Unknown Unknowns

“What if we were wrong?”

So mused Barack Obama to an aide shortly after November 8, 2016, as the election returns poured in and it became clear Donald Trump—not Hillary Clinton—would be the next president of the United States.  After a full year of assuming someone as vulgar and cruel as Trump could not conceivably be elected commander-in-chief, Obama was suddenly faced with the possibility that he lived in a very different country from the one he inherited eight years earlier—and perhaps he should’ve seen it earlier.

It is the rare politician who has the nerve and humility to admit he was (possibly) mistaken, but the truth is that even us private citizens are loathe to acknowledge personal weakness and tend to avoid doing so at almost any cost.  In the tribal world we now inhabit, certitude takes precedence over nuance every time, because when all discourse is reduced to a zero-sum blood sport, there can be no such thing as ambiguity, complexity or doubt.

With 18 days until the midterms and control of Congress hanging ever-so-precariously in the balance, it is my fondest wish for my fellow Americans to take a cue from President Obama and stop being so goddamned certain about who’s right and who’s wrong.

Surely, if the last election cycle taught us anything—about our leaders, our politics and ourselves—it’s that there’s almost nothing we can claim to know beyond doubt, and the consequences of assuming otherwise can be catastrophic.

To wit:  If the biggest mistake the left made in 2016 was to assume Trump could not possibly win, it stands to reason their biggest mistake in 2020 will be to assume he could not possibly win again.  This despite the fact that a) his three immediate predecessors were all re-elected handily, and b) Trump himself continues to defy all laws of political gravity, maintaining a fairly consistent—albeit consistently tepid—approval rating no matter what unholy nonsense is going on around him.

That so many liberals still refuse to see what is directly in front of their nose—namely, that Donald Trump is, thus far, politically unsinkable—is reflective of the blue team’s broader intellectual weakness of believing Trump and his acolytes are a bunch of rubes who have nothing useful to teach them.

But what if they do?  What if Trump’s personal indestructability is attributable not merely to rank stupidity on the part of 40 percent of the electorate, but rather to concrete policy achievements and genuine political skill?  What if Trump is smarter and shrewder than his critics give him credit for?  What if there are certain issues on which he has acquitted himself well, and not merely through beginner’s dumb luck?

What if, say, the 2017 tax bill really did supercharge the economy and make most Americans lives better?  What if Trump’s bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea really did bring Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table?  What if Trump’s proposed Mexican wall really would protect the U.S. from drugs and criminals spilling across our southern border?

Then there are the issues that extend well beyond Trump himself.  For instance, what if the federal government really is overstuffed with bureaucrats and regulations and deserves a bit of thinning out around the edges?  What if the direst predictions about climate change are overblown and the proposed solutions not worth the cost?  What if single-payer health insurance leads to less efficient care?  What if armed guards at schools prevent more gun deaths than they cause?  What if political correctness—on campus and off—has become so pervasive that it now poses a real threat to free speech in the public square?  What if Brett Kavanaugh didn’t assault Christine Blasey Ford in 1982?

None of these questions are settled—some may never be—yet nearly all of us act like the answers are obvious and not worth debatingand, what’s more, that those with differing views are not just wrong, but evil, beyond redemption and deserving of our bottomless contempt.

The result of this—as any clear-eyed person can see—is a society of angry, arrogant, insufferable boors for whom a question like “What if we were wrong?” is treated like a punchline, eliciting guffaws and eyerolls instead of even a moment’s thoughtful pause.

In this disheartening period of civic discourse, I am reminded of a 2006 speech by the late British-American pugilist Christopher Hitchens, who challenged his audience to ask itself, “How do I know what I already think I know?”

“It’s always worth establishing first principles,” Hitchens argued.  “It’s always worth saying, ‘What would I do if I ever met a Flat Earth Society member?  Come to think of it, how can I prove the Earth is round?  How sure am I of my own views?’”

Finishing the thought, Hitchens cautioned, “Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus, and the feeling that whatever you think, you’re bound to be OK because you’re in the safely moral majority.

In 2018, there is no such thing as consensus, and we should start acting accordingly.  Not by abandoning all the values we hold dear, but simply by recognizing that ours are not the only values that have value.

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To the Bride and Groom

The following toast was delivered at my brother’s wedding on Sunday, October 7, 2018.

First, congratulations to Brian and Tina on finally becoming husband and wife.

Thanks to Brian for making me best man.  Since you know I have no intention of returning the favor—not soon, anyway—I assume you’re just paying me back for all the Little League games I attended in high school.  I knew that would pay off eventually.

It’s a pleasure to be back in the Greater Yorktown area for this momentous occasion.  I never would’ve guessed that seeing Hamilton would be the second-biggest event of my week.  But then, it’s not every week that my baby brother gets married to the finest woman he (or I) have ever met.  Not even Lin-Manuel Miranda can top that.

Seven years ago, on Christmas Day, Brian boarded a plane to Israel and met a nice girl from Washington Heights.  When he returned 10 days later, he spent a full year raving about what a magical, life-changing experience it was, and how he’d never be the same because of it.  It was only the following Christmas, when I actually met that girl for the first time, that I finally understood what he meant.  As it turns out, he was not talking about the falafel.

And, of course, he was right.  Everything had changed.  He had met the woman of his dreams and it was full steam ahead.  Three years ago, in June, as we were sitting on a dock on Martha’s Vineyard, Brian told me that he was going to ask Tina to marry him.  And, in the end, it only took him another 28 months to do so.

As I stand here today, I could not be prouder or more relieved that events of the last seven years have led Brian to this moment.  I’ve known him his entire life, and I haven’t seen him this happy since the night Mom and Dad got us an N64 for Chanukah.

I’m pretty happy, too, for my own particular reasons.  Before Tina came along, Brian was basically an uncultured frat boy whose idea of high culture extended about as far as Adam Sandler and the WWF.  What’s more, he seemed almost to revel in rejecting my many attempts over the years to infuse my own, much more refined tastes into him, leading to such moments as when he called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the worst music he’d ever heard in his life.

But now, seven years after that fateful encounter in the Holy Land?  Well, he’s still a frat boy—we had his bachelor party in New Orleans, for heaven’s sake—but he is also responsible, generous, engaging, literate and, dare I say, sophisticated.  Today, he patronizes local arts organizations, reads The New Yorker, experienced The Who and Bruce Springsteen live, actually watches the DVDs I send him on his birthday, and even managed to see Hamilton before I did.  (They know a guy.)

Now, I’ve been trying to knock some good taste into Brian practically since the day he was born, and so while I would love to take credit for all—or, frankly, any—of the above—the truth is that all glory goes to Tina, his other and, let’s be honest, much better half.

Simply be being herself, she has become the Henry Higgins to Brian’s Eliza Doolittle.  In the years they’ve been together, Tina has not only made Brian a better man, but she’s made him want to be a better man, because he knows that a woman as smart and clever as her deserves every measure of devotion that he can give, and it’s to his everlasting credit that he’s willing to give it all.

He’s gonna be the best husband he can be.  The best brother, the best son.  He’s gonna make our family great again.