What is going on?  We seem to be living in an uncommon age of protests and it seems to be escalating.  There are protests at colleges, in the Black Lives Matter movement and from our presidential primary candidates, and everywhere we seem to turn.

The daughter of my nephew who is in the second year of medical school recently told me protests are going on there as well.  Hard to believe, a few students are protesting the occasional political/gender incorrectness of some of the teachers and guest lecturers.  It must be an epidemic spawned by global warming.

What follows are excerpts from columns by Ross Douthat and Tom Freidman writing in the New York Times about why all the protests.

Douthat says, “Yes, voters are angry; yes, they’re exhausted and disgusted and cynical about everything.  But why is everything boiling over in this particular cycle, in this presidential campaign?

Consider:  The economic picture is better than it was in 2012, when Republican primary voters settled for Mitt Romney and an incumbent president was re-elected pretty easily.  (In both Iowa and New Hampshire, the unemployment rate is currently under 4%.)  The foreign policy picture is grim in certain ways, but America isn’t trapped in a casualty-heavy quagmire the way we were in 2004, when Democratic voters played it safe with John Kerry and George W. Bush won-re-election.

As Michael Grunwald argued recently in Politico, the worst-case scenarios of the post-Great Recession era haven’t materialized.  Obamacare is limping along without an imminent death spiral, and health care costs aren’t rising as fast as feared.  The deficit has fallen a bit, and inflation is extraordinarily low.  The stock market is very wobbly, but we haven’t had a double-dip recession (yet).

On the cultural front, out-of-wedlock births are no longer rising.  Abortion rates have fallen.  Illegal immigration rates are down.

The state of the union isn’t all that one might hope, but it could clearly be a whole lot worse.

The Trumpistsas and Bern-feelers appear to be rebelling against exactly that—the politics of  “it could be worse,” of stagnation and muddling through.  They aren’t revolting against abject failure, or deep and swift decline.  They’re rebelling against decadence, stagnation and a mediocre status quo.

The fact that both of their messages—Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Bernie’s “Why Not Socialism?”—involve essentially recycled visions of the future, this is a sign of how hard it is for a decadent society to escape the trap of repetition.

With a somewhat broader perspective, Freidman chimes in, “In my view, this age of protest is driven, in part, by the fact that the largest forces on the planet—globalization and Mother Nature—are all in acceleration, creating an engine of disruption that is stressing strong countries and middle classes and blowing up weak ones, while super-empowering individuals and transforming the nature of work, leadership and government all at once.

I asked Dov Seidman, the author of the book “How” and C.E.O. of LRN, for his take on this age of protest.

“People everywhere seem to be morally aroused.  The philosopher David Hume argued that ‘the moral imagination diminishes with distance.’  It would follow that the opposite is also true:  As distance decreases, the moral imagination increases.  Now that we have no distance—it’s like we’re all in a crowded theater, making everything personal—we are experiencing the aspirations, hopes, frustration, plight of others in direct and visceral ways.”

Indeed, we’re being intimately exposed to footage of outrageous police brutality, terrorism victims jumping from the windows of a Paris theater and racially biased/sexist corporate emails revealed by hackers.  Who wouldn’t be aroused?

That we are becoming more morally aroused “is generally a good thing,” argues Seidman.  Institutionalized racism in police departments, or in college fraternities, is real and had been tolerated for way too long.  That it’s being called out is a sign of a society’s health and “re-engagement.”

But when moral arousal manifests as moral outrage, he added, “it can either inspire or repress a serious conversation or the truth.”  There is surely a connection between the explosion of political correctness on college campuses—including Yale students demanding the resignation of an administrator whose wife defended free speech norms that might make some students uncomfortable—and the ovations Donald Trump is getting for being crudely politically incorrect.

“If moral outrage, as justified as it may be, is followed immediately by demands for firings or resignations,” argued Seidman, “it can result in a vicious cycle or moral outrage being met with equal outrage, as opposed to a virtuous cycle of dialogue and the hard work of forging real understanding and enduring agreements.”

Furthermore, “when moral outrage skips over moral conversation, then the outcome is likely going to be acquiescence, not inspired solutions,” Seidman added.  It can also feel the current epidemic of inauthentic apologies, “since apologies extracted under pressure are like telling a child, ‘Just say you’re sorry,’ to move past the issue without ever making amends.”

With all of this moral arousal, it’s as if “we’re living in a never-ending storm,” he said.  Alas, though, resolving moral disputes “requires perspective, fuller context and the ability to make meaningful distinctions.”

That requires leaders with the courage and empathy “to inspire people to pause to reflect, so that instead of reacting by yelling in 140 characters they can channel all this moral outrage into deep and honest conversations.”  If we can do that—a big if—Seidman concluded, “we can regain our equilibrium and get back on our journey towards a more perfect union.”

What I think Seidman is saying is having more effective leadership from the very top down would create a greater sense of comfort and tranquility and, therefore, lead to less protests.

Sounds like a bit of a stretch; but without any other explanation, it might be plausible and workable.


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