Saturday, April 6, 2019

Language of the Times III

The Death—and possible rebirth—of discourse

I’ve written here about language before—typically screeds lambasting the cooptation of perfectly good words and phrases like faith. But I’m switching gears this time, writing about an crafty verbal stratagem that might just save American political discourse. My Aunt Monessa Overby, who I’ve written about before, was born on the same date I was, 27 years before me. It’s a unique connection that has kept us close over the years. On the phone the other day, she shared this advice: “What I’m trying to do,” she said, “is avoid saying ‘I am a Democrat.’ Instead, when asked, I say, ‘I tend to vote for Democrats.’” She went on to tell me that she had, in fact, voted for at least one Republican: Dwight D. Eisenhower. Now, I’ve never voted for a declared Republican, but there have been Republicans who, if they had decided to run, would have gotten considerable attention from me. The point being, we express our political affiliation in this country as though we’re describing some in-bread, inextricable part of our identity. “I am a Republican,” we say. Or, “I am a Democrat.” But in reality, neither is true, ever, and, in fact, neither ever could be true. And that is simply because the Republican and Democratic parties have both evolved over the years (Republicans: party of Lincoln. Democrats: Home for decades to vile southern racists.) And, in fact, they’ll continue to do so. (I doubt my aunt could ever conceive of voting for anyone in today’s Republican Party.)

But how does this save discourse? Well, I shifted things a little in that conversation with Monessa. I said, “Think what a different impression you’d make if you used that phrasing when starting a conversation—like, ‘How do you tend to vote?’ instead of ‘Republican or Democrat?’” She hadn’t thought of that, but it resonated with her, and I now put it to you: We all—particularly us late boomers—have those people in our lives who we know have different, and sometimes opposing, political views, so we either avoid political discourse with them at all costs, or find ourselves in debates that are either useless or emotionally scarring, and typically both. Political polarization gets personal sometimes, unfortunately.

So, for those friends, and even acquaintances, of opposing political persuasions, try this new way of asking, and even more than that, try this new way of thinking, about political affiliation. Because we don’t vote for a particular political party because of flowery, often equivocating sentences in campaign speeches and party platform documents: We do it for human reasons. We do it because we see underprivileged people in our communities and beyond, and we want to help them. We do it because a close relative or neighbor was killed in a war, and we want to know why, and we want their families to be cared for. We do it because we’ve seen both arrogant opulence and brave, completely unnecessary poverty. Any of these feelings, impulses, and attitudes might be shared by the person you’re talking to. And I think we can all assume—particularly in this polarized age—that this approach has a better chance than starting with, “Republican or Democrat?”

Sunday, February 3, 2019

To David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez: Our Deepest Apologies and Regrets

Why Brett Kavanaugh is the worst thing that has happened to America since Mitch McConnell

Mitch McConnell is undoubtedly the worst thing that has happened to the United States of America in the 21st Century—until now. Wait, you ask, what about the Bulbous Orange Baby? To which I say, Sorry, but without McConnell, the Idiot-in-Chief is nothing. He is a blob of human waste that hasn’t had a salient thought in his entire painful existence. With McConnell stroking his shaft, however, he’s the Messiah. He is the purveyor of policies (he doesn’t understand a single one of them) that McConnell enshrines into law. He is the champion of constituents (he doesn’t give a flying fuck about a single one of them) in McConnell’s coal-producing southern state. And most importantly, he’s the nominator of judges (he’s never heard of a single goddamn one of them before) who are summarily “vetted” and approved by McConnell’s ill-reputed house of Senatorial prostitution. In short, the Drumpführer is the puppet’s puppet, McConnell is the puppet, and the Kochs, the Adelsons, and the Mercers are the puppeteers.

But now, McConnell has outdone, and, in a sense, replaced himself. He is no longer the most dangerous man in America. That title now falls to his latest creation, the pasty-faced, beer-slamming, sexual predator now known as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. We’ll call him Wah-Wah!

 The unmitigated American apocalypse that is Wah-Wah! is all laid out in painful detail in a pair of unrelated articles in this week’s New Yorker.

In the weekly Comment (“Will the Supreme Court use a New York City Regulation to Strike Down Gun Laws?”), Amy Davidson Sorkin describes the case of New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. New York, which the U.S. Supreme Court—now with Wah-Wah! on board—is about to hear. The case challenges a New York City gun regulation that prohibits the transportation of firearms outside of a home for any purpose other than a visit to one of the seven NYPD-licensed gun ranges within the city’s limits. The regulation means gun owners cannot take their guns out of the city or, if they have multiple residences, they cannot move their guns from one house to another. Even someone who favors stronger gun laws might consider this law restrictive enough that striking it down doesn’t sound like a big deal. But that’s not how the Supreme Court operates. As Davidson Sorkin explains, the case will very likely build on recent precedent set in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010). Heller essentially emasculated the “Well Regulated Militia” clause of the Second Amendment, and McDonald ruled that that standard applied to all gun control laws enacted by the states. Enter Wah-Wah!, whose views on these matters couldn’t be clearer. As Davidson Sorkin explains:

As an appeals-court judge, [Wah-Wah!] wrote, in a 2011 dissent, that the District of Columbia should not be allowed to ban semi-automatic assault rifles, largely because they were “in common use.” He added that asking people to register their guns is unconstitutional.

So, game-set-match, Wah-Wah! is just the dude the NRA has been looking for to, as Slate put it in a recent piece, “make every state’s gun laws look like Texas’.”

But with Wah-Wah!, the bad news gets worse, and Louis Menand gives a vivid illustration of why in his piece, “The Supreme Court Case that Enshrined White Supremacy in Law,” a review of several recent books on the landmark 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson, which provided the legal basis for institutionalized and publicly sanctioned racism in the U.S. In the piece, Menand describes an America in which a succession of post–Civil War Supreme Court majorities, sometimes with detached ambivalence and at other times twisting itself up in knots, perpetuated racist practices like segregation, voter suppression, and redlining, while tacitly approving more beastly practices like lynching, all the while using Plessy as its legal foundation. The legacy of Plessy couldn’t be clearer:

  • There were 130,334 African-Americans registered to vote in Louisiana in 1896, the year Plessy was decided. In 1904, eight years later, there were only 1,342. In Virginia that year, the estimated black turnout in the Presidential election was zero.
  • In a 1927 Supreme Court case that ruled against a Chinese family in Mississippi whose daughter had been expelled from school on racial grounds, the unanimous opinion was delivered by Chief Justice William Howard Taft, a former U.S. President, and among the Justices who heard the case—and voted with the majority—were the American legal giants Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis.
  • Institutionalized, legally sanctioned racism lasted for a full century after Plessy: It wasn’t until 1995 that Mississippi became the last state to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery.
Menand’s account of how these things can pan out over long decades of legal precedent, combined with Davidson Sorkin’s explanation of what’s at stake in the New York case, all adds up to this: With Wah-Wah! on board, we’re looking ahead to decades of living in cities overrun by successive generations of increasingly deadly and barbaric weaponry, all fueled by unfettered capitalism, social unrest, and ignorance, none of which seem to be in short supply these days.

So, in a utopian progressive future, when a President Kamala Harris and a Senate Majority Leader Corey Booker work with Speaker Nancy Pelosi to reduce the number of Supreme Court Justices from nine to seven, to banish Neal Gorsuch and Wah-Wah! to obscurity, and to start the process of returning sanity and reason to American jurisprudence, do not be surprised, do not be aghast, do not suddenly start clinging to comforting tradition. There’s no time for that anymore.

Just be thankful.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

I’ve Fixed Facebook. You’re Welcome.

An open letter to Mark Zuckerberg 

Dear Mark,

I’m not a social media expert, but I play one on the internet. This is why I’m able to give you the following advice that will solve all the problems of your company—advice which is, I assure you, at least as good as any of the advice you’re getting on the inside.

And don’t give me that “Problems? What problems?” bunk.

You’re not only being held responsible for genocide, and for the bulbous orange baby now occupying the White House, you’re also being blamed for all kinds of discrimination. The New York Times, writing about one such example, points out:
Facebook has been criticized in recent years over revelations that its technology allowed landlords to discriminate on the basis of race, and employers to discriminate on the basis of age. Now a group of job seekers is accusing Facebook of helping employers to exclude female candidates from recruiting campaigns. 
Yeah, you got problems, dude. Here are three steps to solve them:

1. Go back to being the geeks you truly are 

Mark, your company is a tech company. And why is it a tech company? Because you’re a geek, Mark. What’s more, you have all the earmarks of a lovable geek. You’ve got the benign awkwardness, a wife you met in college who is her own form of geek, and the cool tech you brought into the world. In fact, the only times you stop being lovable is when you try to be something more than just a geek.

I’ve been in Silicon Valley since before it even was Silicon Valley, and I can tell you, Mark, we love guys like you. We’ve got 80-year-olds running around this valley who are just like you, except they’re wearing pocket protectors. And we love them, just like we love you.

So why does everyone else hate you? Because you’ve forgotten that, first and foremost, you’re just a geek. You’re not a publisher, you’re not a social engineer, you’re not a diplomat, or a lawyer, or a judge, or even a neighborhood watch volunteer. And you’re sure as hell not a politician. (And thank heaven for that, am I right?) No, you’re none of those things. You know why? Yeah, you know, repeat after me: because you’re a geek.

So, all these solutions you’ve come up with—the citizenship requirement for political ads, the 10,000 people you’re going to hire to manually deal with all this crap, or that crazy war room you’re building to safeguard elections—are never going to work. Because a tech company peopled with geeks needs to come up with solutions that are 100% tech solutions. Anything that relies on human intervention of any kind just will not scale. Dude, you’ve got 2 billion users! That’s a haystack the size of which humanity has never seen before, and the needles you’re looking for are the tiniest, shiniest, and sharpest of all.

And, in fact, you know this, because near the close of your misguided September 12 blog post, you admitted the following:
“The last point I’ll make is that we’re all in this together. The definition of success is that we stop cyberattacks and coordinated information operations before they can cause harm. While I’d always rather Facebook identified abuse first, that won’t always be possible.” 
To which I’ll say, nah, man, don’t drag me or my tax dollars into your shit. Instead…

2. Leave the other crap to the people who are paid to do it 

I’ll just say you made a huge mistake, Mark, both on the day you decided to refer to yourself in court as a publisher, and over the period of time you began acting like one by taking responsibility for the content on your platform. The only way an enterprise of the size and scale of Facebook is going to survive in the long run is to completely divorce itself from the content shared on the platform. Again, it’s a simple matter of scale. (Remember, 2 billion users!)

As much as I abhor Alex Jones, the law and society at large, not Facebook, should have been tasked with doing something about his violent incitements and other abhorrent behavior. And as much as I despise Donald Trump and the Russians who used your platform to help get him elected, it’s the job of government and, again, society at large, not Facebook, to address that very serious national security threat. Instead, you’ve got a bunch of idiot pundits and Congress-monkeys pointing the finger at you guys every time some butt-head posts something offensive, polarizing, discriminatory, or even mildly unpleasant.

And now you’ve even got viral Facebook stars and even your own employees jumping all over your shit. It’s like an amoeba, dude! Every solution you try just squeezes between your fingers! I’ll put it this way: I’m sure Samidh Chakrabarti is a great guy, but what the hell are you doing with a Head of Civic Engagement in the first place? You’re a geek! Your company is a tech company! Get out of the moderation business, man! I’ll say it again: 2 billion users!

One more thing…

3. Quit being so goddamn greedy

All this madness probably started well before your IPO gave you an out-of-the-gate market cap of $104 billion (or, after the immediate drop because of the “fiasco,” about $50 billion), but it was certainly IPO day that put the whole thing on steroids. You were interviewed by Evan Osnos for his New Yorker piece fittingly titled, “Can Mark Zuckerberg Fix Facebook Before It Breaks Democracy,” but you were probably a little shocked when you read the final piece. Yes, Mark, Osnos did some incredibly thorough reporting and laid it all out for us. A “Growth Team,” Mark? Seriously? Fifty million users weren’t enough? I understand that your perfectly valid response to that could be, “Screw you, bub. We’re up to 2 billion.” To which I say, see above.

But seriously, all I’m saying is, maybe picture yourself with personal wealth in an amount slightly lower but every bit as obscene as $67 billion. Maybe $5 billion, or $7 billion. You can still live in your mansion, still own all the adjacent properties, still have a healthy philanthropic presence, still put your kids through the best schools. But you’ll be able to forget about your shithead shareholders. They’ll be turning on you soon enough anyway. Put that IPO squarely in the rearview mirror, let your user base dwindle down to a nicely sustainable 200 to 500 million, let some competition come in, and go out there and compete the way you and your fellow geeks like to compete: on cool tech, on features, on UX, on practical jokes, even—on anything, that is, but that cancerous, corrosive, congealing pathogen known as attention.

Because the thing is, Mark—and this is the last thing I’ll say, I promise—lovable geeks aren’t greedy, and they never have been. Those 80-year-olds with the pocket protectors, they’re sitting there stymied by the fact that their Cupertino ranch houses are now worth millions. They’re making digital movies of their grandkids’ kindergarten graduations and distributing them to their families—on DVDs.

One day, that could be you.

You’re welcome.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Language of the Times II

The Co-Opting of the term Faith

In a nation where religious affiliation is on the wane, now is a good time to look closely at the term faith. In politics, in particular, an increasingly desperate Republican party that has for years girded its loins with the mantle of superior “faith” is now completely losing whatever sense of prudence, decency, or ethics it might have had—if any. And as we watch these Republicans rightfully relinquish their grip on power, we realize that, at some point along the decades-long arc of their rise and fall, the term faith was co-opted. A perfectly useful term that had always been dependent on a definitive modifier (Christian faith, Muslim faith, Jewish faith, etc.) was seized by white male Republicans who branded themselves men of faith, without giving us the faintest idea what that actually meant. “We’re just better than those godless Democrats,” the phrase said. “Just shut up and follow us.” And of course, millions bought into the ruse and did just that, to disastrous effect.

This despite the fact that these supposed “men of faith” were not using the term faith to express their embrace of Christian teachings: of sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, of “thou shall not kill,” “thou shall not steal,” and “honor thy father and mother.” They were not using the term to be inclusive, they were using it to be exclusive—to declare themselves saviors, to apply the salve of justice onto the wounds of shame and fear their followers were suffering: the shame of incurable racism and xenophobia, and the fear of impending poverty slowly descending on their families and communities. And this has always been both the true crime and the genius of the Republican rise: these “men of faith” were never saviors, but were in fact, with their policies of austerity for the deserving poor and prosperity for the undeserving rich, the bringers of shame, and the bringers of poverty.

Which is why this co-opting of the term faith has been so insidious and so evil. It has not only manipulated the religious among us by making them feel special and exclusive, it has diminished the faith we are all at liberty to feel, each and every day, as participants in the American experiment. Because ours is a prosperous nation, founded on and governed by the rule of law, and given to fits of great compassion and ceaseless innovation. There are imperfections, certainly, as there are and will always be in any large human undertaking, but the vast majority of us, as citizens, can have faith, when we rise and go out into the world, in the people around us, in the safety of our streets, in the integrity of our customs and enterprises. Binding the term faith up in a religious context, and particularly, in a right-wing Republican conservative Christian context, in fact, binds all of us by denying us one of the best terms available for our national identify: our relationship to our communities, our system of government, and the public servants we all trust and rely on each and every day. Because, in America, the faith we have in our teachers, first responders, school boards, town and city councils, trash collectors, road workers, postal carriers, and cops on the beat, and, most importantly, the faith we have in each other, is much more important to our social fabric than faith in any unseen deity in the sky.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Greed’s New Playing Field

On Facebook, Russian Meddling, and the Corrupting Power of Profit 

In the wake of the massive social media meddling and manipulation that impacted the 2016 U.S. presidential election, all fingers are now pointing at Facebook, and for good reason. It was a year and a half ago that U.S. intelligence agencies determined that the Russians had used Facebook and Twitter to meddle in the election. Executives from the tech companies went to Congress to express contrition while assuming no accountability, which was fine until we learned that Cambridge Analytica—whose founder, Robert Mercer, a reportedly brilliant computer scientist and staunch far-right-wing Republican, is the closest thing we have to a real-life Dr. Evil—had obtained and used data on 50 million Facebook users in its own nefarious election influence campaign. Eventually, Facebook’s chief information security officer, Alex Stamos, resigned in disgrace, and now we face the horrifying possibility that Mark Zuckerberg himself, the last person anyone wants to see sitting before a Congressional committee, might indeed subject himself to such a grilling.

So, the world wrings its collective hands over the power and influence of social media platforms, but the fact is, we’ve known for decades that something like this would happen.

Long before the emergence of the worldwide web 25 years ago, researchers identified two key characteristics of what we then called computer-mediated communication—essentially, large-scale communication over devices like computers and smartphones—which were that this type of communication is asynchronous and anonymous. Together, these attributes result in human interplay that is radically different from the face-to-face conversations and phone calls that were the pre-internet norm. Freed from quizzical or stunned expressions, harrumphing or sighs over the phone line, or out-and-out verbal interruptions, and, in fact, freed from ever coming into contact or interacting again with one’s antagonist, participants in social media from the very beginning jettisoned basic tenets of human self-regulation: status, diplomacy, empathy, compassion.

In short, much of social media quickly became anti-social, and the flame wars of 1980s-era Usenet evolved into the bots, imposters, and trolls of modern Facebook.

That’s the temperament story, which explains the human capacity for nefarious deeds on social media. What it doesn’t explain is how social media attained the global reach that allowed it to change the course of a national election in the world’s largest and most well-established democracy. For that, you have to follow the money.

Mark Zuckerberg
In the early days of Facebook, there was reportedly a split between founders Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Severin on the subject of advertising. Severin, who had provided the initial seed money for the site, was in favor of selling ads from the get-go, while Zuckerberg clung to the idea of an online destination free of the stain of conspicuous profit-making. Severin created a media kit that he floated around potential customers and investors in New York while Zuckerberg managed his small team of nerds in Palo Alto. Lots of intrigue, conflict, and resolution later, Facebook now openly promotes its unique ability to deliver targeted ads, and an entire industry has arisen, largely supplanting the newspaper, magazine, and television advertising of the past, and now a company that had revenues of $78 million in 2010 has grown to over $40 billion in revenues today. All that money comes from owning the attention of 2 billion users globally, and all that attention leads to lots of new tech to gain even more attention, and with it, more revenue.

Internet Research Agency Headquarters
So, while nefarious behavior was always a built-in feature (or bug) of the social media paradigm, the scale and global reach of Facebook, and the temptation that gave to devious, creative, and well-organized perpetrators like the Russian Internet Research Agency, all flowed forth from an impulse that is all too American: that of unbridled greed.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Co-opting and Controlling

The Emotional Violence of the Words We Use 

In last week’s New Yorker Comment, Louis Menand decries the Word of the Year choices by various dictionary publishers. (Decries. Now there’s a word. Have you ever heard anyone speak that word out loud? What’s the word for “written-text-only words”? Anyway, if I ever heard anyone speak decries out loud, not only would I disagree with the sentence, that person would not be my friend. But I digress…)

Louis Menand’s point is not only that words like youthquake, feminism, and populism are lame choices for Word of the Year, but that 2017, an abysmal year for the English language, just wasn’t a year for choosing a Word of the Year. As Menand explains,
In national politics, you no longer need evidence or reason. You no longer need to make an argument. You need only to assert. If your assertion is questioned, you need only to repeat it. 
I’m optimistic enough to believe—for now, anyway—that this may be true, but not a truism (if that makes any sense); the Trump-monkeys will tire and return to their couches (there are, after all, Kardashians to keep up with), and the latest wave of American willful ignorance will recede. But it is instructive, I think, to explore some of the emotional violence, both direct and insidious, that we do to each other with the words we use. I experience this violence constantly these days, as I expect many of you do, too.

Fake News 

Menand actually touches on this term in his comment, saying “’Fake’ and ‘hoax’ are the ‘abracadabra’s of the Trump world, words recited to make inconvenient facts disappear.” Others have pointed this out, of course, but very few mention the modern origin of the term, fake news. It was Jon Stewart, of all people, who popularized the term to describe his own TV program, “The Daily Show.” Fifteen years ago, researchers discovered that millions of people, particularly young people, were getting their daily dose of news from “The Daily Show.” This prompted supposedly real-news pundits like Tucker Carlson, then on CNN, to criticize the quality and objectivity of “Daily Show” interviews and field pieces, which left Stewart understandably incensed. (He’s a comedian, after all.) He countered, most memorably in a 2004 appearance with Carlson and Paul Begala on CNN’s “Crossfire,” “We’re fake news! The lead-in to my show is puppets making crank phone calls!” And now, of course, we can only long for the innocent days when fake news referred to intentionally comedic reporting that somehow managed to deliver more truth than all the CNNs, MSNBCs, and Fox News’s on the planet. Donald Trump and his soiled minions have now co-opted a perfectly good term that encapsulated a perfectly good element of a perfectly good and pleasant era in American popular culture, and they’ve turned it into an infantile trigger warning to their willfully ignorant base—people who do not give and have never given a hoot about the actual “news” (not too many copies of the New York Times or even the Wall Street Journal flying off the racks in Podunk, Oklahoma these days), but are downright Pavlovian when it comes to juice-flowing responses to their Idiot-in-Chief, or anyone else who professes hatred of Obama, hatred of Liberals, and hatred of big government. The statement “You’re fake news” has zero credibility. The statement “We’re fake news” is overflowing with it.

Gold Star Families 

Okay, this one, strangely, does not inflict emotional violence, but is intended to capture the emotional violence of losing a family member in war. But my comment/question on this one is, has there ever been a more reductive popular term devised? “I’m here to inform you that your child/spouse/parent/sibling has been killed in the war. Here’s your gold star. Hope you feel better.”

A little Googling tells me the term dates back to World War I, when it became customary for families of deployed servicemembers to post a blue star in their front windows while their family members were overseas. These were replaced with gold stars if the family member was killed, and it is believed that Woodrow Wilson coined the term Gold Star Mother. The blue/gold star practice fell out favor during the Vietnam era, but was restored when an all-volunteer army began fighting the perpetual wars of today. And of course, the term Gold Star Family popped up everywhere in 2016 thanks to the Idiot-in-Chief’s prototypically kneejerk reaction to the Democratic Convention speech by Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed by a suicide bomb in Iraq in 2004. It’s no surprise that a family’s loss became a political football, particularly in the corrosive era we find ourselves in now, and the term Gold Star Family certainly came in handy as everyone from the VFW to John McCain were condemning the Drumpführer for his inane and insensitive tirade. But how about, instead of handing out gold stars, we make the investments truly needed to provide for the health and welfare of both veterans and active servicemembers and their families? How about we finance war out of the military budget instead of supplemental spending bills? How about we share the burden of perpetual war more broadly, instead of leaving it to the 1% of us with the courage and fortitude to actually step up and serve? Orwellian symbols that do little more than distract us aren't helping our bravest citizens recover and resume their lives. Real action and investments can.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Could Donald Trump Have Reunited the Republic?

In December, two weeks before his inauguration as our 45th president, Donald Trump was briefed by U.S. Intelligence chiefs on conclusive evidence that Russian hackers had attempted to influence the U.S. Presidential election. The sitting president at the time, Barack Obama, had received a similar briefing, but there was very little Obama could do about it. He would be out of office in a matter of weeks, and it was his party's candidate, Hillary Clinton, who the Russian hackers had attempted to sabotage. Any action on Obama's part would have been futile, both practically and politically. Trump, on the other hand, as the newly elected President of the United States, had a choice to make that day—a choice that, despite the fact that no official or commentator has written or said much about it since, is worth considering. 

That choice, in fact, invokes another choice made by another presidential candidate some years prior: In November 2000, Vice President Al Gore conceded a hotly contested election to George W. Bush after having won the popular vote by more than half a million votes. When the Supreme Court halted a recount in Florida that might have given Gore the election, the sitting Vice President, in a remarkable act of grace and integrity, ceased all challenges and said that while he was deeply disappointed and sharply disagreed with the Supreme Court verdict, ”partisan rancor must now be put aside.” With all that has happened in the intervening years—9/11, two seemingly endless wars, the near collapse of the global economy, the election of our first black president, the rise of the Tea Party and with it a level of "partisan rancor" beyond anything either Gore or Bush could have imagined—Gore's concession has been all but forgotten. But in reality, it was a great act of patriotism that returned calm and order to Washington, and with it, the rest of the country.

Contrast this with the choice made by Donald Trump at an equally consequential time for the republic: After receiving his briefing, Trump at first did nothing. He dismissed the Intelligence chiefs and simply allowed the wheels of investigation, analysis, and essential justice to continue churning. In short order, of course, there was his pre-dawn, pre-adolescent Twitter-vomit impugning the Intelligence community's integrity, his Attorney General's bungling lies to Congress and eventual recusal, his firing of FBI Director James Comey, and ultimately, our current state: a special investigator appointed, a White House in turmoil, allegations and suspicion running rampant in Washington, and an entire federal government locked in stasis by the twin shackles of a disastrous Republican Congress and an even more disastrous Republican president.

But even with this bizarre new normal that has settled on Washington, it still behooves us, I think, to consider the question, What if Trump had made a different choice?  

What if he had decided that the prospect of Russians tampering in a U.S. presidential election was unacceptable and 
therefore must be thoroughly investigated and understood before the country could move on? What if he had requested a meeting with President Obama and called for a fast-track investigation into the Russian tampering, to be completed before he would take the mantle of the presidency? What if he had insisted that the federal government reduce or eliminate doubt and suspicion about the Russian tampering to a level acceptable to all parties before a transition of power could take place? 

He could have requested that President Obama remain in office—much as New York Mayor-Elect Mike Bloomberg did with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the wake of 9/11—until the fast-track investigation was completed. Obviously, this course of action would have required other changes, such as refusing to hire Michael Flynn the minute his ties to the Russians were uncovered, and firing Jeff Sessions the minute his Senate Confirmation hearing lie was revealed. But these actions would have only worked to Trump's advantage, leading men and women of integrity to relish the opportunity to serve in his administration, in stark contrast to the current state, where anyone with any qualifications whatsoever seems to be avoiding eye contact.

And, indeed, this is just one example of the changes in the country and the world we could have seen had Trump made a different choice. Both detractors and supporters would have admired his courage. Zealous supporters who criticized the move would have been immediately branded as overzealous. Intelligence agencies would have been on the spot to reach some level of conclusion quickly for the good of the country—which they would have done to the best of their abilities. And all parties would have been similarly compelled to cooperate with, if not collaborate in, the effort to reach a swift resolution.

But of course, one thing pretty much everyone will agree on—from the ardent Trump supporter to the Impeach Trump activist—is that what I'm suggesting here is completely absurd, bordering on the insane. The idea that Donald Trump, of all people, would have even the slightest understanding of both the gravity of the moment and the historical significance of the intelligence briefing he received is beyond imagining. A man who believes that the CIA Memorial Wall is the right place to crow on about the size of his inauguration crowd, that the dignity of the office does not preclude early morning adolescent tweetstorms, that U.S. foreign relations are a plaything, and on and on and on, is never going to demonstrate the grace and integrity needed to adroitly manage a pivotal presidential moment.

But imagining that a newly elected president would do such a thing isn't so insane, is it? Is it so crazy for us to expect grace and integrity from our nation's leader? This is one of many questions we Americans are now forced to ask ourselves in these tumultuous days, and while it is hugely frustrating that our expectations have slipped to such earthen-core depths, we must never let our imaginations falter. We must continue to imagine the best in our leaders, because this is only way we'll recognize the truly transformative leader when he or she arrives, and it's the only way we'll be able to keep our highest ideals alive.