Politics, Race, USA

Thoughts on Charlottesville: The necessity of conversation

This morning I finally watched the VICE documentary on the race-based terror that rocked the city of Charlottesville last weekend. The footage is nothing short of terrifying.  Even though I have no illusions about the pernicious role that racism continues to play in our society, I was still shocked to see that a white supremacist rally of that magnitude could take place in America in 2017.

Trump’s response to the rally was disgraceful.  Even if Trump himself is not a racist or a white supremacist, it’s pretty clear that his presidency has emboldened many people who are.  This was Trump’s opportunity to explicitly separate himself from those groups, but he didn’t take it.  Instead, Trump once again blew his racist dog whistle, refusing to denounce the hateful elements of his base that were so vital to his electoral success.

184503.pngHis attempts to draw equivalencies between neo-Nazis and radical leftist groups like Antifa are also total bullshit.  I personally have no shortage of criticisms that I could offer about certain elements of today’s far-left—their affinity for identity politics, their silencing of free speech on college campuses, their ever-evolving policing of political correctness—but I would still stop far short of equating them to Nazis. One side fights against racism whereas the other side fights for it, and no matter how misguided the means of the former group may be, I’ll take them over the latter group any day.

Moral outrage is definitely the appropriate response to what happened last weekend in Charlottesville.  If images of torch-wielding neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” don’t make your stomach sink, then you have some introspection to do.  However, as justifiable as our moral outrage might be, I still believe that conversation is the only solution.

The conversations that need to take place are not with the relatively tiny (albeit far too big) fraction of the population that self-identify as neo-Nazis or white supremacists, but with the people who, while not neo-Nazis or white supremacists themselves, still support small pieces of the agenda that motivated those far-right assemblies last weekend in Charlottesville.  These are the people who question the removal of Confederate monuments, the people who view groups like Antifa as legitimate threats to American democracy, the people who possess justifiable concerns over immigration and radical Islam, and most likely, the people who voted for Donald Trump.

At no point in this presidency have Trump supporters been more ready to jump ship than they are right now.  They are ready to seize the opportunity that the president did not and separate themselves from racism and bigotry.  They are ready to open up a dialogue with people of differing beliefs on how to move forward from some of the ugliest days in our country’s recent past.  But if we insist on labeling everyone whose outrage we deem as insufficient as an ally of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, then there are no conversations to be had.  If we don’t throw Trump supporters a lifering, then they are not going to jump ship.

Conversation doesn’t necessarily mean compromise.  It means finding common ground, validating beliefs that are acceptable, challenging beliefs that are not, and above all else, recognizing the humanity in the person on the other side of the table.

Everyone is a product of their life experiences.  No one is born a racist just like no one is born a criminal.  Those behaviors are learned.  They can be unlearned as well.

It’s easy to be the purest person in the room—to righteously shout your worldview from the hilltops while refusing to acknowledge the life experiences that, for right or for wrong, have led other people to see their worlds differently.  But when it comes to changing minds, that shouting will get you nowhere.

Conversation is about cultivating a mutual understanding.  It is the attitude of “perhaps if I listen to them, then they will listen to me.”  It’s an approach that gets people to uncross their arms and open their minds, in hopes that once the mind is open, it will be susceptible to change.  I get the sense that a lot of arms have come uncrossed since Charlottesville.  I just hope that our moral outrage doesn’t disable us from taking advantage of that opportunity.

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Military, Politics, USA

Donald Trump’s Military Transgender Ban

I’m willing to entertain the idea that transgender people, as a group, face more challenges than cisgender people when it comes to being equipped to serve in the U.S. military.  Physically, although I’m pretty ignorant of what the transition process really entails, I’d imagine that there would be some challenges that could adversely affect a person’s ability to effectively serve in the field.  Psychologically, I could also imagine how transitioning could be an extremely taxing and difficult process, especially considering the unsupportive-to-hateful attitudes that trans people often encounter in their day-to-day lives.

If a transgender person were deemed unfit for military service due to concerns about their physical and psychological ability, I would have no problem with denying that person the opportunity to serve.  The problem with Donald Trump’s policy, however, is that not all transgender people possess cause for such concerns.

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Donald Trump’s policy is a blanket statement.  It assumes that all transgender people are unfit to serve in the military because of the sole fact that they are a member of that group.  The evidence tells a different story.

Estimates vary, but most agree that there are currently thousands of transgender troops serving in the U.S. military both in active duty and the reserves.  Of this group, there is no shortage of examples to demonstrate the capacity of transgender people to effectively protect and serve their country.   Perhaps the most notable in the aftermath of yesterday is the service of Kristin Beck, a former member of the elite Navy Seal Team 6 who publicly challenged Donald Trump to “tell me to my face why I’m not worthy.”   And while it may be tough to find a lot of people, trans or cisgender, as decorated as Beck, there are plenty of other stories of transgender soldiers who have performed their duty adequately and honorably (i.e. Minnesota natives Capt. Tarrence Robertson and Air Force Maj. Bryan Bree Fram.)

Trump’s policy is hateful and discriminatory, but it is also insulting to the intelligence of the American public.  The series of tweets released yesterday by the president are only the latest blatant attempt to distract the public from the constant shitstorm that is his presidency.  It’s the equivalent of waving something shiny in front of us with his right hand in hopes that we won’t pay attention to what he’s doing with his left.  One day of debating the merits of Trump’s transgender tweets is one day that we are not talking about the Russia investigation.  It’s also an ill-concealed attempt to win back a lot of the conservative base that he had begun to alienate after his attacks on Attorney General and conservative stalwart Jeff Sessions—the story that had been dominating the news cycle before Trump woke up Wednesday and again turned his Twitter account into a Molotov cocktail.

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Trump’s strategy seems to be working.  The country has spent the last two days debating an issue that is not even regarded as official policy by the Pentagon, nor by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain.  Nevertheless, it’s probably a debate that we should be having, because no matter what the policy was or is in regards to this specific issue, it is clear that we as a country (myself included) have a long way to go in accepting and understanding transgender people.

It’s okay to question policy in regards to transgender people serving in the military.  I think it is fair to debate when and if taxpayer dollars should go towards the healthcare costs of transitioning, and how a culture of political correctness could adversely affect the functioning of our military.  What I do not think is fair, however, is turning the T in LGBT into an automatically disqualifying factor when it comes to military service in the United States.  There are too many examples of transgender people who have served successfully and honorably to lend this proposed policy any credibility.

To an extent, the U.S. military can and should discriminate.  People who are not fit to serve for various physical and psychological reasons should not be permitted to do so.  Some transgender people may fall in to this category, but many do not.  That’s why if we Americans are serious about the ideals that our country is founded on, when a transgender person arrives at the recruitment office with the ability to serve, we will give them the opportunity.

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Economics, Minnesota, Politics, USA

Single-payer healthcare in the state of Minnesota

Constitutionally speaking, Americans do not have a right to healthcare.  We have a right to free speech, a right to bear arms, a right to freely practice religion or to be free from religious practice, but we do not have a constitutional right to be cared for when we are sick. Supporters of a single-payer system, myself being one of them, are hoping to change that.

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Legislation creating a single-payer healthcare system, aka “universal healthcare”, aka “Medicare for all”, would not change the Constitution, but it would guarantee all Americans publicly funded access to core medical services.  Obamacare is not an example of this system, but it is perhaps a move in that direction, in the sense that it uses the federal government as a tool to get healthcare in the hands of people that the private market had previously left behind.

Unfortunately, the American Healthcare Act, supported by Trump and currently being considered by the Republican-controlled Congress, threatens to undo a lot of that progress.  Needless to say, this is a pretty disheartening development for single-payer advocates who had viewed Obamacare as a significant step towards their ultimate goal.  That’s why Minnesotan supporters of a single-payer system should turn their attention away from Washington and towards creating a single-payer system here in Minnesota.

In the United States, our federalist system of government grants significant leeway to its semi-sovereign states in controlling their own affairs.  In terms of power, state governments may be inferior to the federal government, but they are not necessarily subordinate to it.  This means that, in the case of healthcare, even though conservative legislators in Washington are fighting for further privatization, progressive state legislators can still fight to enact something more public within their borders.  Even though the American Healthcare Act may have dire consequences for the poor, old, unlucky and underprivileged in other U.S. states, that doesn’t have to be the case for anyone in the state of Minnesota.

Trying to pass single-payer legislation at the state level would be an enormous challenge.  Aside from the politics, the practicality of such a system is pretty daunting.  First and foremost is the cost.  In California, the most recent state to seriously consider a single-payer system, a legislative analysis estimated a $400 billion per year price tag.  That is more than double the entire state budget proposed for next year.

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And what about the system that we already have in place?  As one write-up put it, a single-payer system “may be what any sane and progressive community would adopt if it was creating a health-care system from scratch,” but that is obviously not the case here in the U.S.  The massive systemic overhaul that it would take to transition from the entangled clusterfuck of deductibles and co-pays to a system in which the state government replaces insurance companies, employers, out-of-pocket patients, and the federal government as the “single payer” is head-spinning to say the least.

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And then there are the criticisms that we always hear of single-payer systems—the longer lines, the lower quality, and the lack of responsibility shown by citizens once they start to get something for “free”.  Some of the criticisms may be exaggerated, but in spite of whatever benefits a single-payer system might bring, I don’t think that there is any doubt that, at least for some patients, these problems would become a reality.

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But in order to be a success, a single-payer system doesn’t need to be perfect.  It just needs to be better than what we currently got.

A single-payer system would be expensive, but the U.S. already pays more for healthcare than any other country in the world, including the myriad of countries that have already adopted single-payer systems.  Even though the California proposal has a price tag of $400 billion, Californians already paid $367 billion for healthcare in 2016, and that doesn’t include the nearly 3 million uninsured residents that didn’t receive coverage, but would under the state plan.  The real difference would be that, rather than paying a for-profit middleman like the private insurance and pharmaceutical companies that currently rake in all those dollars, Californians would be paying the government via taxes.  And while those estimated costs still leave the price tag of single-payer significantly higher ($33 billion according to the estimates), it would also provide core medical services to EVERYONE.

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With everyone being eligible to receive government-sponsored medical care, it would not be surprising to find lines that are a little longer or care that is of slightly lower quality for those accustomed to having the most prestigious of plans.  But if this is the case, then the only reason that those lines were so short in the first place is because some people were not allowed to wait in them, and I’m not okay with that.  Plus, one would imagine that, even under a single-payer system, the economically empowered would still be able to use their financial wherewithal to purchase goods and services not accessible to most.

Implementing a single-payer system of healthcare in Minnesota would not be easy.  Even if the political will were there, inevitable setbacks and complications would surely make the transition process a frustrating one for many.  I don’t know if it would be best to try to implement that system in one fell swoop or in a series of steps, but I do know that these are the types of discussions that should be taking place in the halls of the Minnesota State Capitol.

States are the laboratories of democracy, and Minnesota should be the first to experiment with single-payer healthcare at the state level.  Minnesota may not be the economic powerhouse that California is, but smaller populations than us have made single-payer work, so there’s no reason that we can’t too.  If we can be successful in this endeavor—successful in building a workable, government-funded system that provides quality healthcare to all its citizens—then perhaps Minnesota can serve as a model to other states, and eventually, the federal government.  Healthcare is not a right in the United States, but in Minnesota, it can be and it should be.  We just need to make it happen.

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History, Minnesota, Politics, Race, USA

The Walker Art Center and the “Scaffold” Controversy

Social justice-centered censorship is sweeping the nation, and this past week, Minneapolis became the temporary epicenter.  The controversy stems from a piece of art that was set to debut at the grand reopening of the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden later this month.  The piece known as Scaffold is intended to represent a commentary on the use and abuse of capital punishment throughout the history of the United States.  Part of that commentary includes a reconstruction of the gallows used in Mankato, Minnesota, during the 1862 hanging of the Dakota 38—the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

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The Scaffold structure has been met with massive resistance from both Native and non-Native peoples alike. That resistance came to a dramatic culmination on Wednesday afternoon with the joint decision to dismantle and burn the structure in a ceremony led by Dakota Spiritual Leaders and Elders. But while Scaffold’s run has ended before it ever really began, the conversation that is taking place in the Twin Cities and around the country is just getting started, and I personally am still trying to figure out where on these issues I stand.

Although artist Sam Durant intended Scaffold to be an awareness generating piece about the historic plight of Native populations, I understand the concerns about the unintended messages that the piece may also convey.  Chief amongst these is the structure’s location in the Walker Sculpture Garden—a less than solemn place with frolicking couples and children, mini golf, and a giant rooster and a cherry.  As one write-up puts it, “context matters,” and the context of the Walker Sculpture Garden may contribute to the trivialization of one of our State’s gravest injustices.

Another concern is the neglect of Native voices in the retelling of a story that is particularly impactful to indigenous people in this part of the country.  Sam Durant is a white guy from L.A., and while he has collaborated with Native groups in the past, this project was completed without any attempts at outreach to the Dakota peoples who the project is about. What is more, while in negotiations to obtain Scaffold, the Walker Art Center never reached out to Dakota groups in the community, which in hindsight, should have been a no-brainer considering the gruesome nature of the project and its intimate ties to that tribe’s history.

But all that said, I also understand a lot of the resistance to the resistance of the soon-to-be-burned structure.  Scaffold is a lot of things, but I don’t think it’s an example of genocide opportunism. A reading of Sam Durant’s near instant apology can quickly punch holes in that accusation.  The project’s actual intention was “to speak against the continued marginalization of these stories and people, and to build awareness around their significance.”  Misguided methods? Perhaps. But after reading the letter in full, Durant hardly seems like the kind of a guy seeking to exploit tragedy for personal gain.  Even the highly criticized “jungle gym” component of the project stems from a thoughtful albeit questionable attempt to comment on the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon so prevalent in communities of color today.

I also have to say that I got some respect for a fellow white guy doing his darndest to challenge oppression and privilege in the world, especially when he doesn’t have to.  As a member of the most dominant group in almost every major demographic category, guys like Durant don’t need to tackle injustice, because on a systemic level, they probably don’t often face it.  I’m not trying to paint Durant as a hero, and that kind of observation may sound tone deaf considering the gravity of the issue at hand, but that doesn’t make it any less true.  Perhaps it’s also that ignorance to experienced oppression that leads to the blundering nature in which guys like Durant (and myself) try to address said oppression, no matter how pure his (my) intentions might be.  But while it’s not always the thought that counts, the thought still counts for something, and what Durant is doing is exactly what us white guys are supposed to do in fighting oppression and dismantling our own privilege—starting conversations in our communities, with our people, and trying to create change.

Cultural appropriation is often a term that gets tossed around to describe artists like Durant who try to tell stories that aren’t theirs to tell. But while misappropriation is certainly a thing, and perhaps applicable here, there also seems to have been a societal shift in what we define as tasteless or insensitive appropriation of someone else’s culture. Bob Dylan sang songs about both Emmett Till and Rubin Carter in the 60s and 70s, and I’ve yet to find an article that condemns him as a “racism opportunist.” On the contrary, Dylan is constantly recognized as an American civil rights hero who used his art to draw attention to repressed and silenced voices, even if the experiences of those voices were a far cry from his own.

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Sam Durant is no Bob Dylan. Even if he thought that he was, he knows differently now:

“I made Scaffold as a learning space for people like me, white people who have not suffered the effects of a white supremacist society and who may not consciously know that it exists …However, your protests have shown me that I made a grave miscalculation in how my work can be received by those in a particular community. In focusing on my position as a white artist making work for that audience I failed to understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people.”

Hopefully Durant has learned from this experience as much as his statement seems to suggest.  Hopefully he remains encouraged, and continues to try use his position of power and influence to do good in the world. If there is any solace he can take from this catastrophe, it’s that his project still accomplished its intended goal—it started a conversation. It’s not exactly the conversation that he intended, but it’s an important conversation nonetheless, and no matter what side of the issue you’re on, or what your ethnic background is, or what your beliefs are regarding the myriad of –isms at play, there is understanding to be gained for those willing to listen and learn, especially considering the fact that no one in this conversation seems to disagree that injustice is something that we need to address.  If nothing else, Sam, thanks for that.

 

Recommended viewing to learn about the Dakota 38:

 

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Politics, USA, World

Trolling Tomi Lahren’s Trolling of International Women’s Day

Wednesday was International Women’s Day—a day to celebrate women around the world of both past and present who have helped to make this planet a better place for both girls and boys alike. It is a day to celebrate all the progress that the women’s movement has made, but also a day to acknowledge the ongoing struggles that women collectively continue to face.

The latter aspect of the holiday inspired some women to participate in organized protests designed to raise awareness on issues affecting women today. These protests could have been as simple as wearing red or generating discussion around the water cooler with colleagues, or as serious as taking the day off work—both paid and unpaid—to simulate “a day without women,” and demonstrate the various important roles that women play in our economy and communities. As with any protests, some of the rhetoric was worthy of eye-rolling and some of the actions worthy of criticism, but the overall message was based on what I believe to be an undeniable truth: Women today are perhaps as appreciated and empowered as they have been at any time in human history, but that does not mean that they are as appreciated and empowered as they should be.

That message was largely lost on rising conservative darling, Tomi Lahren, who used her Wednesday night “Final Thoughts” segment to demonize anyone participating in the day’s protests, or for just being a part of modern day feminism in general. In the video, Lahren angrily lambasts protestors for their “selfish” behavior and self-victimization, asserting that “real women” don’t need to “remind the world every single day” that they have been historically slighted.

For someone that is constantly mocking liberals for their over-sensitivity, Lahren sure seemed pretty triggered herself Wednesday night over some wardrobe selections and sick days. I know that she doesn’t believe in safe spaces, but perhaps a few days of shielding herself from the social justice warriors of the world would help her to cool down a little bit. That said, I occasionally find myself agreeing with a lot of Lahren’s critiques of the left. I could do without the shouting, but sometimes beneath the bombast lies some actual legitimacy.

Wednesday night’s segment was not one of those critiques.  Lahren is not usually one to be overly-nuanced, but her outrage over the actions associated with International Women’s Day was especially overstated and out of place. Worse, on a day that is supposed to be about women empowerment, Lahren’s words served only to undermine the efforts of millions of women around the world working to gain the appreciation and opportunities that they deserve.

To Lahren, Wednesday’s protests were not about equality. They were about “special treatment”—special treatment that, in Lahren’s mind, can be summarized as free abortions and birth control for everyone. Lahren says that she doesn’t deserve special treatment because she has “ovaries and a menstrual cycle.” I disagree. I think that women should get special treatment based on the fact that they have ovaries and a menstrual cycle, just as I believe that men should get special treatment when it comes to our prostates and our testicles.

Women’s healthcare is different than men’s healthcare, and our healthcare packages should reflect that. Yes, abortion is part of this, but again that is because only women get pregnant. I can’t say that I have ever met a woman quite like the abortion-happy, birth control pill-guzzling, caricature of a feminist that Lahren describes, but I have met plenty of women who want access to affordable contraception, and affordable abortions in the unintended and undesirable circumstance where they feel like they need one.

Lahren may disagree that an abortion should even be an option for women, and indeed if she had it her way, it probably would not be, but then I hope she would still acknowledge that some “special treatment” may be necessary for the mothers now tasked with the difficult assignment of raising children that they were not prepared to have.

But then Lahren makes a good point: Don’t the problems like those above pale in comparison to the “women in less fortunate parts of the world [who] wake up without basic human rights”? Yes, Tomi! I agree! I do not think that that makes the above issues irrelevant, but I do think that women in other parts of the world face challenges that deserve our immediate and prioritized attention. After all, this is INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day. But of course, Lahren spends less than four seconds on this point, using it only as a tool to delegitimize the issues that collide with her own personal agenda.

Instead, Lahren turns to the “victim card.” “Yeah, some challenges might be a little greater for women,” Lahren admits, “but let me tell you, it feels a whole hell of a lot better to overcome those challenges, than it does to dwell on them, complain about them, or use them as an excuse to fall short. If you constantly claim you’re a victim, you will always be a victim. Free yourself.”

I can’t say I disagree with the sentiment. No matter how much of a victim a woman, or anyone from any other historically marginalized group might be, the message to that individual can never be to dwell on their victimhood. It has to be a message that empowers and overcomes in spite of injustice and oppression, and that is kind of what Lahren was getting at.

But Lahren’s pep talk is missing an important piece: validation…validation that the victimization that that person is experiencing is real and not imagined…validation that life is oftentimes unfair, but that they have a right to fight back. But rather than validate, the tone of Lahren’s tirade instead suggests that any girl that has ever complained about sexism or the glass ceiling is nothing but a whiney, entitled brat projecting her own shortcomings and failures on the dismantled vestiges of the patriarchy. And that is so not the case.

I’m never going to tell a woman that she is a victim if she doesn’t feel like one. If that’s the case with Tomi Lahren, then more power to her. But I am also never going to tell a woman that she isn’t a victim when her experience tells her that she is, especially when I still see so much evidence to validate that claim.

I want to live in a world where no girl feels victimized by her womanhood—where every girl can be whatever or whoever she wants to be whether that’s a CEO or a stay-at-home mom. For many women, that world doesn’t exist right now, and that’s what makes International Women’s Day both important and necessary. I’m glad that many women took that day to make their voices heard, both the protestors and the protestors of the protestors alike, because somewhere in between the world’s most radical third wave feminist and Tomi Lahren is progress, and hopefully within that conversation, progress is what emerges.

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P.S. Here is a song I tweeted out in honor of International Women’s Day. It’s a song by a guy, but hey, I’m a guy, sooooooo…Anyway, to all the unknown legends out there: Keeping building yours!

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Politics, USA

My problem with the Trump resistance

I do not like Donald Trump. I don’t like him as a president, and I don’t like him as a person. Since January 20th, hardly a day has passed where I haven’t found myself shaking my head in disbelief that this incompetent, ill-tempered buffoon has conned his way into the oval office. He is a bully and an embarrassment, and I desperately hope that the odd makers are on to something when they suggest that the chances of him making it through a four-year term aren’t all that great.

I support efforts to resist the Trump presidency, be they marches, emails to lawmakers, or the media fighting back. But as a bonafide anti-Trumper, I have got to say that a lot of the resistance that I have seen towards Trump’s presidency, policies, and the people who support him/them, has left me shaking my head as well. Trump deserves to be criticized and discredited, but much of it has gone awry, and I worry that if that aspect of the resistance is allowed to go unchecked by those who are a part of it, it will do more to empower a Trump presidency than it will to resist it.

Exhibit A: the Hitler comparisons. Donald Trump is a lot of things, but he is not Adolf Hitler. He is not even close, and anyone who says otherwise does a disservice to whatever point that they are trying to make. Trump may have authoritarian tendencies, but he is not genocidal, and when you make a Hitler comparison, genocide is what comes to mind. There are reasons for labeling Donald Trump as a wanna-be fascist—his vanity, his hostility towards the press, his affinity for executive orders, etc. But when you go straight to the top shelf and reach for the Hitler, it immediately makes me want to stop taking you seriously.

Donald Trump is far more fraudulent than any of the organizations he labels as “fake news” or “failing,” but the Hitler comparisons and other stuff like it prove that he does not have a monopoly on fact-free phenomena. Career trolls of the left like Tommy Lahren, Steven Crowder, and Milo Yiannopoulos, may have some ideological views that I vehemently disagree with, but I am almost ashamed to say that, in a lot of their criticisms of the political left, I find them to be spot on. That is much more of an indictment of some voices on the left than an appraisal of the work of Lahren and Co., but the fact that a liberal hippie like myself is finding any legitimacy in the YouTube clips of far-right provocateurs says a lot about the level of absurdity that has crept into liberal discourse.

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Exhibit B: the “Muslim” ban. I do not put the word “Muslim” in quotations to suggest a misnomer, but I do think it is more complicated than many liberals pretend. While the seven countries listed on the ban are indeed Muslim majority countries, I think it is fair for Trump and his supporters to point out that there are also 40-plus Muslim majority countries in the world that are not included in this action. What is more, it is easy to understand why one might be concerned about these seven particular countries—six of whom are hosting chaotic and destabilizing civil wars, and the other being recognized as one of the world’s foremost sponsors of international terrorism.

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But even if it’s not a “Muslim” ban, I’m still opposed it. I think that the United States has a responsibility to help resettle some of the world’s most unfortunate people, and I think that Trump’s misguided attempt to prevent international terrorists from breeching our borders probably does more to undermine our battle against Islamic extremism than it does to support it. That said, I am still hesitant to ally myself with those on the left whose eagerness to label Trump as the racist Islamophobe that he may indeed be, leads them into making gross oversimplifications regarding the complicated issues at hand.

Exhibit C: Engagement (or lack thereof) with Trump supporters—possibly also known as what lost Democrats the election. I think I’ve made it clear that I am not a Trump supporter by any stretch of the imagination. Yet amongst many of my liberal friends, I’ve oftentimes hesitated to make the very points I have made in this write-up, fearing that mere acknowledgement of liberal hypocrisy might get me scoffed and eye-rolled straight into the basket of deplorables.

A recent segment from the show “Real Time with Bill Maher” shines light on this phenomenon. In this segment, political commentator Piers Morgan is having a conversation with comedian Jim Jeffries regarding the merits of Trump’s refugee ban. Morgan is making an argument very similar to the one that I make above—an argument that is defensible, but also worthy of criticism. But rather than taking the opportunity to criticize or challenge Morgan’s argument and undermine it with reason and logic, Jefferies instead shouted two words that have really come to define the response of many liberals when somebody challenges their world view: “Fuck off.” He followed his comments with a Hitler comparison and a one-finger salute, earning him an overwhelming ovation from that night’s attending audience.

I like Jim Jefferies more than I like Piers Morgan, and I probably agree with him on more too, but “fuck off” is a conversation ender. “Fuck off” does nothing to convince Piers Morgan, or anyone watching at home, that he is wrong and that his arguments need some fine-tuning. More than anything else, “fuck off” causes people to dig their heels in, giving them no reason to believe that their arguments might be flawed and every reason to believe that the person that they are talking to is a total asshole.

I am not trying to promote the coddling of racists. I am not trying to promote tolerance for intolerance. But if you are going to get people to abandon their racist or intolerant ideas, or even get them to consider what other ideas might look like, I promise that “fuck off” is not the way to do it. Conversation is the only thing that is going to change peoples’ minds, and based on the results of the last election (whether or not Russia was the deciding factor), it appears that a lot of those conversations need to take place.

Bill Maher himself has often spoke of the need for a “liberal tea party”—the left’s own version of the crazy, irrational jackwagons on the right that refuse any form of compromise on the most extreme versions of their principles. But if that party is anything like what I’ve seen from some members of the left over the last month-and-change, I can confidently say that I want nothing to do with it. I want a left that is informed and nuanced—a left that is built on idealistic principles, but that realizes that sometimes an unidealistic world requires unidealistic solutions. Most of all, I want a left that distinguishes itself from so much of the idiocy and demagoguery that takes place on the right.

I am on board with the resistance of Donald Trump, but I do not think that we should fight fire-with-fire. If the Trump resistance is to be successful, it needs to be fair, righteous, and honest—all things that Donald Trump is not. It needs to take the high road and embrace nuance and engage in conversations with people of differing belief sets, even those we don’t like. But if the Trump resistance continues to be defined by closed minds, closed ears, and open mouths, I fear that we might be resisting for much longer than we need to be.

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Politics, Religion, World

Pushing an atheist agenda

By definition, I am technically an agnostic. I don’t believe in god or ghosts or spirits or an afterlife, but I cannot say with complete certainty that any of those things do not exist. It’s a big world, and a bigger universe, and the older and wiser that I get, the more stupider I realize that I am.

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That said, there are some things that I am pretty sure about. I’m pretty sure that some dude named Noah did not build a boat to save the world’s animal kingdom from drowning. I’m pretty sure that the reward for detonating a bomb in a crowded marketplace is not an eternal blowjob from 72 virgins. I’m pretty sure that gay people are not walking abominations. And I’m pretty sure that every organized religion in the world that makes supernatural claims about the origins of our universe is wrong.

That doesn’t mean that I know what the origins of the universe are, but you don’t have to always know the correct answer to a question to know an incorrect answer when you hear one. Author and thinker Sam Harris has made the analogy that, while we can never know what John F. Kennedy was thinking in the moments before his assassination, we can still know some things that he was certainly not thinking—like, for example, if Donald Trump would make a good 45th president or whether or not more than 12 people would read this blog post. Likewise, even though I cannot be sure that there is no god, I still feel pretty confident that the Christian God does not exist.

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This is what makes me an atheist. Even though I can’t explain the mysteries of the universe, I don’t think that religion can either. What is more, even though I don’t know whether or not there is a god, I definitely don’t believe that there is one. Agnosticism is about knowledge, or in this case, lack thereof, but atheism is about belief. And when it comes to what I believe about the universe, it’s that it is all just one big, random accident.

There is another belief that I hold about religion: It’s bad. It’s bad not only because of the wars and the hate and the human rights abuses that it inspires, but because of the millions of nice, peaceful people to whom it promises a better life on the other side—a promise that I believe goes unfulfilled. This promise can lead people into a middling existence, never fully taking advantage of or appreciating their brief moment in the sun due to their belief that they will live under a brighter one in the next life.

Because I subscribe to the belief that religion is cumulatively bad, and that the world would be better with less of it, I also subscribe to a certain amount of the philosophy known as “militant atheism.” Militant atheists don’t believe in god, and they don’t think that others should either.   That may sound elitist (because it is), but if you put yourself in the mindset of someone who truly believes that religion causes massive amounts of unnecessary pain and suffering (which militant atheists do), it would be hard to argue that they should not push an agenda that they feel could help to reduce that unnecessary pain and suffering.

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What is more, militant atheism, as I understand it, is not so much about “converting” the religiously devout as it is about inspiring other non-believers and skeptics to speak out against religion’s more harmful effects. I know a lot of smart people who shy away from the “atheist” label because of the arrogance and pretension that it is often associated with. But while their humility is admirable, it could also be argued that this silence is part of the reason why atheists have had so much trouble in pushing their agenda. In the United States, even though non-religious people make up more than 20% of the population, lack of religious faith is still one of the biggest hurdles to holding public office, as evidenced by the huge lack of representation of openly non-religious people in the United States Congress—1 out of 535 to be exact.

However, in pushing our atheist agenda, militant atheists like myself often exhibit one major flaw—we are enormous douchebags. Our arrogance is unbearable, our presumed certainty, laughable, and the condescension with which we treat the “unenlightened” makes our supposedly benevolent intentions far less than apparent. This perception of atheists, whether deserved or not, obviously has an adverse effect on our ability to push our agenda, in many cases making the intended audience more hostile to our ideas than they otherwise would be.

And this is where us atheists need to do some introspection. If the goal of atheism, militant or otherwise, is truly to make the world a better place, than we need to start behaving like it. Treating religious people like shit is hardly making the world better. If anything, it’s doing the opposite, contributing to the pain and suffering that militant atheists are purportedly against. It also contributes to the extraordinarily harmful divisiveness that currently plagues American society, and once again, exacerbates a problem that atheists are supposed to be trying to solve.

This doesn’t mean that atheists shouldn’t push their views. While the goal should not be to antagonize, the job necessitates some feather ruffling, and no matter how humbly or respectfully one goes about articulating the atheistic worldview, some people will still get offended.   But what atheists cannot do is resort to the mean-spirited mockery that dominates so many online message boards. Atheists must keep in sight what motivates their militancy in the first place—a steadfast commitment to peace, coexistence, and human happiness—and realize that many-to-most religious people share that commitment too.

The devoutly religious Martin Luther King once said that, “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”   I think that atheists would be wise to emulate those words in their own advocacy. If a better world is truly our commitment, than we should behave like the people that we imagine that better world to be made of. If we cannot do that, than we are no less fraudulent than the outdated dogma that we seek to disprove and dispel.

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Politics, USA

Reforming Presidential Elections and Instant Runoff Voting

Let me start with what this write up is not. This is a not a whiney appeal from a sulking liberal about the unfair results of the November election. Yes, the electoral college is imperfect. Yes, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. But Hillary Clinton never had any illusions about the electoral system in which she was competing. She knew what she had to do to win the election and she didn’t do it. No excuses.

The alleged Russian meddling, if or when it is confirmed to be true, is a different story. If Russian actions did indeed swing the election for Donald Trump, that would throw into question the legitimacy of his upcoming presidency. That said, no smart person that I’m aware of is really making that claim, and even if they were, I’m not sure that an electoral “do over” would be very plausible at this point. What is more, if that claim were somehow proved to be true, it still must be remembered that the alleged Russian hack was not a manipulation of numbers or votes, but a release of information that was harmful to Clinton—illegally obtained information, but information nonetheless—that Americans then used to make their decisions to cast their votes for candidates that were not her.

As much as it displeases me to say so, I do believe that Donald Trump won the presidential election fairly and democratically—fairly in the sense that Trump played by the rules that we as a country have set for choosing a president, and democratically in the sense that the American population chose Donald Trump, no matter how misguided I and many others believe that choice to have been. And while I am ready to accept the results of this election, I also hope that in the aftermath of possibly the ugliest presidential election in history, there will be some impetus for reform to help us avoid recreating the scandal-ridden, intellectually void, mudslinging shitshow that was the election of 2016.

Some would say that doing away with the electoral college is the simple solution to that conundrum, but I’m not so sure. For one, although I do not consider myself a fan of the electoral college, I do think that it has some benefits. It prevents presidential campaigns from being run on the coasts, and keeps with our system of federalism in which the voices of semi-sovereign states are supposed to be a bit augmented. The electoral college may be undemocratic, but it is undemocratic by design. Founding fathers like Alexander Hamilton created the electoral college based on the belief that the people alone cannot be trusted to elect the nation’s most important governmental leader. That is why each state has a group of electors—to create a barrier between the presidency and the people, so that if/when the people do something stupid, the electors will be in place to prevent that stupidity from infecting the entire executive branch. (Ironically, Hamilton’s plan seems to have backfired a bit with the election of Donald Trump…)

Would have the absence of an electoral college meant a Clinton victory in 2016?   The popular vote seems to suggest so, but if that had been the case, the two candidates would have been running very different campaigns with different speeches and strategies likely leading to different results. What is more, while no electoral college would have meant that the most “popular” candidate would have won the election, it would have done little to solve the problem of how we ended up with what were perhaps the two least popular presidential candidates ever in the first place.

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Which is why I believe that the major reform needed with our presidential elections is not the disposal of the electoral college, but the dismantling of the rules that perpetuate two-party dominance.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were historically unpopular, yet most voters still perceived these two candidates to be their only real options when it came to choosing a president. In a way, they were right. While most election ballots list far more than two candidates for the office of president, voters know that a vote for anyone that does not have an (R) or a (D) next to their name is essentially a vote “wasted.” Gary Johnson and Jill Stein may have had appealing messages, but neither had a realistic opportunity to win the election. A vote for one of them may have fulfilled its function if it was meant to be a vote of dissent, but it did nothing to improve the odds of either of those candidates actually becoming president.

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What is more, a significant amount of votes for a third party candidate may actually have an adverse effect on the true wishes of voters. If a significant amount of liberals vote for a candidate they perceive to be more progressive than Clinton (i.e. Jill Stein), those “lost” votes could swing the election to Trump in a tight race. This is almost certainly what happened to Al Gore in 2000, and possibly what actually did happen to Clinton in 2016, with third party votes for Stein and Johnson significantly exceeding the margin of victory for Trump in crucial states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. This is why so many voters find themselves facing a choice between the “lesser of two evils,” and why so many people who choose to “vote their conscience” face accusations of electing the opposition.

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But while some choose to blame the voters, I blame the system—a system that treats pluralities like majorities, that reinforces the dysfunctional status quo of the two-party system, that misrepresents the will of its voters, and that fails to provide an avenue for the authentic expression of voter voice. I don’t think that there is a simple solution to the problems that plague U.S. elections and U.S. politics in general, but I do think there are plausible steps that we can take towards creating more representative, democratic presidential elections. One of those steps would be the implementation of instant runoff voting.

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220px-preferential_ballot-svgIn an instant runoff election, voters do not choose one candidate, but instead rank the available candidates (or as many of them as they should choose) from first to last, first being the most desirable candidate and last being the least. Ballots are counted in a series of rounds. In the first round, only the first choice of each voter is counted. If that round were to produce a majority winner (a candidate with more than 50% of the vote), than the election would be deemed over with that candidate being declared the winner, just like the election system we use now. However, if that first round of counting failed to produce a majority winner, the counting would proceed to a second round.

In that second round, the candidate from the first round that received the least amount of votes would be eliminated. Let’s assume that, for the 2016 presidential election, that candidate would have been Jill Stein. All voters who had casted a ballot for Jill Stein as their first choice would then have their ballots added to the tally of the candidate that they listed as their second choice. The ballots would then be recounted to see if any candidate had reached a majority. If a majority were reached, then that candidate would be declared the winner. If the tally still failed to produce a majority, then the process would continue until one candidate had earned more than 50% of the ballots.

This system has the potential to address several problems we have with presidential elections in the United States. It would eliminate the spoiler effect, as votes for Ralph Nader, Gary Johnson, Ross Perot, or Mickey Mouse would no longer divide the liberal or conservative vote. Subsequently, it would also eliminate the pressure to choose between the “lesser of two evils.” One of those two “evils” would still very likely win most elections, but if the system worked as it should, it would at least always be the “evil” that voters had deemed “lesser.” In this sense, voters would never need to worry about “wasting” their vote on a third party candidate, and could comfortably cast their ballot of dissent in the solace that, should their first choice not receive the votes necessary to win, their ballot would go to support the most preferential candidate that remained.

Perhaps most importantly, instant runoff voting could help to erode the dominance of the two major political parties, and the nasty brand of party-first politics that has emerged in recent decades. The partisan politics being practiced right now in this country are absolutely disgusting. From Congressional refusal to even hold a hearing for a Supreme Court nominee, to the DNC’s attempted rigging of the Democratic nomination, to the vomit worthy response of Republicans regarding the public dispute over Russia between Obama and Trump, there is no shortage of examples to illustrate the complete and total dysfunction that characterizes relations between Democrats and Republicans, and even relations between fellow members of each of the respective parties. What more evidence do we need that the two-party system is broken? What more evidence do we need that way too many politicians in Washington put the good of their party over the good of their country?

Instant runoff voting would not eliminate partisanship, but the added legitimacy that it would lend to third parties could help to alleviate it. Added voices and perspectives in public debates would force both Republicans and Democrats to take more nuanced positions on issues and erode the oversimplified black-and-white, for-or-against, this-or-that, us-and-them, split-screen dialogue that has defined political discussion in this country for as long as I can remember. Issues are more complicated than that, and that fact should be reflected in our democratic process.

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Some people suspect that instant runoff voting would cause more problems than it would solve. Certainly every system has its flaws, and the added complexity of instant runoff voting would undoubtedly complicate the election process both in vote casting and vote counting. But in spite of a potentially messy implementation process and the unintended and undesirable side effects that almost always follow any major political reform, I still think that the potential pros outweigh the cons. Instant runoff voting offers benefits to voters of all party affiliations or lack of affiliation thereof, and while it would certainly not be a panacea for all the ills that currently ail our political system, it would represent a big step towards making that system better. Instant runoff voting would make elections more inclusive, instant runoff voting would make elections more democratic, and more so than anything else, instant runoff voting could help to heal the partisan divide that plagues both our elected officials and those who elect them, addressing the problem that does more than any other single phenomenon in this country to stop America from truly being great again.

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Politics, Race, USA

The Alt-Right Wink

I don’t know if Donald Trump is a racist. I certainly think that he seems unenlightened about race. This is the guy, after all, who called for a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S., declared a significant number of Latino immigrants to be criminals and rapists, and suggested for years that our first black president was actually born in Kenya. These comments appear to be evidence of harmful attitudes that, whether or not it’s Trump’s intent, could do enormous damage to communities of color should they ever be reflected in national policy.

I know that there are many, many Trump supporters that are not racists. These people have legitimate criticisms and concerns about the liberal vision for our nation, and in Trump they see a candidate who seems to be echoing those sentiments. However, I also know that there are a significant number of Trump supporters that do indeed harbor real racist opinions, and whether he intended to or not, Trump has created a space in which those people feel validated and empowered.

I don’t need the “liberal media” to point this out to me either. I’ve had the misfortune of seeing it first hand at the school in which I teach. Over the last week and change, our school has witnessed several racially charged incidents, including students using the N-word on social media to describe their black peers, students threatening their Hmong peers that they will soon be back working in the “rice paddies,” and a student creating the username “LynchNegroes” for an in-class, online review game.

The offenders here are not bad kids. They are good kids with good hearts whose minds just need a little enlightening. But I would argue that the unenlightened and sometimes hateful rhetoric that has recently surfaced in my school and everywhere is a direct result of the election of Donald Trump and the alt-right wink that he has been giving to many of his voters throughout his campaign.

The alt-right wink refers to language used by him and other members of the alt-right movement that, while not explicitly advocating for things like racism or xenophobia, lends implicit support to people who harbor racist or xenophobic beliefs.   In many cases, this has the look of a two-part sentence in which only the first part of the sentence is said out loud. The second part is the racist, xenophobic shit that the listener hears in their head. “We need to take our country back!” (From the black man who stole our White House and the Mexicans that took our jobs.) “We are going to make America great again!” (Like it was when white men controlled it.) And when you mix that message with some of the stuff Trump has said about Mexicans, Muslims, Somalis, and others, racist vitriol towards those communities is hardly a surprising result.

I suppose it is possible that Trump’s incitement of said racism is unintentional—that he really doesn’t realize what it is that he appears to be suggesting to so many people when he says the things that he says. However, it is not possible that Trump is unaware of the effects of some of his language—that he does not see the racism and xenophobia and hate that his campaign has inspired in the American electorate. And the fact that Donald Trump has not been more vocal in his condemnation of these racist reactions means that, no matter his intentions, he is culpable for the results.

This goes for Trump supporters too—Trump supporters who do not identify as racists themselves but have been all too tolerant of the virulent strand of racism that has provided essential fuel to their movement.   Unfortunately, the conspiracy theories surrounding liberals that Trump and the alt-right have created mean that liberals like myself have very little credibility in combatting this racism. We are perceived to be part of the “biased” and “brainwashed” liberal machine and therefore cannot be trusted. That’s why it is so important that Trump and his supporters speak out against this hatred themselves.

The alt-right is correct about some stuff. Their critiques of liberal beliefs surrounding things like multiculturalism, political correctness, and Islam are valid, and over the months that come, liberals will have to look inward and address some of those issues. But it is also imperative that Trump and his supporters call out the ugly hatred that exists on their side of the ideological fence. If the alt-right wants to be taken seriously, they need to quit winking at xenophobes and racists with their coded language and let those people know that there is no place for that kind of ideology in Donald Trump’s America. Donald Trump did not create this deep-seated hatred, but he sure as hell uncovered it, and now it is up to him and all of us to take it on.

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Politics, Race, USA

Making sense of the 2016 presidential election

Tuesday night hit me like a fucking semi.

Needless to say, I did not expect Trump to win. I did not think it was outside the realm of possibilities, but I certainly did not think he would win like that—taking Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and nearly my home state of Minnesota. I don’t even think that Trump thought that he would win like that. He may have called it on the campaign trail, but you have to do that kind of stuff when you’re trying to win an election. But even if Trump didn’t believe the words that were coming out of his mouth, his supporters did, and then they went out and made them come true.

Tuesday’s results left me not only shocked but depressed—depressed by both the winner and my complete and total aloofness to the sentiments that produced that winner. In reflecting on that aloofness, and trying to make sense of what the fuck actually happened, one thing has become very clear to me:

I live in a liberal bubble.

Bill Maher often talks about a “conservative bubble”—a place where facts don’t matter and where our country is being overrun by gay Muslim socialists hellbent on taking our guns, our freedoms, and our cisgender bathrooms. But there is a liberal bubble in this country too, where arrogance, elitism, and a tinge of unchallenged hypocrisy work together to create a perception of our country that, while perhaps not as apocalyptic, is still pretty distorted.

Nothing that I’ve read breaks down that bubble better than this must-read Cracked.com article entitled “How Half of American lost its F**king Mind”. In this article, author David Wong describes an America that is less divided by lines between red states and blue, and more divided by lines that distinguish urban from rural. This is not a revelation. There’s no doubt that, upon seeing how close Trump came to taking our state, the first group that many of us liberal Minneapolitans looked to blame was the ignorant white rednecks that reside in the rural wasteland of “Greater Minnesota”—the unenlightened bigots who put their fear and hatred of diversity over their own working class interests.

But while those sentiments contain some truths, they also show the inherent hypocrisy of the city-dwelling liberal—the smug, coffee-sipping douchebag who will righteously defend the rights of impoverished urban blacks to riot against their oppression, but condescendingly snicker when a couple of country hillbillies get their meth lab raided. Urban liberals like to fancy themselves as champions of the oppressed, but in reality, it’s only a select group of oppressed peoples that those liberals are concerned about.

Liberals are right to call out the racism that was so key in the rise of Donald Trump. Van Jones nailed it when he called this election a “white-lash,” a “white-lash against a changing country,” and a “white-lash against a black president” from whom we need to take our country back and Make America Great Again. But one thing Van Jones also did was acknowledge that this was about more than race. Racism played an all too significant role in Trump’s election, and I do think that you can argue that anyone who voted for Trump has an unacceptable tolerance for the racism that fueled that campaign. That said, all Trump voters are not racists. It’s more complicated than that.

I’m disappointed in my liberal friends who are thinking and saying otherwise—who are unfriending people on Facebook and blocking people on Twitter and using their social media platforms to label all Trump supporters as racist, sexist, xenophobic morons. These words and actions only serve to fortify the outer layer of the liberal bubble in which we clearly already reside. They cut us off from an America whose support we vitally need if our liberal vision for this country is ever to become a reality. For that to happen, there needs to be dialogue, especially with those who think differently than we do.

The United States was founded on the ideal of free speech not just because we believe that people should be able to say whatever they want, but because we believe that it is free speech that leads us to truth. In the unabridged marketplace of intellectual exchange, bad ideas are not ignored and suppressed, but intellectually undermined and defeated. However, if this shared market does not exist, it gives insufficiently challenged bad ideas an opportunity to flourish inside the bubbles in which they are born.

I’m very concerned about a Trump presidency, and I understand why others are absolutely terrified. But Donald Trump is going to be our president, and like president Obama said, we need to root for him. This does not mean cheering Trump on as he bans Muslims and boots Mexicans, but instead hoping that this whole process has humbled him a little bit. It means hoping that his time in office will help him to develop a sensitivity and empathy for people that see and feel the world differently than he does. It means hoping that he will take some positive strides in reforming a corrupt and broken Washington and that he will somehow be able to use his less than partisan status to break the perpetual partisan gridlock. Because like Obama said to the president elect, “if you succeed, then the country succeeds.”

 

Early signs show that Trump may be willing to comprise. Less than a week after the election, Trump has already began walking back some of his “repeal Obamacare” rhetoric, and has appeared to be very gracious and respectful in his dialogue with Obama, the Clintons, and the like. Personally, I think the guy is scared shitless. I don’t think that he thought he would be here, and I don’t think that he knows what to do now that he is. I remain convinced that he is immensely unqualified for the job he just won and that he will be desperately relying on real intellectuals for help in keeping the wheels of the country turning. But even if some of Trump’s doomsday rhetoric fades, liberals will still likely be on the defensive for much of Trump’s presidency, and we need to take that role seriously. We do not want to be the uncompromising obstructionists that Republicans were during Obama’s eight years in office, but we still need to stand up against bad ideas. If we are able to do that effectively while simultaneously reaching out beyond the liberal bubble to those groups who have felt left behind or neglected by liberal voices and policies, maybe in the next election more of the country will agree with us about what some of those bad ideas are, and some of the good ones as well.

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