Is Shamelessness The Answer?

In these daily musings and rants, I’ve frequently noted my inability to understand why anyone would look at Donald Trump–as he parades his monumental ignorance, his bile and his obvious mental illness–and say, “Yep. That’s the guy I want to trust with the nuclear codes.” I simply haven’t been able to get my head around it.

But over the holidays, I read a review in the Guardian of a book offering a plausible explanation. Let me share a (relatively lengthy) quote that describes the author’s theory:

Imagine a white, working-class American, most likely a man, from Louisiana or Alabama, perhaps, standing in a long line that represents his life’s journey. The man has been sold the American “bootstrap myth”, which states that his great country is a place where anyone can rise from the humblest of origins to become a billionaire or a president, and at the end of the line he expects to find a little part of that dividend for himself. But things aren’t panning out as he had hoped. For a start, the line stretches to the horizon, and even as he stands in it, he suffers: his pay packet is shrinking, the industry he works in is moving overseas, and the cost of everything from food to gas to healthcare is through the roof. Worse still, he can see people cutting into the line ahead, beneficiaries of “affirmative action” – black people, women, immigrants. He doesn’t think he’s racist or misogynist, but that’s what they call him when he objects. He is doubly shamed: privately, by his failure to live up to the myth; publicly, by liberal society.

This is the so-called deep story of the American right. We don’t have to accept the man’s worldview, just believe that this might be how he perceives it.

 Now a new figure enters the scenario, an orange-haired tycoon: we’ll call him Donald. Donald seems instinctively to understand the man’s shame. In fact, he’s a shame expert. He has a long history of transgression, and people have been trying to shame him for much of his life. But Donald has found a way around it: he has become shame-less. He demonstrates his shamelessness almost daily by producing a stream of shameful remarks – about Mexicans, say, or Muslims, or the sitting president, who happens to be black. Although people shout “Shame!” at him, each condemnation inflates Donald a little more in the eyes of his tribe, including the man in the line, who holds him up as a sort of shame messiah. By refusing his own shame, Donald absolves them, too.

The author of the book being reviewed, one David Keen, observes that the words “shame” and “shameless” are currently in greater use than at any time since the mid-19th century.

I have often theorized that the far Right is populated by people who are deeply unhappy with their lives–people who are looking for someone or some group to blame for their failure to achieve their goals. Keen’s analysis is consistent with that thesis, but adds another layer to it–the fact that failure to meet one’s own expectations (or those of the culture into which one has been socialized) will inevitably involve some measure of self-incrimination, or shame.

When you think about it, when people feel they’ve screwed up–when they fail at something they wanted or expected to accomplish–that failure is typically accompanied by feelings of unworthiness/shame, prompting a pretty human desire to find a scapegoat to whom they can “hand off” responsibility for the failure. Well-balanced adults can resist that urge, recognizing it for what it is, but a lot of people cannot–hence racism, misogyny, antisemitism.

The review made me wonder whether different cultural expectations might not ease those feelings of shame. What if we Americans didn’t “monetize” the concept of success? What if our expectations of other adults focused more on behaviors like loving-kindness or generosity or other markers of commendable adult behavior and less on career or money or fame?

What if we didn’t tell American children they could “grow up to be President”–didn’t burden them with expectations of professional or financial success, however we define that–but instead just told little boys and girls “when you grow up, I want you to be a good person–a mensch.”

What if we raised people who could be trusted with the nuclear codes?


That Pesky Thing Called Evidence

The World’s Worst Legislature is barreling toward the session’s finish line, and the Republican super-majority shows no sign of moderating its war on public education, despite recently emerging evidence that several of the most enthusiastic proponents of vouchers have disturbing conflicts of interest, not to mention overwhelming evidence that privatizing schools leads to poorer educational outcomes.

Of course, Indiana’s lawmakers are impervious to evidence of all kinds. (Look at Indiana’s gun laws, disregard of environmental impacts…the list goes on.)

I know my periodic posts on the subject are the equivalent of “whistling in the wind,” but as the research continues to pile up, I find it hard to restrain myself.


In the Public Interest recently shared  “a clear and concise breakdown of the problems of vouchers,” written by a Professor of Education Policy at Michigan State University, and  titled “There is no Upside.”

Here’s the lede:

What if I told you there is a policy idea in education that, when implemented to its full extent, caused some of the largest academic drops ever measured in the research record?

What if I told you that 40 percent of schools funded under that policy closed their doors afterward, and that kids in those schools fled them at about a rate of 20 percent per year?

What if I told you that some the largest financial backers of that idea also put their money behind election denial and voter suppression—groups still claiming Donald Trump won the 2020 election? Would you believe what those groups told you about their ideas for improving schools?

What if I told you that idea exists, that it’s called school vouchers, and despite all of the evidence against it the idea persists and is even expanding?

The article followed up with a compilation of independent analyses drawn from both the research community and “on the ground” reporting by journalists. You need to click through for the details, but here are the “top level” findings:

  • First, vouchers mostly fund children already in private school. Seventy to -eighty percent of kids using vouchers were already in private school before taxpayers picked up the tab.
  •  Among the relatively few kids who did use vouchers to leave public schools, test scores dropped between -0.15 and -0.50 standard deviations.
  • The typical private school accepting vouchers “isn’t one of the elite, private schools in popular narrative.” The typical voucher school is “small, often run out of a church property like its basement, often popping up specifically to get the voucher.”
  • Understandably, many  kids leave those sub-prime schools. (In Wisconsin, about 20 percent of kids left their voucher school every year and most transferred to a public school.)

Then there is the issue of transparency and oversight.

All of the above evidence should already tell you why it’s critically important that states passing voucher laws also include strong academic and financial reporting requirements. If we’re going to use taxpayer funds on these private ventures, we need to know what the academic results are and what the return on government investment is.

And of course, we don’t.

Then, of course, there’s discrimination.

We know that in Indiana, where one of the largest and lowest-performing voucher programs exists, more than $16 million in taxpayer dollars went to schools discriminating against LGBTQ children. Similar story in Florida—and that includes kids whose parents are gay, regardless of how the children identify.

Given the fact that Indiana’s legislature is advancing other discriminatory measures aimed at the LGBTQ community–especially several ugly measures  targeting trans children–I’m sure our lawmakers consider that documented bigotry to be a feature, not a bug.

The article also traces connections I’d not previously been aware of between the most active voucher proponents and far-right organizations engaging in efforts to suppress votes and reject the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Interestingly, the article doesn’t highlight one of my main concerns: that vouchers are an end-run around the First Amendment’s Separation of Church and State. Here in Indiana, over 90% of voucher students attend religious schools, a significant percentage of which are fundamentalist. The children who attend overwhelmingly come from the corresponding faith communities. Even the religious schools that don’t actively discriminate do not and cannot provide the diverse classroom environment that prepares children for  citizenship in increasingly diverse  America.(Most don’t teach civics, either.)

It also doesn’t address how vouchers disproportionately hurt rural communities.

The article concludes:

So there you have it: catastrophic academic harm. A revolving door of private school failures. High turnover rates among at-risk children. Avoiding oversight and transparency. Overt, systematic discrimination against vulnerable kids and families. Deep and sustained ties to anti-democratic forces working in the United States today.

That’s school vouchers in 2023.

That’s the “system” Hoosier lawmakers want to greatly expand–with funds stolen from the state’s already under-resourced public schools.

It’s indefensible.


An Excellent Summary

My husband recently recommended that I read a lengthy article from the Atlantic by Ed Yong.  Despite the fact that I am a pretty devoted reader of that publication, and a subscriber, I’d missed it.

If you are trapped at home with nothing pressing to do (clean out the refrigerator, or knit face masks, or whatever), you should click through and read the article in its entirety. In case you don’t have the time or inclination, I am cutting and pasting paragraphs that–in my estimation–are insightful and important.

A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”…

As my colleagues Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer have reported, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed and distributed a faulty test in February. Independent labs created alternatives, but were mired in bureaucracy from the FDA. In a crucial month when the American caseload shot into the tens of thousands, only hundreds of people were tested. That a biomedical powerhouse like the U.S. should so thoroughly fail to create a very simple diagnostic test was, quite literally, unimaginable. “I’m not aware of any simulations that I or others have run where we [considered] a failure of testing,” says Alexandra Phelan of Georgetown University, who works on legal and policy issues related to infectious diseases.

The testing fiasco was the original sin of America’s pandemic failure, the single flaw that undermined every other countermeasure….

With little room to surge during a crisis, America’s health-care system operates on the assumption that unaffected states can help beleaguered ones in an emergency. That ethic works for localized disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires, but not for a pandemic that is now in all 50 states. Cooperation has given way to competition; some worried hospitals have bought out large quantities of supplies, in the way that panicked consumers have bought out toilet paper.

Partly, that’s because the White House is a ghost town of scientific expertise. A pandemic-preparedness office that was part of the National Security Council was dissolved in 2018. On January 28, Luciana Borio, who was part of that team, urged the government to “act now to prevent an American epidemic,” and specifically to work with the private sector to develop fast, easy diagnostic tests. But with the office shuttered, those warnings were published in The Wall Street Journal, rather than spoken into the president’s ear. Instead of springing into action, America sat idle.

Rudderless, blindsided, lethargic, and uncoordinated, America has mishandled the COVID-19 crisis to a substantially worse degree than what every health expert I’ve spoken with had feared. “Much worse,” said Ron Klain, who coordinated the U.S. response to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014. “Beyond any expectations we had,” said Lauren Sauer, who works on disaster preparedness at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “As an American, I’m horrified,” said Seth Berkley, who heads Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “The U.S. may end up with the worst outbreak in the industrialized world.”

The quoted paragraphs are followed by predictions of what will come next–best and worst case. Bottom line: even in the best-case scenarios, this isn’t going to be over any time soon. The “President” may think a vaccine or cure can be magically discovered and mass produced in a couple of weeks, but scientists and sane people know better.

And then there’s the aftermath…

As my colleague Annie Lowrey wrote, the economy is experiencing a shock “more sudden and severe than anyone alive has ever experienced.” About one in five people in the United States have lost working hours or jobs. Hotels are empty. Airlines are grounding flights. Restaurants and other small businesses are closing. Inequalities will widen: People with low incomes will be hardest-hit by social-distancing measures, and most likely to have the chronic health conditions that increase their risk of severe infections. Diseases have destabilized cities and societies many times over, “but it hasn’t happened in this country in a very long time, or to quite the extent that we’re seeing now,” says Elena Conis, a historian of medicine at UC Berkeley. “We’re far more urban and metropolitan. We have more people traveling great distances and living far from family and work.”

After infections begin ebbing, a secondary pandemic of mental-health problems will follow. …People with anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder are struggling. Elderly people, who are already excluded from much of public life, are being asked to distance themselves even further, deepening their loneliness. Asian people are suffering racist insults, fueled by a president who insists on labeling the new coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” Incidents of domestic violence and child abuse are likely to spike as people are forced to stay in unsafe homes.

The article does end with a thin ray of hope–or perhaps “challenge” is a more appropriate word. Pandemics can catalyze social change.

Perhaps the nation will learn that preparedness isn’t just about masks, vaccines, and tests, but also about fair labor policies and a stable and equal health-care system. Perhaps it will appreciate that health-care workers and public-health specialists compose America’s social immune system, and that this system has been suppressed.

If we are very, very fortunate, in November we will not retreat further into authoritarianism and fear; instead, we’ll recognize that all diseases aren’t physical, and all tests aren’t medical.

Our test is whether America will repudiate the virus of bigoted “America first” politics, reject kakistocracy, and pivot from isolationism to international cooperation.


A (Collapsed) Bridge Too Far

The liberal political site Daily Kos maintains an infrastructure series; recently it posted an entry titled “Another Week, Another Bridge Collapse in America.”

This past Monday, news came of another bridge collapse in the United States, this time in Chattanooga. The fact that a bridge collapse has to be qualified with the determiner ‘another’ in the richest Country the World has ever known is distressing, even more so considering said bridge was also part of the largest infrastructure project the World has ever know.

Late Monday morning, the side of an overpass on I-75 collapsed, tumbling onto the ramp headed to Chattanooga. This bridge had been built in the 1950’s, and was recently inspected in July 2018. The condition of the bridge was found to be ‘Fair,’ which sounds more like a weather report than something very large that can collapse and kill you.

This particular collapse was evidently caused by an oversized truck that had slammed into the bridge and weakened it. But nationwide, the number of structurally-deficient bridges is staggering; assuming funding at current rates, engineers estimate that it will take 82 years to repair all of them.

The American Road and Transportation Builders Association has issued a report based upon 2018 data. It shows

  • There are 616,087 bridges in America
  • Of those, 47,052 (nearly 8%) are “structurally deficient” and need urgent repairs
  • 235,020 bridges (38%) need some sort of repair
  • Americans cross structurally deficient bridges 178 million times a day, including such landmarks as the Brooklyn Bridge and the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge over the San Francisco Bay
  • The average age of a structurally deficient bridge is 62 years

Structurally deficient doesn’t necessarily mean that the bridge is in imminent danger of collapse, but it also isn’t a label affixed to bridges with minor problems. The post included the definition used by Virginia’s Department of Transportation:

Bridges are considered structurally deficient if they have been restricted to light vehicles, closed to traffic or require rehabilitation.Structurally deficient means there are elements of the bridge that need to be monitored and/or repaired. The fact that a bridge is “structurally deficient” does not imply that it is likely to collapse or that it is unsafe. It means the bridge must be monitored, inspected and maintained.

More than 1200 bridges in the state of Indiana are considered structurally deficient.

The Daily Kos post links to a list of the bridges in the worst shape. As the list makes clear, the worst bridges are exclusively urban interstate bridges.

Why are highway bridges in urban areas the most dangerous of all in America?

  • Decades of neglect of urban infrastructure by state and federal authorities who feel taxpayer dollars are better spent on rural and suburban constituents. (Thanks to gerrymandering, this is the case in Indiana.)
  • Lack of public transportation, or overcrowding of public transportation, forcing these structures to carry far more vehicles than they were ever designed for.
  • Replacing these structures in an urban environment, where service cannot be interrupted and there is no available real estate to build a new bridge alongside, is extremely costly.

When you think about it, governments exist to provide infrastructure–not just physical infrastructure, but also the social infrastructure that prevents what Hobbes called “a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”

When a government can’t even sustain the physical infrastructure, it is a failed government.


Facing Up to Reality

When something absolutely unforeseen challenges your worldview, it is probably prudent to take a step back and re-examine your assumptions.

After the shock of a Presidential election that successfully appealed to festering bigotries and primal hatreds that I naively thought had declined, and after a period of disbelief (and nausea), I made myself take that “step back.” You may or may not agree with my conclusions, but I’d ask you to consider them.

America’s democratic institutions and processes haven’t worked properly for quite some time. All of us can tick off evidence: a Senate that simply refuses to hold hearings on a Presidential nominee for the Supreme Court; legislators’ willingness to petulantly shut down government when they don’t get their way; the widespread, obstinate denial of science and rejection of empirical evidence in favor of policies based upon ideology and/or religious dogma; and of course, the toxic partisanship and racial resentments reflected in the decision of Congressional Republicans to block anything and everything proposed by our first African-American President, irrespective of the merits of any particular proposal. I could go on.

Had Hillary Clinton been elected President, she would have faced the same ferocious, partisan hostility that Obama has had to deal with–but on steroids. Irrational hatred of the Clintons, especially Hillary, is baked into Republican DNA. Not only would she have faced constant, repetitive Congressional “investigations,” several House members were already drawing up Articles of Impeachment. (Why wait for her to actually do something impeachable?)

Meanwhile, lawmakers in both parties continue to block policies seen as threatening to the interests of the oligarchs that effectively control our national and state legislatures. It is irrelevant that large majorities of Americans favor background checks for people buying guns, higher taxes on the rich, a discontinuation of obscene subsidies to oil companies or numerous other measures. Especially at the federal level, the policy preferences that count are those of the big donors as conveyed by their lobbyists–many of whom used to be legislators in the incestuous political stew that is Washington, D.C.

This is not the way a working democracy operates.

Although the self-dealing and the nastiness has unquestionably gotten worse, most of this isn’t new. It has become more visible in the Internet Age, but the inability of our governing structure to deal with a technologically integrated, inexorably globalizing, demographically diversifying modern world has been apparent for decades.

American government does not work as it should, and it hasn’t for quite some time. It certainly hasn’t ameliorated or addressed–or even explained– the dramatic changes that have created economic and social distress among so many of our citizens.

Dissatisfied citizens look for someone to blame. To the extent they blame the status quo in Washington, that’s probably fair enough. Given human nature, however, a lot of our fellow-citizens blame immigrants, African-Americans, Muslims, Jews, “uppity” women…the “other”…for cultural changes that disadvantage them or make them uncomfortable, and for a government that doesn’t work for them.

Social scientists tell us that the two strongest predictors of support for Donald Trump were racial resentment and misogyny.

So now we have a President-elect whose profound ignorance and incompetence is likely to deliver the coup de grace to creaky government institutions and even more likely to exacerbate the social divisions and bigotries he cultivated during the campaign. Whether he serves out his term, or we end up with Mike Pence (a rigid theocrat who is equally incompetent, equally uninterested in the mechanics of governing), all signs suggest we are on the cusp of an era of massive social upheaval.

The question is: when the incommensurate passions triggered by impending conflicts subside, will we be able to construct a fairer, more streamlined and responsive, more (small-d) democratic governing structure, one that is more adapted to the realities of the modern world?

Can we salvage the best parts of our governing philosophy, and create institutional structures that work for all our citizens? Or will four years of authoritarianism and continued exploitation of racial, religious and ethnic divisions leave the oligarchs and white supremacists firmly in charge?

What would a better, more trustworthy American democracy look like?

I have some ideas I’ll share tomorrow. I invite yours.