I still remember quite vividly my early days in college leading up to the 1992 presidential campaign between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. While traditionalists and older political analysts thought Clinton would have a very hard time overcoming a sitting president who had just won a war, Generation X voters were impassioned by the energy and intellectualism of the saxophone-playing candidate. While there were many issues that account for that Clinton victory, I always recall how excited us young voters were about finally getting someone into the White House who could TALK.
No matter what his flaws, Clinton could spit into the mic and we were enraptured! What I did not know at the time was that this would be the starting point in the United States in which the concept of civil discourse would not only deteriorate over an entire generation but would become an almost lost treasure. And this deterioration has perhaps achieved its nadir with the current president.
Looking back now I realize just how disrespectful our slightly ageist condescension was projecting onto our voting behavior: we didn’t want this old man who had no concept of the ‘vision thing’ and who almost stuttered any time he spoke before the public. It did not matter that this was a man who had spent a lifetime highly decorated, having served in various important positions throughout the federal government. We pretended that our rejection of Bush was based on the issues, but a lot of it was just our own dismissal of his ‘worthiness’ to represent us on a style level. Ultimately, as we all know, the two terms of Bill Clinton delivered in spades a lesson to all progressives of how easily the pendulum of disrespectful discourse can swing back against you: by the time Clinton left office, his various moral foibles had produced an atmosphere for civil discourse that was even worse, more derisive and corrosive, than anything seen back in 1991-1992.
Of course, as we all know, the problem with the exit of Bill Clinton from the Oval Office was that it signaled the entrance of George W. Bush. Cue the pendulum of disrespect, dismissal, and distaste to swing back in the other direction: once more, instead of new civil discourse about ideas, programs, policies, and vision, people were more obsessed with simply destroying each other. Once more we supposedly had an ignorant moron in the White House: someone who was either uncomfortable or simply unfamiliar with the English language. A simpleton who did not deserve to be in the Oval Office. So, while I had been concerned throughout the 90s at how severely civil discourse seemed to degrade from H.W. Bush to Clinton, I was thoroughly horrified by how much worse that discourse became – more harsh, more brazen, more vulgar – from Clinton to W. Bush throughout the 2000s.
As we started to ramp up for the 2008 election, I once more became caught up in the history of the moment, in the sense of bringing change to our system and structures. Even the campaign itself of Barack Obama focused on ‘hope.’ This would be the moment, I thought to myself. THIS would be the change the country has long needed. Except the change I wanted to see had nothing to do with party, ideology, or specific conservative-liberal policy debates. The change I thought would arrive with Obama, after eight horrific years of W. Bush, would be a change of open dialogue, intellectual engagement, and civil conversation over ideas. Alas, I was spectacularly wrong.
This article is not about which parts of the blame pie for this continued civil discourse degradation are bigger or biggest. Some have reason to believe the only reason things got worse under Obama was because of tried-and-true racism: the inability of closeted and not-so-closeted bigots to accept a black man as president of America. Others take a softer tactic and simply state it was verbal and intellectual payback time: after enduring so much dismissive derision and disrespect during Bush the Younger’s two terms, there were plenty of people determined to give back in kind to the new Democratic president. As is so often the case, my guess is that reality is best located with a mixture of all the factors and it therefore might not be so important to figure out exact percentages of blame. For me, again in terms of civil discourse, all that mattered was that my initial hope for finally establishing a positive trend for discussive engagement was dashed against the rocks of partisan vitriol and bile.
During Obama’s two terms I remember thinking to myself, ‘well, no matter what happens, it just isn’t possible that in 2016 this trend of progressively deteriorating civil discourse could get worse.’ After all, I had at this point literally spent my entire adult life under the tyranny of worsening dialogue, where the intellectual exchange of ideas meant to advance knowledge had been replaced by the shrill harping of empty platitudes serving no purpose but to cut, wound, and humiliate. Surely it could not be possible to take this environment and find a way to make it plumb to yet deeper, more disgusting depths? Citizens of the world, I give you President Donald Trump! Incredibly, we found ways to have the depths plumbed deeper and new layers of depravity now dominate the corridors of discourse.
Over the years I thought this disturbing reality was a top-down problem: if only we could have that truly unique chief executive in the Oval Office, one who could transcend all of this vulgar bile and ideological hatred, then the situation across all layers of American society would begin to improve. Part of me still wishes to believe this. But I fear I must confess that this wish is indeed just that: wishful thinking based on no real evidence. I worry now that this problem was never a top-down problem to be remedied by some extraordinary individual. Instead, it is a bottom-up problem that reflects the degradation of our society overall: one in which people do not seek to learn, are fearful of ever being seen as ‘wrong,’ and avoid at all costs being challenged in any intellectual way whatsoever.
This version of the problem more accurately explains the cringe-worthy, vomit-inducing political environment holding America hostage on both sides of the aisle; it explains why the word ‘compromise’ is literally seen by the majority of Americans as cowardice and not as a symbol of reasoned and wise judgment; it accounts for the explosion of fake news and people’s apparent passion for following it; it exposes the truth behind college campuses seemingly more focused on limiting the discourse of ideas for their students rather than exposing them to as many ideas as possible and demanding that they hone their discourse skills to take on all comers and defeat anathema positions with sound arguments and logical persuasion.
We have dropped our society from an avenue that once held serious intellectual discussions on a justifiably high pedestal into a gutter that avoids substantive civil discourse and presumes none of us are able to participate in discussions at all unless we have a predetermined guarantee of being lauded and unchallenged. We do not even see the irony of not allowing the chance to be ‘wrong,’ even though the concept of falsifiability has literally been the bedrock upon which all serious research, scholarship, and thinking is based. It is only in being wrong, only in the free exchange of challenging and challenged ideas, that society in its entirety improves and moves forward. We have not just lost this simple axiom, we have rejected it. We now live in self-perpetuating sycophantic echo chambers, gilded towers of Babel built to ourselves.
How does this stop? How do we bring back civil discourse from the edge of the abyss where it presently sits? I have no illusions at how hard it will be. Not only does it demand a desire for change within the people themselves: to be accepting of the fact that they are not infallible, that their ideas are not the ONE TRUE PATH to which all others must bow, that engaging in debate must not be a gladiatorial fight to the death but a civil discourse aimed at making all in attendance more reflective, more contemplative, that the issues being discussed are enriched simply by the act of civility itself, and that ideas are meant to change and evolve, to be dynamic and not static. It also demands that our institutions, administrations, thought leaders and scholars, our intellectuals en masse must not be afraid to support the structures that create, facilitate, and maintain arenas for such discourse. Right now we live with institutes that are so afraid of people engaging that instead of leading the charge they are cowering in the rear, hiding from possible protests, bad press, or potential litigation.
I have long held a secret dream: to travel the country, indeed the world, visiting as many institutions and organizations as I can, openly engaging their best thinkers in a series of debates, on whatever topics are most important to them, to challenge and instigate and provoke. I want to do this not to embarrass people or destroy particular issues in favor of others. I want this initiative done so as to begin the process of making people realize that civil discourse is the only true way to create new ideas, new passions, and new progress. It is the only way we get better. It is the only way we grow. We, the intellectuals and scholars, the middle layer of society, are the ones best suited to begin this movement. But, so far, not a single institution and its resident experts have answered my call and my challenge. This is most unfortunate. Because this society we have created, a society of incivility and empty rhetoric in place of civil discourse and substantive engagement, is a society we must destroy before it literally destroys us.
Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics
The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.
Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.
These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.
The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.
“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.
The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.
To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.
Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.
In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.
Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.
Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.
To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting; guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.
Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.
“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.
Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.
The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”
Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn
US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.
So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.
Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”.
That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.
The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards.
That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.
The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.
Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer
When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?
But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.
So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point.
Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.
Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.
I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.
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