Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The State of the Union

President Trump took 82 minutes last night to sum up the state of our union.  The third longest in history.

I can sum it up in one word:  Broken.

Divided.  Cracked.  Split.  Splintered.  Fractured.  Factioned.  etc. etc. etc.

The speeches last night cannot be divorced from the farcical theater that proceeded it.  A five week government shut down.  Increasingly tense and absurd negotiations and tactics.  The Speaker rescinding the initial invitation for the Address.  The President withdrawing the Speaker's international trip.  The attacks on Twitter.  The threat of a declaration of a national emergency.

Similarly, the address can also not be divorced from the genuine likelihood that another shutdown is less than ten days away.  That no deal will be reached given the specific negotiation (or lack of negotiation) tactics of the parties.

No amount of eloquent speech, bluster, obfuscation, pandering, fear-mongering, and outright lies in any speech can overcome this.   It is made even worse with the political theater surrounding the speech itself last night.  The break with tradition in forgoing an introduction by the Speaker of the House and in not recognizing the new Congress.  Appealing for unity by playing only to the base.  Political theater to score applause, standing ovations, and chants of "USA" more appropriate for a sporting venue than the floor of the House.

It is clear we have a government who have forgone the pretense of representing the entire populace within their district, state, or country.  Both sides are entrenched in appealing to those who will reelect them.  The inevitable outcome of the continual reelection cycle.  I have no doubt that there will be another shut down, that no agreement can be reached, simply because it plays better to the bases of both sides if they don't.

And I might be more optimistic if I thought it was something that was just occurring in Washington. If I thought the general populace was not partaking in the same.  But we are becoming just as entrenched.  And we think it's a good thing.  Thanks to social media and the continual news cycle, we are able to receive only the news and information that confirms our biases.  Confirmation bias, Dunning-Kruger, and misinformation run rampant.  Our positions and the language we use are becoming so coded that we cannot even talk about the issues.  We talk at them and across each other.

Take the recent New York Abortion law for example, particularly because it was referenced in the address last night.  I'm have no comment on whether the law is wrong or right and definitely do not want to hash it out here; nor am I for or against this particular bill.  I am interested in how the two sides cannot even talk to each other because their frames of reference can never meet.  One side will focus on the potential outcomes of unlimited choice, even if not legal or probable.  The other side will focus on necessity in the worst case scenarios, despite the low probability .  Both will frame it as a moral issue, focusing on autonomy, though of different participants in the event.  The two frames of reference are so separate that there is no middle ground.  There's no room to discuss nuance.  There's no room to discuss the specifics, like the potential broad application of "or health" regarding the safety of the mother. I'm grateful for the genuinely civil conversations I have seen on this topic, but they have been the exception, not the rule.

Sadly, there are many topics that are reaching this level of discourse in our country. The Wall.  The caravan.  Health care.  Gun control and gun violence.

This is part of the vicious cycle we are in now, as we used to rely on our government officials to be the ones to discuss, debate, and decide on nuance.  To be the calm heads in tense situations.  To push us forward in the areas where society would drag its heels.  To reach the hard compromises that are needed in a melting pot society like our own.

We've got to learn how to talk to each other again.  How to engage in civil debate.  To be able to talk to someone who has a completely different viewpoint from our own and to learn from them.  To sometimes change our minds and to grow.  We, each of us, individually, have to make it a priority to do so.

Because with the state of the government that we saw last night, it's left to the rest of us to fix.

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