The Perils of a Trump Impeachment

Everybody seems to be talking about it, all the media outlets are covering it, social media has it trending 24/7, and everyone has their own opinion on the legitimacy of all of it. And I honestly have no interest or stake in what happens to the man at the top of it all – President Trump. But what I do have an interest in is in the maintenance of civility and unity in any society – especially one that is already as divided as the United States.

Most Presidential elections in the US are truly just an exercise in the demonstration of the division within that country. It is Us vs Them, Left vs Right, Democrat vs Republican, Liberal vs Conservative – name your labels. But nobody seems to point it out for what the division really stands for today – Americans vs fellow Americans. Now how about that label, eh?

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I am not an expert historian to tell you when exactly this division started to take its present shape. Was America truly ready for a Black President in 2008? How did Obamacare’s passing impact the legislative process? What about MitcConnell’s obstruction of Obama’s judiciary appointees? How much did Obama’s executive orders piss off Republicans? How angry did the ‘Liberals’ in America get when Mitch McConnell refused to confirm Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court – only to later confirm Gorsuch and Kavanaugh? How confused were people when Donald Trump became the President? What about that Republican bill giving tax breaks that was passed behind closed doors? What did the relentless criticism of Trump tell those who voted for him?

And how do you think society reacts when every one of the above events were amplified by a biased and loud mainstream media – print and cable – along with a significant dose of extreme opinions accompanying it from all the different parts of the internet?

I am not even going to repeat the talking points that are propagated in the media for and against this process. To me, they are rhetorical at best, and political at worst. Nowhere do I see the actual interest of the people being represented in any capacity. But I will quote a statement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from back in March this year (emphasis mine):

Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.

The media, of course, just focused on the last line of “he’s just not worth it” because it was a great soundbite – nothing else. That statement about how an impeachment process can divide the country unless it is based on something compelling and has bipartisan support is the absolute truth. Which is why it is rather unfortunate that Pelosi herself is the one championing the impeachment process now.

For the sake of discussion, let us say the President has just been impeached along party lines in the House. What do you think will happen? You think the nation will rejoice? Is this some sort of a victory? If so, can you tell me who won? What constructive things do you see happening after this? Oh you don’t say it will help elect a Democrat President in 2020? Because clearly that is NOT what this impeachment is about right? Oh I hear you say he just deserved to get impeached? Well, in the immortal words of Snoop Pearson from The Wire, I think what you really meant was:

Deserve got nothing to do with it. It’s his time, that’s all.

I will tell you what WILL happen. CNN, MSNBC, ABC, WaPo, NYT, and the likes will rejoice – openly, and with an in-your-face attitude. Half the nation will rejoice too. Operative word being ‘half’ – because the other half will be pissed off. All Dem politicians will claim victory and try to sell that to their base – you know the half that rejoiced. Fox News, Breitbart, Drudge Report, WSJ, and the likes will continue questioning the legitimacy of the process. All the Republicans will cry unfair, play victim and sell that fear of ‘Dem takeover’ to THEIR base – you know the other half that did not rejoice. There will be some superficial pressure created on Mitch McConnell and he will hold a hearing and eventually Trump will not be convicted. The media will get all the coverage and pageviews and get rich with all the divisive and biased rhetoric.

And the poor American people will come out of it more divided and entrenched than ever before. There will be even lesser room for civil debates and discussions. It will be harder to change people’s minds on any damn thing. The ideas of subtlety and nuance will cease to exist in any conversation even remotely political. Friends are chosen based on their political leanings. Extreme positions will become even more common. More politicians will begin to endorse extreme positions. As the Left goes more woke, the Right will double down on rejecting any change at all. Supreme court justices will be confirmed depending only on which party holds the Senate. No significant legislation will ever get passed in the House and Senate. And yes, impeachment of a sitting President will become more common. Everyone will have an opinion, but the American people will ultimately bear the brunt of it all.

Fact is divisive events have a cumulative effect on society over time. And division breeds further division, thereby cementing a dangerous spiraling loop. In the USA, I strongly believe that these events have led the society close to the point of no return. There is a tipping point approaching and this impeachment will make the American people see what lies beyond. Just remember, there is no way back from that.

What I would like to see is a new leader emerge who works not to ‘energize their own base’, but instead seeks to unite the country – and wins the next elections. There are very few in the Democratic primary field who can be fit into that category. I will not take names but just know this – the more to the left the Dems go, the more to the right the Republicans go. So by that metric, figure out for yourself who is likely to unite and who is likely to further divide. But really all that is a redundant exercise because Trump is going to win in 2020 regardless – the impeachment would make sure of that.

So, yeah, have fun.

On Hasan Minhaj’s Episode on Indian Elections: The ‘Slumdog Millionaire Effect’

When I first moved to the United States back in August 2009, I had to confront a surprising and rather unsettling situation. I found that many Americans and students from Europe were asking me eerily similar questions about where I was from. These were not questions about how I was coping in a new country, or how I was handling the culture shock. Instead these were questions along the lines of “Is it true that there are no toilets in India?”, or “Do you guys have banks in India?”, or “Is it very dangerous to live in a big city in India? How about the rural areas?”, or “Do you have cars and other technology over there?”.

When I was first asked these questions, I had no clue how to respond to them. I didn’t even have a clue as to WHY this person I had just met was asking such denigrating questions about my home country. But the truth was that none of these questions were ever asked in a condescending manner at all. On the contrary, the people asking me this always showed a genuine sense of curiosity. When I eventually found out the reason why so many Americans and Europeans were asking me these questions, I was flabbergasted. The reason why these questions came up was Danny Boyle’s 2008 movie Slumdog Millionaire.

In case you haven’t seen this movie, Slumdog Millionaire is about a kid from the Mumbai slums who grows up being the victim of almost every aspect of India’s dark underbelly. It documents what he went through and culminates with him winning a million dollars in a game show. It was marketed as a rags to riches story, but in reality that theme was just a vehicle to reinforce every single pre-existing stereotype the Western world has about the third world in general – and specifically India. Some of the things shown in the movie include child prostitution, forced begging, open toilets, religious riots, rape, blinding of children, call centers, etc.

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After the movie won the Best Movie at the Oscars, it predictably got a lot of additional publicity and a lot more people made the effort to watch it – especially in the western world. And so whenever I met an American or a European who had watched the movie, I was typically asked questions like the ones above. And it was not just me. Most of my fellow Indian friends have gone through this same experience.

Yes these are not appropriate or even the correct questions to ask someone. What I realized though, was that I was being asked these questions by Americans not out of condescension, but out of an actual lack of knowledge about India. Essentially, Slumdog Millionaire was the ONLY mainstream representation these people had about India. Predictably, those whose opinion about India was only based on this movie were the ones asking those questions – and they were doing so out of pure curiosity and fascination.

Needless to say, Slumdog Millionaire is not at all representative of India as a country. Make no mistake – all those things shown in the movie do exist and they do impact a lot of people. But by deliberately showing ONLY the dark underbelly of a country, there is a conscious building of a narrative – one which dictates that the dark underbelly IS the country. And THAT is not at all acceptable. Imagine if a movie is made about America focusing ONLY on the school shootings, opioid crisis, police brutality, crime in low income neighborhoods, racism in the deep south, widespread obesity, big corporations controlling the population and the elections, and an extremely divided country with one set of people hating the other. And if this movie is the ONLY mainstream representation of America in a foreign country, would Americans consider it fair? Probably not. Such a movie would again just take the dark underbelly of a country and portray it to be EVERYTHING there is to know about the country. And that is simply an incorrect portrayal.

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And that right there is what I call the “Slumdog Millionaire Effect”. This is a classic manifestation of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. This is what happens when the spotlight is put on a select few aspects of a situation and the audience’s understanding of the entire situation is thus limited to just what is shown in the spotlight. It is a dangerous technique but one that is widely used in today’s society – especially in the media. 

Which brings me to Hasan Minhaj and his Patriot Act episode about the upcoming Indian Elections on Netflix. In a nutshell, Hasan Minhaj has used the same techniques that Danny Boyle used to portray India. But just labeling it as an example of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy would hide all the other (more important) deep seated issues that the episode is symptomatic of. And that will be the focus of the next post.

Consumption of Information in a Divided Country

This is the 2nd installment in a series of posts outlining the divided nature of the United States of America. All posts can be found here

One of the hallmarks of a functional society is not just the availability and constant dissemination of information, but also the diverse sources that perform the act of dissemination. As an extreme, take North Korea for instance where there are a few media outlets (radio, print and TV) but they are all controlled by the same one source – the leadership of Kim Jong-Un. Contrast that to a country like the United States where there are approximately 1300 newspapers, hundreds of radio stations, and hundreds of news channels – and they are controlled by many different groups including many that are independently owned.

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So yes, the United States has way more freedom of press than North Korea (duh!). But this is not a binary measurement with North Korea as 0 and the United States as 1. There is a full spectrum of possibilities in between. We all know the consequences of the lack of freedom of press in a country like North Korea. But it would be incorrect to presume that the other extreme is perfect. Far from it. As we will see below, a free press doesn’t necessarily mean a fair press. It is not just the veracity of the reporting that counts in a free press. What counts equally is what is and what is not reported by each source of information.

(For the sake of ease of putting my point across in this post, I am going to use the phrases ‘sources of information’,  ‘information outlets’, ‘media house’, ‘news outlet’ and ‘media’ interchangeably. But what they will refer to is any platform through which information is disseminated on any topic. Additionally, when I refer to news outlets covering and presenting only ‘specific topics’ or ‘different sets of facts about a topic’, it is implied to include instances of news outlets presenting selective facts on a topic, covering only developments that peddle a certain narrative or that are favorable to an organization/ideology, providing disproportionately large amounts of airtime/print space to people espousing a certain point of view, present information/opinion in an us vs them format, etc).

The Ideal World and the Real World

In an ideal world, people think rationally and respond to situations with the complete information on hand and with no inherent bias. But we do not live in such a world. We live in a world where people believe that they think rationally and respond to situations with the complete information, and they believe that they do so with no inherent bias.

Another aspect of an ‘ideal world’ would be that any information disseminated by a source is both complete and unbiased. This means that any news outlet would provide all the different pieces of information on a given topic while providing the appropriate emphasis on each of those different pieces. But we all know that is also not the reality.

The reality is that different media outlets provide and emphasize different sets of facts on the same topic, but rarely present all the facts about it. Each outlet, of course, strongly believes that the specific sets of facts that they are emphasizing are the ones that deserve the attention of the society. So what we end up having is a large number of sources of information disseminating and emphasizing different sets of facts with each believing that their ‘coverage’ is the more relevant (or even important) one to the society. However, none of these media outlets would cover all the facts of the topic at hand.

How We SHOULD be Consuming Information

There is a very important distinction to be made here. It is one thing to have different media outlets emphasizing different pieces of information on a given topic but still doing so within the context of the overall umbrella of information on that topic. It is something totally different when the various media outlets choose to present and emphasize only certain pieces of information while partially or completely ignoring the rest of the facts on that topic. The former is an instance where the diversity of the information outlets becomes an asset by being able to provide a voice for those specific (parts of) topics that would otherwise have not been emphasized elsewhere. The latter implies straight up bias where the media outlets are deliberately disseminating a specific set of information while withholding another set of information.

Now let us take our real world where we have the latter scenario – one in which there are many different outlets that are disseminating information on different topics or different parts of the same topic, and exhibiting clear bias. In such a society, what would a rational person do if they sought information on a wide ranging topic such as, say, immigration?

First and foremost, they would go to one source of information and gather all the facts from that source. But importantly, they would also identify and acknowledge that the first source does not necessarily provide all the facts of the topic. This would then compel them to seek out a different source of information that would provide the facts that were necessarily not part of the first source’s coverage. Then they would repeat this until they believe that they have reasonably covered all the different aspects of the topic at hand. With this, they would then have a perspective on the topic based on complete information about the wide ranging aspects of that topic. And if society was filled with such people, we would have a very well informed population who would call for specific and reasonable action to address the issues of the society.

How we Actually Consume Information

(OK now let me return from that awesome parallel universe to our own less impressive one.)

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But unfortunately, we human beings are not a rational species. We are not even meant to be a rational species based on the way our brain works – which means we have to put in that much more effort to behave rationally. So what this means is that we all have inherent biases that are hard to get rid of. It also means that it is extremely hard for us to actively seek out information that contradicts our pre-existing beliefs or opinions. These two fundamental traits influence and manifest in the way we consume information.

Because of our inherent bias, we are already predisposed to certain sources of information. These outlets typically cover and emphasize specific people, topics or parts of topics that we are already in (at least) general agreement with. Consuming information from such a source will further reinforce our pre-existing beliefs and opinions about a topic while gathering no new or potentially contradictory facts about the same topic.

This will lead us to a deeper entrenchment into the same set of beliefs and opinions thereby helping our brain get even more cozy in its comfort zone. And then, the vicious cycle turns into more like a spiral where we get entrenched deeper and deeper into our own sets of beliefs and becoming increasingly incapable of processing any information contradictory to it.

But unfortunately, that is how information is consumed in this day and age. We gather our information from sources that typically disseminate the kind of information we already agree with, while (consciously or sub-consciously) avoiding sources of information which provide information that could potentially be contradictory to what we already believe in. Essentially, we are all slaves to our confirmation bias.

In the next post, we will look at how such a mode of information consumption impacts society in general. 

The United States of America: A Blueprint for a Divided Society – Part I – The Issues

NOTE: This is the first installment in a series of posts outlining my observations on the divided nature of this country. All posts can be found here

In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Elections, the New York Times wrote the following in an opinion piece titled “The Divided States of America”:

Most large cities, college towns, the Northeast and the West Coast are deep-blue Democratic. Ruby-red Republican strongholds take up most of the South, the Great Plains, the Mountain States and the suburban and rural areas in between. Rather than compete directly against each other, both parties increasingly occupy their separate territories, with diminishing overlap and disappearing common accountability. They hear from very different constituents, with very different priorities. The minimal electoral incentives they do face all push toward nurturing, rather than bridging, those increasingly wide divisions.

From a macro perspective, those observations are very valid and true. But they only speak about one of the many factors that divide the people of this country into two rather distinct categories – Liberals and Conservatives.

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The Divided States of America

The history of this country may have taken whatever route it did to get here. But simply taking a long and hard look at ‘the system’ now  can go a long way in explaining the growing divide among the people here. What I present below (and in future posts) are  some simple observations that have had a profound influence on the divided state of this country. I do this with the ultimate objective and hope of informing people from other countries to keep a look out for these very symptoms in their own country, lest they become victims to the same divisive power plays.

What are the Issues?

It starts with a simple question: How can you divide a set of people if you don’t have anything to divide them over? It has an equally simple answer: You can’t. So any process with the stated or implied objective of dividing a set of people has to necessarily start with the identification of issues that can be used for that purpose. But it cannot be any issue. Trying to divide a large group of people over a debate such as “Should Government funding be increased to Arts or Science education?” is far less likely to have an impact than a debate such as “Should Muslims be allowed to migrate to the USA?”.

The key to coming up with a divisive issue is to use a topic that has a very visceral basis. For instance, issues arising out of religion are usually safe bets when it comes to their ability to generate strong and conflicting feelings (think abortion and gay marriage). Real or perceived threats against strong traditions that also have a controversial side-effect are also equally effective (think gun rights/control). Role of Government in the day-to-day working of the economy is yet another topic that can generate strong feelings (think socialism/free market).

It is not enough to simply identify divisive issues. It is equally important to create two (and only two) very distinct approaches to resolve the issue. And once these approaches are identified and articulated, it is then that the crucial act of labeling one approach as ‘liberal’ and another as ‘conservative’ can be taken up. This labeling is the final step in the ‘creation/identification of divisive issues’ step of the process. And in a country where most of the people identify as one of liberal or conservative, once you label a particular approach to any divisive issue as either liberal or conservative, you have then automatically scaled up the division on that particular issue to the entire population.

It is a scary observation, but one that is far too commonplace in this country today. Perhaps the more relevant aspect of this process of creation of divisive issues is that the ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ approaches to these issues do not necessarily have a common overall basis. That is to say there is no defined set of values for either of these groups from which these differing approaches take shape.

The most glaring example of this lies in the perception of socialism and religion. Both are divisive issues that this country has fought over for decades. For liberals, socialism (or at least some form of it) is generally perceived as a necessary means to address issues such as income inequality and capitalistic greed. The conservatives, on the other hand, view socialism as absolute evil and denounce any form of it. Fair enough. But what about religion? The bible and the values and messages derived from it are by far the most important guiding principles for conservatives. The liberals, on the other hand, vehemently oppose any interference between the church and the state. Again, fair enough.

Now I ask this simple question: What kind of a society does Christ/God preach in the Bible? Does he preach a socialistic society where each person looks after the other? Or does it preach a capitalistic society breeding a dog-eat-dog philosophy where one looks out only for oneself? Even the most cursory reading of the Bible will tell you overwhelmingly (and categorically) that it is the former. (Click the links and you can see for yourself)

So if the Bible preaches a socialistic society, then why do the group of people (Conservatives) who so vehemently propagate its message also support the exact opposite in capitalism? It is an open and glaring contradiction. And so, like I said, there is no basis of common values from which the approaches of a particular group of people spring from.

The damaging significance of a divisive issue in a country cannot be understated. The USA is a country where legislatively bringing about a big change (think Civil rights) is a deliberately slow process. In such a ‘system’, a divisive issue inevitably leads to a situation resembling more of a trench-warfare between opposing groups rather than that of an open and fact based debate and resolution. Needless to say, trench warfare over the same issues over a long period of time only works to divide the society that much farther and deeper. This deepening of the division leads to a feedback loop that incentivizes the systems in play to propagate these divisions even more.

But a society cannot be truly divided into two distinct groups just because people have differing opinions on some specific individual issues. To better understand this, consider a (hypothetical) middle aged man in rural California who owns a small farm, employs legal AND undocumented immigrant workers to work his farm, carries guns with pride, goes to church every Sunday, wants universal healthcare, opposes abortion and gay rights, wants the rich to pay their fair share of taxes, advocates for tuition-free college, advocates for climate change initiatives and wants tariffs on goods (including food) imported from outside the USA.

How on earth would you label him – a Conservative or a Liberal?!!?? He supports issues on both sides as it would be perceived today. It is simply impossible to put him in one or the other category as these categories are understood today. Now imagine if America was made up with people like him – people who have strong and differing opinions about the seemingly divisive issues, but do not have a set pattern in their opinions across these issues. In such a situation, when everyone has differing sets of opinions about the same issues, there cannot be a sufficiently large population group that can be thrown into just two distinct categories. Instead, there will simply be dozens (or hundreds) of different groups where the people within that group share common opinions on ALL the issues. But this does not lead to a divided society! This actually leads to a lot of different groups of people with lots of different priorities – but no sustained division. So then why exactly is it so hard (or just plain impossible) to find such people?

The answer lies in grouping. The ultimate key to generating a divide  is to identify these divisive issues and the two contradictory (for or against) opinions about these issues. Then allocate a ‘for’ to specific issues and an ‘against’ to the other issues. (Which ones get a ‘for’ and which ones get an ‘against’ are not necessarily rooted in any common basis or philosophy. And the question of exactly WHO decided these ‘fors’ and ‘againsts’ is for another post). This becomes one group – say liberals. Reverse the allocation of ‘for’ and ‘against’ and we have the second group – the conservatives!

So, for example, one group of such opinions would be to stand for gun rights, oppose gay rights and abortion, for free market, for lesser taxes, against Climate control initiatives, for religion, against immigration, against government programs for general population, pro-business, etc. These, as we understand them today, are considered conservative opinions. The opposite group of opinions would then be considered as liberal opinions. So once the opinions of people on these issues are grouped in a certain set way, the label can then be applied to that entire group.

So instead of having dozens (or hundreds) of groups with each group having different sets of opinions on the same issues, we now have two specific groups where the set of opinions on the same issues are pre-determined. In the former, there is no real way to create and sustain a deep division between dozens (or hundreds) of groups of people. But in the latter, it becomes very simple to create the divide when you only have two groups of people with pre-determined and contradictory sets of beliefs/opinions about the same set of issues.

(Yes there are obviously many many people who do not identify themselves as a strictly conservative or liberal in the way these terms are understood today. But there is no one representing these people in Congress or anywhere for that matter. In other words, they are not large enough in number to actually have a voice that can make a difference. This, unfortunately, makes their presence quite redundant. Similarly, it is also true that the current administration’s trade policies aren’t exactly favoring a ‘free market’ – which has led to some conservatives getting rather confused on how to respond to this).

And that is what has happened to this country. There are exactly two groups of people – liberals and conservatives – each seemingly represented by one specific political party. And with each group having a pre-determined (and opposite) set of beliefs and opinions about the same issues, the ease of creation and sustenance of division becomes that much easier.

But then this leads to further questions: WHO exactly creates these divisions? WHO sustains them? And HOW?

Future posts to discuss these and other aspects of a divided society in detail.