“. . . and that’s never easy”

When he was in high school, my brother went away to a weekend-long “Tolerance Camp” sponsored by the National Council of Christians and Jews. (Earlier days, narrower definitions of diversity.) When he returned I asked whether he’d had a good time and he replied, “People were getting new ideas, and that’s never easy.”

There’s been a lot of rumbling about how the 2016 election reflected a failure on the part of elites to understand the atavistic attitudes of a significant portion of the electorate. But we understand perfectly well: people have been getting new ideas—about who gets rewarded for what kind of work, about what color or gender person will be acknowledged as someone who counts, about who’s in charge—and that’s never easy. Trump voters decided they didn’t like the new ideas and said so at the ballot box. But that won’t prevent those ideas from taking hold, unless the central idea of American life—that of popular self-government—is destroyed by the lying fool they chose.

And if it is, it won’t be something elites, or Democrats, or women, or black people, or Jews, or gays, or liberals did or didn’t do. If we really believe in self-government we must hold people accountable for their choices, and the destruction of American values and institutions will be the predictable result of a choice made by people who failed or refused to understand that it’s never easy to get new ideas, but it’s fatal not to.

Author: Kelly Kleiman

Kelly Kleiman is a freelance writer on the arts, feminism, travel and social justice. Her reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor, among other dailies; in magazines, including In These Times and Dance; in the alternative press; on the BBC; and on Chicago Public Radio, where she’s one of the “Dueling Critics” and a contributor to the Onstage Backstage theater blog. She is also a consultant to charities and editor and publisher of The Nonprofiteer, a blog about charity, philanthropy and nonprofit management. She holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago.

19 thoughts on ““. . . and that’s never easy””

  1. In the Age of Trump, one of the institutions we are in danger of losing is the fact. If there are no facts anymore, only opinions, then there is no way to adjudicate between opinions. Trump’s opinion is that millions of people voted illegally for Clinton; your opinion is that millions of people did no such thing. Examples of this phenomenon abound. People are now said to believe whatever version of truth fits their preferences.

    However, there is a counterexample which is worth thinking about. Denver is full of devoted Bronco fans, and they were thrilled when their team won the Superbowl this February. They believed that the Broncos were the best team in the NFL.

    Today, no football fan in Denver believes that their team is the best in the league, or even in the conference, or even in the division. Assertions to the contrary would be met with derision.

    So why do millions of his supporters believe that Trump won the popular vote, but no one in Denver believes that the Broncos are the true NFL champions?

    Whatever that difference is that makes the difference, is there a way that we can apply the Denver Broncos reality principle to the Trump popular vote principle, so that the latter would be as obvious to the electorate as the former?

    1. One idea is to count the coal mining jobs. Trump said they will come back, reality says they won't. The Cabinet nominations – oil and gas all the way – strongly indicate that no serious efforts will be made to protect coal mining, and probably not even figleaf ones.

    2. You pose an excellent question Ed. It may be that many people only now believe what they personally witness (you can watch the game, you can't watch who votes). At the same time, you could be wrong that there are not people who think Denver is the best. In the cities of many beloved losing teams, there is a narrative that runs "We were better, the refs stole it from us/the other team was juicing/they don't want a small market team to win/our schedule was tougher" etc.

      1. I agree that witnessing the games has something to do with it. There may be some Bronco fans who have a narrative that implies that the system was rigged, but the overwhelming consensus in town seems to be that the offense sucked and couldn't make first downs that last year's offense under Peyton Manning would have made with ease. I am not a football fan, but I think that the Denver fans are a rather decent lot. When they won the Superbowl and one million people converged on the downtown area for the big parade, there was only one arrest for disorderly conduct.

        James suggests counting the coal mining jobs.Voters outside coal country will not witness anything. Voters in coal country will be the ones to witness the lack of jobs coming back, but will they attribute the disappointing reality to Trump sucking, or will they attribute it to some sort of scheming by his opponents?

        I have felt certain for quite some time that Twitter will be Trump's downfall, that one day soon he will tweet something which will trigger a major reaction abroad, which could lead to consequences as dramatic as the oil shocks of 1974 or the housing market crash of 2008. If the fallout is immediate enough, I suspect that ordinary cause-and-effect cognitive modeling can be counted on to give millions of his voters a wake-up call. It will create a teachable moment, and we need to be preparing now to make good use of it when it happens.

        1. How Denver played and who won the game are facts that have a very different status than (e.g.) whether millions of Clinton's votes were cast illegally. Yes, one may cheer for one's team and be unhappy at a loss, perhaps blaming it on bad, or even corrupt, refereeing. But ultimately, the game's a recurring event and has minimal impact on one's identity. Denver residents don't lose face in any way that matters just because the Broncos lose a game or seven. In fact, even if we're devoted to a team, much of the pleasure we get from watching a game is observing the plays and the strategies. This is why we can still enjoy watching a game in which we have no stake. (It's also, it seems to me, the way most news organizations view elections and legislative battles: it's about the horse-race, not the content.)

          The kinds of non-factual "facts" that people insist on believing are more tribal and more interconnected with other "facts" (factual or otherwise) to which they subscribe. If you're convinced that the Clintons are corrupt, that people here illegally are causing harm to the American way of life in ways that matter and getting away with it, and that Donald Trump is a savvy guy, his claim that many Clinton votes were illegally cast is consistent with what else you already believe. In fact, it may count as one of those things that you accept because, as the saying goes, "if it's not true, it should be"–that is, it's consistent with other things you accept as true.

          It isn't about facts (or "facts"): it's about how some purported information fits into one's whole cognitive structure. The question is, of course, how one goes about changing any aspect of that structure.

          I think we've seen some examples in the recent past: some people who spent many years as people openly and committedly antigay have changed their minds and now support specific gay rights, such as same-sex marriage. I don't know why–someone, somewhere must have done a study–but from what we hear from the media, it appears that, often enough, it's because they find out that a family member or friend is gay or incorporate into their circles individuals who are gay. As a result, they see homophobia and restrictive rules as disadvantaging members of their group, however that is defined. (I'm using the term "gay" here because it appears that getting all the way to LGBTQ is a step too far for many people who are willing to support same-sex marriage.)

          1. This is an important element as well. Core political beliefs are packaged into systems which connect disparate information items into robust webs which define a person's identity. And the feedback mechanisms are quite weak, unlike that which occurs when an opposing wide receiver romps 80 yards for a touchdown as the home team's defenders chase helplessly after him. The lack of WMDs in Saddam's Iraq never had quite the same impact on the war's fans here at home. Sean Hannity told them that the weapons were there and that was good enough for them.

          2. True. And then we are faced with the fact, that, as the OP points out, people do manage to change their minds. It's worth thinking about what that means in any given case: changing their allegiance in a significant way (e.g., lifelong Democrats voting for Reagan or Republicans for Obama), or reorganizing facts to fit into their mental framework in different ways (reclassifying George W. Bush as not a true conservative after all). Marketers know a good bit about how this kind of movement happens.

            I recall reading a book many years ago on confidence games; the final chapter was about advertising and made the claim that product choice was often Calvinist in nature. A solid five-point Calvinist believes one is born elect or non-elect, and there's nothing one can do to change one's status. But good or bad behavior, while having no effect on one's status, is the outward manifestation thereof. Similarly, one does not imagine that buying a particular car or fragrance or shoe will make one more like the celebrity who pushes the product; rather, the purchase or the desire to purchase, it is claimed, is the outward sign of one's elect status. And people do adjust to the group they perceive themselves as being in.

            Hence, as you observe, a significant group of supporters of Gulf War II who heard that there were no WMDs in Iraq breathed a sigh of relief when Hannity came on and assured them that there had been, or that there was good reason to think there were WMDs, so the call to invade had been a good one.

            And that brings us back to the point of the OP: it's (almost) never easy to get new ideas. But it can be fatal not to–or at least not to examine and test ideas on their own terms rather than in connection with what "people like me" think about those new ideas. And how we get more of the former and less of the latter, I don't know.

  2. Yes, but . . . somehow the voters that gave Trump an edge in the electoral college did not give John McCain or Mitt Romney that edge. They gave it to Obama. The difference, quite possibly, is that Trump rightly or wrongly created the impression that the Democrats are excluding white economically nervous men (and women). And the Democrats did not do enough to counter that impression.

  3. Cromwell, he said: "… you have censured others, and established yourselves "upon the Word of God." Is it therefore infallibly agreeable to the Word of God, all that you say? I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken. Precept may be upon precept, line may be upon line, and yet the Word of the Lord may be to some a Word of Judgment; that they may fall backward and be broken, and be snared and be taken!.."
    Yes, there was a failure on the part of eloi to understand the atavistic attitudes of a significant portion of the electorate. But the disdain you are showing for the morlocks is not going to redound to the benefit of the policies you would like them to embrace. You would do well to read this letter from recently defeated ND state senator Axness about the relationship of the swells in the party to the people who they used to feel had their backs: http://www.newgeography.com/content/005488-an-ope….

    1. I'm afraid I didn't get much out of that. He seems to make only a few actual points: that national Democratic politicians (the presidential candidate?) don't campaign there enough, and that "you push an agenda where at the top you aim to hamper fossil fuels or add foolish rules on farmland". OK, the fossil fuel issue is tough but the Democrats have actually been pretty nuanced. I have no idea what he means about "farmland rules".

      This all seems awfully suspicious. I read deeper cultural resentments. He didn't even bring up racial, gender and sexuality issues, which are huge. The general rise of right-wing populist nationalism is a much larger phenomenon than he seems interested in addressing in any detail.

      1. Deeper cultural resentments is I think exactly right, and they existed because 'deplorables' and because race gender sex are seen to have gone well beyond live and let live. And I think the Dems will keep losing lower-middle whites in part because they are seen to have pushed the pendulum well beyond a benign middle. This is what Biden has been saying, as I read him, and the ignored advice from The Other Clinton during the campaign. The Diane Hessan op-ed in the Globe, reported on CNN: "On a special assignment from the Clinton campaign, Diane Hessan studied how undecided voters were responding to the campaign. She wrote an op-ed in the Boston Globe sharing reflections from her study, which showed the reaction to the "deplorables" was stronger than when FBI Director James Comey sent a letter to Congress saying they were probing to see if additional emails on the laptop of one her top aides could have an impact on a closed investigation to Clinton's use of a primary email server."
        Something like that has power particularly because the Dems have comported themselves in a way which created an impression which that fed.

        1. I'm not sure how far "live and let live" gets us. In the segregation days, in it's most benign form it meant something like "if you prove yourselves worthy of equality and ever so graciously ask for it, we'll be inclined to consider granting it. And by the way, exercising your right to travel between states or ride in the front of the bus or vote is not gracious." When anti-Semitism was more prevalent, was it wrong to wear a yarmulke? "I'm okay with you being Jewish, but, you know, not all of our customers are as tolerant, and besides, isn't it kind of like rubbing our faces in it?" Does live and let live mean, "if you sell wedding cakes to the general public without regard to whatever sins they're guilty of, you should sell to a same-sex couple" or does it mean "you shouldn't offend my sensibilities by asking me to celebrate your sinful union"? "I'm a girl in every way except genitalia – I'd look ridiculous in the boys bathroom, and feel terrible the whole time" or "You're creepy, disordered and disgusting, and besides, if we accommodate you men will dress as women to barge into the bathroom and do despicable things"? "I wear a head scarf to show my devotion to God" vs. "Unless you're a Mennonite, it's needlessly provocative."

          These are tough questions, I guess, as is always the case when liberties come in conflict with other liberties. As a straight, white, reasonably affluent man, no one's ever tried to take anything from me, and I've always been free to live my life as my conscience demands without asking for "special" treatment. I already get special treatment – it comes with the package. I'd just like more people to be able to live the same way I do, even if they don't share my color, sex, religion, sexuality or nationality; so much so, that treating them decently, as I myself like to be treated, isn't special at all. And that's never easy, though it is necessary.

          1. "..I'm not sure how far "live and let live" gets us.." Well, looking to history, the Mrs Murphy exception to fair housing laws was probably important for acceptance, and didn't do a whole lot to keep nonwhites out of housing. You could think about some kind of a standard like, if you are WalMart, or if you are the only bakery in town, you had damn better bake the cake, but if you are a mom and pop and there are competing providers we can let you go with "you shouldn't offend my sensibilities by asking me to celebrate your sinful union". We have seen that there was a lot of grouchiness towards the various social justice crusaders, and it was likely one of the things which tipped the balance in some states. On the other hand, as Henry Clay said, "I'd rather be right than President". So there's that, too.

      2. More on deep cultural resentments, this time from Anthony Bourdain: "The utter contempt with which privileged Eastern liberals such as myself discuss red-state, gun-country, working-class America as ridiculous and morons and rubes is largely responsible for the upswell of rage and contempt and desire to pull down the temple that we're seeing now.

        I've spent a lot of time in gun-country, God-fearing America. There are a hell of a lot of nice people out there, who are doing what everyone else in this world is trying to do: the best they can to get by, and take care of themselves and the people they love. When we deny them their basic humanity and legitimacy of their views, however different they may be than ours, when we mock them at every turn, and treat them with contempt, we do no one any good. Nothing nauseates me more than preaching to the converted. The self-congratulatory tone of the privileged left—just repeating and repeating and repeating the outrages of the opposition—this does not win hearts and minds. It doesn't change anyone's opinions. It only solidifies them, and makes things worse for all of us. We should be breaking bread with each other, and finding common ground whenever possible. I fear that is not at all what we've done."

        1. i am a lifelong left-liberal democrat, or at least since i was able to think with logic and manipulate abstractions so call it 43 of 56 years. i am also a 7th or 8th generation texas native. i have been dealing with people with vastly different ways of seeing the world for a long time. even though i am now a decided agnostic i was raised in a fairly conservative church until i was 16 and i am able to understand and speak in terms of what i call southern christianity. my practice when speaking to people with different opinions was to find some area of common ground and see how far i could move them by incremental and logical steps pitched in the language of politics or social thinking they used. there have been times i have been able to move people much farther than they, or even i, had expected. even if we did not agree in the end our discussions tended to remain amicable. sometimes during the course of a discussion i would find that i was questioning an opinion or a belief of mine. one notable example was in a conversation about religion i found that my initial stance of atheism made no sense and i moved to a position of agnosticism.

          over the past 20 years i have found this approach becoming difficult if not impossible to put into practice. starting during the run-up to the impeachment of clinton my interlocutors have been less and less willing to agree to common ground and much more likely to immediately gainsay any attempt to move from one point of agreement to some new incremental position. over the past 10 years i have encountered more and more people who will repeat the most ridiculous lies as long as they heard it on fox news. even when confronted with information from sources they would normally respect they often refuse to back away from the lie or only grudgingly, and usually sullenly, accept that perhaps what they had quoted might have been in error. it has been enormously frustrating trying to maintain a calm and even demeanor when faced with someone who is willing to just make shit up. over the course of the obama years i have begun to encounter people who will decry me as unamerican, as a liberal fascist, as a goddamn asshole, for even trying to take a position different from tea party republicanism. my feelings about these folks tend more towards pity that contempt but those who have earned my contempt have truly earned it. there truly are a lot of deplorable if not despicable people who supported donald trump. many of them are in my family and i know very well the racism and contempt for the poor that lay in the background of their support for trump. just since he began campaigning in earnest i've witnessed more people using racial epithets in public than i have seen during the rest of my adult life. two days after the election some student in the sixth grade hall of my school stuffed notes in most of the hispanic kids lockers that read "president trump will send you back to mexico, start packing." i haven't seen anything like that in 22 years of teaching. i have devoted much of my life to trying to win the hearts and minds of those around me or at least to foster a willingness to accept differing points of view. these days i have to throw my hands up and then hunker down to try to ride out the gathering storm but i fear for my country in a way i have not done before.

  4. I am a West Virginian by birth and do as much work as I can to help my state. So I am all for cosmopolitan elites being more caring of Appalachians than they are. I am also in favor of upper-middle class white suburbanites who voted for Trump being more caring toward single moms on Medicaid. I have seen 10,000 think pieces on the former and none on the latter.

  5. Telling the truth, making your best efforts to find out the truth on public matters, keeping your word, treating people equally, not abusing wealth, power and office, not taking yourself as the centre of the universe, are not exactly new ideas. They are in most peoples' sacred books and a huge number of non-sacred ones and codes of law. The new idea in the 2016 election was that expressing your grievances somehow trumps the ancient claims of human decency.

  6. This is essentially the racism argument for Trump's election. Insofar as white Americans are another racial group, this implication itself borders on racism. That's an approach that can only fan the thing it deplores.

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