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Ruminations of a Feisty Old Quaker

No, Not Republicans

Warning: Rant.

I have been up since 5:30 this morning. I'm a night person, but I couldn't sleep for the anger. Anger at the travesty that currently passes for politics in Washington, D.C. Anger at the Kavanaugh "hearing" and "investigation" (quotes around both of those, please). Anger at party-line politicians who just "go along". Anger at Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell.

Anger, mostly, at "Republicans".

No, NOT "anger at Republicans." I want to make this clear. Anger at "Republicans". Quotes around the name only. Those using that name in Washington right now are not really Republicans. They are usurpers who have latched onto a good name for convenience's sake, and are proceeding to stomp on it and drag it through the mud.

My parents were Republicans most of the time I was growing up. They left the party over Dick Nixon - not because of Watergate, but because of the anti-Catholic tirades from Nixon's supporters following his loss to John Kennedy. Nixon's own behavior later merely confirmed their decision. But Nixon was a Republican saint compared to Donald Trump.

Then there was Everett Dirksen. Back in the Nixon era, he was the Senate Majority Leader; one of the Senate's office buildings is named for him. My grandmother - a lifelong Republican - was his 4th grade teacher. "I didn't like him when he was nine years old, and I don't like him now," she told my mother in 1960, a few weeks before she died. But Dirksen was a pillar of Republican virtue compared to Mitch McConnell.

Politics used to be described as "the art of the possible." Trump and McConnell have made it the art of the bulldozer. It was once a delicate dance of honorable disagreements among lawmakers, resolved into laws through a well-honed and well-respected process. Trump and McConnell have trampled that process to bits, they have no apparent respect for honor, and they have all the delicacy of a rampaging elephant in combat boots. What are we to make of an "investigation" into the dispute between Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Ford that interviews neither Kavanaugh nor Ford? That ignores all witnesses Ford and her attorney have tried to put forward? That refuses to even recognize the existence of complaints against Kavanaugh by other women? The FBI was clearly kept on a tight rein by its handlers, and told whom it could talk to and what it could ask; the result was not just a foregone conclusion, but something that was dictated from the beginning by the rules the investigation was required to follow. And now McConnell righteously stands up and proclaims that Kavanaugh has been "exonerated." There has been no exoneration - there has not even been a realistic search for one. The whole thing has been a sham. But the man who refused to even meet with President Obama's pick for the Supreme Court - the man who stole Merrick Garland's appointment to the Court by sitting on it for nearly a year - now complains that those who seek to follow good process, instead of ramming a nominee through without proper vetting, are "obstructing." What manner of human being can do that, and still sleep at night and look in the mirror in the morning?

Liberals such as myself are not the only ones who are getting angry about this stuff. Conservative columnists such as George Will and Nicholas Kristof have also lambasted the current antics in Washington, with Will going so far as to say that the only cure will be to vote the current Republicans out. (He stopped short of saying "vote for Democrats," but there is no other real choice.) Republican Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain left specific instructions telling those planning his funeral to bar Donald Trump from attending. But their voices have largely been shouted down by the massed power of money. Money which is being poured into public discourse to spread the lies of men - they are almost all men - who already have plenty of the stuff but are greedy for more. Money that bought the Citizens United verdict, which released even more money into politics. Money that fuels Fox "News" and calls everything except Fox "fake news". It has been claimed that "money is speech." That is bullshit. Money is not speech: money is a megaphone. It selectively amplifies some voices over others, and there is nothing democratic - small "d" democratic - and nothing honorable about its political role. Nothing at all.

I have never been a reliable Democratic vote; my vote has gone to plenty of Republicans in the past. To Mark Hatfield and Tom McCall and Lenn Hannon, to name a few of my favorites here in Oregon. To Norma Paulus, an Oregon Secretary of State who was a strong Republican voice for equal justice and sane environmental protection in the late 1980s. (I found myself next to Paulus in a buffet line at an awards banquet once, but that was after she was elected, not before, so it couldn't have influenced my vote.) Most recently, my vote went to Alan DeBoer - whom I had worked with in city government and knew to be honorable - in the last Oregon State Senate election before this one. These were all honorable human beings, who looked at opponents as humans and at disagreements as challenges to be worked through. Trump and McConnell look at opponents and disagreements as obstacles to be bowled over, and they are perfectly willing to violate due process, standards of truth, and common human decency in order to do it.

No. Not Republicans. Not the party of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. Not even the party of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The current Republican Party has become the tool and toy of dishonorable men who have wormed themselves into the seats of power, and are using the power those seats give them to destroy the process that put them there. To destroy the entire American political system, if that's what it takes to keep themselves on top of it. Not Republicans, only "Republicans".

Only "Christians," too. But that is a completely different rant. Read More 
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Here, hold my beer

Five days ago - on June 2, 2018 - two rock climbers fell to their deaths from a pitch a thousand feet up the face of El Capitan, the 3000-foot-high granite wall that guards the entrance to Yosemite Valley. Most people may have skimmed right past that item, but as a former climber myself I tend to follow news like that, and this one grabbed my attention. Despite its impressive verticality - which draws climbers from all over the world - El Cap is really pretty safe. The standard routes all have fixed bolts and well-established belay points; printed guides describe what to expect on each route, down to the individual holds. Beginners can get into trouble, but experienced climbers rarely have any difficulty, and according to the news reports these two were experts. They had been climbing together for twenty years, since meeting in college, and they had climbed that face, together and separately, multiple times. The weather was perfect. What happened?

It was down toward the bottom of the third account of the accident I read, on the New York Times website, that I finally got a clue. The two men, the article said, were "using a technique called simul-climbing in which both climbers are attached by a rope and move at the same time to go at a faster pace."

Simul-climbing. Climbing without a fixed belay. A thousand feet up the west flank of El Cap. Oh.

And suddenly my mind flashed to the old joke - the one which points out that the last words spoken by people who die too young are usually "Here, hold my beer."

I am not suggesting that the two climbers who fell, Jason Wells and Tim Klein, had been drinking. I am suggesting that Wells and Klein were taking unnecessary risks - the kind of risks taken by people who are far too confident of their own skills. Alcohol inflates confidence, but it's not the only thing which does that. Climbing with an old friend, in great climbing weather, on a familiar route, can do it as well. Hey, conditions are perfect! We both know this route like the backs of our hands. We know each other's moves like they were our own. Let's simul-climb! What could possibly go wrong?

Accidental deaths are not a proper target for sarcasm - no one should be ridiculed for a mistake, especially a fatal one - so I'll stop right there. I want to spend the rest of this post anyway on a much larger topic, a topic of which risk-taking due to overconfidence is only a small part: the universal, all-to-human fear of being wrong. That was a major factor here. Either Wells or Klein could have called off the simul-climb at any point; but if either had done that, it would have been an admission that it was wrong to start it in the first place. As soon as you've said the equivalent of "Here, hold my beer," it becomes far more difficult to back down.

This has implications well beyond extreme sports and alcohol-fueled machismo. All of us face our own "Here, hold my beer" moments multiple times each day. Every time a choice is made, that fear of being wrong is lurking somewhere in the background, preparing to wreak havoc. The choices may be minor (Which shirt do I wear this morning? What should I order for lunch?) or earth-shaking (Should I take that job? Should I ask her to marry me?), but they all trigger the same response: What's going to happen if my answer isn't correct? It's far too easy to blow that question out of proportion. Usually we keep things in perspective - smaller choices, smaller worries - but I've known people who could agonize for hours over which brand of toothpaste to buy. It is simply too uncomfortable for them to be wrong.

Ways of dealing with the fear of being wrong tend to fall into two classes: perfectionism, or denial. We either try desperately to avoid making mistakes in the first place, or we refuse to admit we've made them even after they have become perfectly obvious to others. In perfectionist mode, I can labor for 15 minutes over which piece to move next in a puzzle app on my tablet; in denial mode, I've been known to drive several miles down the wrong road even after it has become obvious that it's heading the wrong direction (our family joke at times like that is that the destination must be "just over the next rise"). In my climbing days, I was able to deny and perfection-seek at the same time: I could exercise far too much care in route finding and in the choice of the next hold - care that slowed the whole party down - even as we continued toward what I had already realized was almost certainly a dead end which would force us to back up sooner or later and try a different approach.

Anyone can fall into either mode at any time, but people do tend to group their reactions around one pole or the other. This can explain a great deal of otherwise inexplicable and/or downright annoying behavior. Commitment-shy people are usually perfectionists, for example, but it's not the potential partner's failure to be perfect that drives them (much as it might seem that way) - it's actually the fear that they will make the wrong choice, thereby demonstrating that they, themselves, are less than perfect. Shy people in general are mostly perfectionists, not so much afraid of interactions with others as they are afraid of saying the wrong thing and making an ass of themselves. Cult members, on the other hand, are usually in denial - not necessarily when they join the cult, but certainly when they stay in it long after enough evidence has been presented to them about its nature to persuade any reasonable person of its folly. The same goes for abused spouses who return to their abusers. They are not necessarily either stupid or masochistic; they are at least as likely simply to be unable to deal with the realization that their original choice might have been wrong.

And now we come, as everything must in contemporary American life, to politics. What does the "Here, hold my beer" syndrome have to say about that?

A very great deal, as it turns out. Donald Trump is an almost deliciously perfect example of denial, not only because he appears to be constitutionally unable to admit that he has ever done anything wrong, but equally - more than equally - because of the way he makes others react to him. Consider how many of those on the Left who failed to vote for Hillary Clinton continue to insist that it wasn't their votes that were at fault for Trump's election, it was the Democrats' failure to nominate Bernie Sanders; consider also how many of those on the Right who voted for Trump continue to insist that their vote was the correct one, even as Trump tosses them to the wolves while casually violating virtually every campaign promise he ever made. Those are both classic examples of denial. So is the behavior of the current Republican-led Congress, which has failed to hold Trump accountable mostly because, well, he's a Republican, and if they tried to control his actions they would have to admit that nominating him was wrong. They have handed him their beer, and must now carry through with their plan, even if it kills them. People in the center constantly ask why those on both the Left and the Right seem to vote so consistently against their own interests: well, there you have it. If you cannot admit you are wrong, then you cannot admit your vote was wrong; and if you cannot admit your vote was wrong, then you must continue to vote the same way, because to change will be the admission of wrong-doing you have been trying so desperately to avoid.

It is possible, though not easy, to combat the fear of being wrong. The hardest step is the first: deciding to start. It is hard because taking that step is, in itself, an admission that we have been wrong about something. We go into defensive mode as soon as that suggestion is raised. That is natural, but it is not always wise. Doubt can be our friend: all great advances in human knowledge have come because someone doubted the conventional explanation and was able to come up with a better one. Your doubts are there for a reason. Listen to them.

After that first step it gets easier, but not by much. The key, as with everything, is practice. Perfectionists must practice letting go of tasks before they are perfect; those in denial must practice making decisions based on evidence, rather than on what is the most accurate continuation of their past actions. Especially as you begin the practice, you will fail. That's OK. We all fail; the world doesn't end. That is actually what this post is all about.

OK - time to stop writing and hit "Publish." Here, hold my beer. Read More 
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Take One Consideration With Another

When a felon's not engaged in his employment,
Or maturing his felonious little plans,
His capacity for innocent enjoyment
Is just as great as any honest man's.

When the coster's finished jumping on his mother,
How he loves to lie a-basking in the sun;
Ah, take one consideration with another,
A policeman's lot is not a happy one.

-- W. S. Gilbert
The Pirates of Penzance

So Steve Bannon is out of the White House. I should be cheering. After all, I've wanted him out from the moment he walked in. The choice of a major alt.right guru like Bannon as his chief strategist was among the first indications from Donald Trump that he had no intention  Read More 
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