The conversation

A few pieces I read over the last few days juxtapose nicely on the state of America today.

On Saturday, Orrin Hatch, writing in the Wall Street Journal,

“America’s culture war has reached a tipping point. While our politics have always been divisive, an underlying commitment to civility has usually held citizens on both sides together… 

To be clear, I am not calling for an end to the culture war. Indeed, it can and must be fought. Intense disputes over social issues are a feature, not a flaw, of a functioning democracy. 

 I am, however, calling for a dramatic reassessment of tactics. We need a détente in partisan hostilities, an easing of tensions that can be realized when both sides adopt certain rules of engagement—norms to rein in the worst excesses of the culture wars.

Foremost among these norms should be a commitment to preventing communal spaces from becoming politicized. Even in our most divided times, there have been places we could go to escape the partisan clamor—places where we could leave politics at the door and come together as one, including restaurants, theaters, sports arenas and houses of worship…. 

The assault on communal spaces is a subset of the politicization of everything—the culture war equivalent of a scorched-earth policy. It is an attempt to burn away the last vestiges of civility and common cause along the march to political domination. 

Everything—from chicken sandwiches to prom dresses and even cartoon frogs—can be weaponized for political purposes… 

In similar fashion, our society could benefit from adopting certain conventions to limit the scope and severity of the culture wars… 

First, we must agree on the need to shield communal spaces from politicization… 

Second, we must work together to resist the politicization of everything…. 

Third, we must discourage harassment of public figures and incursions into their private lives… 

Fourth, liberals and conservatives alike should commit themselves to rhetorical disarmament… 

In a culture war, in which words are weapons, both sides need to ease their inflammatory language. 

 By working together to instill these norms, we can revive civic life and set our nation on a path to health and healing. “

On Sunday, I read the New York Times. (I also read the New Yorker. I like well-written opinion from all views.) Frank Bruni, normally one of the Times’ more sedate writers:

“There are problems with impeaching Donald Trump. A big one is the holy terror waiting in the wings. 

That would be Mike Pence, who mirrors the boss more than you realize. He’s also self-infatuated. Also a bigot. Also a liar. Also cruel. [My emphasis]

To that brimming potpourri he adds two ingredients that Trump doesn’t genuinely possess: the conviction that he’s on a mission from God and a determination to mold the entire nation in the shape of his own faith, a regressive, repressive version of Christianity. Trade Trump for Pence and you go from kleptocracy to theocracy.”

Notice the phrasing. “Is an x” is a schoolyard insult, not a fact. “Said something untrue” is, potentially, a fact. “Told a lie” requires knowledge of intent, which is awfully hard to document. “Is a liar” is just an insult. What’s next, dear Times,  Yo’ Mama jokes?  This kind of phrasing has been oozing from Krugman columns for a long time, and now seems to have infected the rest of the Times. This is only one small example, but it came just after reading Hatch so it struck me more than usual.

Maybe we should add to the Senator’s Rules of Etiquette, “Don’t write insults in national newspapers.” Maybe just “don’t write insults,” actually.

(Yes, Bruni was characterizing the views of a book he reviewed. But these are not direct quotes, they are his words summarizing the book. The insult was not necessary.)

From the other side of the spectrum, I enjoyed an essay from my Hoover colleague Victor Davis Hanson, in National Review, “The origins of our second civil war,” which is the issue here. I usually disagree with about half of what Victor writes, and in this piece too, but he too writes well, thoughtfully and persuasively. (And politely, if forcefully.)

“How, when, and why has the United States now arrived at the brink of a veritable civil war? 

Almost every cultural and social institution — universities, the public schools, the NFL, the Oscars, the Tonys, the Grammys, late-night television, public restaurants, coffee shops, movies, TV, stand-up comedy — has been not just politicized but also weaponized. 

Donald Trump’s election was not so much a catalyst for the divide as a manifestation and amplification of the existing schism. 

We are now nearing a point comparable to 1860, and perhaps past 1968. Left–Right factionalism is increasingly fueled by geography — always history’s force multiplier of civil strife. Red and blue states ensure that locale magnifies differences that were mostly manageable during the administrations of Ford, Carter, Reagan, the Bushes, and Clinton.”

The last point strikes me as worth reinforcing. I live in a bubble, where you can’t order a Pizza without getting sympathy for how terrible life is under Trump, now would you like the shaved Manchego on top of the Arrugula? Nobody here has ever met a Republican, let alone imagines that the person they are serving might (gasp) be one. If they were, I suppose, they would get the Sarah Sanders treatment. I travel to parts of the country where the opposite is true. The normal force of politeness nudging people to civil discourse is vanishing.

Victor finds economic causes in globalization that I (politely!) disagree with, which is a topic for another day. But he is good on empathy for, rather than disdain of, middle Americans, and how their troubles feed the problem

“… a radical ongoing restructuring in American middle-class life, characterized by stagnant net income, family disintegration, and eroding consumer confidence. No longer were youth so ready to marry in their early twenties, buy a home, and raise a family of four or five. Compensatory ideology made the necessary adjustments to explain the economic doldrums and began to characterize what was impossible first as undesirable and later as near toxic. Pajama Boy sipping hot chocolate in his jammies, and the government-subsidized Life of Julia profile, became our new American Gothic. 

… the lifestyles of their ancestors were eroding. The new normal was two parents at work, none at home; renting as often as buying; an eight-year rather than three-year car loan; fewer grandparents around the corner for babysitting or to assist when ill; and consumer service defined as hearing taped messages of an hour before reaching a helper in India or Vietnam. 

…If in 1970 a nerd slandered one on the sidewalk and talked trash, he might not do it twice; in 2018, he did it electronically, boldly, and with impunity behind an array of masked social-media identities.”

As you might imagine he is not a fan of the modern university’s role in this emerging civil war

“Universities grew not just increasingly left-wing but far more intolerant than they were during the radicalism of the Sixties — but again in an infantile way. Speakers were shouted down to prove social-justice fides. “Studies” courses squeezed out philosophy and Latin. History became a melodramatic game of finding sinners and saints, rather than shared tragedy. Standards fell to accommodate poorly prepared incoming students, on the logic that old norms were arbitrary and discriminatory constructs anyway.

The curriculum now was recalibrated as therapeutic; it no longer aimed to challenge students by demanding wide reading, composition skills, and mastery of the inductive method. The net result was the worst of all possible worlds: An entire generation of students left college with record debt, mostly ignorant of the skills necessary to read, write, and argue effectively, lacking a general body of shared knowledge — and angry. They were often arrogant in their determination to actualize the ideologies of their professors in the real world. A generation ignorant, arrogant, and poor is a prescription for social volatility. [My emphasis]

… The result was the rise of the stereotypical single 28-year-old — furious at an unfair world that did not appreciate his unique sociology or environmental-studies major, stuck in his parents’ basement or garage, working enough at low-paying jobs to pay for entertainments, if his room, board, and car were subsidized by his aging and retired parents.”

The Red Brigades and the 9/11 terrorists were university graduates of the same sort. Social volatility does often come from this class.

Victor is right, but his view reflects a bit too much what’s going on in the quickly disappearing humanities, and the troubled social sciences. Most students at Stanford duck, shut up, and head off to the science and engineering classes.

Victor’s thoughts on “What Might Bring the United States Together Again?”

A steady 3 to 4 percent growth in annual GDP would trim a lot of cultural rhetoric. …

Yes!

Measured, meritocratic, diverse, and legal immigration would help to restore the melting pot.

Victor and I spar most often on immigration. I am delighted to see such agreement. The problem with our immigration system is not the amount, it’s who we let in and how. I think we would only disagree now on just how “measured” it has to be.

Reforming the university would help too, mostly by abolishing tenure, requiring an exit competence exam for the BA degree (a sort of reverse, back-end SAT or ACT exam), and ending government-subsidized student loans that promote campus fiscal irresponsibility and a curriculum that ensures future unemployment for too many students.

Sadly, universities including my old home at Chicago, are moving in the other direction, eliminating the SAT which allows students to demonstrate actual competence, but draws lawsuits because it lays bare the University’s scandalous discrimination against Asians and Americans of Asian background. The Obama administration, in its crackdown on private universities, attacked their employment rate. “If you’re going to take Federal money, your students have to pass this exam” — maybe the GRE– is an interesting concept.

Civility is the backbone of Civilization. We should always think about who is in the room, including the electronic room, and if they might take offense at what we say. Don’t attack motives (unless you have really clear evidence). A person can be wrong but not evil.  Don’t necessarily shut up, but phrase what we say in just a little more polite way. I try, though I probably fail too often. And, as Hatch suggests, call out incivility especially by those you agree with on substance when you see it.

It’s not a small issue. “Cultural” wars have become political wars, and the tactics are scorched earth. Not even small commonsense reforms can make it through our political system. The country will really fall apart otherwise.

Update: 

My colleague Russ Roberts has a good essay on this subject, “The Outrage Epidemic” on the medium.com and as an Econtalk Podcast here. Some excerpts:

The political atmosphere in America seem to have deteriorated a lot in the last few years. A lot of yelling. … And a lot of trusting of stories that are literally not true. 

People don’t just disagree with each other. They can’t imagine how a decent human being could disagree with their view of immigration or the minimum wage or President Trump. 

…Being a member of the virtuous tribe means not only carrying the correct card in your wallet to reassure yourself. You have to also believe that the people carrying any other card are fools or dupes, or worse — evil. This means an end to not just civilized conversation, but often to any kind of conversation at all. 

This is dangerous. When you can’t imagine that your political opponents might possibly be right it dehumanizes them. It justifies the worst atrocities human beings are capable of.

Russ finds a root cause in what the internet has done to media. A few newspapers and TV stations used to serve everyone and had to find balance. The economics are media are now that you either serve the polarized self-confirming tastes of customers or you go out of business.

I have heard this in many places. Occasionally I have chided a few people at the New York Times about their style (see above for an example). After a while the conversation comes back to, well, that’s what we have to do to survive today. He whose name cannot be mentioned gives us a lot of clicks.

Who is CNN’s biggest competitor? You’d think that would be Fox News. But their competition is really MSNBC and the Huffington Post and the Daily Kos and people on twitter who give people what they want. People and sites that cater to those who lean to the left. The biggest competitor of Fox News isn’t CNN — it’s Breitbart, and Rush Limbaugh and sites that cater to the right. 

To get more views, you need to be a little bit louder in favor of the home team and a little less nuanced. You can’t just politely disagree with the other tribe. You need to vilify them. Outrage sells when competition is this intense.

His advice:

So think about yourself. What do you want to watch? What grabs your attention when it comes to news and politics? 

If you’re like most people, you have a tendency to read what makes you feel good about yourself. Hard to read things that challenge your preconceptions and that are charitable to the other side. 

How many stories have you read that turned out to be wrong? Do you know? How much time do you spend making sure that what you believe about some policy issue — immigration, or trade, or the Middle East, is really backed up by the evidence and the facts?

Well, at least he makes me feel better about my habit of reading the New York Times, and the New Yorker. OK, I slam down my coffee cup and get the nickname “Grumpy Economist,” but at least I’m listening!

His best suggestions are personal

And while there is always an incentive to yell and exaggerate as a way to draw traffic, I can imagine a cultural norm emerging that would frown on such behavior even when it pays. Each of us can help push us in the direction of creating that norm by our own actions and choices. I encourage all of us to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Reading these pieces, and writing this post, has made me nearly panic, reviewing my own writings mentally — Have I done this? Have I treated people unfairly, insulted them (rather than their bad ideas)? Even if I have not, is there something I have written that could be taken this way? Will some commenter or twitterer scream “Gotcha!” Probably, yes. And this is the kind of panic we should probably all have more often!