Virtue. Character. Integrity. Words that cultures around the world and through history have described as the aspirational qualities to earn and strive for in our lives.
2017 was as tumultuous a year as 2016, as the rocky social discourse we now live in seemingly continues to intensify. Yet to me, the most noticeable new development in that trend this year was how we gradually saw a rapider disintegration of public trust in politics, media, and our public square in general.
We saw General Michael Flynn, a respected General who served and protected our country honorably for decades, plead guilty to lying to the FBI.
We saw the #MeToo campaign, with many previously long-respected and admired figures in media, Hollywood, and politics revealed to be engaged in horrifying practices and abuses of power.
We saw the seriously disturbing allegations unveiled regarding Roy Moore, who had built his career on piety.
We witnessed a torrent of hyperbole come from leaders on both sides of the aisle.
On the left, for example, there was Kathy Griffin’s disgusting skit and fear mongering the GOP policy efforts on healthcare reform, taxes, and net neutrality, as literally causing people to die.
On the right, some conspiracy theories have developed a life of their own and collapsed into an incomprehensible singularity universe within themselves.
We saw even some of our nation’s most trusted institutions, ranging from the Department of Justice to our court system, from the national media to the FBI, all questioned.
The Founding Fathers created our form of government to structurally withstand what they believed to be humanity’s inherent evils, abuses, and ambition. Nonetheless, such a safety grid was not meant to allow us to become accustomed to an excess of moral corruption, thinking that our system would protect us from the societal consequences.
John Adams articulated this sentiment in 1798 to the Massachusetts Militia when he said “[o]ur Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
However character is also very difficult to accurately ascertain and this year we have seen enough “virtue-signaling,” likely a portion of it perhaps hypocritical, to make one shake their head as well.
While there are many cases where a person’s character at that time is relatively determinable, also in many situations the facts are unclear and stories only hearsay without evidence.
Furthermore, none of us is perfect and infallible despite the striving many of us make towards that goal.
Yet after this year it is undeniable that the state of character in the public square is in serious trouble and in need of a reawakening.
For much of American history, character was built through one’s family, community, and institutions.
In recent decades we’ve seen all three begin to unravel. Families are cracking apart. Communities are no longer as tight-knit as they used to be, with a decline in public festivals, rites, and bonding, and local organizations.
Our institutions have also changed dramatically, as previously essential character-refining groups such as churches, youth clubs, schools, and fraternal associations have all seen a remarkable waning.
Many of the institutions that do remain, such as schools and higher education, have also experienced a polarizing transformation in discourse that is an extraordinary complex issue within itself.
All this sounds tragic and terrible. Yet the fact that we also live in perhaps the most prosperous, peaceful, and technologically-advanced time in human history makes one also wonder what’s the point of character anyway?
The point of character is multifold. Beyond giving respect to our Creator, it helps us all live in a better society that is more fulfilling and individually wholesome.
When we can trust our institutions, trust our public figures, and trust one another in our communities, we prevent the inevitable regression from a vacuum of virtue as well as protect our progress.
The road up from our current state of affairs is complex and difficult. It is more than just a return to the way things were, as that may be impossible and even undesirable given how our society has been transformed by developments such as technology.
Policy proposals for reigniting character in the public square in the 21st century will undoubtedly come on the local, state, and federal levels as public clamor and outrage grows. In the meantime, perhaps the best that can be done is to take a moment to reflect on our own lives and the kind of approach we want to put forward in the world.
I’ve always been a history buff, not just of American history but world history. Recently I couldn’t help but reflect on the extraordinary time we live and many of the historic developments we’ve been able to witness firsthand the past few years.
Our forefathers could not have imagined some of the fascinating events we’ve recently seen on the social, political, and technological fronts. Yet it seems difficult to find the time and focus to reflect on what our forefathers might have thought in the midst of the 24-hour news cycle and lightning-speed social media focus on the immediate present.
History is complex and multifaceted, both in its timeline and in the narrative. The basic facts, such as dates of events or physical actions, exist as objective truth even if sometimes difficult to discern for certain. However any level of analysis or theory is filled to the brim with opinion, source problems, politics, a person’s own biases, and other confounding factors.
Nonetheless, the past’s potential benefits remain vast despite its inherent inability to be as certain as say aerodynamics equations or financial models, as well as being subjected to the present’s debates and agendas.
In our modern time, it seems we’ve lost an appreciation for history. In our focus on the nitty-gritty immediate issues and debates of the day, it is easy to forget the greater fabric that brought us to this point and that we are a part of.
After all, in a time in the future when everyone alive at this point in time has passed on, we too will become part of history. When we broaden our view from the few steps that are just in front of us to the broader picture, we gain a greater perspective that often lends informed insight to our actions, approaches, and decisions.
Furthermore, by understanding and appreciating the past we gain a greater peace and sense of purpose with our own existence. I know for me certainly in having studied history I have felt a greater sense of understanding.
As an example of this, imagine a smaller scale of history – one’s own family history. For those who are able to know their family’s history, whether a generation back, a few generations back, or even dozens of generations back, it gives a sense of being informed about how one came to be and also one’s place in the world.
On the broader scale of national, societal, and human history, the same principle applies. By understanding our country’s past, and humanity’s overall past, we gain an incredible level of understanding which otherwise leaves a piece missing.
Thankfully, we live in a free society where the reflection on and discussion of history remains generally an open endeavor. History has all too often been used as one of the prime tools of control for authoritarian or illiberal governments, as the narratives of the past provide justification for present conditions.
The scholar Francis Fukuyama discussed the “end of history” in the early-1990’s, theorizing that it seems that one of society’s key questions, regarding the form of government, had been permanently settled in favor of Western-style liberal democracy.
However few historical trends are ever settled permanently. We live in constant change and development in every sector, including in constant resurgences of history in modified configurations.
It seems even Fukuyama’s prediction regarding geopolitics has been disproved, as around the world many governments and societies remain deeply in flux, including being still held under the grip of various authoritarian governments that also are trying to spread their influences.
It is too easy to proclaim an “end of history” in any topic. Undoubtedly a British observer in the mid-1800’s may have thought the British empire would last forever, or a Holy Roman Empire observer in the 1500’s. After all, both had lasted centuries and there seemed little to immediately tear them apart.
We live in a time of extraordinary change, and undoubtedly far in the future our descendants will study the remainders of our time and reflect on how different our world was. We don’t know what kind of world they will live in, but if the past is any indicator, it is that it will be vastly different from ours.
So I say it is worth taking the time to watch a documentary, read a history book, or even a document from the past itself. It is a beneficial, and necessary, step in understanding our part in the human fabric.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently held his annual marathon press conference, taking questions this year from the over 1,640 accredited journalists for almost four hours.
Amid questions on everything from geopolitics regarding Syria, Ukraine, and North Korea, to his own upcoming re-election campaign for President, the backdrop of Russia’s rapidly deteriorating international reputation was simply unavoidable.
With Russia being banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics for doping allegations, a severe move, its support of far-right European movements almost completely failing, increasingly painful sanctions, and in the United States growing bipartisan interest in and public awareness of Russian political interference efforts, it is undeniable Russia’s worldwide machinations have backfired greatly this year.
In contrast, ranging from the essentially nominal competitors lining up to challenge Putin in his bid for re-election to him even berating one journalist at the press conference by saying “[t]his is not a discussion. You ask a question, I answer,” it is clear that Putin’s domestic control of Russia remains for the moment strong and absolute.
Furthermore, Putin himself remains defiant and still opposed to the United States’ actions and efforts, ranging from spreading doubt about our nation’s global integrity to challenging our geopolitical efforts.
It was also recently revealed that Putin’s interference in the United States was fundamentally guided by the intent to divide Americans through fueling both the far-left and the far-right, polarizing and crippling our internal cohesion.
Undoubtedly the Russian interference investigation remains an important focal point for American domestic politics, yet alas one that also has become at great risk of polarization.
It is of the utmost national security concern to study the extent of Russia’s support of the far-right and far-left in our country. In our modern digital age, cyber efforts are both extraordinarily powerful and a particular weak point for our country right now, as evidenced by the frequent hackings by foreign actors as well as the systematic interference of Russia in our domestic politics.
However the essential goal of such an investigation should be to protect ourselves in the future, as well as bring to justice those who may have facilitated it, rather than misusing the investigation for political ends.
On a grander international scale, it is clear Russia still poses immense challenges to American interests, with hope of a “Russian reset” seemingly as impossible as ever. Russia at the moment appears intent on supporting a bloc against American interests rather than joining the community of nations as a beneficial participant.
Historically, America has always been a scapegoat for those ranging from strongmen to totalitarians that need to keep a modicum of consent among their ruled-over populations. Putin practices a form of this in demonizing the United States as an enemy of Russia and the Russian people, and thus bringing the Russian people into his cold embrace.
In the meantime, the few public dissenters in Russia find themselves consistently the target of harassment and even death. Many Russians may be generally content with their daily lives at the moment, but without true rule of law or individual liberty if problems arise they may find they have little redress or voice.
Russia’s economy has begun edging up lately as well, albeit with weak fundamentals, from its heavy downturn in recent years. This recent trend will likely boost Putin’s domestic support for the near-term, as in illiberal nations it is difficult to encourage change when the system appears to be functioning on a level sufficient for sustenance, even if still on an overall meager level.
It may be a very long time before we ever see a free and democratic Russia that is an open and positive participant in world affairs. The two major opportunities Russia had in recent times to liberalize, during the few months of the democratic provisional government under Kerensky in 1917 and in the immediate few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, were separated by almost a century.
Alas, hopefully it will not be another century before that chance emerges again.
President Trump last week declared that the United States embassy in Israel would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, essentially officially recognizing Israel’s claim that Jerusalem is their capital.
The United States has already considered Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel, at least on paper, since Congress enacted the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995. However Presidential administrations have for decades used a mechanism in the bill to continually delay the embassy’s move, thus denying material recognition.
The administration’s move last week at last gives our previous political dance certainty and resolve as we show our support for a vital American ally, as well as harbinger of liberal democracy, in the Middle East.
Many made it seem like this move was more controversial than it actually was. Furthermore, the historical complexities of the issue are hopelessly deep-seeped in politics and for which mountains of books have been written to no avail.
Nonetheless, it is worthwhile at this stage to examine why Israel remains so important for America and our values historically, presently, and undoubtedly in the future.
Israel remains a key bulwark of liberal democracy in the Middle East. While most Middle Eastern nations embrace forms of government ranging from monarchy to Islamic Republics to strongman-rule, Israel remains a healthy Western-style republic in the region.
For many Americans, myself included, Israel also holds special religious significance. I still remember vividly the splendor of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, and other Holy Sites during my church’s visit to Israel last year. To see sites that we had previously only had read about in the Bible gave a feeling of humility and wonder beyond description.
Furthermore, it is worth noting the incredible grit, strength, as well as restraint of the Israeli people. Here we have an entire population that is literally under siege around the clock from everything from rocket attacks to restaurant bombings to stabbings. Here we have a nation where essentially every citizen, male or female, is required to perform service in the Israeli Defense Forces.
During our visit last year in Israel, while we were in Jerusalem for a few days there were almost a half-dozen terror attacks in the city during just that time. It is difficult to imagine living a life perpetually under such threat, yet the Israeli people find joy, optimism, generosity, as well as restrained responses of military force, despite that perpetual setting.
Undoubtedly, we have many essential allies in the Arab world too and our alliances there remain essential for historical joint efforts in combating extremism as well as in ensuring regional and world stability and understanding.
The Jerusalem issue is an extraordinarily complex one with the Arab world, particularly in part due to the controversy over the religiously-significant Temple Mount, but as we have seen in the past week perhaps the embassy move itself was not as actually material to our Arab partners as some believed it was.
While we often have had delicate “frenemy” relationships with some of our Arab partners, it is worth remembering that Israel has always remained our steadfast friend and partner in a variety of geopolitical efforts.
Whenever the United States has supported a motion or action in the United Nations that faced some international backlash, Israel has always backed the United States almost every time.
During the Obama administration our relationship with Israel undoubtedly deteriorated due to measures such as the Iran Deal, censure votes at the United Nations, and various other diplomatic actions.
Our country has been deeply involved in the Middle East for several decades with our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as ubiquitous diplomatic interventions. Undoubtedly with geopolitical developments in Syria, Iran, Yemen, and Turkey all heating up, we shall continue to be quite involved for years to come.
In these upcoming conflicts and debates, it is worth remembering who has always had America’s back during these struggles and whose determination should be an inspiration to us all.
Peace in the Middle East is a lofty, difficult, and admirable goal, and to achieve it we need to remember to support those at the negotiating table who steadfastly stand with us.
Few issues seem to polarize Americans as illegal immigration does. In the aftermath of the acquittal last week of Kate Steinle’s suspected killer, Jose Zarate, it seems the immigration debate that was a mainstay of the 2016 election cycle has become inflamed again in our public discourse.
The current immigration issues facing our country are highly varied and complex. Ranging from the border wall to DACA recipients, the diversity lottery to sanctuary cities, visa policies to employer enforcement, the problems are each extremely individualized and complicated policy questions.
Undoubtedly, America is a nation of immigrants. Our country, since its founding, has been built upon the ideal of taking in peoples from around the world in their great diversity, assimilating them, and uniting us all behind common human ideals. All of us are descended from immigrant stock, some more recent than others, and each family has their own American dream story.
While that philosophy is America’s hope, throughout our history its implementation has been complicated and at times deeply challenged by the difficulty of our grand experiment.
In the present, many illegal immigrants come to this country in search of opportunity like legal immigrants do. However, unlike legal immigrants, they also violate our nation’s laws in doing so, demean the efforts of legal immigrants who have taken the time to go through our immigration processes, and insult the welcoming attitudes and labors of native-born Americans.
Furthermore, on one hand, illegal immigrants contribute tens of billions in taxes and to our economy each year and, particularly in the case of DACA recipients, often lead productive and contributory lives. Alternatively, while legal immigrants are often even more law-abiding than native-born Americans, illegal immigrants also do have significant rates of crime that hurt innocent Americans, such as in the Steinle case.
The Steinle case is particularly noteworthy because it was such a tragic example of someone who should not have been in our country wreaking havoc on law-abiding innocent Americans. The illegal immigrant in this case, Zarate, had been deported over five times, had multiple felony convictions, and was walking free at the time because of sanctuary city policies.
It would be difficult for anyone to possibly justify such repeat criminals from even being in our country, let alone getting away with such a crime. While it looks like the Department of Justice will prosecute Zarate, nonetheless it is disappointing that our debate over illegal immigration has become so polarized that it is difficult to find common ground on such clear-cut public safety issues.
The fact is that America is both a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws. Enforcing our current immigration laws and securing the border, while looking at possibilities of reforming our immigration system, should be the first step forward.
However in the meantime, there remains significant demagoguery on both the left and right that makes coming to common ground on the issue extremely difficult.
On the right, inaccurate claims of illegal immigrants being a major case of American labor displacement, rather than technology, proliferate despite repeated studies proving that sentiment incorrect. Furthermore, unfortunately some radicals have also embraced racist rhetoric in their push against both illegal and legal immigration, in complete contradiction to America’s founding ideals and national ethos.
On the left, ignoring the distinction between illegal immigration and legal immigration is wrong both intellectually and morally. After all, it was in Maryland this year that legal immigrants came forward in droves to successfully defeat sanctuary city proposals in the state. The left needs to recognize that true support of our country’s values and immigrant communities also means upholding the rule of law.
If our nation is to properly reform our immigration system and address the pressing policy issues currently facing it, it is clear that our dialogue on the issues needs a significant and fundamental shift.
While we will never agree on everything regarding policies as complex as those concerning illegal immigration, clearing the smokescreens at least gives us the hope of developing coherent solutions to these issues that have such major economic, public safety, and social consequences on Americans of all backgrounds.
Re-prints of some of my columns. NOTE: I ran a national weekly column from 2017 to 2018 printed/distributed by newspapers in dozens of states across the country. The 2017-2018 blogs in this section are re-prints of the national column.