Sunday, December 11, 2016

America's Soft Landing

A friend and colleague, a man who was in my on call group which covered weekends,  died years ago, at age 56,  from Alzheimer's. He was first in his class in medical school, a guy who could acquire new information easily, and he used his deep trove of knowledge smoothly, bringing new concepts and new data to bear on every problem. He looked beyond the obvious explanation and asked, "Ah, but what if we have neglected to consider this?"  
As his disease closed in on him, I started getting phone calls from the other doctors in the group, who said he was no longer capable of practicing--patients would call and he would promise to call in a prescription, or to call another doctor,  and then forget. 

I asked him how weekends were going for him and he remarked, "It's all so easy now. Really, hardly any effort at all."

I was reminded of him when I saw Donald Trump on the stage, throwing jibes at Hillary Clinton for taking time off to prepare for the debate. Trump found the debates so effortless. No preparation required. All so easy.

I'm reading a wonderful, enlightening book by Bernard Lewis, "The Middle East" written in 1995, in which he outlines the almost continuous conflict between the Muslim governments and caliphates in what we now call the Middle East, and the Western European nations and Russia and the Far Eastern civilizations, a story of conflict, invasion, accommodation and more conflict,  which has been going on almost unabated for centuries, but most particularly since the 18th century. 
I had not appreciated how constantly and thoroughly Russia has been involved and invading places like Aleppo and Turkey and Crimea. Reading Lewis today is almost spooky--in telling history he predicted the present so thoroughly.

One thing Lewis said rang out:
"As always happens in such changes, the beginnings of the new order are discernible long before the dramatic events which first made it apparent. Similarly, much of the old order continued to function long after its apparent abrogation. All such 'turning points' are in varying measure arbitrary and artificial--a device of the historian, not a fact of history."

It made me wonder whether the election of Donald Trump, a man who cannot keep details in mind, who cannot recall what he said just a few moments earlier, for whom everything is so easy, in short a man who may be in the early stages of dementia, embraced by an adoring public, who sees in him, in his shrugging off of details, someone like themselves.
He's one of us! But what does that mean? 
Do you want to be led by someone you love, rather than by someone you admire?

We have voters who honestly admit they rejected Hillary Clinton's solution of retraining them for new jobs because they did not think they could learn new jobs. They wanted their old jobs back, in the coal mines, on the assembly lines, where they could function mindlessly. And what does that say? 

As Lewis notes, some things in a declining society headed toward oblivion feel fine: There will be parts of our society--Wall Street, Silicon Valley--which will continue to function, continue to be energetic, dynamic and to surge forward, but the crumbling middle of the country, the Rust Belt, the South, the Mountain West, they may be too far gone to save. The best we might hope for for them, and for the nation, is a "soft landing" at the bottom.

When Donald Trump spoke of withdrawing from Korea, telling Japan to provide for its own defense, withdrawing our troops from Japan, from Europe, and backing away from NATO, I agreed that time has come.  He said we had to do this to put America first and to stop being suckers for all the freeloaders in the world who do not have to spend their money on their own defense, and I agreed, knowing I might be too ignorant to understand why we haven't done that before.   

When Mr. Trump, asked what he would do about ISIS,  said simply he would "bomb the shit of them," the crowd, the American crowd, roared.  And I thought, "Now why didn't anyone else ever think of that?"
When he looked at the tumult in Germany, France, the Netherlands, England over immigrants, mainly Islamic immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, and said simply, they are a Trojan horse, a form of invasion to be repulsed, that seemed to contain a sort of truth. Complexities are so difficult. 

When Alexander the Great, faced with the Gordian knot, suddenly unsheathed his sword and cut through it in a single stroke, was that not a stroke of genius, out of the box thinking?  Did he not deserve to conquer the world for his willingness to risk a rash solution? 

So many brilliant men had tried to unravel the knot, had thought hard and struggled, but Alexander took a different tack. If the problem is to unravel the knot, is slicing it to pieces, not unraveling it?  Simple, direct.

But not all problems can be solved by simply re framing them and taking a new approach. Cutting through all the problems with Obamacare by destroying it with a single stroke leaves a lot of mess on the ground.

Thinking through hard problems is actually difficult, hard work.  That's what made being on call some weekends an exhausting experience. But for those in decline, sometimes, everything is all so easy, like sliding down a water slide, toward the bottom and the end of the ride.

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