Religion, Atheism and Critical Thinking

To begin with, I have to say that I believe in God, but I do not believe atheists are going to hell.  In my opinion, there is little significant difference between believing in goodness and believing in God.  I am more confident in the eternal fate of an atheist who tries to be the best person they can than I am in the fate of a believer who muddles through life without making the hard choices that true goodness requires on a regular basis.

I believe I am on firm ground on this, by the way.  Changing your opinion is easy.  Changing your character is not.  As far as I’m concerned, character is what counts, now and forever.

So, when the New Testament, for example, talks about the need to believe in Jesus Christ, I see that belief as being measured by a person’s actions, not their opinions.  And if we cannot change our opinions after death, we are all in trouble.  Imagine being stuck with the opinions you have now for all eternity!  I know that a belief in God is not just any opinion, but is it so different that it cannot be changed after death?

My religion leads me to this view, of course.  While I am not an “active” Mormon at the moment, the church’s teachings still inform my beliefs and the idea that people can choose to convert after death is essential to the religion’s view of life, death and the eternities.  So, the arguments I have made here are really nothing more than a way of explaining and defending Mormon belief with generic terminology.

As a result of this belief, Mormons do not usually fear for the eternal fate of non-believers.  I am hardly alone in this perspective.  While individual Mormons may look at some of their loved ones and believe they are bound for hell, most Mormons are quite optimistic about the fate of the people who are dear to them.  The religion gives you a choice in how you see others.

The real issue I wanted to address, however, was the claim that religious people (especially Mormons) abandon critical thinking to maintain their beliefs.  I had to include the above paragraph so that I didn’t contribute to—or participate in—the atheist-bashing that is so common in American culture.

It is simply not true that religious people do not engage in critical thinking.  It is not even true that Mormons do not engage in the practice, no matter how many people may claim otherwise.  (For examples of Mormons using critical thinking, see Joanna Brooks and Jana Riess or the sprawling website By Common Consent.)

Someone who does not use critical thinking will encounter facts that counter their beliefs and ignore them.  Someone who uses critical thinking will encounter those same facts and see if there is some way they can be reconciled with their beliefs.  They ask whether it is their understanding of God and religion that is wrong, rather than rejecting the facts or abandoning their beliefs.  They ask whether they need to adjust and adapt their beliefs.  They ask whether rejecting one of their beliefs will really diminish the rest of them.

Someone who engages in critical thinking does not immediately abandon their beliefs, although they may do so eventually if they can find no way of reconciling or adapting their new knowledge to their former beliefs.  I’m not saying that critical thinkers never come to the conclusion that they must abandon what they previously believed.  It is clear that some do.  But the majority of critical thinkers with deep-held beliefs about God do maintain most of them, without rejecting the new facts they encounter.

In sum, you cannot divine a person’s character or their eternal fate by asking if they believe in God, and neither can you use the question to assess a person’s critical thinking skills.

 

 

Avoiding Suicide Again

As a response to the death of someone I knew, I have written about my attempt to kill myself more than 20 years ago and my subsequent hospitalization.  I ended up at my parents’ home.  I never tried to kill myself again, but I did set out to do so a couple of times in the next few years.  Both times, something small stopped me and the impulse passed.

It was hard for me to find medical treatment when I returned to my parents’ home.  I did not have insurance.  They wouldn’t take me at the local mental health clinic, because they were overwhelmed with demand and a single hospitalization was not enough to put me on the list of patients who most needed care.

I did have an evaluation with a psychiatrist there.  He was kind and well-meaning, but he misdiagnosed me as bipolar.  That created two major problems for me.  First, it kept me from getting the kind of help I needed.  Second, it made the problems seem permanent, with the only solution being medication.  People in the mental health field sometimes compared it to diabetes, a permanent problem requiring a lifetime of medication.  So, when medication didn’t help, I didn’t have any hope.  There was no other solution offered to me.

There are a few things, at least, that make it difficult to diagnose mental health disorders.  First, the symptoms are sometimes very similar.  It can be like trying to tell the difference between a bad cold and the flu.  Second, doctors have to rely on patient reports and their own observations.  There are no tests they can run.  Third, the lack of tests makes it impossible to be sure that the mental health diagnoses doctors use are describing separate, unique disorders or that they describe all mental health problems.  A diagnosis might actually describe multiple problems, for example.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is now in its fifth version, referred to as DSM-5.  Further revisions are inevitable.

If patients don’t know what to report or have difficulty identifying their feelings, that creates one problem.  If they don’t present classic symptoms, that creates another problem.   I have read that a diagnosis description is considered accurate if 80% of psychiatrists reach the same diagnosis when following it.  That amazed me since it allows for an error rate as high as 20%, or one in five patients.  This may not always matter, but the differences in treating bipolar disorder and post traumatic stress disorder are fairly significant.  One is treated primarily with medication.  The other does improve very much with medication.

I did not present the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder at that time.  I was not connected well to all of my feelings and didn’t know how to describe them.  The different traumas I had experienced were either blocked from my memory or either I or therapists did not consider them to be serious enough to cause trauma.

Part of the problem is that people respond to trauma differently.  It may be genetic.  It may be from an accumulation of factors in the environment, or both.  In the end it makes no difference why some people are affected by trauma and others aren’t, any more than it matters why some smokers develop emphysema and some don’t.  You still have emphysema.  Why it was you that got it and not some other smoker is not particularly relevant to either you or your doctor.

The mental health clinic referred me to a therapist who charged on a sliding scale.  I found a doctor who would manage my prescriptions.  He was perhaps not the most reputable.  My mother had gone to him and was not convinced they knew what they were doing there, but there was no other option.

I couldn’t function.  I didn’t know why.  I met an old acquaintance who offered to help me apply and get an interview for a job.  It would have been a great job for me, but when I sat down to fill out the application, I couldn’t do it.  I was frozen.  I decided that if I couldn’t even fill out the application there was no way I was going to be able to do the job and I dropped it.  This did not go over well with my parents.

Feeling frozen was the same reason that I had been unable to work or study in my last semester before coming home.  I could not force myself to do things.  No amount of will or self-manipulation would work.  It was the same feeling I had when confronted with a high diving board.  There was nothing in the world that could get me to move my legs, go to the end of that board and jump off of it.  This feeling is so strong that I have sometimes wondered if I could jump out of a plane with a parachute if it meant saving my life.  I am pretty sure I would need someone to push me out.

I did not recognize this as anxiety.  No one else called it that, either, although I was eventually prescribed an anti-anxiety medication (which did not help).  I also did not understand that the fight or flight response to fear has a third variation: freezing.  That was (and is) my main response to fear and it does not seem to trigger the same response from doctors.

Before I was hospitalized, I told my doctor about the intrusive thoughts of suicide I experienced.  Nothing I could do would keep them out.  They came into my mind over and over.  I was once able to stop them briefly by imagining a melody, a harmony and a third harmony at the same time, but that was difficult and I couldn’t keep it up.  My doctor was puzzled and took me across the hall to the psychiatrist who worked at the college health clinic.  He listened to me, was supportive, and prescribed me lithium.  This upset the therapist I was visiting, but it seemed to help.  Lithium is primarily used to treat bipolar disorder, but the psychiatrist who prescribed it did not diagnose me with that either at the time or in the hospital, where he also treated me.  It was probably a major factor in the diagnosis I received later

Just as my intrusive thoughts of suicide were not recognized as being obsessive or compulsive, my inability to act was not labeled as a symptom of anxiety or attributed to trauma.  I did not understand it.  My parents (as I always refer to my mother and step-father) really did not understand it and I lost their support, although they still allowed me to live with them.  With a little time, my mother’s support would return, but after I said I couldn’t work or go to school I never had the support of my step-father.  That was the end of that.

I was not much fun to be around.  My friends avoided me.  I was so frozen that I couldn’t do much.  For my part, I avoided people, since they were the primary cause of my anxiety.  I had lost the emotional support of my parents.  Since I wasn’t working or functioning my self-esteem plummeted.  And I had no hope things would get better.  So I got worse instead.

My first experience in the hospital had been positive.  I decided that if I got to the point where it seemed like I would kill myself if I wasn’t hospitalized, I would check myself into the hospital.  That day came.  They admitted me.  This second hospitalization qualified me for treatment at the mental health clinic.

My second hospitalization wasn’t as positive as my first one had been.  After the first week they transferred me to an unlocked ward.  I imagined walking out and killing myself.  It wasn’t an actual plan and I did not seriously consider it.  I did not understand it at the time, but the feeling of safety I had in the hospital was partly a feeling of safety from myself.  In the unlocked ward, I did not feel that safety.

They tried some new medications for me.  The doctor tried one of the anti-seizure drugs that is commonly used to treat bipolar disorder.  I was also prescribed an anti-anxiety drug at some point, but I didn’t keep taking it.  While anti-depressants never helped me much, anti-anxiety drugs made me loopy.  The side effects were worse than the symptoms they were meant to treat.

So, I did not get better and now I didn’t have the hope that hospitalization would help.  I started planning out how I would kill myself.  I took my time and prepared slowly, over time.

When I was finally ready, I took my preparations and got ready to leave.  I went to say goodbye to my pet parakeet, which my mother had encouraged me to get.  I named him Sam and then got him a mate that I named Trina.  He was my best friend until he died about five years later.  His cage was on the floor and he was sitting on top of it (I have never caged my birds).  I got down and told him I was leaving and wasn’t coming back.  He knew enough words in that sentence to understand what I meant.  He fluffed himself, as birds do after something unpleasant happens, walked over to me, placed his beak right next to my lips and sat there, motionless.

My heart broke.  I couldn’t go through with it.  I gave up my plan.  My pet bird, who I had because of my mother, saved my life.  Some years later, I wrote a poem about it.  Here it is:

The Trouble with Pets

I didn’t think anything

Would save my life that night,

Nor did I hold in my heart any desire for rescue.

I had prepared.

I was ready.

I would accomplish the deed.

I gathered my things

And went for the door,

Passing by the birdcage,

Which, at this hour, was on the floor.

Goodbye, I said, to the parakeets,

As they sat atop the cage.

And in words I knew the oldest knew, I said,

I’m not coming back.

Sam (as the oldest was called) fluffed himself,

As birds do after unpleasantness,

And he walked straight across the cage to my face.

Though at that time he shunned touch,

He placed his beak near my lips

And held it there,

In a prolonged kiss.

You can call him a dumb animal,

Who did not know, did not understand,

But to me, his act will never be but one of love.

This little creature would miss me.

As I loved him, I could not go out that door,

And I did not, because of love.

So I am alive today,

Truly, because of many things,

But, just as truly, because of one powder-blue sparrow-sized bird.

 

If you have thoughts of suicide please talk to someone you trust and/or call a suicide hotline.  Call 1-800-273-8255 or go to http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/, where you can chat with someone online.  They have services for people who speak Spanish as well as people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Avoiding Suicide

Recent events have prompted me to tell a part of my history that I have shared with few people.  Not only is it a part of life that is generally kept private, even secret, it is a history that tends to hurt people in the social and employment areas of life.  It seems time to talk about it anyway now, partly because of recent events in my community and social group, partly because of growing national awareness about the problem and partly because I no longer wish to base my decisions on the fear of what might happen.

Someone I knew killed himself this week.  As if that weren’t tragic enough, he decided to take the life of a loved one before doing so.  This last danger and difficult tragedy gives me added reason to talk openly about this.  The actions of someone I knew personally hit me in an unusual way because when I was a young man I was suicidal and intended to kill myself on more than one occasion.

I want to note that this history is not a reason to treat me differently.  These events happened decades ago.  I do not need special treatment from others and I do not need to be handled with kid gloves.  Criticism and teasing are not a big deal and if you feel inclined to harass me, my history is no reason to hesitate.

The first time I took any action towards taking my life was when I was a graduate student.  The desire to do so did not come on me suddenly or without warning.  The thought had been with me for months at a time during the previous nine years.  I had hardly gone a year without feeling suicidal part of the time.

It is hard to say what made this particular period deeper.  It could have been the realization that I would not have the career I had wanted.  It could have come from watching my friends and acquaintances find love and get married while I remained alone and single.  It could been a result of increased social isolation or even a lack of vitamin D.  What is certain is that I hit stormy waters that were more turbulent than any I had known previously and I very nearly sank under the waves.

There were multiple turning points in my life around this time.  One of them was when I finally spoke up and told a friend what I was thinking.  My thoughts of suicide had become so frequent, so real and so difficult to keep out of my mind that I felt I had to make a decision.  At that point I was doing well enough that I could consider the effects my death would have on others and the thought of my mother’s grief was enough to keep me from deciding on suicide.  Instead, I decided to tell a friend and roommate what was in my mind.

If you have thoughts of suicide, call a suicide hotline.  Call 1-800-273-8255 or go to http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/, where you can chat with someone online.  They have services for people who speak Spanish as well as people who are deaf or hard of hearing.  If you have someone you trust, talk to them about it.

My friend helped me connect with the help my local church offered.  I have received strong benefits from therapy, but I cannot say that talking to this particular therapist made any difference in how I felt.  It turns out that the relationship you have with a counselor has a lot to do with how successful therapy is, so if you seek counseling and do not feel that connection, ask for or look for another one.  There is no need to feel embarrassed or guilty; it is too important an issue.  Unfortunately, I did not know this or understand it at the time.

The counselor encouraged me to go to the doctor and get an anti-depressant.  I did, but it didn’t help.  For whatever reason, anti-depressants never did me much good.  I took them more out of hope and trust in my doctors than out of any benefit I received.

My mood declined further.  After a few months I had a particularly bad day.  I went home.  My roommates were all gone.  I found my roommate’s hunting knife.  I went to the tile area outside the bathroom where I thought the blood would be easy to clean up and slid the knife across my throat.  Nothing happened.

In the movies it is so easy.  This was not.  I didn’t even draw blood.  I don’t really know why.

My failure frustrated me.  I blamed God.  I cried out to him in anger, “You won’t help me and you won’t let me die!”

I went to my room and hid for a while.  I calmed down and the impulse passed.  If I had had access to a firearm, I would not have been so lucky.

A few days later, I had an appointment with my doctor.  I told her what I had done.  She sent me to the hospital immediately.  She sent someone with me and I was not left alone until I was admitted.  I didn’t feel I was in any danger and didn’t see the need for their concern because it had been days since my attempt.  The attention felt nice, though.

I was diagnosed with major depression and was admitted to the locked hospital ward.  I could not leave and that did not bother me.  There wasn’t anywhere I wanted to go and it had been many months since I had had enough energy to do anything.  I was just very bored.  There aren’t many distractions in a psychiatric ward.

During the first part of my hospital stay, I made another attempt to kill myself.  I thought I could drown myself.  I had seen this done in a movie, so it must be possible, right?  I was concerned I would draw attention to myself if I filled the bathtub, so I filled the sink.  I held my face in the water.  It turned out the impulse to breathe was too strong.  I lifted my face up, gasping for air.  I didn’t try again and I didn’t tell anyone I had done it.

I felt extremely comfortable with the other patients.  It turns out that people in a depression ward are often kind and understanding.  Even nicer, I was with people who knew what I felt and did not look down on me for it.  For the first time since sixth grade I had found a social group where I felt completely comfortable.

I was not eager to leave this safe, accepting environment, but hospitals are basically focused on patient exits.  Before two weeks were up, my step-father came to get me and took me home.  I had gone out of state for college and it had been years since I had lived with my mother and him.  I had been unable to work for a few months before my suicide attempt (I lived off savings, if you’re curious) and had worried that I would end up on the streets.  Thankfully, I did not.

As I write this part of my story, I can see how lucky I was compared to some people.  I had someone I wanted to live for.  I had a friend I could confide in.  I had access to some kind of counseling and medical care.  I had a proactive doctor and access to a hospital.  I had a supportive family and a place to live.  I was fortunate.

Political Success and Political Suicide: How presidents make or break their popularity and how Donald Trump could win the country over

Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama each made a policy decision that afflicted long-lasting damage to their popularity.  Bill Clinton did manage to recover from his self-inflicted wound and is remembered as a successful president, but Ronald Reagan is the only president since John F. Kennedy who neither pushed nor enacted a policy that offended large numbers of Americans.  I would argue that his long-lasting glow is due to his extraordinary unwillingness to defy the will of the majority.  There is a lot that presidents can’t control, so you would think they would be careful about the one thing that is entirely up to them, but experience shows that they usually aren’t.

Please note that I am not arguing for or against the merits of the political decisions that hurt presidents.  In fact, I agree with most of them.  Many of them are quietly fading into history, but they all had political ramifications that shaped elections and our country.

I start with Gerald Ford for the totally logical reason that he is the first president I remember, sort of.  In reality, I just have a dim memory of the election of 1976.  Also, Nixon and Johnson were such complicated presidents that I don’t dare discuss them without having some sort of personal memory of events.  So, I begin with Ford.

Gerald Ford

Ford was untouched by the separate scandals that had brought down Richard Nixon and the former Vice President Spiro Agnew.  Gerald Ford was clean.  He was fresh.  He had been a college football star.  He began his administration in 1974 with an approval rating over 70%, the highest a US president had enjoyed at any moment since 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson was still the beneficiary of American sympathy and grief after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

And then he pardoned Nixon.  Ford’s popularity immediately tumbled to 50%, continued downward and never recovered.  It surpassed 50% a few times, but only briefly and by a small amount.  He lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, who had been the governor of Georgia (but was still an outsider in Washington), owned a peanut farm, taught Sunday School, talked about being born again, and whose economically and culturally disadvantaged brother took advantage of his brother’s success by marketing Billy Beer.  In short, he was change Americans could believe in.

Jimmy Carter

Like Ford, Carter began his presidency on a high note.  His approval rating was over 60% for much of 1977, even briefly surpassing 70%.  Then he signed the Panama Canal Treaty in September of 1977, which coincided with a drop in his approval.  It was ratified the following April, when his approval dropped further.  The treaty finished a process that had started in 1964, handing Panama control over a small strip of land that inconveniently divided their country in two, but happened to be vital to American economic interests.

After losing the Vietnam War, Americans were looking for a victory, but they only found it in popular culture.  The 12 months after Carter’s election gave us not only Rocky and Star Wars, but Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”  Even Saturday Night Fever, released only 14 months after the election, can be seen as part of the “victory against all odds” trend.  The Panama Canal treaty was not the victory Americans were craving and they wouldn’t soon forgive him for it.

To be fair, Carter’s presidency was dragged down by other things.  The end of his presidency was a forgettable period when inflation was over 12% and unemployment was over 7%.  There was his description of the country as suffering from a national “malaise,” which was not welcomed by the people who had cheered Rocky Balboa and Luke Skywalker and were now standing in line for Rocky II and The Empire Strikes Back.  Then there was the Iran hostage crisis, complete with an embarrassing, failed rescue attempt and a nightly count on the evening news of the number of days it had been since Americans were taken hostage.  Even so, “He gave away the canal!” was a significant factor in his unpopularity and his subsequent loss in 1980 to the optimistic, tough-talking, former Hollywood star turned conservative governor of sunny California.

Ronald Reagan

It is often forgotten that Ronald Reagan did not start out his presidency with high approval ratings.  He started out just over 50%.  It surged in the first few months of his presidency,  helped by the return of the hostages from Iran and sympathy for an attempt on his life, after which he told his wife Nancy, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”

It is difficult to find serious policy missteps in Reagan’s presidency.  The only time he came close to defying majority opinion was when he signed into law a 5 cent increase in the gas tax (yes, that Ronald Reagan), but that sin was quickly forgotten when gas prices turned out to be the gift that kept on giving and declined steadily over the next few years.

In Reagan’s first term, his approval rating was only dragged down by a punishing economy.  The unemployment rate stayed above 8% for all of 1982 and 1983, while Reagan’s popularity stayed below 50% until the boom began.  For the first time in 16 years, Americans experienced a combination of rapid growth and low inflation.  The “malaise” of the 70’s was officially over and the “era of greed” had begun.

Reagan was called “The Great Communicator,” but a less-flattering nickname was “The Teflon President,” assigned to him by a press corps that could not comprehend his popularity.  This last description was inaccurate, however, because the Iran-Contra scandal seriously harmed his approval ratings.  They hovered around 50% until the end of his presidency, when presidents start their transition from divisive political symbols back to human beings and their popularity increases.

Reagan’s enduring popularity is attributed to his sunny disposition, his conservative philosophy and the economic boom of the 1980’s.  It is rarely, if ever, attributed to an acute political instinct that allowed him to reflect the will of the American public, even though that is exactly what he did.  If presidents are judged by their ability to do the will of the people, Ronald Reagan was one of the best we’ve ever had.

George H. W. Bush

Like Ronald Reagan before him, George H. W. Bush started his administration with the approval of little more than half of the American public, but quickly gained their confidence.  He was classy and dignified and generally struck a moderate ground in politics.  What had seemed like bitter partisan fights in the Reagan era declined under Bush.  The country was getting similar results, but with less fighting.  Not only that, but the Cold War was coming to a close.  The Berlin Wall fell.  Bush basked in the glow.

Then he agreed to raise taxes.  This is the most-remembered policy reversal in modern American politics.  When he accepted the Republican nomination, he proclaimed that the Democrats would push him again and again, but he would tell them “Read my lips, no new taxes!”  As almost American knows who was alive at the time or follows politics now, Democrats pushed him to accept a tax increase in 1990, just like he’d predicted, and he agreed to it, just like he’d sworn he wouldn’t.

His approval ratings dropped into the 50’s.  Keep in mind, his lowest approval rating in 1990 and most of 1991 was still a clear majority and a number many presidents would envy.  During this period Bush Sr. was helped by a healthy economy, the end of the Cold War and the easy success of the Gulf War.

His policy reversal became more significant when the economy worsened and Americans woke up to the fact that the boom times wouldn’t last forever.  As the recession deepened even his classiness became a negative, when Democrats successfully associated it with his social class and called him out of touch (which is a euphemism for spoiled rich boy).  The end result was that Bush Sr. lost the election to the “I feel your pain,” saxophone-playing, sure I’ll tell you whether I wear boxers or briefs, baby-boomer, moderate governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton is the only president during this time period to successfully come back from a major political misstep.  His middling popularity took a small hit when he assigned Hillary the task of reforming the health care system, which was the euphemism the press used for enacting universal health care (they didn’t fool anyone).  The idea that an unelected spouse was going to skirt nepotism rules and lead a private committee to plan a government intrusion into a personal area of everyone’s life was only reason the arrangement was unpopular, but it was the biggest one.

Fortunately for politicians, the American public doesn’t take presidential proposals too seriously until they reach Congress and “health care reform” didn’t hurt him much initially.  The thing that really damaged his popularity in his first year was Waco, where 75 people died after federal officers forcefully entered a religious compound they had surrounded for 51 days.  While those lives were lost forever, Clinton’s popularity soon recovered.  The public placed the blame on his Attorney General, Janet Reno, the first woman in that position and one who is still called overly aggressive.

Once Bill Clinton started pushing for concrete health care reform, his approval ratings gradually declined until they reached Waco levels in August of 1994, when he abandoned the project.  Then from the middle of 1994 to his State of the Union speech in 1996, his popularity rarely breached 50%. That 1996 speech was when he declared “The era of big government is over.”

Some people might take his statement as a declaration of surrender, while others might see in it a sign of sincere repentance for his political sins.  Either way, his popularity never dropped below 50% again.  He was helped by a booming economy, but he was still more popular than Reagan was in 1987 or 1988, when the economy was doing quite well.  Even with his widely-reported scandals his popularity hovered around 60% during his entire second term.  After 1995, the man who was said to govern with his finger to the wind and an eye on the polls lived up to his reputation, and his popularity reflected it.

George W. Bush

George W. Bush is still unpopular.  His biggest mistake is not forgotten.  Still, one of his two major mistakes is rarely mentioned.  It is lost in the effects of his attempt to remake the Middle East by force and a recession that has not totally receded from our daily experience.

George W. Bush started out like Bill Clinton, but without Waco or a health care reform debacle.  He might have remained moderately popular if it had not been for 9/11.  The peak of his popularity as he handled that crisis has only been reached by one other president after World War II, by a man who happened to be his father.

His popularity slowly returned to its natural level during 2002, then was boosted again for a brief period when he went to war against Saddam Hussein.  Then, as his popularity again settled at an expected level, questions were asked about the intelligence that was used to justify the war.  George Tenet, the CIA director, had to publicly admit that there was never any good reason to believe that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium in Africa.  Then there was the ongoing, fruitless search for Weapons of Mass Destruction, which was called off in October of 2003.  From then until after his reelection, Bush was liked by only a slight majority of Americans.

In 2004, George W. Bush became the first president since his father in 1988 to win an election with more than 50% of the vote.  That is, he received 50.7% of the vote.  Still, he had the confirmed support of a majority of Americans.  In spite of his narrow victory, he declared that he had earned some political capital and that he intended to spend it.

And spend it he did, as if it was burning a hole in his pocket.  He immediately proposed privatizing Social Security, once known as the third rail of American politics: touch it and you die.  The result was predictable to everyone, or at least it should have been.  The effort went nowhere and Bush would never have the support of a majority of Americans again.  Unfortunately, the political effects of his proposal were buried under the effects of the Iraq War and the terrifying economic plunge of 2008.  His mistake probably helped Democrats take over Congress in 2006, but the only clear evidence of its effect is that it went nowhere.  As a result, people who would like to repeat the effort can point to the Iraq War to explain away the coincidental drop in his popularity and the subsequent Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama came into office with approval ratings not seen for a new president since Jimmy Carter.  Then, like Bill Clinton, he turned to universal health care.  Unlike Clinton, he had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.  Even more unlike Bill Clinton, he faced a Republican Party that decided to deny him any victory and believed that if they could defeat him on health care reform he would be powerless thereafter.  This raised the stakes of the battle.  The result was that he put everything he had into the fight for universal health care and he pushed until it was passed in March of 2010.

His popularity had taken an immediate hit after House Democrats revealed their health care plan in July of 2009, dropping from about 60% then to 50% by the end of August.  He would experience some ups and downs after that, but until the last months of his presidency his approval was almost always between 40% and 50%.  It only broke the 50% level around the 2012 election, simply because partisanship is high around elections.

Barack Obama committed the cardinal sin of politics.  Not only did he do something controversial, but it was something that would affect the lives of everyone, all the time.  Of course, that last part was kind of the point, in a positive way, but not everyone welcomed it.

Ronald Reagan infuriated liberals.  He did some things that drove Democrats mad.  He used them as a political foil and as scapegoats, but he was always careful not to offend too many people.  Barack Obama was willing to offend people to get something done and he paid the price.  Whether or not it was worth it will be decided in the future.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump is not yet president, but signs are not encouraging.  He is the least-popular new president in memory, so he is starting from a low level.  Other presidents have won over the public after their election, but Donald Trump does not show any inclination to do that.  His campaign theme song was “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” after all, which is kind of the opposite of what Reagan preached.

His cabinet seems to be tilted strongly to the right, much more than voters expected.  During the campaign he was accused of not being conservative.  Even some conservatives voted for him despite believing he was moderate, and some even accused him of being a closet Democrat.  The hard-right cabinet appointees do not bode well for his popularity.

Because of Barack Obama’s low but steady levels of popularity and the fact that he was still reelected, commentators have accepted that as a new normal, as nothing more than a reflection of the partisanship of the times.  They say that any Democrat will get the support of Democrats and the opposition of Republicans, and vice versa.  In that context, Trump’s approval levels don’t seem out of the ordinary.

I argue that Barack Obama’s low popularity did not come from partisanship, but from his decision to spend his political capital by pushing the Affordable Care Act.  I say he had nothing left after that.  I say the floor in his popularity came from his strong likeability and a (slowly) growing economy.

Barack Obama only won 52.9% of the vote in 2008, which was just 1.2% more than George W. Bush won in 2004.  That this is still the strongest victory for an American president since 1988 is a reflection of the state of the parties, not the state of the republic.  I believe it is a mistake to put a theoretical ceiling and floor on Trump’s popularity, as if Barack Obama’s narrow range of popularity was a sign of the times and had nothing to do with his policy decisions.

Donald Trump, who won with 46% of the national vote and a slight plurality in the states that mattered, has less political capital than George W. Bush in 2004.  There are already calls for investigating his finances, not to mention the election itself, and we can see how scandal could drag down even Ronald Reagan, the political equivalent of a saint.  In spite of this reality, there is talk once again of reforming Social Security, the very thing that George W. Bush could not manage after his larger victory.

If Trump decides to pursue this path or similar ones, or if he decides to cooperate with Paul Ryan in pursuing them, he will not find the result to his liking.  He will not win.  He will not be liked.  His party will do worse than expected in 2018 and 2020.  Americans will find themselves with yet another weak president who is ignored or dismissed by Congress and finds himself tempted to use executive orders to get something done.

The best thing Donald Trump could do would be to steer far away from unpopular proposals.  Even a proposal that has 50% approval is risky.  If he were wise, he wouldn’t spend his meager political capital on anything that has less than 60% support and he wouldn’t speak a harsh word about proposed legislation that has majority support.  The last thing he would want to do would be to push for controversial or unpopular legislation.  People will forgive almost anything else in their president, but not that.

 

The following websites were used significantly in the preparation of this post and are recommended by the author as data sources or historical information:

http://www.gallup.com/poll/116677/presidential-approval-ratings-gallup-historical-statistics-trends.aspx

http://millercenter.org/president

http://www.tradingeconomics.com/united-states

 

A Nightmare in Elm City

Please note: this story includes many things which are not real and relies on some stereotypes to make its point.

Seth O’Malley had lived all his life in Elm City.  So had his grandparents, and great-grandparents and their parents before them.  No one in the family was really sure when their ancestors had arrived in the metropolis, or even exactly where they had come from, except for the clues left by their Irish surname and the pale, freckled skin that was so common among them.

All Seth and his family knew now was that they were afraid.  Their lives might never be the same.  And there wasn’t a thing they could do about it.

When Seth O’Malley and the beautiful Emma Hansen had kissed at the altar just 8 years ago, things seemed like they were going to go well for the new O’Malley clan.  Seth was taking over the family business, a neighborhood grocery store the family had run for 75 years.  Like many of the white people in the city, the O’Malley’s had found success in business.

Unfortunately, this success was a constant irritant to the majority black population.  Generations ago, the O’Malley’s had faced boycotts by their black neighbors, who were determined to drive them out of the neighborhood.  Seth’s father could remember going through the protest line as a child to get to the family store, being spit at, shoved and insulted by the angry crowd.

Since that time, things had settled down.  The ugliness of the protests had disgusted the moderate majority in the city, and the government passed ordinances protecting the rights of people of all colors to own businesses without the fear of harassment.  It had been an uphill climb, and Seth had plenty of his own memories of dirty looks and whispered slurs, but generally things seemed to be going in the right direction.

Eight years ago, when he and Emma were married, the city had elected its first white mayor since the Civil War.  The city had a preference for Democratic mayors, but the previous administration had been so incompetent that people turned to a Republican, and a white Republican at that.

Mayor Jimmy Thorvilson had electrified the city with his promises of change, but those promises remained mostly unrealized.  Sadly, the hope and change he represented was long forgotten.  This was due in no small part to the opposition of the Democrat-dominated city council, which had vowed to “take our city back.”  Seth knew that his black Democrat friends meant they wanted a Democrat-led government again, but to him the phrase “take our city back” seemed to have dark undertones.  “Take it back from who?” he wondered, “the majority that voted for a Republican?”

The mayor faced constant rumors that he was secretly a Mormon, which many black residents of the city despised due to the church’s former racism.  The mayor’s biological father was a Mormon and he had lived in Provo, Utah for several years when he was a child, until his parents divorced.  Rumors were rife that he had attended Primary and secretly still believed what he had been taught there.  People even claimed that he was not really a resident of the city when he ran his campaign–which was against the city charter–and no amount of evidence would convince them otherwise.  What seemed odd to Seth was that all these rumors happened after Democrats first claimed the candidate wasn’t “really” white because he had spent been raised by a black step-father, just so they could reduce his appeal to white voters.  Like always, his black Democrat friends said the opposition to Jimmy Thorvilson was entirely political and had nothing to do with his race, but, like always, Seth suspected otherwise.

Mayor Thorvilson had managed to win reelection four years later, but many Democrats blamed that on a lackluster campaign by his polite, Seventh-Day Adventist rival.  They had been sure that election was theirs to lose.  This time around, they were hungry for someone more aggressive.

They had found just such a man in David Henry, a rich, black real-estate developer.  David Henry had been a celebrity in town for decades, known for his lavish lifestyle and his no-nonsense manner.  Democrats swore he was just the man to break up the deadlocked city government and turn the city around.

David Henry made Seth nervous.  As a candidate, the man regularly said things that Seth and his family thought were anti-white and anti-Catholic.  Decades earlier, he had been sued by the government for refusing to do business with whites after the city ordinances had banned such discrimination.  His most enthusiastic supporters belonged to anti-Catholic groups, the Black Panthers and the Black Vipers.  This last group was a shadowy organization that claimed black people were genetically superior to whites because of the Neanderthal DNA that all white people carry.  They sought to turn the city into a blacks-only paradise.

David Henry had started his campaign by calling illegal businesses predators and vampires who sucked the life blood out of the city.  He said he would shut down all the illegal businesses in town and make sure none started up again.  It was his signature issue.

The issue of illegal businesses was a long-running problem in Elm City.  The city had significant regulatory barriers to starting a business.  Fees were high and, except in rare cases, only a lawyer could navigate the system successfully.  People with a dream but little money often started a business anyway, in the shadows.  David Henry and many others claimed the businesses siphoned off tax money from the government and blamed them for making it hard for legal businesses to compete.  Seth knew that many businesses used falsified permits to get past government inspectors, permits which were regularly tracked for payment of taxes.  He knew that many illegal business owners paid plenty in taxes, but they could not apply for the subsidies and government contracts available to legitimate enterprises: the government didn’t check very carefully when it was taking tax money, but it was extremely careful when it paid money out.

Seth thought the illegal businesses filled niches that the larger, less-flexible legal businesses did not bother with.  He thought their owners were often more creative and innovative.  He knew them to be honest, hard-working people, who simply wanted to fulfill a dream, but had been stopped by a bureaucratic nightmare.  He couldn’t imagine the well-connected, well-funded legal businesses bothering with the kinds of risks and sacrifices that his illegal business owner friends dealt with on a daily basis.  There was a reason those market niches were open, after all.

Seth worried about the children of his illegal business owner friends.  The city had several years earlier promised college scholarships and living expenses to allow every resident born in the city to get a degree.  His illegal business owner friends were counting on those so that their children could thrive in the city legally.

They had few other opportunities in the city.  Unions had a stranglehold over hiring, and you had to know the right person to get a job.  The network of contacts was dominated by the black majority, which was why most of the illegal business owners were white.  If their businesses were banned, some of them would leave their children behind with one parent while the other fled to another city, where regulations weren’t so tight and they could work or do business legally.  Others would take their children with them and leave behind their dreams of a better life.

Once again, it seemed to Seth that the candidate David Henry was against the illegal business owners because of their race.  The way he talked about them as predators and vampires was revealing, and at his rallies he always whipped up the Black Panther and Black Viper attendees into mouth-foaming anger.

David Henry said he wanted to wanted to put Elm City first and make it great again, but Seth thought that things were actually going fairly well and, in any case, reducing business regulations and loosening the union’s grip on hiring would go a long way towards making things better.  Quite a few of his black friends agreed with him, but their moderate voices were drowned out by the seething anger at Henry’s rallies.  Henry claimed he was fighting for the real Elm City people, those who had lived here for generations, like Seth had, but with a different color of skin.  Seth thought this was ironic because Henry’s grandparents had themselves immigrated to the city from Haiti, where their surname had been Henri.  Still, his supporters feverishly promoted his goal of making the city great again, calling for a return to the city’s glory days, which happened to be the time when boycotts of white businesses like Seth’s were common.

David Henry was running against the wife of a former mayor, Sheila Jackson.  Her political ambitions were well-known.  Her husband had been a popular Republican moderate, but Democrats did everything they could to bring him down, dragging him through the mud at every opportunity.  She had run for mayor in the Republican primary eight years ago, and had lost to the great white hope of Jimmy Thorvilson.  The Democratic city council had had four years to prepare to run against Sheila Jackson, and they had kept her name in the papers as much as possible with accusation after accusation.

Seth thought that the accusations against her weren’t all that serious.  The evidence didn’t really support them and what it did reveal didn’t seem worse than what previous mayors had done.  Sure, she wasn’t the inspiring, good-hearted Jimmy Thorvilson that Democrats hated so much, but someone like him wasn’t coming around again any time soon.

Seth thought she had good ideas for the city.  She seemed to have a good head for business and a genuine understanding of what was needed.  He thought the problems were that she was a woman, a Republican and a Jackson, and that the Democrats had had four years to plow the ground for scandal-mongering.

In any case, David Henry was not exactly a role model.  He was in his third marriage, each wife younger than the last.  He had cheated on his first wife with his second wife, on his second wife with his third wife, and rumor had it that he had cheated on his third wife, but a local paper that was allied with him had bought the story to keep it quiet.  He had left a long trail of cheated partners, lawsuits and bankruptcies.  His success seemed to be built on nothing more than flash and salesmanship.  He had inherited quite a bit of money from his father and Seth knew that if the man had just invested his inheritance in the stock market and left it alone, he would be worth several times more than he was.  The candidate refused to release details about his business dealings and told lie after lie, but his supporters loved him.

Seth was even more concerned by the foreign money that seemed to come into the campaign.  Some of Henry’s support came from Zimbabwe, which was ruled by Robert Mugabe, a man who had fought against the white Apartheid-like government there in the 1970’s when it was called Rhodesia.  Mugabe had made a career out of demonizing white landowners, finally taking their land from them and plunging the country into economic chaos.  He was elected president of that country and kept power through control of the press, intimidation and other dirty tricks.  Seth was bothered by the fact that David Henry was so complimentary to Mugabe, and to Raul Castro in Cuba and the socialist government in Venezuela, as well, but many of his black friends thought he was just a nutty conspiracy-theorist.

David Henry threatened to sue the newspapers who criticized him.  He had banned a few of them from attending his press conferences and rallies, simply because he didn’t like what they said about him.  He later relented and allowed them back in, but only when it seemed like he wasn’t going to win the election if he didn’t improve his image with moderate black voters.  That was the same time period when he uncomfortably spoke to a gathering of Catholic voters, who practically booed him off the stage and tried to woo white voters by telling them “What have you got to lose?”  Henry regularly said the election was rigged against him and said he might not concede if he lost.  He told his supporters to go to white neighborhoods and “watch” the polls there.  Some of his supporters said there would be a revolution if he didn’t win, and they had plenty of guns.

Henry had also proposed to ban Catholics and Mormons from having positions of influence in the city.  He claimed they all did the will of either the Pope or the Prophet.  No one but his supporters believed this was constitutional, but the threats and the talk scared Seth and his Catholic family.  He talked about enacting harsh penalties on business owners who broke obscure regulations, penalties that could destroy Seth’s family and everything they had taken generations to build.

The long electoral campaign had been dominated by Henry’s angry rhetoric and offensive words about whites and Catholics.  Henry had even hired the editor of an anti-white, anti-Catholic newspaper to run his campaign.  To Seth, it looked like the Democrats had abandoned everything good they ever stood for and had only kept the anger and the hate.  And with that anger and hate and big promises (half of which he couldn’t deliver and many others Seth thought he might not keep, given his unscrupulous business record), Henry had won the election.

The Black Panthers and Black Vipers marched in victory.  Whites protested the new mayor.  Henry immediately began reneging on some of his promises, but he did make his hate-mongering campaign chairman his new chief of staff.  Anti-white, anti-Catholic sentiment seemed to be the one thing that Henry and his biggest supporters were really committed to.

Seth was scared.  His hopeful life had become a nightmare.  He didn’t know what was going to happen to his family and his city.  There were no options.  All he could do was pray.  And he did so, fumbling his rosary as if even it would soon slip out of his hands.

Please note: Much of the content of this story is frighteningly true.  It candidacy of David Henry parallels real events that have actually unfolded in the United States.  The darkness present in it is real.  The unreal features in this story include a level of anti-white, anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon sentiment that does not actually exist.  Any actual anti-white, anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon sentiment in the country has been greatly, greatly exaggerated here to vaguely resemble the level of racism, antisemitism and anti-Islam feeling that really does exist.  Additionally, this story deliberately relies on some stereotypes commonly accepted by white conservatives in order to make it more impactful.

My experience with discrimination as a straight white male

To start off, this is not about how straight white males are the real victims.  I don’t believe that.  I also want to clearly acknowledge that I don’t really know what it’s like to be gay. I don’t understand what it’s like to be a woman.  I have no idea what it’s like to be black.  But I do understand some.

I have experiences of my own, you see, decades of them.  Discrimination is not only leveled at a few.  If you have never experienced any at all, you are extraordinarily fortunate.  Please allow me to talk about some pieces of my life.

When I learned that a teacher I idolized believed all Mormons were going to hell because he didn’t think we were really Christian, I learned something about religious prejudice.  When I found out that friends were shown anti-Mormon propaganda at church, I learned even more.

I am not macho and I do not want to be.  As a result, accusations and intimations that I might be gay have been a part of my life since puberty.  When my date and I were voted King and Queen of a high school dance and a boy in the crowd yelled out “Fag!” I learned something about what it is like to be gay.  The bullying I went through in a Mormon Boy Scout troop was also fairly instructive.

I break expectations for men in a number of ways.  I am an introvert.  I am highly sensitive.  I also had a strong tendency towards anxiety and depression in the past.  This declined a great deal when I was able resolve childhood traumas, but it defined much of my life as a young adult.

When a “companion” on my Mormon mission harassed and bullied me because I wasn’t loud and aggressive like him and he felt threatened by my confidence in my own intelligence, I learned something about being treated like I was inferior and stepping out of my place.

When I fell into depression later and wished I could die and a local Mormon told me I needed to snap out of it because I couldn’t be a good missionary like that, it stung.  I learned something about being told I was inferior because of something I could not change.

When another missionary who was supposed to be my leader, and whom I had never met before, called me aside and simply quoted me Romans 1:16 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ…” the message was clear.  It was a sin to be shy as a missionary.  I knew what it was like to be dismissed and demeaned because of something that didn’t really matter.

After my mission, when I was trying to get a girlfriend and discovered it wasn’t enough to be kind, thoughtful, respectful and funny and that my most awful roommates had an easy time getting dates, I knew something about being at the bottom of the social barrel.  (Not that you should date anyone out of pity.  Please don’t.)

When I was visiting my sister in New York City and went with her to a class for young single Mormons, and down the hall another religious group was watching anti-Mormon propaganda (the same as I had encountered before), I learned something more about religious prejudice.

When I fell into major depression and wound up on disability, I learned much more about being very near the real bottom of the social ladder.

When my friends abandoned me and my former best friend later told me that he avoided me because he couldn’t stand to see me that way, I learned something about being inferior.

When my opinion stopped mattering, even about my own symptoms and needs, I learned something else about inferiority.

Then, when I was working and was transferred into a job with the help of a former boss and union rules, faced strong opposition and then found out no one thought a man could succeed in the job (which I did do), I learned something about gender discrimination.

When I worked mostly with women and was regularly told “Men are…” (always followed by something negative) or “That’s because you’re a man,” I knew something about being treated differently because of my gender.

I had been misdiagnosed with Bipolar Disorder (later changed to PTSD).  At one point I had a concussion and had post-concussive disorder.  Early on during that experience, my symptoms were extremely painful and worrisome.  I called the advice nurse and she told me to report to the Emergency Room.  I did so.  I waited for a long time, even though the Emergency Room was virtually empty.  When I finally saw a doctor, the first thing he said was “You’re bipolar aren’t you?” and “I’m not going to prescribe you any medication!”  He sent me home with written instructions to return if I experienced a list of symptoms, the same ones that had brought me to the Emergency Room in the first place.  Yes, I know something about discrimination.

When a prospective employer asked me what I was doing before my job history began and quickly ended the interview when he found out, I learned something else about discrimination.

At another interview, when I was one of two final candidates, my potential coworkers, all of whom were female, were allowed to ask me questions they had written.  “Our job is stressful and we lean on each other.  We’re all women here.  How will you fit in?”  “We have a potluck every month.  What will you bring?”  I didn’t get the job.  Please don’t tell me I don’t know anything about gender discrimination.

When I was going through a number of difficult experiences simultaneously, some of which were fairly traumatic, and people who knew me well didn’t even try to understand and simply assumed I needed medication, I learned something about being treated differently.

When I discovered that my opinions and judgment about myself and my family were dismissed and ignored and that the people doing so found themselves totally justified because of my former mental health problems, I learned something about being treated as inferior.

When I finally got the kind of job I was looking for and found that a number of employees had opposed my hiring because I am a man and that I once again had to prove myself, I learned something more about gender discrimination.

When I finally separated from my wife and struggled futilely to get an equitable parenting plan and financial arrangement, even though I was no less a loving, nurturing parent to my children and in some ways more of one, I found that what people think is fair to do to a man is not the same as what they think is fair to do to a woman.  I learned something else about gender discrimination.

I do not believe that my experiences are as somehow just as bad as those of everyone else and I do not wish to communicate that, but time and again, I have bumped into discrimination, prejudice and bias.  Sometimes it has been small.  Sometimes it has been wrenching, painful and life-changing.  No, I do not understand what it is like to be a woman.  I do not know what it is like to be gay.  I don’t know what it is like to be black.  I cannot say that I have experienced the same kinds of things as they have.  I can only say that yes, I have an idea.  And I don’t want anyone else to go through it.

Noble Selfishness: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, the Brexit and Islamic Terrorism

I woke up this morning in a world that seemed somehow changed.  After months of hourly news developments related to Donald Trump’s latest outrage, followed by the “worst mass shooting in American history,” (which may or may not have been an act of terrorism), even as we approached one year since a white supremacist murdered nine blacks in a historic Charleston church, we now face a British vote to exit the European Union.  As my mind struggles to make sense of it all, I recall a common phenomenon I have noticed among parents: noble selfishness.

An individual’s efforts to advance their own welfare are labeled, quite appropriately, as acts of selfishness, but a parent’s efforts to advance the welfare of their children are often seen as acts of love.  It is rare when a parent’s advocacy for their children is seen as a fault.

Coincidentally, we have also seen one of those rare moments in recent weeks, as the father of a young rapist was dragged through hell on the internet for defending his son and brushing aside the profound effect his son’s actions had on another human being.  Even so, the selfishness of his words would have been completely overlooked if the tears of his distraught victim had not spread around the nation before his unfortunate letter did.  Having absorbed her pain before we heard his compassion for his son, we reacted quite differently than the lenient judge who decided the case.

While that case may be extreme, it is hardly an isolated phenomenon.  Parents are usually given great leeway in advancing the interests of their children, even when other children are indirectly—or even directly—harmed as a result.  Schools and teachers are quite familiar with this kind of noble selfishness as they deal with the righteous indignation of a parent whose child did not receive every benefit and every accolade the school could provide.

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