When a heart is empty – words from conservative pundit David Brooks

I have shared before David Brooks is one of my favorite conservative pundits. I read his columns and have read two of his books, “The Road to Character” and “The Social Animal.” I even went to hear him speak when he came to town, as he focused on remembering community and community gathering places. Monday’s editorial column by Brooks is called “When a heart is empty.”

Brooks highlights how an unfeeling, self-absorbed author named Emmanuel Carrere is forever altered by a crisis, when he loses his granddaughter to a horrible tsunami. Per Brooks, Carrere “develops a deep and perceptive capacity to see the struggles of others” and he writes about the change in “Lives Other Than My Own.”

Brooks uses this change to contrast it being “opposite of the blindness Donald Trump displayed in quotes reported by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic and Bob Woodward in his latest book about the administration, ‘Rage’

Brooks goes on to say “Trump can’t seem to fathom the emotional experience of their lives (the deceased soldiers he called ‘losers’ and ‘suckers’) – their love for those they fought for, the fears they faced down, the resolve to risk their lives nonetheless.

If he can’t see that, he can’t understand the men and women in uniform serving around him. He can’t understand the inner devotion that drives people to public service, which is supposed to be the core of his job.

The same sort of blindness is on display in the Woodward quotes. It was stupid of Trump to think he could downplay COVID-19 when he already knew it had the power of a pandemic. It was stupid to think the American people would panic if he told the truth. It was stupid to talk to Woodward in the first place…

It is moral and emotional stupidity. He blunders so often and so badly because he has a narcissist’s inability to get inside the hearts and minds of other people.”

There is more, but the gist of the piece can be gleaned from these quotes. Brooks said earlier this year, “Donald Trump does not have a sense of decency or empathy.” He reiterates this theme above. And, there is a line from one of my favorite political movies “The American President” with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. “Being president is entirely about character.”

David Brooks pens an editorial – President Biden’s first day

David Brooks has long been my favorite conservative pundit. I first became aware of him as he teamed with more liberal Mark Shields to do a recap of the week on the Friday show of PBS Newshour. They epitomized the PBS doctrine of civil discourse. I have read two of Brooks’ books – “The Social Animal” and “The Road to Character” – which are excellent reads, and have had the good fortune of hearing him speak.

Like other conservative pundits, George Will, Michael Gerson, Erick Erickson, et al, Brooks is deeply disappointed in the actions, verbiage and temperament of the current US president. So, when he penned the editorial, “President Biden’s first day,” I was intrigued and not surprised. Here are a few quotes that shape the article.

“The first thing you’ll notice is the quiet. If Joe Biden wins this thing, there will be no disgraceful tweets and no furious cable segments reacting to them on Inauguration Day.”

“Republicans will pretend they never heard his (Trump’s) name. Republican politicians are not going to hang around a guy they privately hate and who publicly destroyed their majority.”

“It is very hard for Republicans to demonize Biden because he comes from the sort of background that Trumpian conservatives celebrate.”

“His (Biden’s economic) agenda is more New Deal than New Left. In the two speeches he has delivered so far there are constant references to our manufacturing base – infrastructure, steelworkers, engineers, ironworkers, welders, 500,000 charging stations for electric cars. ‘When I think of climate change, the word I think of is jobs,’ he declared.”

“The agenda pushes enormous resources toward two groups: first, African-Americans, who have been pummeled by deindustrialization for decades; and second, white working class Trump voters.

“Everybody says Biden is a moderate, and in intellectual and temperamental terms that is true. But he has found a way to craft an agenda that could reshape the American economy and the landscape of American politics in fundamental ways.”

The entire piece can be found with the following link. I will not comment on the above here and let Brooks’ thoughts filter in. Let me know your reactions, thoughts, etc.

Monday morning you sure look fine

With a shout out to Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, I will use a song lyric of his to start out the week. The whole lyric is “Monday morning, you sure look fine, but Friday I got travelin’ on my mind.”

The word “fine” has a many different uses. In one of my favorite movies about a Scottish hero, “Rob Roy,” played by Liam Neeson, he would tell his wife (played by Jessica Lange) that “you are fine to me, woman.” The meaning which she returned later is you are beautiful to me.

There is an old line that is used that reinforces this belief. “She is so fine, the fine folks call her fine!” I won’t repeat a Richard Pryor line which is quite vulgar, but he responded to a comment, “You wouldn’t know a fine woman if you tripped over her.” Pryor’s line offered a rebuttal to that phrase, but is too colorful for these pages.

Today, it seems when things are “fine,” it means they are OK or slightly better. The usage downplays the meaning, where in the Rob Roy and Lindsey Buckingham examples, they understate beauty or something equivalent. This is one more example where tone and context matter.

The colloquial word “dude” can have multiple meanings depending on the tone. There is cute TV commercial, for an unremembered product, that walks through the multiple definitions of dude ranging from “I can’t believe you just did that” to “That is awesome.” I mention these examples, as my guess is all languages have variable meanings for words depending on when, where and how they are used.

Translation of words and meanings is doubly hard. Slang words often will use an opposite word to mean the same thing. “Cool” is one of those words. “Bad” is another. So, when learning a new language, it makes it difficult. When reading translated text, some of the meaning may be lost.

David Brooks introduced me to a Greek word called “thumos,” which has no counterpart in the English language. It means a sense of recognition and belonging. His context is thumos is the reason kids in school join groups – band, chorus, sports, chess club, etc. It is more than just belonging, it is the recognition they belong. I think this is a key reason we like to learn our ancestry.

So, when a friend walks up to you at a coffee shop, and you say “dude, you look fine,” he may be diminished if you use a monotone, but if you say “Dude…you look fine!” he may be uplifted. The tone matters, but so does the context. If you are in the same group of friends, your language may take on its own meaning leaving others lost in the meaning.

Lindsey Buckingham’s use of “fine” may have altered from Monday to Friday. In other words, the dude was leaving by the end of the week.

Book recommendations for the holidays

If you are looking for a last minute gift for the holidays, here are six suggestions for consideration.

A Man called Ove
by Fredrik Backman

Ove is a great read, but tough start as you get full on curmudgeon in Ove from the outset. Through memories and interaction with new neighbors, you get to peel away the layers and better understand him.

Flat Broke with Two Goats
by Jennifer McGaha

Based on her own story, the author wife discovers the hard way they are flat broke with the IRS wanting even more. Getting back to nature in a run down cabin was a crazy, but interesting path forward for her family.

Where the Crawdads Sing
by Delia Owens

This is a book about a woman who grew up on her own in the rustic North Carolina inlets. She is accused of a crime she did not commit. I am in the middle of this best seller and it is an enjoyable read.

The Only Woman in the Room
by Marie Benedict

This is a non-fiction novel about the actress (and scientist) Hedy LaMarr who escaped Austria and her domineering husband just prior to WWII. Her husband sold munitions to the Nazis and Italians, so she witnessed conversations as the only woman in the room including one with Mussolini and eavesdropping on Hitler berating her husband.

The Road to Character
by David Brooks

Brooks has written several good books. This non-fiction book defines the importance character plays. How we conduct ourselves matters. On this day, the president’s lack of character and common decency is underlying context to the impeachment subject.

Quiet: Introverts in a World that can’t stop talking
by Susan Cain

This is a very informational read. At one time, introversion was thought to be a deficiency that must be remedied. The book highlights how introversion finds it way into many surprising places of leadership and even with people who seem to be extroverted.

All are worth the effort, in my view.

Three simple questions

With the building impeachment story of abuse of power based on the testimony of honorable and decent public servants, there are three questions to ask Republican lawmakers.

– why is the president operating shadow diplomacy led by an unvetted (by the Senate) person?

– is the person in the White House someone you want to spend your dear reputation on?

– what will you have to defend or rationalizs next week, next month and next year and do you even know whether he has already committed the act needing your defense?

Respected commenters Mark Shields and David Brooks noted in their weekly recap on PBS Newshour last night, the corruption we should be worried about is not in Ukraine – it is in the White House. Using Mike Pompeo as an example of spending a dear reputation, they vilifed Pompeo for his disgracing his Marine training of letting the troops eat first, by not defending his people.

I agree. A real leader defends his or her people, not throw them under the bus. Sadly, Pompeo is following his boss’ example. Trump will throw anyone under the bus for any reason, perceived or real.

Helping people climb a ladder – a perspective

The following is an edited version of a comment on Hugh Curtler’s (a retired college professor of philosophy) post regarding whether we should help people in need or let them fend for themselves. I provide a link below to his post. I am going to cite the work a charity I used to be a part of that builds off the book “Toxic Charity,” written by a minister who lived with the disenfranchised people he sought to help. His name is Robert Lupton.

Lupton’s thesis is simple: true charity should focus on emergency or short term needs. What he argued for to help others long term and we did (and still do) is help people climb a ladder back to self-sufficiency. That should be the goal. An easy example is he would advocate for food and clothing co-ops rather than giving the food and clothes away. People love a bargain, so let them maintain their dignity while they get discounted help. This dignity thing is crucial – people would rather not have to ask for help.

Note, we cannot push people up the ladder. They must climb it.  A social worker I have advocated with used to say “we walk side by side with our clients.” The folks we helped are homeless working families. We had two keys – they received a subsidy for rent based on their ability to pay, but they had to plan, budget, get financially educated working with a social worker and attending required training programs. Our homeless clients had to be responsible for rent and utilities up to 30% of their income, which is threshold for housing risk. Another key is we measured success. Success to us is being housed on their own without help after two  years.

As a community and country, we need to better identify what we mean by success in our help for people in need. Also, are things like healthcare a right? Is food on the table a right? Is a roof over the head a right? What we need is better measurement of what we spend and how it helps. It actually is cheaper to provide housing to chronic homeless and partially-subsidized housing to those who are more acutely homeless (due to loss of job, reduction in hours,  loss of healthcare, problems with car, predatory lending on a car, etc.) than let them go to the ER or commit petty crimes and be jailed. People should know all homeless are not alike, so the remedies to help need to vary.

My former party likes to argue off the extreme anecdotes – the significant majority of people do not cheat the system, but the perceived thinking of such is much higher in Republican ranks. When I have spoken to church groups, chamber groups, rotary clubs, United Way campaigns, etc., I come across this bias which is firmly believed. Just last month, the US president announced curtailing a rule on food stamps which will put 3 million people at risk, as one man was able to purposefully game the system. Yes, there is a small percentage of folks that do that, but the significant majority do not.

What people like David Brooks, a conservative pundit, tout is a dialogue on what kind of country do we wish to be? Our economy is a fettered capitalist model, with socialist underpinnings to help people in need and keep people out of poverty. What is the right balance? Is it better to pay a much higher minimum wage or have a higher earned income tax credit, e.g. Is it better to have a Medicare for All system, subsidize those in need or have a free market system only? A factor in this decision is many employers now employ a larger part-time or contractual workforce (the gig economy) to forego having to provide benefits. This is especially true in retail and restaurant industries.

At the end of the day, Gandhi said it best – a community’s greatness is measured in how it takes care of its less fortunate. With so great a disparity in the haves/ have nots in our country, I can tell you we are out of whack as our middle class has declined and far more of them fell into a paycheck-to-paycheck existence. Ironically, even in the age of Trump promises, we have many people who do not realize they are voting against their economic interests. Doing away with the ACA and not expanding Medicaid are very harmful to rural areas, e.g.

So, I agree with Gandhi, Lupton, and Brooks that we need to help people, but decide what is the best way. We should measure things and adjust them when they get out of whack. It is hard to fix what you do not measure. The group I was involved with would alter its model, if the numbers showed less success than hoped. What I do know is over 80% of the people we helped are still housed on their own after two years of leaving the program. In other words, they live without a subsidy.

Finally, what we need most is for politicians to check their tribal egos at the door when they enter the room. Having been a member of both parties, each party has some good ideas, but both have some bad ones, too. I do not care what a person’s party preference is or if he or she is more conservative or liberal than me  (I am fiscally conservative and socially progressive), we need to use facts and data to make informed choices. And, continue to measure the results making modifications, if needed.

Dilemma

Maybe the GOP should consider impeachment

The Mueller report paints a pretty damning portrait of the current US President and his modus operandi. The many hours of testimony also validate the findings of two of the more thoroughly investigated books about the Trump White House – “Fear” by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Bob Woodward and “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff. To be frank, maybe the GOP should consider impeachment as they should be as concerned or more about the President.

These three investigative reports paint a picture of chaos and a mercurial man whose worst impulses must be managed. While he obstructed justice (to my way of thinking), it would have been even worse had his staff not refused to act on more than a few illegal or unethical requests. It is akin to the children hiding the car keys from an increasingly demented parent.

What should be of great concern is the fact 14 cases, two of which are now known, are recommended by Mueller and his team for prosecution. Anyone who has worked with the President should be very scared right now. Adding to that are the thoughts of Mark Shields and David Brooks who note with sadness the threat of Donald Trump on our democracy and institutions.

I also understand that criminal collusion is not being pursued, but I find it hard to believe we can sum up these actions to unwitting participation in Russian influence and horrible judgment. There are too many interactions with Russians – too many conversations, too many meetings, too many financial discussions and too much lying or not remembering to think that is all it is. Maybe that is where some of the future court cases will lead us.

I read yesterday a different way of thinking of Russian involvement. If we think of the attack as an actual bomb attack, wouldn’t we want to get to the bottom of this? All along, I have felt the Russia involvement with the US President is related to financial  issues. Trump has been not forthcoming about his financial relationship in Russia.

So, as more of the Mueller report impact rolls out, it is the GOP who will be harmed the most. The closer people fly to Trump, the more their reputations will be tainted. The question I often ask “is this the man you want to spend your dear reputation on?”

But, setting all of this aside, is this the person we want hold up as our leader? Our word is not trusted, as the man who is in that role is not trustworthy.

PS – This footnote was added on 4/24/2019 as it links to an excellent article where a member of Trump’s transition team is calling for his impeachment.

A Former Member Of The President’s Transition Team Calls For His Impeachment

Saving ourselves from the whimsy of a mercurial man

I don’t agree with some of what conservative columnist Ramesh Ponnuru writes about, but I found myself in agreement with his latest editorial, “Keeping the US Economy safe from Trump’s feelings.” The key theme is the President’s whimsical tweets and statements regarding various policy statements can be harmful to the economy. In my view, it goes even further than the economy factoring into global relationships, climate change inaction, civil rights abuses, etc., but let’s start there.

Ponnuru notes that the President cannot say he was not forewarned by GM about the impact of his tariffs, as the company said in June the tariffs “could lead to fewer jobs, lower wages for our employees” and risked “undermining GM’s competitiveness against foreign auto producers.” He notes the reasons for the downsizings are more than just the tariffs, as demand for sedans is much lower than anticipated and interest rates are picking up. But, GM is not the only company to forewarn the President about his tariffs.

Yet, he notes the President is trying to convince GM to keep plants open using power he does not have. He cannot take away subsidies for electric cars, only Congress can do that. He cannot keep plants open as promised during the campaign, as market forces dictate that and publicly traded companies must respond to shareholders. Plus, he should not be commenting on the actions of any specific company, nor threatening one who do something that he does not like.

It should be noted that the two Senators in Ohio noted in the spring that the government should find ways to help GM retool and update their plants to do SUVs and electric cars rather than gas-powered sedans. This request for action before things got worse was not heeded. That would have been the time to step up to help. Now, his comments are just staging.

Ponnuru used a phrase that is on point to define the President’s actions. He said, “Trump tends to make policy decisions spasmodically.” He further notes the“President keeps adding to his reputation for making idle threats, and even self-canceling ones.”  The White House staff and various departments have been trying to manage the mercurial President’s whimsy. The resulting turnover has been pronounced. Decisions either have no substance because they are beyond the purview of the Presidency or they are unwound because of the next whimsical decision. Or, the staff may hope he forgets one of his inane pronouncements.

The best example of this is from Bob Woodward’s book “Fear: Trump in the White House.” On a totally different subject related to Trump’s attempted ban of transgenders in the military, he was set to meet with more than a dozen members of his staff including his Joint Chiefs of Staff on the subject. Great pains were taken to develop four ideas, noting how constitutional each was, and other pros and cons for the President’s consideration. As they waited that morning for the President, he noted he would join them soon. In the interim, the President sent out two tweets making his decision, noting that everyone was in agreement, which was not a true statement. He also picked the least constitutional action and a court has held up the change.

The key point of this story is not the subject matter. It is the lack of good-faith dealings with others. He said your opinion does not matter and then lied about them being in agreement. The other key is this type of decision-making is not an isolated occurrence. Using Ponnuru’s term it is “spasmodic.” Another conservative writer, David Brooks’ refers to the White House as “equal measures of chaos and incompetence.” I would add that it shows a lack of respect for his subordinates and is not the actions a true leader would take.

As we have painfully learned, the mercurial man is not prone to change. Saving ourselves is another story. Fortunately, the courts help as more than a few things Trump does are not constitutional. The other is to pressure Congress to remember their oaths. The Senate is quite concerned by the President’s blowing off the human rights issues surrounding the MSB’s knowledge of the murder of a journalist and Saudi Arabia’s atrocities on the Yemeni people. Another is to read and watch better news outlets. The media is not the enemy of the people, but many so-called news organizations are not unbiased.

We should also pay heed to conservative voices who have been critical and disowned by Trump’s followers. Ponnuru is not alone, but is less critical of the President than other conservative voices – Brooks, Gerson, Erickson, Will, Douthat, to name a few. These voices are important to echo as the President has done a tremendous sales job on his followers noting it is the media and Democrats who just don’t like him. When I am accused of this, I reiterate my independent status, but when that fails, I say what I dislike is people lying to me and then making decisions off the lies.

A few quotes tell a consistent narrative

The following are a few quotes that have a consistent theme in defining the current incumbent US President. I had many to choose from, but I felt these frame the sentiment from a variety of perspectives within and outside of the US.

Former FBI DIrector James Comey as quoted in The Guardian article entitled “Comey book likens Trump to a mafia boss ” – “This president is unethical  and untethered to the truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven and about personal loyalty.”

Japanese Finance Director Taro Aso as quoted in Reuters article “US will only rejoin Pacific Trade pact if terms improved”“Trump is a person who could change temperamentally, so he may say something different the next day.”

Lt. Colonel (Ret.) Ralph Peters  in his resignation email to Fox News “In my view, Fox has degenerated from providing a legitimate and much-needed outlet for conservative voices to a mere propaganda machine for a destructive and ethically ruinous administration. When prime-time hosts–who have never served our country in any capacity–dismiss facts and empirical reality to launch profoundly dishonest assaults on the FBI, the Justice Department, the courts, the intelligence community (in which I served) and, not least, a model public servant and genuine war hero such as Robert Mueller–all the while scaremongering with lurid warnings of “deep-state” machinations– I cannot be part of the same organization, even at a remove. To me, Fox News is now wittingly harming our system of government for profit.”

Chief Executive Gustavo Grobocupatel of an Argentine Agricultural Group quoted in a Reuters article entitled “US seeks to outshine China at Latam summit without Trump”“Trump’s plan seems to be to ensure the US is no longer the world’s leader.”

Four Star General (Ret.) Barry McCaffrey as quoted in an article in The Daily Mail – “Donald Trump is a ‘serious threat to U.S. national security’ due to Russian inaction.”

Conservative columnist, author and pundit David Brooks during a speech made in Charlotte in April, 2018“Donald Trump is the wrong answer to the right question.”

Editor-in-chief of Red State, a conservative webcast, Erick Erickson quoting on his show an anonymous Republican Congressman he bumped into at a grocery store“Here’s what the US Congressman said: ‘It’s like Forrest Gump won the presidency, but an evil, really f*cking stupid Forrest Gump.’ He went on to explain that if the president tries to fire the Special Counsel Mr. Mueller, he and his fellow Republicans were ready to impeach him over it, for the sake of trying to save the GOP from going down with him.”

Thomas Wells who penned the article in The Huffington Post in July, 2016 entitled “Donald Trump Hired Me As An Attorney. Please Don’t Support Him For President” – “It is a special and unique form of arrogance to think you could even consider being literally the leader of the free world without doing the work to deeply understand the job.” He also noted Donald Trump “lies all of the time.”

I will leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions. With the exception of the two foreign leaders, these people swore an oath to the Constitution and/ or are Conservatives.

Over-politicized and under-moralized

I had the pleasure of hearing columnist and author David Brooks speak the other night. He was invited to my city by a church known for being inclusive. While his speech and following Q/A was filled with poignant quotes and observations, his caution that “we are over-politicized and under-moralized” resonated with me.

His speech was far more focused on America’s changes over time than it was political. He noted we were much more community oriented before 1968, but still had many faults around racIsm, bigotry and gender inequality. He noted the gains made post-1968, but we tore down institutional cache and became more individual minded, even more narcissistic in nature, as he explained with a few key  statistics. He thoughtfully spoke of how we have come to the current tribalism. He noted tribalism is based more on fear and hatred of others than it is love for your tribe.

This was occurring long before Trump and he said he frankly did not think Trump would win. He said people are disenfranchised and want to be heard. To Trump’s credit he reached out to these folks, yet he sold a message of fear and isolationism. An example of one of Brooks’ quotes is “Trump is the wrong answer to the right question.”

From his travels, reading and teaching, he noted people are thirsty for moral direction. We desire a moral compass. We want to do the right thing, but we have become so lonely and alienated (he again accentuated with statistics) we have limited avenues to a community mindset. We are not talking to one another and have looked less to institutions and more to movements.

Early on he defined we are consumed by both a “desiring heart” and “yearning soul.” We want to love someone and belong. We want to find contentment for our soul nurturing it. This is why we long for a sense of community or family. He noted an answer to a previous time in the 1890s when we became so disenfranchised, we saw community movements that led to better working conditions, the suffragette movement, the temperance movement, environmental protection, etc.

That is likely the answer we need to diminish this tribalism. We need to seek community oriented solutions. He said our places of faith can be more helpful, but need to focus on our being better people and picking each other up. He noted an example of a man in Shreveport who helped identify a community house in each area of the city. The house would be a place where BBQs, community events, parties et al could happen.

When someone asked what is a key takeaway, he laughed and said that is your job as I just throw out ideas. Then, he eloquently noted a story about a psychologist who was captured by the Nazis and placed in a detention camp. The question no longer was what should I do with my life? The question was now what does life have in store for me? He said that may be the better question we should ask ourselves.

As he left the stage, I witnessed a humble man who seemed to be saying through his body language, why are you clapping for me? He deserved the adoration. Even the minister of the church noted Brooks’ message had a strong sense of a Judeo-Christian ethic. We need more voices like him. We need more discussions like these.