Best of Enemies: Reflections from a Documentary

Browsing Netflix in the waning days of my summer vacation, I came across a fascinating documentary, Best of Enemies, about the rivalry between conservative intellectual William F. Buckley and his liberal nemesis Gore Vidal.

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The film revolves around a series of nightly debates held by ABC, a station seeking a ratings boost, during the presidential nominating conventions in 1968. Instead of closely examining political differences, Best of Enemies focuses the story on a fledgling TV network that capitalized on the cultural clashes of the 60’s by pitting two titans against each other.

In the debates, Buckley and Vidal attacked each other relentlessly, unwilling to grant an ounce of legitimacy in the perspective of the other.  Each saw in the other the epitome of the wreckage of America.

As tensions heightened over the course of the debates, the pot finally boiled over. In the climax of the film, Vidal calls Buckley a “Nazi” and Buckley calls Vidal a “queer.” Their interchange sank to name calling as their emotions rose to the surface.

Watching this live, according to one commentator, ABC executives “nearly shat.” Of course the language wasn’t cool, by ethical standards, but it was a ratings bonanza. In the years following, banter/ partisan bickering became standard fare for televised political news. And the two intellectuals carried their mutual disdain to the grave.

A few reflections from the film:

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Both had brilliant minds, but their worldviews were polar opposites.

So every piece of information, current event, or historical reference automatically filtered through this worldview, creating a sort of machine-like interpretative effect. Input a current event, quickly process from a liberal or conservative view, and output a sharp retort or keen observation.

Shortly before the name calling incident, they argued over Vietnam protests. They were literally arguing about seeing different things. In Chicago the night prior, Buckley had witnessed savage thugs cussing out police, who demonstrated Christ-like restraint. Vidal had witnessed meek folk-singing hippies, whom the police had battered with clubs.

Both made valid points about the efficacy and legality of protests, yet the tangible hatred for the other prevented any concessions.

How did these worldviews develop? You can almost imagine Buckley and Vidal, swapped at birth, vehemently and brilliantly defending opposite sides.  I wonder how much autonomy  or discovery went into developing these personas, and how much was a product of circumstance.

Makes you wonder about your own worldview.

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The goal, for ABC, was ratings. 

They weren’t trying to find common ground or solution to the country’s problems. They sought to entertain with an epic sparring match.

How has the profit motive shaped public debate since the advent of TV? Now, in the era of glowing screens and instant access, how are the platforms for our conversations affecting the quality and content of those conversations?

We have presidential candidates tweeting insults at each other. The tweets become topics of televised banter. Short clips of this banter are captured and shared online. Counterpoints become memes become… arguments? We tightly filter our worldview generators in one breath, and mourn our polarization in the next. An unhinged reality TV show host with no experience in government is the nominee of a major political party.

Slow paced intellectual discourse used to entertain. For 30 years, Buckley hosted a show called Firing Line, where he invited guests for an hour long conversation. Nuance could be explored and differences of opinion could be hashed out at length.

In the entertainment marketplace today, we do have some options for depth. Podcasts like the Slate Political Gabfest dedicate an hour a week to a thoughtful panel discussion of a few pertinent topics. John Oliver in Last Week Tonight dedicates a half hour to one topic, mixing humor with critical analysis. Individuals like John Stossel publish long Youtube segments articulating their views.

Unfortunately, what wins most in our marketplace is not the Firing Line tradition but the ABC tradition. Rather than nuanced analysis or respectful, serious debate, we are more likely to encounter emotional outbursts, name calling, attacking cartoon versions of the other’s argument, and partisan cheer-leading.

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One example stands out.

After browsing a few episodes of Firing Line, I stopped to watch Muhammad Ali  debate his objection to the Vietnam War and the racial divide in America. At the time, Ali’s boxing license was revoked and he was expecting jail time. Instead of being reduced to a tweet-sized burst: “The champ says white people are the devil!” the audience listened to Ali defend his objection to the war, his relationship with Islam, and the basis for his black nationalism. You wouldn’t have to agree with him, and Buckley didn’t. But he listened to Ali at length, invited him to extrapolate on his views by challenging the influence of his mentor Elijah Muhammad and his assumptions about white America. You wouldn’t have to agree with Buckley, either, but he forced you through rigorous considerations.

Carmelo Anthony recently posted a picture of Muhammad Ali on his Instagram account, encouraging athletes to use their influence to make a difference. At the opening of the ESPYs, he stood alongside fellow NBA players Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, and LeBron James to make a plea for change. Ali’s name was invoked repeatedly.

The modern media environment encourages expression. Constructive discourse or effective political action, not so much.

The arguments of Black Lives Matter deserve to be heard, but I fear that the message, which started as a hashtag, remains in the fragmented world of social media.

An important discussion needs to happen. My hope is that the BLM movement can initiate constructive debate and inspire people to heal fractured communities.

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Human beings will always disagree with each other.

Disagreements happen within groups just as much as between groups. This is natural, this allows social evolution.

There was never a Golden-Age where people didn’t stereotype or insult each other. There never existed a world where everyone sat around reading and debating important matters.

But I think our entertainment age encourages strong opinions, with the emotional charge of Buckley vs. Vidal, without a humble thought or second thought behind them.

What was so powerful about the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King was not merely his eloquence but the depth of his thought. If you read his autobiographical writings you will find decades of searching for Truth. He started his public life with an intellectual conviction that non-violent resistance was the proper means to a reconciled end. He lived with a spiritual conviction that the love ethic would endure.

To love your neighbor, and to love even your enemy, for Dr. King meant Agape love– nothing sentimental, but “understanding good will.”

Agape love is a precondition to any constructive debates we will have about… anything, really.  Mutually seeking to understand each other, with benevolence and good will.

Sifting through the Madness

lbj jfk“Information is not insight, analysis is not awareness, knowledge is not awareness.”

Jesuit priest and psychologist Anthony deMello wrote about the problem with confusing these concepts. Information, analysis, knowledge– they can inform, but they cannot direct. They can diagnose, but absent insight or awareness, they cannot effectively treat.

Awareness, for deMello, is a process akin to observing yourself and the world from a perspective outside yourself. This is me, observing me, responding emotionally to my environment. This is me, aware of the cultural filters on my perception of reality. To be aware is to fearlessly confront your conditioning, your biases, your piety, and to approach truth without labels or prejudgments.

We can see that information and analysis can produce a variety of sentiments. We can read an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by Heather MacDonald, rationalizing the deaths of black people by way of statistics: “…in 2015 officers killed 662 whites and Hispanics, and 258 blacks.” And to rationalize the disproportionate deaths of blacks, based on percentage of population, the author cites another statistic: “There were 6,095 black homicide deaths in 2014—the most recent year for which such data are available—compared with 5,397 homicide deaths for whites and Hispanics combined. Almost all of those black homicide victims had black killers.”

The argument of the piece was that black people die by the hands of police because they are statistically more dangerous to each other, more in need of police presence, and more likely to kill police officers. Cops, according to the author, should be applauded for protecting black communities, rather than condemned as racist killers.

We can see a different sentiment in the organized reaction by the Black Lives Matter protests across the nation. At a rally in Phoenix over the weekend– though not run by the official Arizona Black Lives Matter group– hundreds of protesters showed up, marching downtown, chanting and waving signs, demanding change, demanding justice.

The knowledge in the protesters’ minds is the knowledge of police killing black people. Killings seen, and felt emotionally, by graphic videos posted online. Knowledge also of the other killings– people who died running away from officers, people who died in police custody, people who died with their “hands up.” Maybe even personal knowledge, experience of discrimination.

Others try to unify these two sentiments, especially in the wake of the tragedy in Dallas. Black Lives Matter. Blue Lives Matter. How do we reconcile the two?

We even argue about hashtags. #BlackLivesMatter. #AllLivesMatter.

The best point I read on this distinction came from Sam Sawyer in the Jesuit Post: “#AllLivesMatter calls our attention to the principle, with which we already agree, rather than to the problem. But #BlackLivesMatter challenges us to conversion.”

Perhaps we are witnessing this conversion. Perhaps we are moving beyond hashtags toward community transformation.

Snoop Dogg, who in his prime rapped about killing other black people and killing cops, is now leading unity marches, meeting with LA police officers and preaching dialogue.

cant breatheNBA star Carmelo Anthony is encouraging his colleagues to move beyond wearing statements on their t-shirts and actually get involved in conversations with community leaders and politicians. He’s urging stars to use their influence to make a real difference.

In Phoenix, there are community meetings planned this week to dialogue about policing policies. Members of the Black Lives Matter group will be part of the discussions.

Heck, even Newt Gingrich, touted as a possible Trump Vice President, admitted recently that “if you are a normal white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America, and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.”

Personally, I agree with President Obama when he said that we aren’t as divided as it seems. We aren’t seeing the polarization that tore society apart in the 60’s.

But we do need to confront the problems. It’s disheartening that, in 2016, rather than judging not by the color of our skin but the content of our character, we are still hyper-focused on skin color.

To that end, information and analysis can be important. Does it matter that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, black people make up 13% of the population but 40% of our prison population? Does it matter that, according to the U.S. Department of Justice investigation, Michael Brown didn’t have his “hands up” when shot, but was charging the officer?

Sure. While we’re at it we could throw up stats on disparities in education, poverty rate, biases in employment, fatherless homes. Why are the inner-cities different than the suburbs? We could analyze the crap out of these dynamics. And we do.

But our division is psychological. The wounds are not just physical or structural but emotional. The police killings are symbolic of deeper wounds that span centuries. Still not healed.

Analysis alone cannot heal our division. It cannot direct authentic action toward social change.

Awareness and conversion can inspire both.

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Links to other writings on structural racism and the Black Lives Matter movement:

Article Review: The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Listen to their Voices

 

 

 

Dichotomy of a Decision

curry durant“I think the major factor and the major reason in my decision was the best opportunity for me to win and to win now and to win into the future also.”

The above quote is from LeBron James’s interview with ESPN in 2010. The Decision was hyped for weeks, the interview aired on primetime after a 30 minute tribute to King James.

After some awkward chit-chat with Jim Gray, James uttered the infamous declaration: “I’m taking my talents to South Beach.”

Garish enough already, a few days later he proceeded to dance on stage in Miami with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh– all in uniform, all bragging about how many championships they were about to win together.

Contrast that with Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Golden State Warriors this week. Durant posted his thoughts on The Player’s Tribune. His first paragraph reveals the reflective nature of this process, saying that he “understood cognitively that I was facing a crossroads in my evolution as a player and as a man.”

Then he makes his decision:

The primary mandate I had for myself in making this decision was to have it based on the potential for my growth as a player — as that has always steered me in the right direction. But I am also at a point in my life where it is of equal importance to find an opportunity that encourages my evolution as a man: moving out of my comfort zone to a new city and community which offers the greatest potential for my contribution and personal growth. With this in mind, I have decided that I am going to join the Golden State Warriors.

Durant proceeded to thank Oklahoma City for contributing to his growth so far as a person. He expressed appreciation for all the important relationships in the community and within the Thunder organization.

Both players faced frustrating situations with their first and only franchises. Neither player could quite get over the hump of a championship.

Criticism comes easily with these sorts of decisions, especially in sports. Loyalty is a virtue. Competitive integrity is a virtue. It’s hard to imagine, say, Michael Jordan joining the Bad Boy Pistons in 1989.

I see some key differences, though, both generationally and between Durant and James.

This is not the 80’s. Though trades have always shaped the league, player autonomy and team fluidity have increased, changing the culture of the NBA. The only franchise that truly has an identity right now is the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State is developing one.

Loyalty in the old sense is non-existent. Teams scapegoat fire a coach, who gets hired the next year by the next team. Players easily jump to the next contract, the next team.

Because of this, I applaud Durant’s move to a first-class organization with a philosophy of ball movement and unselfishness. For him, an opportunity to “contribute” and “grow.”

LeBron’s 2010 decision, on the other hand, was for “me to win,” to take “my talents” and combine them with other basketball mercenaries to build a super-team in Miami.

Additionally, his situation in Cleveland was unique– his loyalties were to a people; he was a hometown prodigy drafted to a historically tortured sports town. Not that he, as an individual, was bound to that situation forever. My criticism of LeBron has always been that his ego somehow manages to outshine his talents.

Even his heroic return rang hollow. Rather than express gratitude to Cleveland for welcoming him back, for forgiving and forgetting, for giving him the keys of the Cavalier organization, for building a contender, his response was a smug: I’m the best player in the world and I delivered on my promise bring you a championship. You’re welcome. Where’s my statue?

The Warriors with Kevin Durant might win a championship or two. But nothing about this decision hinges on that. It doesn’t feel like ring-chasing, and you can sense a deeper purpose in the craft of basketball within the Warrior organization.

I respect that.

Mass Shootings and Distorted Priorities

In 2002, a sniper terrorized the Washington D.C. area. Someone died pumping gas. Another died loading groceries into her car. A manhunt ensued.

The drama captivated the nation. As a 16 year old kid in Phoenix, I remember reading updates each day on the front pages. Nightly news showed unceasing coverage, no matter the channel. Over a three week period, ten people died.

Two men were eventually caught. 42 year old John Allen Muhammad and 17 year old Lee Boyd Malvo had tag teamed in killing random victims and driving the getaway car. The drama continued into the trial, as we learned of mixed motivations, grandiose plans, brainwashing.

You can’t deny the attraction of such a story. The plot would make for a gripping movie, and indeed, the story has since been dramatized for a full-length film and rehashed in multiple crime documentaries.

Random acts of violence, especially large scale, bizarre, or that-coulda-been-me scenarios like what happened in D.C. or in the movie theater in Aurora, or in Orlando, perhaps deserve unbalanced media coverage. We want to know about it. Such is human nature, well known and happily harnessed by media corporations.

I’m interested, though, in how these shootings steer public policy debates. Of course mass shootings are tragic and deserve attention. But we exert disproportionate and misdirected energy looking for quick fixes to a complicated, relatively rare, unpredictable phenomenon. The fantastical nature of these crimes and their unbalanced media attention bias our judgement.

A quick comparison: Judging from averages for the year 2002, during the same three week sniper stretch, 1,790 people committed suicide in the United States.

Homicides in our inner-cities dwarf the number who die from mass shootings.

Yet politicians latch onto mass shootings, burning political capital calling for marginal changes like universally applied background checks or banning certain types of weapons. Democrats made a big show this week with their “sit-in” demanding a new vote on these measures, and staking support for banning weapons purchases by individuals on terror watch lists, which are flawed in their creation and violate basic expectations of due process.

Undoubtedly these measures might help save a few lives each year. But in my mind, we should be pushing for deeper reform measures at the community level. Education programs, support for family units, prioritizing mental health—attention to these fundamentals would be more preventative of all sorts of ills that sprout discontent and violence. How can we find ways to make people feel happier in their lives and more integrated into their communities, less prone to lash out or gravitate toward radical ideologies?

John Muhammad became unhinged after a messy divorce and a court order preventing him from seeing his children. Lee Malvo was an impressionable kid, victim himself of a broken, abusive upbringing. Look up any mass shooter and you will find a disconnected, mentally disturbed, angry person.

Guns don’t kill people, people kill people is a tired cliché. Certainly guns help people kill people; certainly assault weapons in the hands of murderous people increase the death count. Guns are dangerous and more can be done to keep them from dangerous people.

Our collective energies, however, can be better directed. A political stalemate over gun control shouldn’t prevent us from creating a happier, safer country.

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Previously written posts on mass shootings:

A House Divided

Identity and Insanity: Holding a mirror to a violent society

Kalief Browder, RIP

KaliefKalief Browder, a 22 year old New York resident, committed suicide last year. The first I heard of this young man was two days ago on a New Yorker podcast. It was the anniversary of his death. The piece moved me to share what I learned about his life.

I had heard of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and Walter Scott. Names that have become symbols of racial injustice in this country when it comes to policing. Each of these black individuals lost their lives in split second decisions by white officers. How much racial prejudice motivated these decisions, we don’t truly know. Cops got overzealous, lives were lost. One occurrence would be too many.

The Kalief Browder case epitomizes a systemic failure, a clear and heartbreaking example of a breakdown in the justice apparatus.

Browder fell victim to the institution. His story would be more believable if it happened in North Korea.

At the age of 16 he was picked up by the police and arrested for stealing a backpack. He claims he never stole it. For purposes of the story, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter because the boy sat in prison for three years without a trial. He spent three years in Rikers Island, a notoriously brutal prison. He spent two of the the three years in solitary confinement. A teenager awaiting trial for petty theft.

Kalief struggled to adjust to the harsh conditions. He was repeatedly abused by officers in the prison, video of which has been published. He was deprived of food. He attempted suicide multiple times in his cell. He reported getting mocked by officers during one of the attempts.

After three years, no conviction no trial, the charges were dropped without so much of an apology. Just like that, Browder re-entered the world.

He struggled to adjust to reality. Three of his most formative years, changing from a boy into a man, were spent caged in a 7 x 12 foot cell. His mind never recovered. He was in and out of psych wards after his release. There were two attempted suicides before the final, fatal act on June 6, 2015.

The inhumanity of the situation is appalling, besides the clear violations of his civil rights. Innocent until proven guilty. Right to a speedy trial. Protection from cruel and unusual punishment. A failure on all counts.

What pains me the most about this case is that the system clearly saw this person as a nobody. He didn’t matter. Had Kalief been a star athlete getting media attention for his scholarship offers, this wouldn’t have happened. If he were the son of a well-to-do, he wouldn’t have spent a day behind bars.

In the land of the free, we demand better. A few politicians are invoking Kalief Browder’s name for the sake of criminal justice reform, including President Obama in an op-ed for the Washington Post questioning solitary confinement. To his credit, Obama acted to stop the use of solitary confinement for juveniles as a response to low-level infractions.

We need to drastically reform our justice system in this country, and I hope that Kalief Browder’s name continues to provoke active responses, so his suffering can bring redemption for others.

The Mind of Donald Trump: Article Review

Atlantic TrumpMany people have written many things about Donald J. Trump. For some reason we have been forced to take seriously a character who, if written into a movie, would be a comedic exaggeration. But here we are.

And here he is– one seriously flawed, embattled opponent away from the White House. Amazing.

More amazing to me are the Republican leaders who lend their support for the sake of “unity,” then renounce 90% of what comes out of his mouth. Unity of what?

This phony support boils down to wanting votes from his supporters and wanting to stay on Trump’s nice side. Either explanation is soulless.

I can forgive and try to understand how the media and certain voting blocs might get mesmerized by Trump’s bravado shtick. I can’t forgive the cowardice of an elected leader sworn to uphold the constitution, for which Trump has shown no regard.

One of the more different articles I’ve read examines the psychology of Trump. Indeed, Trump’s behavior would more likely be found in a psychology textbook than standing on a debate stage. But here we are.

The Atlantic cover story The Mind of Donald Trump was written by personality psychologist Dan McAdams, who has also written a book in the psycho-biographical genre about George W. Bush.

Now, any casual observer of Trump will be able to pinpoint the main take-away from this article. No big surprise: McAdams believes Trump a narcissist, someone totally concerned about himself. Oh, and he thinks Trump is disagreeable.

How McAdams arrives here, though, is worth the read. He provides a detailed portrait of Trump’s life as pieced together through biographies and articles and Trump’s own writings and interviews. McAdams examines the presumptive nominee through the lens of a widely used personality trait analysis, and then compares the dominant traits of Trump with other presidents we have seen. (The most liken to Trump? Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon. More on this in a little bit.)

Another draw to the article is the analysis he provides for the appeal of Trump. Questions like, “How are Evangelical Christians able to vote for such a morally depraved person?” are answered in depth. (For the Evangelical question, he turns to modern research on authoritarianism.)

If any redemptive quality offering a fresh interpretation of Trump could surface, in this thorough analysis, it would have. And it doesn’t. Apparently, even speaking at his own father’s funeral, Trump took to bragging about himself.

McAdams concedes that personality traits can’t predict the type of president one will make, or exactly what they will do. He offers, however, that disposition can predict the type of decisions someone is likely to make. In Trump’s case, this points to a willingness to make confident decisions in a high-risk, high-reward type of situation. (Think: Iraq War.) Although his “openness” trait (in political terms, read: lack of conviction) may leave him a pragmatic dealmaker, his extreme disagreeableness and disregard for the truth are more likely recipes for something more “explosive.”

As the article shifts focus toward mental-set, worldview and motivation, there are also no surprises to be found. Trump thinks in competitive terms and views himself in a “dog-eat-dog” world. He wants to win and be seen as the top dog this vicious world. His anti-trade and anti-immigrant rhetoric fits right into his personal narrative.

The most insightful, and most disturbing, opinion in this piece is what McAdams believes drives the entire Trump persona– anger. I’ll quote the article here:

“Indeed, anger may be the operative emotion behind Trump’s high extroversion as well as his low agreeableness. Anger can fuel malice, but it can also motivate social dominance, stoking a desire to win the adoration of others. Combined with a considerable gift for humor (which may also be aggressive), anger lies at the heart of Trump’s charisma. And anger permeates his political rhetoric.”

So Trump is an angry, self-centered, disagreeable person. Hasn’t that been the case with other presidents?

McAdams compares Trump’s anger to Jackson, and his disagreeableness with Nixon. Both of these presidents have done very regrettable things. Jackson expanded the powers of the presidency and wrought the deaths of thousands of Natives Americans. Nixon’s abuse of office and deception caused him to resign in disgrace. But there are reasons to distinguish Trump even from these extreme examples.

First, McAdams reminds us that Jackson’s populist anger was harnessed in a functional way, and his story at least served to inspire the “common man” of his time. It’s yet to be seen whether any part of Trump’s explosive personality can be harnessed or function within our democracy, and nothing seems to be inspired more by Trump’s rise than violence and bigotry.

Second– and I am making this observation myself– Nixon was paranoid and harsh and calculating, but when his back was finally against the wall, his deception fully revealed, he stepped down and flew off into the sunset. In his resignation speech he said that “the interests of the nation must always come before any personal considerations.” He claimed to have been looking out for the good of the nation, and by stepping down instead of chugging through an impeachment trial, you can try to believe him.

How would a President Trump respond, with his back against the wall? From what I’ve seen and read, even in the face of plain truth, there would be no backing down. There would be incessant manipulation, attacks on attacks, with the full force of his office, beyond what we can imagine. Nothing comes before Trump’s personal considerations.

Every part of his life story, his observed behavior, and McAdams’ analysis point to this unnerving reality: Trump would destroy this country before he would humble himself.