the Bush days. He's been steadfastly against the abuse of power and steadfastly in favor of civil rights of the people. When he was applying those principles to the Bush administration, Democrats were cheering him on wildly. When he finally started to realize that Obama was continuing many of the abuses of the Bush administration and started calling him out for it, Democrats/liberals turned on him. Now he's a "Putin stooge" and/or a "Trump troll" because he dares to demand evidence before convicting someone, even someone as odious as Trump, based on unsubstantiated allegations and innuendos from unaccountable sources.

    Those of us who also attempt to adhere to these principles are likewise called Trump trolls and accused of having a "crush" on Putin. This happens practically daily on a certain major education blog that shall remain nameless. People have become so frightened of Trump that they are willing to throw out any and all principles and previously held positions as long as it's damning to Trump. The only "principle" many on the left have remaining is tribalism, two legs bad, four legs good.

    Frankly, it's making for some pretty uncomfortable bedmates, because there are plenty that I am now "allied" with who only ally with me because, while they are on the opposite side of the political spectrum from me, they likewise chucked their principles in favor of "their guy".

    I don't support Trump but I do support the basic principles of the American justice system, such as the presumption of innocence and the right of the accused to confront his accuser. Anonymous, secret "evidence" that we can't see (but Israel can?) doesn't cut it for me. If there's a case to be made against Trump, please, by all means, make it now - time is running out. But if there is no there there, then they can't do that, not even to Trump.

  2. Peter, this is excellent and on target. Like you, I struggle to do the right thing - to teach by example to care about others, to put the greater good above what's best for me, to avoid saying or doing hurtful things, to be present for others. I often fail, but these are the things I value and strive to attain
    And I feel like this is getting to be a more solitary path all the time. There's a part buried deep inside who believes it's still possible to be an honest, ethical politician, but finding them is an exhausting struggle. Now my concern is for my grandchildren. I hope they have the opportunity to love, have empathy, be kind, and be generous to others - to be this kind of person without being taken advantage of or hurt. Really not sure what we are facing in the next few years, but I think we'll find out soon what America is really made of. Let's hope it's something to be proud of!

  3. Speaking of tl;'s a great piece that touches on some of the same things...

    "Either we are the people we say we are, or we are not"

  4. I worked as a labor organizer in MA for a while, and several times had to sit at the table listening to union-busting consultants and company execs explain, without a hint of shame or embarrassment, why they weren't going to give their minimum wage employees a damn thing because they had the upper hand and they get away with it. It's not that they were certain of their righteousness. It's the idea that the negotiations (and politics in general) is a game, all about Winning! instead of an issue that affected the lives of 400 poor retail associates in a very real way. They sat their talking down to us and the workers (my favorite line was "don't bite the hand that feeds you") either unaware or unconcerned with the complete absence of any morality or social responsibility in their position. If you treat your neighbors or friends like that people are going to peg you as an awful person, but for some reason one of two major political parties in this country can disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Americans through voters suppression bills and it's seen as just 'another side of a policy debate' instead of something that's despicable and wrong. There's the people you described, absolutely sure of their moral superiority, but there's also the people who know damn well how wrong they are. There's just no longer a social contract to keep people's worst, darkest instincts in check