The Palace had decamped for a few days to a lovely resort on the California peninsula of Coronado, just outside San Diego. Coronado and its environs are host to numerous naval installations and training facilities, including the Naval Air Station North Island and the Naval Amphibious Base, both in Coronado proper.
The weather is legendary, and the beach at the resort is nothing short of spectacular. Due to the proximity of the Naval Air Station and the alignment of its main runway, dozens of military aircraft fly final approaches just off the shoreline daily. If you have a bit of an aviation fetish (as I confess I do), you might enjoy searching the cloudless blue skies at the occasional sound of approaching thunder, and watching a fighter jet, an old-school twin engine transport, or an enormous helicopter fly by and land at the far end of the beach. If you walk the beach about a mile in the other direction you will be restricted from proceeding further, but there is nothing to prevent you from standing there and watching Navy Seal candidates in training.
Even this far South, the Pacific ocean is bitter cold. But the resort pools are warm. And fine California wines are inexpensive and abundant.
I was tagging along with my Amazing Lover™, who was attending a conference chock full of Big Willies in his field of expertise, some of whom require the protection of federal law enforcement 24/7. This was obviously an upscale affair—by which I mean that it was populated almost exclusively by Whitey McStraighterson IVs (and to a lesser extent, by Whitney McStraightersons), all of them card-carrying members of an elite and highly accomplished professional class. His colleague and friend Alanna* was also in attendance. She lives in L.A., and loves to debate matters of religion and politics. Naturally I adore her, and we always have a splendid time in her company.
One evening around sunset, the group held a big dinner on the beach. Billed as a “family friendly” event, the food was terrible and so was the wine. Although sticking around for the campfire S’mores on the beach was tempting, the three of us opted instead to slip out of there for a decent meal at one of the resort’s restaurants. “Mind if I invite John*?” Alanna asked, i reference to a d00d to whom we had been briefly introduced earlier. Coincidentally, John was himself a former Navy Seal. He was married, and attending the conference solo.
“Of course we don’t mind. Let’s go.”
The four of us gathered our shoes and made our way to an outdoor table under a glowing heat lamp. Menus and a wine list arrived. Unversed in California whites, I discussed the options with the helpful sommelier while my companions chatted, and some very good wine arrived shortly thereafter. We sipped and chatted and ordered a round of appetizers and seafood entrees. As it often does with our friend Alanna, the conversation drifted to…politics.
Now I know that what I am about to say may come as a complete shock to my Many Tens of Loyal Readers™, but I identify politically as a liberal. A lefty. A New New-Dealer. A social democrat. A progressive. That is, I believe that the U.S. government—you know, the one that is ostensibly of The People, by The People, and for The People—can and indeed should do all sorts of things that government is uniquely qualified or better suited to do for its citizens than private individuals or businesses are. Unlike conservatives who pretend to care about the size of the government when Democrats are in power**, I personally do not care one whit about the size of government per se, only that it be sized sufficiently to best ensure the welfare of the American people — all of the American people.
If one embraces this principle, certain other things follow. For example, I am a proponent of strong labor and environmental protections with the force of law behind them. I’m for public investment in renewable energy and green infrastructure, and a robust social safety net including a world-class, cradle-to-grave, single-payer healthcare system. I am for excellent, publicly funded education from preschool through University for every kid with the ambition and aptitude, regardless of means; and consequently I detest the very idea of publicly funded vouchers for private, i.e. mostly religious, schools. I am wholeheartedly for free speech protections, secular government, and the strict separation of church and state. I’m for women’s equality, the ERA, equal pay for equal work, unrestricted reproductive choice, and abortion on demand in all circumstances. I’m for LGBTQi equality and minority protections, including affirmative action where systemic or institutional barriers exist. I am for a sane, mutually cooperative, human rights-enhancing foreign policy: I’m for the win-win, and not for domination and control. I’m for comprehensive, non-judgmental, fact-based sex education in public schools. I strongly favor the legalization of pot, as well as a public health-based approach to drug and alcohol abuse. I believe that one of the greatest strengths of the United States lies in its peoples’ vibrant cultural diversity—with the inviolable caveat that basic liberties, opportunities, and civil rights should never be trumped by cultural considerations, especially not by religious ones. I’m for the rule of law, which by definition means that every law applies equally to all people including billionaires, bankers and Executive branch officials. I believe that every single law and government policy should be based on reality—facts, reason and evidence—and that when reality (or our understanding of it) changes, so should laws and government policies. I am vehemently opposed to the privatization of government functions, such as prisons, social safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare, and the military. And speaking of the military, I am also for a strong, smart national defense (which is manifestly not what the U.S. has been engaging in since World War II).
I know with as much certainty as I can know anything, based on every single apposite experience in human history, that the Glorious Invisible Hand of the Free Market will fist-fuck the vast majority of citizens into poverty and oppression for the benefit an infinitesimally tiny minority, if left unchecked by reasonable restrictions, transparency and robust regulation. (See e.g. the year 2008 CE et seq.) I am not anti-capitalist. But it is demonstrably true that the dog-eat-dog, social Darwinian principle of economic “freedom” espoused by conservatives—again, based on every single apposite experience in human history—does not lead to good outcomes for most people, nor does it lead to meritocracy, to efficiency, to rising-tides-that-lift-all-boats, or to peaceful coexistence among peoples and nations. I believe this is so because fiscal conservatism and laissez faire economics of every stripe ignore the inescapable, biological reality that humans are a social species: our lives are all interconnected, and our destinies as individuals, as nations, and as a singular species are inextricably intertwined. This dogma that those who work the hardest in our society are rewarded commensurately, and the mantra that we are a nation of unfettered individualists who prosper (or fail) solely according to our own work ethic and merit, are demonstrably, objectively false.
Or, in the immortal words of Elizabeth Warren:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
I could go on, of course. And on and on… and on. But suffice it to say that if you identify as a liberal, you probably hold some of the same positions I do. Some you may agree with intuitively. Some you may have no opinion on whatsoever, perhaps because you have not given these issues very much thought; some you may disagree with vehemently, precisely because you have. (And I would very much look forward to being enlightened by you.) Others positions you may have come to by observing the effects of certain policies in the real world, and then determining how much these align with the kind of country and society you want to live in. And because no one, including yours truly, is immune to cognitive biases and the all-too-human inclination to blindly believe whatever one wishes to believe, the approach that I endeavor to take with any matter of importance is a scientific and skeptical one.
For example, let’s say that I believe that unwanted and/or teenage pregnancy is a widespread phenomenon that results in a great deal of unnecessary suffering, hardship and cost to pregnant people, to their families (including existing children), and to the greater society in which people with unwanted pregnancies exist. (For the record, I do believe these things, but that is not salient to my point. And I do have one. I swear.) I have done a good bit of research and discovered that the evidence is in fact overwhelming regarding which policies actually reduce unwanted pregnancies in teens and adults who happen to have uteruses. I have, quite reasonably I think, concluded based on this evidence that fact-based comprehensive sex education coupled with accessible birth control is a very effective solution to the problem of unwanted pregnancies. Further, I have also concluded based on the aforementioned mountains of evidence that the prevailing alternative, i.e., “abstinence-only sex education”, significantly exacerbates rather than ameliorates the exact problem with which it is ostensibly concerned: unwanted pregnancies. It’s not that there are no costs — financial, individual, and/or societal — in adopting a universal policy of fact-based, comprehensive sex education coupled with accessible birth control. No. It’s that the costs positively pale in comparison to the costs of unwanted pregnancy and its enabler, abstinence-only sex education.
Admittedly, right wing tropes like “the only 100% certain way to avoid unwanted pregnancies is to remain abstinent until marriage” sounds intuitively obvious, and perhaps such advice is even well-intended. (Perhaps.) But even the most cursory reality check will quickly douse any notions of its effectiveness: 95% of Americans have pre-marital sex. After decades of national research, it is indisputably clear that “abstinence-only” sex education is a total, unmitigated disaster: states where abstinence-only education reigns supreme have the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the U.S. while states that favor comprehensive sexual education — the type that teaches students about birth control — have the lowest levels of teen pregnancy. (Of course if for some reason you really wanted to see a lot of unwanted pregnancies in the U.S. then abstinence-only education is a huge winner, hands-down.) Now it might also be true that there is a completely different third (or fourth, or fifth) reasonable approach to the problem of unwanted pregnancy that is even more effective than fact-based comprehensive sex education coupled with accessible birth control. The only way we could possibly know whether the new approach was in fact more effective, however, would be to test it extensively in the real world, gather the evidence, and compare the results to those of fact-based comprehensive sex education coupled with accessible birth control.
What I am getting at (apparently in the most insufferably long-winded fashion imaginable) is that it matters a great deal, to me anyway, how I have arrived at the positions I hold. In particular, I am concerned with whether the available evidence actually supports my views. I like to think that all of my political views have strong empirical support, but I also know that I am as prone to bias as anyone. The brilliant physicist Richard Feynman once said so memorably, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” (From the lecture “What is and What Should be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society,” Galileo Symposium, Italy 1964.) As it turns out, however—and as the brilliant political satirist Stephen Colbert also said so memorably—”reality has a well-known liberal bias.” (From the White House Correspondents Dinner, Washington DC, 2006.)
In practice, this means that if new or previously unknown evidence strongly and convincingly indicates that comprehensive sex education in fact increases the incidence of unwanted pregnancies and that abstinence-only sex education reduces it, then we should reconsider our policies and change them accordingly. Otherwise, we would just be stupid. Likewise, if someone disagrees with me and provides convincing evidence and reasoning that I am mistaken, then I should reconsider my views and alter them accordingly. Otherwise, I would just be stupid. It is not enough for someone to just pronounce that I am wrong, and simply leave it at that. If someone wishes to convince me that abstinence-only sex education is the best way to reduce unwanted pregnancies, one would need need a compelling alternative explanation for the existing evidence and facts as they are presently understood, and some pretty compelling evidence and reasoning in support of their statement. Otherwise, one would just be stupid. And arrogant. And willfully ignorant. And discussing the matter in bad faith. And, most likely, flat-out wrong.
Which brings us, after the most ridiculously long and pointlessly meandering digression ever, back to the dinner table in Coronado, awaiting the appetizers. I think it was our friend Alanna who had steered the conversation to something political. (It wasn’t me: I had been discussing white wines with the sommelier, remember?***) I chimed in, something to the effect that I was a liberal on the issue (whatever it was), and that yes, our taxes should support that.
“That’s not what this country is about,” replied John. “It’s not about government handouts. It’s about getting ahead by your own bootstraps.”
“Bootstraps?” I asked bemusedly.
“Yeah, bootstraps,” he said testily. “And if you don’t like it, maybe you should move to France.”
“Now, now,” said Alanna.
“France?” I laughed. “I love France. Great wine and universal healthcare. I would like to see this country become a whole lot more like France—so no, you know what? I think I’ll stay, and work toward that.” I was smiling as I said it, disagreeing and holding my ground, but in a good-natured way.
“That is not what this country is about,” John repeated flatly. “You should get out. Move to France.”
Okay. That was twice. I took a sip of wine.
Now, at this point I might have said many things.
For example, I might have insisted that he move to Somalia, the very epitome of “small government” paradise. Paul Ryan, eat your heart out: the Somali government has the conservative dream budget: “revenues: $NA. expenditures: $NA.” Government education expenditures are non-existent—males average three years of schooling, females two—so it is not surprising that only half the male population is literate, and only a quarter of females. With no government public health system, there is a high risk of contracting major infectious diseases such as hepatitis A and E, typhoid fever, dengue fever and malaria; lack of government funding for sanitation and sewage systems fuel epidemics of waterborne diseases like bacterial diarrhea. As we all know from history, wherever and whenever there is no strong central government to prevent it, human apes tend to go fractally tribal: they devolve into violent patriarchal clans that fight each other for resources, with strict local hierarchies headed by alpha thugs who make (and break) all the rules, dispensing their own brand of “justice” with impunity. The conservative utopia of Somalia is no exception. According to the U.S. State Department, armed banditry, road assaults, kidnappings for ransom, shootings and grenade attacks on public markets, detonations of anti-personnel and-vehicle land mines, outbreaks of civil unrest, and illegal roadblocks resulting in serious injury or death are exceedingly common. Women and children fare particularly poorly in conservative paradise: maternal mortality is second in the world (behind Afghanistan), and infant mortality is fourth. With no government justice system to punish perpetrators, the violent rape of women and children is beyond an epidemic—it’s a social norm. Poverty is ubiquitous; life spans are short. You should move there, John. Take your family with you. You’ll love it.
I might have pointed out that as a Navy Seal, the highly educated John was eligible for free education grants, as well as veterans health benefits—and that these are government
handouts programs****. They are not, in fact, bootstraps. And that I suspect he and/or his family have taken advantage of many other government handouts programs, like public education and Social Security.
I could have quipped that as a white, straight, healthy, native-born, able-bodied, cis-gendered, relatively young, attractive male, John was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.
Instead, I said this: “I actually find it offensive that you feel entitled to pronounce on what this country is or isn’t ‘about’ as if it’s a fact, when it isn’t. I was born here too, went to public schools and university, paid taxes, vote, and care very deeply about my country—and I have a different opinion.” I did not raise my voice, and I did not bring up Somalia. I showed remarkable restraint—Alanna, my Amazing Lover™, and my many tens of loyal readers know exactly how far I am capable of going in an argument when I want to. But alas, it was all just too much for poor John.
John stood up abruptly and threw his napkin down on the table. “That’s it,” he said, “I’ve heard enough.” He pulled a wad of cash from his pocket at tossed a few twenties on the table, and stormed away in a huff, never to be seen again.
*Names are changed.
**The Bush administration and a Republican congress presided over the largest non-military expansion of the federal government in the modern era: the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Safety Administration, and other programs associated with their War on
Terror the Constitution.
***Later, I learned from my Amazing Lover™ that as I was discussing white wines with the helpful sommelier, John pointed to me and said, “If you marry a woman like that, when you say “I do” it’ll be the last decision you ever make.”
****Free education and government health care for veterans are programs I am happy to support. I want them for everyone.
*****EPILOGUE: Alanna chased after him, but there was no talking him down. She came back to the table alone, and we split his wine and shared the food he had ordered. The next morning she found him and convinced him to take his cash back. He apologized for his behavior, and said that he had too much to drink. (Navy Seals can’t hold their liquor? Who knew?)