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The peril of ignoring both truth and consequences
Children have to learn it. What about political leaders?
We can take a cue from a little city in New Mexico that changed its name to get attention.
Readers: I’m taking off a couple of weeks — but I thought maybe you’d like to look back about a year, to this post from September, 2021. See you soon. -Rex
Along the Rio Grande in southwestern New Mexico, there’s a fine little city that is the seat of Sierra County government. It used to be called Hot Springs, because of the water percolating up all around the area from geothermal heat. But some seven decades back, the community decided to be known instead as Truth or Consequences, more or less to draw attention to itself.
At the time, “Truth or Consequences” was a popular radio show, requiring contestants to answer a trivia question accurately or be forced to perform some stunt. In 1950, the show’s host, Ralph Edwards, came up with a publicity gimmick: He would broadcast an episode from the first community to legally change its name to match the radio show. Hot Springs, N.M., eager to promote the tourism that had sustained its flagging economy, rose to the bait, and got itself on the air coast-to-coast.1
The show “Truth or Consequences” is gone, but its name lingers as a reminder of what follows from a failure to face the truth — namely, there are consequences. It’s a lesson we seem to have trouble remembering in the 21st century, which may be odd, since learning that actions have consequences is considered a fundamental element of the path to adulthood.
Childhood development experts say that kids learn from both natural consequences — if they refuse to wear a coat in winter, they get cold — and from logical consequences, which are actions an authority figure imposes to teach a child the logical notion that good behavior yields good results.2 The notion of recognizing behavior’s consequences is fundamental to teaching children how to think for themselves. And if they can do that, they are likely to be more open-minded in adulthood, according to Robert Fisher, an education theorist in England whose 1990 book Teaching Children to Think is influential in his field.
“As children become adults, there is an increasing tendency to closed-mindedness,” Fisher wrote, “where beliefs are ego-centered (where what ‘I believe’ becomes more important than what ‘I believe’), where those who disagree are regarded as biased and as not having the capacity to enter into a reasoned and open-ended discussion.”3
Reasoning across disagreements through open-ended discussion used to be the way decisions were reached in our democracy, of course — which is why our government has usually found its way to the middle of the road over the past two and a quarter centuries, rather than straying very far to the left or right. But that breaks down if the players in government aren’t open-minded: If you see people who disagree with you as motivated mainly by bias, and are unwilling to reason with you, you’re not going to even begin to engage in that sort of decision-making. So sides get set in their beliefs and refuse to act.
That’s a sort of generous explanation of why the United States government hasn’t functioned well in this century — generous, I’d say, because it assumes motivations aside from rank partisanship and lust for power are at the root of the breakdown of legislating. But I’m not sure that’s right.
Just now, for example, the Republican party is refusing to participate in governing, unless by “governing” you mean opposing whatever the Democrats propose. Sen. Mitch McConnell, currently the top elected Republican in the federal government, is insisting that Republicans won’t participate in even the fundamental act of paying the government’s bills, although Democrats did just that during the Trump presidency and Republicans did it under previous Democratic presidents. Maybe McConnell genuinely believes that Democrats are suddenly so besotted with leftist ideology that the nation can be saved only if government disastrously fails under Democratic leadership and the nation turns to the radical right, which is where the fully Trumpist party he leads now resides.
Or maybe McConnell simply didn’t do well in childhood lessons on the consequences of behavior. All around us, after all, we see consequences of what has come before, which are hard for a caring person to dismiss.
This week Americans were dying of Covid-19 at a rate ten times higher than they were only two months ago. The sweep of the delta variant across the country wouldn’t be so deadly — that is, so many people wouldn’t have gotten infected — if we didn’t still have 45 percent of the population without even a single shot of the free and easy-to-obtain vaccination.4 And that vaccine hesitancy arose as a consequence of many Republicans (though not all, certainly) making a partisan marker out of freedom from having to get a shot or even wear a mask. The consequence of that exercise of freedom, in turn, is the lack of freedom for all of us from the awful toll of the coronavirus.
And now, with a deadline looming, McConnell is insisting that Republican senators won’t give any support to raising the federal debt limit. Without at least 10 Republican senators’ votes, the debt ceiling increase won’t pass.
It’s important to note that the debt limit has nothing to do with current Democratic ambitions to reshape the economy by bolstering the middle class. No, the nation’s debt is a result of decisions made under the previous administrations of our government — including a $7.8 trillion debt increase during the Trump administration alone. Only two presidents grew the debt more than Trump, as a percentage of the total economy: Abraham Lincoln, who used debt to finance the Civil War, and George W. Bush, who didn’t want current taxpayers to have to pay for his post-9/11 military incursions.5
So the debt today is a consequence of decisions in which McConnell and most of his colleagues had a hand. Even as they try to obscure that truth, they can’t ignore the consequences if they now try to jump the tab, as we called it when I was waiting tables. If Congress doesn’t raise the debt limit, the government lacks legal authority to pay its bills. Here’s what a new independent study says would happen: America would be plunged into recession, costing perhaps six million jobs and erasing $15 trillion in wealth as the stock market plummets. As investors worldwide note the instability of the U.S. economy, the dollar’s value would fall, making countless goods and services more expensive. Then our government would have to make unimaginable choices — say, between honoring its commitment to bondholders or issuing Social Security checks to retirees.
None of that can be what McConnell and his fellow partisans would wish for America, you would think, except for this: Voters usually hold the party in power to account for problems, and with a Democrat in the White House and the slimmest of Democratic margins in Congress, McConnell may believe that Republicans’ path back to power is through just such pain. Maybe, in fact, he foresees the consequences of calamity all too well.
Or perhaps this has more to do with the other half of the “Truth or Consequences” equation. The Republican party, which once styled itself as the guardian of traditional values, has been on a campaign against truth lately. Republican officeholders all over the country, with the encouragement of Fox News personalities and other right-wing commentators, are daily undercutting the truth of what happened on Jan. 6, when a mob incited by Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, attacking valiant police officers and vowing to hang the vice president, demanding that the results of a fair election be overturned. As a result, according to a recent survey, six in 10 Republicans falsely blame the attack on liberals and left-wing activists.6
Our nation faces grave challenges, including the effects of climate change, the reality of economic injustice, the resilience of a deadly pandemic and the many dangers of a world that cries out for the moral leadership of a stable democratic nation. But if we cannot recognize truth and embrace its consequences, we will be lost. This is not a show or a game, and it’s not about getting attention. It is a grave political crisis, and it is at our doorstep.
VIEWED FROM UPSTATE
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share dispatches from:
Seward, Neb. (Lincoln Journal Star, journalstar.com)
Pine Ridge, S.D. (Rapid City Journal, rapidcityjournal.com)
Fort Myers, Fla. (Fort Myers News-Press, news-press.com)
Pottawatomie County, Okla. (Shawnee News-Star, news-star.com)
NOTE: The complete “Viewed from Upstate” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Claims of anti-LGBT bias lead to cancellation of literary festival
Since 1996, thousands of schoolchildren, young adults and adult readers have converged annually at the Plum Creek Literary Festival on the campus of Concordia University- Nebraska, a college affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. But as Chris Dunker reports in the Lincoln Journal Star, this year’s festival was abruptly cancelled when some authors pulled out, alleging the college is biased against the LGBT community. Some books featuring gay characters and with characters questioning their sexuality were left off a presale list, authors noted. Upon further checking, the authors found that the university handbook instructed students that the church taught against “active involvement in a homosexual lifestyle, cohabitation, fornication, exhibitionism and voyeurism.”
“Shelter in place” ordered on Pine Ridge Reservation
Covid-19 has had a disproportionate impact on Native American tribes, the Brookings Institution has found. Now the situation among the Oglala Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation has grown dire, according to the Rapid City Journal, that tribe members have been ordered by the tribal council to shelter in place. Only essential businesses are allowed to remain open, and they must operate at no more than 25 per cent capacity; mask wearing is required, gatherings are limited to no more than 10 people, and all schools operate only virtually. It’s worth noting that large swaths of the nine reservations in South Dakota lack good internet service, and that’s surely true in the 2,000-square-mile Pine Ridge Reservation.
Judge upholds law restricting panhandling at intersections
A county judge has affirmed the constitutionality of a county law that bars anyone from asking motorists for money at intersections. According to reporting by Bill Smith in the Fort Myers News-Press, the law was upheld because it was drafted as a traffic safety measure — not a restriction on free speech. The county judge who issued the ruling said it therefore did not violate a 1984 federal appellate court ruling in Florida that recognized a First Amendment right of individuals to "beg or solicit alms for themselves." There’s no word of whether there will be an appeal by the homeless man on whose behalf the lawsuit was filed — nor whether it might also apply to “boot drops” that volunteer fire departments use to raise funds.
A day with a small-town ICU nurse
For the Shawnee News-Star, reporter Elisabeth Slay spent a typical 16-hour day with a supervising nurse in the local hospital’s intensive care unit. “It feels like you're in a war zone and it's heart breaking,” charge nurse Danielle Taylor said, “especially when you know it's preventable." They usually lose a patient a day, she noted, but one recent weekend eight patients died. She and other nurses stick with it, she said, because these are people of her community and she feels that it’s her calling to help them — but she wishes everybody would get the vaccine.
The washing machine isn’t spinning, and it’s making an odd noise. It’s not old enough to be worn out, so it’s time to summon the appliance repair guy. That’s not always easy.
One of the results of the pandemic, according to media accounts around the country, is exploding demand for appliance repair. People spending more time at home seemingly cook more and do more loads of laundry. At the same time, supply chain disruptions have made some repair jobs challenging, because some worn-out parts are hard to replace.
Home appliance repair strikes me as a good career opportunity — not for me, mind you, but for somebody who is handy and wants a relatively recession-proof way to earn a living. After all, people might use home appliances more when economic times are tough, and might try to get repairs to older machines rather than buy new ones.
This notion doesn’t apply to electronics, of course — televisions and computers and the like. Unlike the big tube-filled TV sets of my childhood, those are rarely repairable when they fail, meaning they go into the hands of another relatively recession-proof occupation: trash disposal workers.
Let’s express our gratitude for the folks like these who keep our lives going, and recognize that they deserve a living wage if we intend to continue to rely upon their service.
Thank you for reading. And thanks for joining me on our common ground.*