The Appalling Indiana Statehouse…

After a truly revolting episode in the Indiana Statehouse, a recent quote from Sacha Baron Cohen seems particularly apt. Cohen was quoted as saying “If you’re protesting against racism, you’re going to upset some racists.”

Which brings me to what transpired in Indiana’s Statehouse on Thursday.

During the House session on Thursday, a bill concerning school district boundaries that some are calling racist sparked an emotional and angry debate. Several legislators walked out of the chamber, GOP legislators in their seats booed and shouted “no” and “stop,” and some members even clashed in the halls after Black legislators spoke out against the bill. 

The confrontations broke out on a day when Black members were celebrating Black History Month by wearing traditional African garb. 

“We kind of felt like it kind of fed into how the members were acting,” said Rep. Robin Shackleford, D-Indianapolis. “I think having on the African garb and our members going up there stating how they felt about a bill, I think that just antagonized them even more.”

The bill would allow de-annexation of neighborhoods that are currently part of the South Bend Community School Corporation, which is mostly non-white, and move them to John Glenn School Corporation, which is mostly white. 

According to several media reports, the boos and jeers in the chamber were followed by confrontations in the hallways and the mens’ restroom. 

Among the lawmakers who got up and walked out was Jim Lucas, who has previously been sanctioned by the GOP Speaker of the House for sharing a racist meme. (Our daughter has told me that she sees Lucas’ Facebook page on occasion, and that it is an appalling collection of racist and conspiratorial commentary.) The chairwoman of the Black caucus has called for Lucas’s removal from several committees, pointing to his intransigence and hostility. She also called for the entire House to have bias training, noting that “his thinking and his behavior is enabled by the complacency of some of our colleagues.”

“Complacency” is a kind word for it. Thursday’s behavior certainly underscored her point.

Efforts of largely white school districts to break away from districts with significant numbers of  minority students, and to– not-so-incidentally– take their funding with them isn’t unique to Indiana. Both The Atlantic and The New York Times have reported on instances in Louisiana and Alabama in which white communities have tried to separate from minority communities.

“Laws in 30 states explicitly allow communities to form their own public-school systems, and since 2000, at least 71 communities across the country, most of them white and wealthy, have sought to break away from their public-school districts to form smaller, more exclusive ones,” The New York Times reported, citing a study by EdBuild.

Based on the United States Census, as of 2019, South Bend was 61.7% white while 48.5% identified as part of a minority group. 

Predictably, the author of the bill denied any racial intent, claiming the measure was based on concerns about transportation. If you believe that, I have some underwater real estate you may be interested in purchasing…but even giving him the benefit of the doubt, the unseemly reaction by many lawmakers to legitimate concerns voiced by their Black colleagues was the give-away. Booing, jeering and accosting lawmakers and witnesses who dare to raise an obvious issue is hardly the principled debate on the merits of a bill that taxpayers and voters have the right to expect.  

The bill passed the House with a vote of 53-42. Fourteen Republicans joined Democrats in opposition. It will now move to the Senate, where more optimistic Hoosiers can hope for more civil–and less revelatory–consideration. 

Episodes like this go a long way toward explaining the “brain drain” that keeps educated people from settling in the state. If I were thirty years younger, I wouldn’t stay in Indiana either. There’s a reason Indiana is called the buckle of the Bible Belt–or more colorfully, the middle finger of the South. 


This Is Your Brain On Grievance

Most of the people I consider “normal”–assuming there is such a thing–view America’s current dysfunctions with incomprehension. A phrase I hear more and more frequently from all sides of the political aisle is “what on earth is wrong with those people?”

Two articles from Politico suggest an answer.

The first is a collection of “explanations of the election” by twenty voters who display the various attitudes we’ve come to expect from an assortment of geographically and philosophically diverse Americans. (Hint: It’s the other guy’s fault…)

The second was a really fascinating article by James Kimmel, Jr., a lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, and a co-director of the Yale Collaborative for Motive Control Studies.  Evidently, people can become addicted to grievance in much the same way they can be addicted to drugs.

And as the collected opinions of those twenty Americans demonstrates, there’s a lot of grievance around.

Kimmel’s studies show that a brain on grievance looks a lot like a brain on drugs.

In fact, brain imaging studies show that harboring a grievance (a perceived wrong or injustice, real or imagined) activates the same neural reward circuitry as narcotics

This isn’t a metaphor; it’s brain biology. Scientists have found that in substance addiction, environmental cues such as being in a place where drugs are taken or meeting another person who takes drugs cause sharp surges of dopamine in crucial reward and habit regions of the brain, specifically, the nucleus accumbens and dorsal striatum. This triggers cravings in anticipation of experiencing pleasure and relief through intoxication. Recent studies show that similarly, cues such as experiencing or being reminded of a perceived wrong or injustice — a grievance — activate these same reward and habit regions of the brain, triggering cravings in anticipation of experiencing pleasure and relief through retaliation. To be clear, the retaliation doesn’t need to be physically violent—an unkind word, or tweet, can also be very gratifying.

Evidently, people can become addicted to seeking retribution against those they consider their enemies. Kimmel has a name for it: revenge addiction, and he suggests this may explain why some people just can’t “get over it”  long after others feel they should have moved on. (He also warns that some of those people may resort to violence.)

The hallmark of addiction is compulsive behavior despite harmful consequences. Trump’s unrelenting efforts to retaliate against those he believes have treated him unjustly (including, now, American voters) appear to be compulsive and uncontrollable.

Unfortunately, this addiction to revenge doesn’t only affect Trump.

Like substance addiction, revenge addiction appears to spread from person to person. For instance, inner-city gun violence spreads in neighborhoods like a social contagion, with one person’s grievances infecting others with a desire to seek vengeance. Because of his unique position and use of the media and social networks, Trump is able to spread his grievances to thousands or millions of others through Twitter, TV and rallies. His demand for retribution becomes their demand, causing his supporters to crave retaliation—and, in a vicious cycle, this in turn causes Trump’s targets and their supporters to feel aggrieved and want to retaliate, too.

If a revenge addiction is as contagious as Kimmel believes, what can we do about it? Kimmel warns that addiction interventions are risky and that they often backfire.

Unfortunately, Kimmel doesn’t have any quick fixes to offer; he says we’re in for a long haul. Worse, neither Trump nor those he’s “infected” are likely to heal until we (and he) realize how the politics of grievance is damaging us.

Several commenters to this blog–not to mention pundits and academics, among others– have worried about the weaponizing of grievance by political parties and interest groups who recognize that playing on our fears and anger generates donations and motivates voters.  Similarly, media outlets and social networks use grievance to attract clicks and increase sales. In a very real sense, they’ve become dealers.

We need to turn down the heat.

I still remember those old (ineffective) anti-drug TV ads that showed a hand breaking an egg into a hot frying pan, and a voice-over intoning: This is your brain on drugs!

Can we avoid frying that egg by turning off the burner beneath it? As Trump departs, can we “turn off” some of the incivility and nastiness he promoted–the rhetoric that generates grievance?

Maybe “political correctness” isn’t such a bad thing….


How Not To Win Friends….Or Persuade People

When he was asked about policy disagreements, former Indiana Senator Dick Lugar had a favorite saying: “That’s something about which reasonable people can disagree.”

That attitude–that recognition that well-meaning people can come to different conclusions–is the foundation of civil discourse and democratic deliberation. Unfortunately, Americans have lost that essential insight (along with the reasonable GOP to which Lugar belonged).

What triggered this recollection was a distasteful display at a recent meeting of the Indianapolis Public School Board. (In the interests of full disclosure, our daughter is a member of that Board, which also includes a former student of mine.)

Serving on a school board, or City Council, or on one of the City’s many boards and commissions is often a (thankless) labor of love, undertaken by people who care deeply about the missions of those bodies and who spend innumerable hours reviewing reports and budgets and meeting with concerned citizens. That doesn’t mean that every decision they make is the right one, or the best that could be made–but in most instances, those decisions have been made in good faith after many hours of weighing the available information and debating alternatives.

Like many other urban districts, IPS educates significantly fewer students than it used to. In 1968, the district’s high school enrollment was 26,107; this year, it is 5,352. The current capacity of the seven high school buildings it operates is 14,450–nearly three times the number of students attending them. The money spent operating and maintaining buildings with so much excess capacity could be better spent improving classroom performance, and the  Board has recently faced up to the necessity of closing three of its underused schools.

Such decisions are always difficult and contentious.

The Board has scheduled meetings around the district to explain its deliberations and to hear community responses to the planned closures. At its most recent meeting, members heard from a self-identified “urban education expert” who holds an academic appointment at a local university. This individual has testified at previous Board meetings, and his presentations have been consistently arrogant and accusatory: he has lectured the Board that it is “amateurish,” accused members of being “bought and paid for,” and characterized their elections as “undemocratic.” Rather than a courteous sharing of perspective or evidence, he has delivered boorish, self-righteous  rants–the sorts of performances that give academics a bad name.

He outdid himself at the recent meeting. Board members had ulterior motives; board members hadn’t really looked at alternatives; the pending closures would ruin the lives of students whose schools were being closed. (I’m not making this up.) He topped it off by telling the white members of the Board they were racists. (He’s white.) He rarely looked at the Board during this extended diatribe; instead, he aimed his rhetoric at  the largely African-American attendees who were clearly his real audience.

Not exactly how one wins friends and influences decision-makers.

I don’t understand people who behave this way. I assume–perhaps naively–that people attend and testify at public meetings in order to influence policy, to offer perspectives that may not have been considered or pose questions that might not have been asked.

Telling policymakers that they are corrupt, racist ignoramuses who don’t know as much as you do is not a strategy likely to persuade them to your point of view, and it certainly isn’t the evidence-based, informative testimony we should expect from an “expert.” (It’s worth noting that, in the testimony I reviewed, he offered absolutely no alternative proposals or constructive suggestions. Just insults.)

If this episode of incivility was an anomaly, it wouldn’t merit a blog post, but such behaviors have become far too common in our toxic political age. Policy differences are no longer issues about which reasonable people can differ; instead, they are showdowns between good and evil. People with whom we disagree can’t simply be wrong, they must be  bigoted or “bought.”

This sort of indiscriminate nastiness is deeply corrosive. When everyone who comes to a controversial conclusion is labeled a corrupt racist, we lose the ability to identify people who truly are those things. Voters become cynical about our governing institutions, and public-spirited people–the very people we most need to involve in local government– retreat from public service.

I don’t know how we restore civility to public debate, but we need to figure it out. Sooner, rather than later.


The Unraveling Begins….

Swastikas on churches. Threatening graffiti in minority neighborhoods. Racist posts on Facebook and Twitter. The Klan and the American Nazi Party celebrating Trump’s “win for the Whites.”

These are very scary times.

Ed Brayton notes that Raw Story is keeping a list of all of the bigoted, criminal and violent attacks on gays, blacks, Muslims, women, Latinos in others since Donald Trump was elected–and that the list is growing by leaps and bounds.

We need to be honest; Trump did not create the bigotry he exploited and encouraged. It was already there, often barely below the surface. It reacted with seething hostility to the election of an African-American President, and was exacerbated by recognition of same-sex marriage, by efforts to provide immigrants with a path to citizenship, and to other legal and cultural changes perceived–primarily by white men– as diminishing the privileged status of white Christian Americans.

NPR recently reported on the rise in hate crimes during 2015.

Hate crimes in 2015 were more than 6 percent more frequent than they were in 2014, with a two-thirds increase in religiously motivated attacks against Muslims.

The FBI’s Hate Crimes Statistics, 2015 report tallied more than 5,850 hate crime incidents in 2015.

Motivations for hate crime incidents, 2015: 56.9 percent were motivated by a race/ethnicity/ancestry bias. 21.4 percent were prompted by religious bias. 18.1 percent resulted from sexual-orientation bias. 2.0 percent were motivated by gender-identity bias. 1.3 percent were prompted by disability bias. 0.4 percent (23 incidents) were motivated by a gender bias.

Most of those — 56.9 percent — were racially motivated, with more than half of race-based attacks targeting African-Americans.

But religiously motivated attacks were a growing share of the tally. Incidents of religious hate crimes rose by nearly 23 percent compared to 2014.

Most hate crimes based on religion targeted Jewish people; anti-Semitic attacks were up more than 9 percent compared to 2014.

Since the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 60 percent of hate crimes are never reported to police, the actual incidence of bias crime is undoubtedly much higher than these statistics suggest.

I’m sure social scientists and mental health professionals have explanations for the loss of civility and increasing nastiness of our times. There’s the disorientation that accompanies rapid social change, the stresses caused by economic uncertainty, the unattractive but very human need to find someone or some group to blame when life isn’t going well. There’s tribalism,  fear of difference, and resentment at perceived loss of status.

I understand that we Americans are never going to come together around the campfire, metaphorically speaking, and sing kumbaya. But we are at risk of losing important norms of mutual respect and civic equality–norms that (while admittedly more honored in the breach than in reality) we have long held to be essential to our national identity.

I keep thinking about Rodney King’s plaintive question, “Can’t we all just get along?”

The answer–at least as provided by those who voted for Trump– seems to be “evidently not.”


“Jane, You Ignorant Slut” and Other Constructive Feedback

Many years ago, one of the evening news shows included a “point-counterpoint” segment, in which a conservative and liberal would have a brief exchange of views on an issue of the day.  As many of you will recall, Saturday Night Live had great fun with its own parody of the segment; I think Jane Curtin and Dan Akroyd played the debaters. Curtin would make her case, after which Akroyd would launch into his response by saying “Jane, you ignorant slut.” It was funny because we all know people who just can’t seem to distinguish between an ad hominem insult and reasoned argumentation.

Anyone who ventures to express opinions through columns or blogs has to be prepared for less-than-civil responses. Between my years at the ACLU (where one critical letter was “hand delivered”– wrapped around a brick and thrown through the window) and fourteen years as a columnist for the Indianapolis Star, I’ve developed a pretty thick skin. Very few responses still have the ability to surprise me. But I still haven’t figured out why people invest time and energy in unproductive invective, whether directed at me or posted to someone else’s comment page.

I was reminded about those questions again the other day, by an email from someone who really, really didn’t like a recent IBJ column. (My favorite part: “I never read your columns, and this is an example why!”)

Disagreements with my columns or blogs come in two kinds. Every so often, I get a message saying something along the lines of “I disagree with what you say, and here’s why,” or “I think you got your facts wrong; take a look at XYZ source.” Those are great. They begin a dialogue. They aren’t always persuasive, but often are. If I’ve misunderstood a situation, or failed to address a perspective, letting me know about that educates me. I’ve altered blogs more than once to reflect new understandings or correct factual errors. Those writers may embarrass me, but they do me–and my readers–a real service.

Those folks are, unfortunately, rare.

Far more common are the (usually ungrammatical) messages that simply name-call. They write only to let me know that I am a blot on the human landscape. And that raises the question: what do those correspondents think they are accomplishing? Surely they realize that calling someone names, or calling their parentage, religion or intellectual capacity into question is unlikely to change the recipient’s opinions, or persuade other readers of the superiority of their own views.

It’s equally unlikely to elicit a response. (I mean, what sort of response to “you left-wing elitist bitch” is available or appropriate?)

If someone isn’t interested in engaging in genuine conversation, if he (it’s usually a he) cannot or will not ground his criticism in fact or evidence or analysis, cannot point out where the offensive opinion is deficient–why write anything at all? What are such “messages” supposed to accomplish?

As the King of Siam famously said in The King and I, “It’s a puzzlement.”