Thoughts on Identity Politics Inspired by a Football Documentary

HappyValleysm

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about identity politics, so when I watched Happy Valley (a documentary about how the Penn State football community dealt with a child molestation scandal), it suddenly seemed like a perfect laboratory to observe how mainline identity politics works in its rawest form. After all, there is no right-wing or left-wing side in this struggle. The moral lines are clear: criminal assault against children is a more important issue than football. But watching how Penn State fans reacted to protect their community helped me recognize some standard rhetorical moves that mainline groups make when their identities are threatened. In this blog post I’ll lay out some of those strategies in hopes that we all can see them better when they appear in our politics.

This exercise worked particularly well for me because I know full well the power of sports tribalism. The longest-running emotional relationship in my life is the one I have with Duke basketball. That was formed through my participation in the interactive organism that is a Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd, which is still one of the most powerful collective experiences of my life.

Sports affiliations, like all identity politics, are about pride and love. They also thrive on something that’s not quite hatred, though it can look and sound a lot like it. It’s perfectly ok for me to tell Carolina to go to hell (in my lifetime I have shouted many more obscenities at the North Carolina Tarheels than I have at any political group). There’s a ritualized antipathy that is simultaneously good-natured and truly heartfelt, and it operates within well-established historical norms. Those norms function much like the prescribed boundaries of the playing field where official rules try to protect the players from unfair injury. As a fan I take on the language of the sports participants: possessives (“my team,” “our season”) and martial verbs (“attacking” and “defending”), although my efforts have little to do with the outcomes (though I still mystically participate in that collective by waving off televised opponents’ free throws from my living room).

All is ok when sports remains within the boundaries of the magic circle. What happened in the Penn State case is that the ugliness of the real world intruded into the protected space of football. When that occurred, then it became clear that the identities formed through these ritualized activities had never entirely stayed within their apparent boundaries, that they bled into the hearts and minds of fans. And once “my team” is “attacked” (though those “attacks” are really “criticisms”), I defend my people regardless of the charges against them using whatever means I have.

For those who may not know or remember the history examined in Happy Valley, longtime assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted on several counts of sexual abuse of minors during his time at Penn State, attracting enormous media attention. Everyone interviewed in the film admits that Sandusky was guilty, and they all condemn his actions. The thornier sticking point is how complicit legendary head coach Joe Paterno was.

When thousands of Penn State fans demonstrate on campus in support of “Joe Pa,” they physically attack reporters, overturning a television truck. Throughout the controversy, fans express considerable hostility toward the very presence of “the media.” In the less violent version of this hostility, they rail at the media for not achieving some impossible level of fairness:  Why are they reporting on us? There’s a lot more corruption in football elsewhere!

The obvious reason that people were reporting on Penn State was the simple fact that there was evidence of wrongdoing. Reporters don’t survey the entire landscape, collect data from all parties, weigh the relative levels of transgression, and then report solely on the worst case. They work on the evidence that is available to them. By saying “there are worse places; go there,” that excuses you from paying attention to problems that you know. (This is similar to people who say that WalMart shouldn’t be boycotted because of its unfair business practices: “After all, I’m sure everyone does that.” Well, when you get the evidence about other businesses, I’ll listen. In the meantime, I’m avoiding doing business with the wrongdoer I know.) Having evidence of wrongdoing is enough to justify the need for investigation. If we assume that the worst wrongdoer should be dealt with first, then the present allegations get a pass.

In the name of “fairness,” these insider fans also seem to want a full accounting of the pros of Paterno’s career (the high graduation rate for Penn State players, for instance) to “balance” any new developments about criminal activity and possible coverups. This seems a fundamental misunderstanding of what “breaking news” journalism does. Other forms (opinion pieces, longer features, investigative journalism) can spend more time placing events into context, but “breaking news” obviously emphasizes what is new over what is well-established. The fans seek an impossible level of fairness, and when the press inevitably fails, when the message is not crafted exactly as the fans desire, then that allows the community to discount the charges as being “biased” or not “balanced.”

Of course, providing feedback for the press about their “fairness” is fair game. We should monitor the press, just as the press needs to vigilantly monitor the institutions of power for the good of the republic. But finding them inadequately “fair” is not an excuse to ignore the substance of the press’s (or anyone’s) claims, particularly since “fairness” is an impossible, infinite horizon. You can always demand that your treatment should be more fair, more balanced. Charges of unfairness don’t feel like personal defensiveness because they lay claim to an impersonal standard. But if you’re focusing on the messenger’s lack of fairness or balance rather than on the substantive claims they’re making, then you may be defending your identity/community more than you are listening to what people are saying.

Penn State fans rush to “Joe Pa’s” defense even when they couldn’t possibly know the details about what happened behind closed doors. They do so because Joe was a “good guy,” and the “good guy” defense is an emotionally important one within a community, though it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. A significant part of Happy Valley involves an artist’s decisions about whether Joe Paterno should have a halo in a public mural he painted. There are very few of us who deserve halos, but communities tend to offer them to their leading figures. The understanding of Joe Pa that emerges in the documentary is one that almost everyone can agree on: Paterno did a lot of good in Penn State; he is also quoted as saying he should have done more about the sexual abuse he knew was happening. One can certainly still be a “good guy” in public actions and engage in ethically questionable conduct in private.

I use the term “good guy” intentionally, fully aware that we offer this defense quite often to men through what Kate Manne calls “himpathy.” (For more about this, listen to Scene on Radio’s terrific podcast on “Men,” particularly this episode.) As the podcast notes, we extend “good guy” protection much more freely to white guys than black men (and, I might note, more often to men with class/wealth/position than to lower class men. The nickname “Joe Pa,” by the way, is a lovely acknowledgment of paternalism). I am struck by how often Trump’s defense of individuals is a variation on “he’s a good guy; I can’t believe he’d do that.” The world isn’t a morally simple place that sorts people into obvious “good guys” and “bad hombres” as if they’re out of central casting. Most of us fall somewhere in between, and so we should all acknowledge that one’s public “good guy” persona may not be relevant in discussing their private or sexual behavior.

Once people do accept the criticisms of the community, there’s a tendency for the community to demand that we just move on. Now that this unpleasant incident is over, let’s get back to the important stuff: football. The “just move on” strategy allows the community to feel virtuous (after all, the wrongdoer has been punished) and then to shift the blame onto those who irrationally want to dwell on what happened. By my time clock, we’re ready to get past this. But other people may have a different clock, particularly those who were directly affected (such as the victims of abuse, who can’t move on as quickly as the community wants). Policing other people’s “timing” has been a great way for communities to protect themselves from criticism. “You need to wait; people aren’t ready for this yet.” “We need to move on; it’s not good for you to wallow in this stuff.” Somewhere between those two prescriptions is the elusive “right time,” which is almost as difficult to find as the right “balance” of criticism and contextualization. The community asserts its authority about when we should “move on” to a time when they no longer are being criticized, which is a paternalistic way to shut those criticisms down.

So when a community says “Other people are doing the same or worse!” or “You aren’t telling the full story! I don’t have to listen to this!” or “He’s a good guy. Let him alone!” or “We’ve already dealt with this. We should move on,” we should stop to consider what these statements are doing. Are these truly claims about “fairness” and poor “timing,” or are they attempts to shift the focus off my community? (After all, we seem to make these claims much more often about “our people” and tend to be much less concerned with fairness and poor timing with other groups) Recognizing these tactics can help us hear the identity defensiveness behind our pronouncements. Hopefully we can pause first and think about how such statements can simply be veiled versions of “Stop picking on me!”

The Right and Left Mean Different Things When They Talk about Spending Money

redbluedollarsign

When I first set about to find common ground between left and right in America, I thought I had an easy answer:  money.  We may disagree about abortion or corporate regulation, but certainly we could all agree that rising debt levels pose a danger to society.  Although Republicans characterize Democratic politics as being all about “taxing and spending,” I don’t know anyone who actually believes that throwing money at a problem will fix it. The left believes that it’s possible to spend money wisely, that paying more up front (on medical prevention, on education, on the environment) can save money in the long run. I knew that it wouldn’t be easy for us to agree on what “wise spending” is. I know that conservatives are often suspicious of the effectiveness of new programs (it is, after all, the job of a conservative to put the brakes on). I also know that liberals can be a bit too in love with the promise of new initiatives. But money would save us.

Regardless of which side you’re on, we all know that a government has to make choices of priorities and agree on a budget, which is always a compromise. There is no viable alternative.  If we could focus on whether a program was effective and whether it saved money or cost money over the long haul, maybe it wouldn’t matter so much whether that program originated with Democrats or Republicans. We could have a common language to talk to each other, one that we all recognize and respect. That language would be dollars, which work the same way regardless of whether they’re held by a liberal or a conservative. After all, dollars are facts, which seem to be the most precious of currencies these days.

If we on the left agreed to pursue one of the right’s most strongly advocated goals (reducing debt), then conservatives might be able to admit that both sides have made significant contributions to our current fiscal situation. We could maybe get on with the business of deciding how to spend money wisely for our society. We could talk about priorities and the costs of achieving those priorities. If we agree to boost our military, then let’s pay for it. If we agree that it’s important to strengthen our economic safety net, then let’s do that now and not depend on the next generation to pay for that. Such decisions are certainly tough, but keeping an eye on dollars at least would mean that we are making decisions in an honest way.

I also believed we could be at least a little bit smarter than some of the sound bites that circulate about the federal debt, such as: “My family doesn’t spend more than we take in. Why should the government?” This bit of homespun wisdom ignores a basic difference between microeconomics and macroeconomics (after all, these are two different fields for a reason). The federal government doesn’t behave like a family, nor should it. The fed has the ability to print money (which hopefully your family doesn’t!), and that complicates the equation. Those who advocate a totally balanced budget ignore the ways that a certain amount of national debt is a good thing, that it promotes growth. Virtually every economist would agree that a national balanced budget requirement would be a bad thing for the economy, that it would limit our ability to deal with moment of economic stress. We’re a long way from acting like a truly balanced budget, but some talk as if that should be our goal. Most economists would also agree, however, that our current overexpenditures are not a sign of fiscal health.

Cynicism is tempting here.  “People won’t understand the basic difference between micro- and macro-economics.” (As a teacher, I am committed to the idea that we can indeed learn such things. It’s not that tough.) “You’re not going to find that kind of moral courage in politicians today.” “Once you start a program, you can never stop it.” And so on. But this blog is committed to the idea that the way things are today isn’t the way things have to be. I am not going to declare in advance that we lack courage or intelligence or initiative (in spite of evidence to the contrary). To do so would be self-defeating. I believe there is a way for us to talk to each other; we just need to find it.

Unfortunately, I have grown to believe that dollars are not going to be the currency we need to restore a common foundation for debate. I increasingly believe that the left and the right mean different things when they talk about “spending money.” By saying the same words, it gives the appearance that we are talking about the same thing, but we are not. The words are part of the problem.

By portraying themselves as the sole advocate of fiscal responsibility, the Republicans ignore the times that they act in ways that counter that: the tax cuts under Reagan and Trump, the unfunded Medicare drug benefit under George W. Bush, the consistent advocacy for raising the Pentagon’s budget. When Republicans talk about “spending,” they’re usually talking about social programs. They can talk about cutting back “spending” while simultaneously advocating for raising the Pentagon’s budget, as if the words if the words “money” and “spending” don’t mean the same when they apply to the military as when they apply to entitlements. We don’t treat all dollars the same. Most Republicans appear to be fine with increasing expenditures in areas they support, but they need to own and justify these expenditures and not pretend that they are somehow not “increased spending.”

Although conservatives talk a lot about money, I increasingly believe that reducing expenditures is not a primary goal for contemporary conservatism.  We are having a battle over what feels like an aesthetic preference: do you prefer a smaller government or a larger one? Do you like ‘em big or little?  “Money” often coincides with the big government/small government argument, but it doesn’t always, and we do a disservice by pretending that it does.

I had an “aha” moment listening to a story on the podcast This American Life. The story (“Do You Want a Wakeup Call?” https://www.thisamericanlife.org/459/what-kind-of-country/act-three-0) examined a fiscal crisis in the Colorado Springs government. Rather than increase taxes, the local government decided to make residents pay a la carte for basic services such as having a streetlight. A Colorado Springs official told the story of a citizen who thanked her for the new policy as he paid the bill for his street’s lights. She reminded him that he had just paid more money than he would have if his taxes had been increased, and he said that he didn’t care. He preferred a government that didn’t rely on pooled resources (one of the benefits of a larger government), even if that put him at a financial disadvantage. The fact that he was paying more money wasn’t the important thing.

There will be times in this blog when I focus on how the words that we use can create obstacles to our political understanding. I’m very loosely adapting the central insight of Michael Calvin McGee’s concept of the “ideograph,” which refers to the ways that certain individual words can by themselves make arguments. It’s hard to argue against “freedom,” for instance. By associating something with “freedom,” you’re already making an argument in its favor. It’s similarly hard to advocate for a “terrorist,” so if you can make that label stick, you’ve already carved a rhetorical hole for that person that’s hard to dig out of. Such single words can short-circuit reasoned thinking.

I have come to believe that much of our “money” talk does just that, that it allows us to appear to be discussing one thing when really we are discussing another. The recently adopted federal budget revealed that Republicans are more committed to the idea of cutting taxes than they are to responsible monetary policy. The relative lack of honest discussion about the ramifications of tax cuts (increasing the debt for future citizenry) undercuts the argument that conservatives are more concerned with being good shepherds of taxpayer money. The value placed on a smaller government outweighs the publically expressed value placed on spending money wisely.

And so I’m less hopeful about money being a key term to anchor our debate in an agreed upon reality. We can’t use the Republican emphasis on “fiscal responsibility” as a common goal because the Republicans maintain only a loose, flexible allegiance to wise spending. Money is a factor, certainly, but both sides have shown the ability to lay that factor aside when pursuing more central goals.

In this blog, I’ll try to cut through our language and find a firmer common ground. Next time I’ll articulate what I hope is a better starting place.

On politics, on Christianity

The obvious question for someone starting a new blog is: why?  What do you have to contribute that is of value?  What perspective can you add to the mix of voices out there?

I think there are two poles that my blog is likely to circle. One involves politics.  We mourn the lack of dialogue between right and left, but I see very few people who trying to bridge that gap (if you’re one of them, let’s talk!).  Mostly I see people sniping at each other from their respective positions with very little effort to phrase their arguments in ways that can be heard by the other side.

I believe that finding common political ground is a valuable pursuit.  I continue to believe that dialogue is possible. I am a lifelong liberal, and in this blog I will try to weigh liberal principles against my understanding of conservative fundamentals as a way to promote/model an open conversation about both. I hope you’ll listen with an open mind and help me understand where I’m wrong.

This part of my blog is an outgrowth of an email discussion I had with my late father-in-law Bob Catale. Like many relatives nowadays, we occupied different ends of the political spectrum. Unlike many relatives, we maintained a friendship and an intellectual respect for each other, as well as a certain amount of good humor. (As Bob lay dying in his hospital bed, I told him, “In your heart, you know I’m right.” That little riff on Goldwater by a liberal made him laugh.) Bob was incredibly well versed, with graduate training in English literature, history, and criminal justice. He could run laps around me in history (in particular), and so I am grateful for his tolerance of my relative lack of knowledge (I’m a spotty 20th century guy at best). Mostly I think Bob appreciated and enjoyed having a debate with someone who could marshal counter-evidence instead of simply letting him steamroll over their opinions.

After several late-night bull sessions, I decided to instigate an email version of our wide-ranging discussions, seeking to do exactly what I want to do in this blog: boost my understanding and find common ground. We never quite reached consensus in that discussion (which he generously participated in with two-finger typing!), but it helped me think about how such a conversation might proceed. The political portion of this blog is dedicated to the memory of my late father-in-law and his powerful, passionate intelligence.

The other likely focus of my blog is on Christianity. I don’t particularly have anything new to say about following Christ. What I do have (at least according to my wife) is an ability to talk about following Christ without using too much “churchy” language. My wife likes “the gospel according to Greg” as a way to help a relative newcomer find the way toward faith and Christian practice, and so I plan to share my perspective on following Christ in hopes that others might find it useful.  The religious portions of my blog are dedicated to my wife Vivian.

I’ll also probably drop in sundry content along the way (I’m planning a “Three Great Novels about Sex!” post), but I will circle back to those two main topics (on political common ground, on Christianity) repeatedly, so if either of those are of interest to you, I encourage you to join in. (By the way, this is probably not going to be a blog that deals much with the relationship BETWEEN politics AND Christianity, a topic I don’t have a lot to say about)

I want to highlight a couple of words I used above. One is the word “weigh.” I hope to weigh political and religious practices so that we can better see their advantages and shortcomings. I will be critical not only of other positions but also of my own home teams (liberalism, Christianity). We should all take a hard look at our own tribe, I believe, if we are to move forward. And so it is necessary to weigh or “assay,” to use an old verb, one that is at the origin of my favorite written form, the “essay.”

The essay is a time-honored form that feels a bit out of step with the current media landscape. I also feel increasingly out of synch with the timing of communication today. Unlike many people, I seem to be unable to say something interesting in a timely fashion in 120 characters. I also am increasingly aware of my own introversion. While others feel the ability to speak their minds about politics or other topics in real-time conversation, my tongue tends to seize up, unable to convey orally the complexity I see before the conversation moves on. And so I have found myself sitting on the sidelines without “putting myself out there,” and that feels both cowardly and selfish to me. The essay allows me the time to weigh what I have to say, to explore what I really believe through the process of writing. I hope you will take the time to read these meanderings (another time-honored tradition of the essay). I hope that my serpentine pursuit of a better understanding will be interesting, honest, and useful.

That’s the other word I wish to emphasize: “understanding.” Instead of proclaiming a definitive answer, essays seek to understand. They make tentative pronouncements to assay their worth. By putting my not-quite-formed opinions out into the blogosphere, I hope to improve my understanding. By doing this as a blog (which already feels like an old-fashioned media form), I hope to engage with people in pursuit of common ground.