How to Keep a Liberal Heart

The United States has become what you might expect if you challenged a team of therapists to design a country purely on the principle of schadenfreude. Like those cooking shows that give contestants a single secret ingredient and thirty minutes to work it into an entire meal, America feels like it was whipped up in a hurry with, from soup to nuts, only the delight in others’ misfortune as a common policy thread. How did this happen?

When I was small, some adults in my life – usually men, always white – were fond of repeating that “if you’re not liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart, but if you’re not conservative when you’re old, you don’t have a brain,” which, like so many aphorisms, passes off wordplay as wisdom. An earnest little egghead in sneakers, I’d marvel at this supposed truth and wonder what inner transformation between youth and old age could so reliably flip one’s political switch. The more I grapple with America’s flourishing cruelty, the more I start to understand the answer.

It’s worth first clarifying what we mean by “liberal” and “conservative.” They’re fluid terms because they each stand for a broad and shifting category of values and positions. The most useful definitions account for this. The late American philosopher Richard Rorty argued that liberals believe our best days are ahead of us, while conservatives believe our best days are behind us, which tracks with the general conservative pining for a better time that never was.

Contemporary social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes “liberal” and “conservative” as predispositions associated with certain personality types, which I’ve found to be an even finer way to slice it. In his research he has found that people who are risk-averse and prone to seeking safety tend to be more conservative, while people who are comfortable with change and enjoy new experiences tend to be more liberal. This feels so true to me that it almost belabors the obvious.

It seems, then, that what those adults in my life were preaching was a necessary conversion in adulthood from an open and adventurous spirit to a kind of functional protectionism in our day-to-day lives. Why this would be inevitable is beyond me, as is why it would signify the layering of intelligence upon heart, when it feels more like the elimination of heart altogether, and its replacement with something that is substantively less like intelligence than cowardice.

I mean, I get it. I’m old now. Well, not old, but older. I turn forty in almost a month, the age those towering giants of my youth were when they spouted their wordplay and bubbled ballots for the likes of Ronald Reagan. But I’m probably more liberal now than I’ve ever been. And I think it’s because I see something those adults looked past. The very fact that they looked past it meant they didn’t have to contend with who it made them and could freely interpret their fear as prudence, with so much life experience to back them up.

The primary difference between old Joe and young Joe is the amount of stuff I have now. Physical stuff, sure, but mental stuff, too, which is a heavier haul. I walk around with more accumulated memory now than I ever did, and all the little neurotic triggers that travel with it as I recall myself in unending succession, sometimes in horror and sometimes in joy, often consciously but usually not. My capacity to sneak up on myself with good intel is expanding, and I don’t like it. Aging, I think, means getting closer to death and having ever more to answer for, which feels like double jeopardy.

How to cope? There are two choices in reach of the human creature, as far as I can see. The first is to decide you’re not going to hold all that stuff so tightly. Author George Saunders describes this as “a simple matter of attrition.” In a commencement address at Syracuse University in 2013, he said, “As we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving.” The result? “Becoming kinder happens naturally, with age.”

I share Saunders’s confidence that it happens naturally, or at least it can if we don’t get in its way, and like him I prefer to think of it as the direction in which we’re trying to head. But there’s plenty of gray hair in Congress, and not much kindness to go around. And that’s because the second choice is to hold all that stuff more tightly still. American conservatism is nothing if not white-knuckled.

We see it most clearly in grandpa stereotypes. Cane-wielding old coots complaining about whippersnappers and forever admonishing them to “get off my lawn.” A natural response to the accumulation of memory, much of it painful, is to build up a bigger and bigger self-concept as a brace against it, or an overdesigned vessel for carrying it. What’s so important about my lawn? This is what the adults in my life looked past, even as they worked at it doggedly.

And it’s what some of them continue to miss. The opportunity to release the self, rather than double down on it. Doubling down on it, and on all the barbed wire it takes to preserve its lengthening border, begets Donald Trump. President of the Old Coots. Many of whom are not so old after all. Who are skipping the liberal heart and going straight to the conservative brain, which isn’t so much rich with wisdom as rife with panic. Schadenfreude works as a policy framework because someone else’s misfortune is the implicit triumph of your stuff.

I know this because, according to Haidt’s rule of types, I should be fiercely conservative. I’m not proud to admit it, but I’m cravenly averse to taking risks. I do fear change. And, when I manage to have a new experience, it’s usually because I distracted the voice in my head long enough to achieve something counter-instinctive.

The adults who shaped me are similar. Most are as conservative as I’d expect myself to be. Were I not gay. Were I not gay and forced, from an early age, to reckon with the dreaded knowledge that my basic identity, and with it my potential for happiness and love, were initially located outside of my own comfort zone, and demanded the very change I feared, in my heart and brain.

This is how both of these organs became liberal right away and never looked back. It’s a choice I have to remake again and again as I age, because a person moving unreflectively through life is a fast-growing territory to defend. The territory is of course a willful hallucination. But the United States of Schadenfraude seems eager to forget this permanently.


Intimacy with No Exit

I applied to divinity school in January 2017 seeking “civic pastoral education,” or training in a form of lay ministry that could attend to democracy as a central form of faith in the lives of Americans. In a 500-word essay I was asked to describe what I saw as ministry’s greatest challenges and rewards. This was my response.

*     *     *

A teacher was asked to describe Zen in four words. After some contemplation she replied: “Intimacy with no exit.” To me this phrase anticipates the greatest challenge of ministry.

Before fully understanding my call to ministry, I had undertaken a self-imposed curriculum in “intimacy with no exit.” It started with Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem Kindness, which tells us that, in order to know kindness, “you must lose things.” Had I read this a year prior, I surely would’ve overlooked it. But I had just lost things. I was touched, because I was devastated.

Next in my informal studies came the Pixar film Inside Out, in which a child’s emotions are personified as characters vying to steer her behavior and identity. Sadness, a secondary character at first, becomes the hero in the end, as the basis of the child’s empathy and ability to accept the scope of her life.

But Sadness has to be pushed to her pivotal role, for, given the choice, she’d languish in bed. I recognized this paralysis. Intimacy with no exit. A mentor of mine suggests that ministry requires “listening without over-identifying.” Sadness struck me as the over-identifying type. But the danger of under-identifying is just as real. And, I would argue, consumes the world.

I pressed on in my syllabus, dipping into Peter Senge’s Presence, in which he and his co-authors contend that the problem of our age is failure to reckon with the whole. We approach our struggles as wholes, they say, rather than as parts of a whole, and thereby do we repeat mistakes and compound our pain through myopic fixes.

It’s the whole, I think, that would get Sadness out of bed, were she able to maintain perspective on it. Expansive, not contractive, views of humanity let us hold grief and hope in balance and neither over- nor under-identify. They enable us to witness and honor the experiences of others while seeing them as elements of a larger human story, and thereby toggle our own faith and commitment between the two.

Intimacy with no exit. Also ministry’s greatest reward. I’m almost always thinking about how to serve people. What I observe of our age is that we have ever more information and ever less time. To me, this makes us suffer in ways we don’t give ourselves space to understand, and drives interpersonal and political choices aimed at instant relief more than long-term good.

In other words, we’re paralyzed by “no exit.” Perhaps because intimacy still eludes us.

It’s this space I want to open up, and I can’t separate what I expect will be the challenge from what I know will be the reward. The anchor of my curriculum was Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion, which gave me permission to have mercy on myself, and freed me up for broader awareness and better decisions.

If I can witness and honor at the individual level, and teach the means of doing so for one’s self, it will be a life well spent.

Say Yes to the Distress

I have yet to hear a single rousing speech. A friend who feels the same way has started winkingly overusing the already overused word “woke,” applying it to most complete sentences uttered publicly, and to the occasional inspired brunch order. The resistance has a gravitas problem.

Last weekend I went to Augusta for a resistance summit I’d taken to calling “Fist ME,” its unselfconscious logo a raised fist (history-rich iconography now making the rounds as Clipart) thrust up the center of the state of Maine. “Remember your motivation,” the emcee admonished, flashing an angry mug of Donald Trump onscreen in the morning plenary (imagine Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. offering only a caricature of Sheriff Clark to motivate congregants in Selma).

These are local organizers, I thought. The pros will know better. Or so I hoped, tuning in a week later to the ACLU’s “Resistance Training Town Hall,” which took no Town Hall-style questions or feedback, and delivered little training to speak of.

ACLU political director Faiz Shakir appeared onstage twice, primarily for the radical gesture of sharing his email address, and to lead the crowd in vigorous chants of “People power!” ACLU deputy legal director Louise Melling came out to explain the GOP’s ACA alternative but offered few specifics, repeating “Is that what decency looks like?” as she sketched conservative healthcare attitudes in broad strokes.

It’s alarming to stand at the center of a movement, feeling this unmoved.

As politicians say before rhetorical flights of unclarity, let me be clear. I’m not here to rain on the parade, however much I feel it could use a few drops. I know the resistance, as we’ve named it, can ill afford naysayers, especially this early on. But, this early on, we must be receptive to criticism if we’re to get it right. Every time we shrink from what the fainthearted call “infighting” we miss the opportunity to evolve. If the resistance looks in a year exactly as it does today, we will surely have failed.

Too many of our leaders bear an uncanny resemblance to one particular cultural archetype: the camp counselor. Hired to galvanize us supposedly against our will, their very job is to insult our intelligence. And whereas that might be enough to compel a halfway decent lanyard bracelet, or perfect attendance at archery practice, it’s inadequate to the task of showing us the void and preparing us for sacrifice.

This is at once everyone’s fault and no one’s. I recently picked up Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” a work of strenuous observation, insight, and scholarship. If I rain on parades, Postman is the deluge. In 1985 he offered a bleak vision that our engagement in a common discourse and with each other has borne out. Though he focused on the medium of television, the internet, which has exploded since his death, is only proving an accelerator of the problem he saw.

There’s nothing wrong with television for a laugh now and then, some drama or escapist fantasy, as long as we understand what we’re escaping to, and from. But television has been a monolithic presence in every home for generations, and now invades our pockets. It is therefore, according to Postman, “our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself,” which means that “how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged.”

“It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails.”

Feeling fired up yet? Nothing about our world that isn’t processed televisually – which is almost nothing about our world – is immune to the expectation that it provide a kind of thrill, if not a kind of comfort. That it be presented beautifully, not too seriously, free of context, and without much consequence. The very idea of resistance strains to challenge this expectation, but finds us, ironically, resistant, and gives us the fight in a familiar package.

I look into the faces of our camp counselor-leaders and I’m not convinced they’ve reckoned with what they still might lose. Their bravery has no layers because, for many of them, it has no precedent. That’s fine. But the humility it requires in lieu of precedent, the private dance we ought to be doing with abject fear, is nowhere in evidence. I don’t trust them because the mountaintop they’ve been to is a set piece.

I am no exception. “Whereof one cannot speak,” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein, “thereof one must be silent,” and I cannot speak of a seriousness I’ve yet to experience in my life, that no television can recreate. And so I’ve tweeted and blogged certain half-thoughts, but so far have demurred from stepping forward as a resistance voice. I just don’t have the scars, and my culture makes it hard, and unnecessary, to imagine them.

For a lifetime, though, I’ve wrestled with an acute form of empathic distress, which, before I learned to accept it, made me grumpy in peacetime, angry and resentful of the people I felt deeply for. In wartime it’s a tool, until I get into the fray. I’m not looking forward to that. The fray is a place from which some don’t return. But it may be a critical step if I’m to witness and participate in the world as it exists today, not as television depicts it.

More than anything I want our camp counselor-leaders to ditch the platitudes and show me what they’re ready to know, the only thing worth knowing: that this fight isn’t a brief holiday from our old way of life but a repudiation of it. Maybe then I’ll raise my fist up too.

Ordinary People

“Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.”
Stanley Milgram
Obedience to Authority

Chief Michael Sauschuck
Portland Police

February 26, 2017

Dear Chief Sauschuck:

I don’t know you. Some friends of mine say they do. I, and we, have great respect for the position you hold. And by their accounts you’ve approached it with the heart of a leader and the will of a public servant.

I write because my faith in our institutions is no longer equal to my fear, and because “worse still,” however unlikely, is increasingly plausible. Analyses of this unique political moment range from brief farce to death of the American democratic experiment. A student of history, I would probably place it somewhere in the middle. But I believe the latter is still possible. Because I never thought it would get this far.

The president has already cast the judiciary as a procedural speed bump. And acting almost entirely by executive order, he has also marginalized the legislature. He appears to recognize the powers conferred on his branch of government alone. That may not be fascism technically, but it’s dictionary-definition authoritarianism.

I hope our checks and balances hold. I hope no branch of government is overpowered or snuffed out or filled up with sycophants and functionally neutered. As a student of history I know that, if they don’t hold, it falls to law enforcement to halt our descent into tyranny. And that takes saying no.

In the early 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted experiments designed to test ordinary people’s obedience to authority even against their own moral objections. Not by happenstance they coincided with the trial of Nazi Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, who insisted he was only following orders, underplaying his role as an architect of the Holocaust.

What was arguably craven denial and lack of remorse in Eichmann’s case prompted some valuable research which did in effect show how far we will go on command. If Milgram is right, even good people buckle when coerced from above. I’ve read the stories of conscience-driven men and women for whom the juggernaut of authority proved too much to resist or oppose. Who took part in things they never thought they were capable of.

Roughly one week after the November election, Bangor Daily News ran a story entitled “Portland would likely cooperate with Trump’s mass deportation plan,” citing the city’s informal sanctuary status with no basis in policy and no firewall against federal overreach. Since then you have been quoted as saying, “Do we cooperate with our federal partners? The answer is yes.”

To be fair, in the uniform you wear it would be hard to say otherwise when asked hypothetically, and pick a fight before it comes to your door. But I believe it may come. And I suspect the reason you didn’t hesitate to pledge your cooperation is that what you’ve seen so far from the feds is questionable but not yet unimaginable. The unimaginable has visited itself upon organized human society and will again.

We all have a role to play in preserving America’s democratic principles and practices. I’m writing to acknowledge that your role may eventually be one of the more difficult ones, beginning perhaps with immigration and customs enforcement but not necessarily ending there. You may be asked to militarize beyond reason. To disperse protests of any and every kind. To forcibly remove a gay Portlander from a pizza shop, a Muslim Portlander from a bus station. Or worse still.

I don’t know you. It’s winter in Maine and I watch sledders racing down the hillsides. I’m reminded how slippery slopes work: you start with some speed then, assuming no resistance, gain a little more, and a little more still. Please don’t make this slope any slipperier than it has to be. Ask questions. Demand due process. And draw lines. Early.

I thank you for reading and ask you to mark this date, to save this letter. Moral ambiguity may not have descended but it will, and quite possibly in its fog you’ll be pressured to do what is plainly wrong. Listen to your heart, should the day arrive. I have every reason to believe it’s the heart of a leader. And so should you.

Joe Pinto
Portland, Maine


Please Agonize

Senator Susan Collins
United States Congress

February 8, 2016

Dear Senator Collins:

I’m a constituent. I think for myself, but I don’t think by myself. I’m part of a vast and growing network of people in and around Portland who, you’ve surely noticed, are communicating with you a lot more now than they used to.

We’re bringing numerous issues to the table. “One issue!” is the standard advice for addressing a Member of Congress – to be sure it’s heard, and passed along, and understood as “the thing you care about.” Every issue we raise is the thing we care about. For my part I think it’s important to tell you so. It’s not that we’re disorganized or scattered or frantic. We just believe the country is bleeding in several places. And we’re paying close attention.

My past few letters have been long, so I’ll keep this one short. I suspect some constituents have treated you like an automaton whose only job is to vote yea or nay. Every time I call or write, I try to address you as a thoughtful, conscience-driven person who goes home and deliberates. Even, perhaps, who agonizes. ‘Tis the season.

There are two strains of conversation I overhear with mounting frequency in Portland, the gists of which are:

Senator Collins, in her tepid rejection of the occasional bridge-too-far from the Trump team (Betsy DeVos, the Muslim ban), is still embracing far too much of an indefensible White House agenda. She has no integrity. She’s a lost cause.

I don’t participate in this conversation. No one is a lost cause. And I do see flashes of an inner compass in you. I really just wish you’d use it more.

It’s time to start thinking seriously about who might run against Senator Collins in 2020 – someone who will show the state of Maine unequivocally that he or she isn’t ready to forsake our democracy and cater to a president who rules by fiat and bullies critics.

I’m participating in this conversation more and more. It’s funny to be letting you in on that. But it’s not a threat. I’ve seen incumbents puzzle over reelection losses. This is how they start. This is the first foment. I thought you should know.

There is a third strain of conversation that has begun in my head as I try to rationalize your decision-making. It revolves around a question I wish you’d address, and a conversation I wish you’d open, with your constituents:

When you stood up to candidate Trump during the campaign, you correctly gauged his unfitness for office and anticipated an existential threat to the nation. That vision is coming true in every possible way. Does it surprise you now to see yourself getting behind it as much as you have?

What, for example, accounts for the difference between the Senator Collins who opposed candidate Trump and the Senator Collins who hushes a colleague for no real moral or procedural reason? Is that not the beginning of the end?

You owe your constituents more than yea or nay. You owe us conscientious deliberation and a commitment to American values; foremost, now, to justice and fairness. We address you in the spirit of that deliberation, and on the level of that commitment. Because your votes are making you unrecognizable to us. We hope not to yourself as well.

Joe Pinto
Portland, Maine

Original Panic

Senator Susan Collins
United States Congress

February 2, 2017

Dear Senator Collins,

I’ve called and written you more often in the past two weeks than I’ve called and written my own mother in the past two months. I’d like to tell you why. First, though, I’d like to tell you a little more about myself.

I have two things in common with what we can now undoubtedly call a majority, perhaps even a super majority, of Americans.

  • On a micro level I am scared for my own future, because it’s clear to me that the president and his inner circle are, by intent or effect (it matters little, the impact is the same) wicked people, making reckless, self-serving decisions with the economy, healthcare, the environment, foreign policy, and human rights.
  • On a macro level I grieve the (at this point undeniable) sharp decline of the incredible American experiment into kleptocracy, with “alternative facts” and contempt for the rule of law now risen to the top ranks and playing on our basest fears, which is usually how frail societies are hijacked and run aground.

Oh, and add to this a third common trait, that I worry for my friends and neighbors in marginalized groups whose fear of discrimination, alienation, and even bodily harm is increasingly legitimate under current rule. What makes me slightly uncommon – although that may not be technically true anymore, given the mounting statistical evidence for our diversity, however much straight white men still surround a photographed president signing orders – is that I’m also a member of such a group.

Let me share with you what it’s like to be a gay American. At certain mundane levels my existence is no different from yours, I choose much the same phrases when I write out Christmas cards and I balance my checkbook with the same numbers you use. These cozy mundanities go mostly unobserved between us, but they’re the ways our lives mirror each other, and thereby a source of some broader comfort (neither your nor anyone else’s comfort, however, is my biggest concern, and we’ll return to that).

Mostly you should know this: that in my gut, and in the gut of every gay American – eating away at our lifespan with shockwaves of physical pain and pulses of anxiety we’ve learned to take in stride – is a small mechanism that regularly experiences a kind of confusion and panic you may never know. For me it began as a child. I liked boys and wasn’t supposed to (the question has been definitively settled, but I assume nothing about what lore you may or may not have constructed around your politics, so I’ll be clear: this wasn’t a choice). Christians believe in original sin, but for gay people in our society that moment of realizing one’s attraction can be described as original panic.

Those of us who survive do so because we perform heroic feats of self-actualization and, yes, self-love against the grain, deciding that, no, we’re not wrong, or disgusting, or worthless. You’d think an end to panic and confusion at that point would be our reward. But then we have to watch our backs. Imagine having to take care how you walk and talk at some rural truck stop for fear of being tackled and beaten, or never, never being able to hold the hand of someone you love, except in private or surrounded by your own. Senator, the panic and confusion continue in cycles that never end. They are my clock.

By my clock we were moving forward under President Obama, with basic human decency finding its way increasingly into law, and the golden rule becoming national policy, against the protests of so-called Christians who claim to live by that rule in their homes and communities. By my clock now the decades are rolling back, toward original panic, and that’s just something I want you to know.

But back to the topic of why I’ve been calling and writing so much. In a very basic sense, it’s just what one does when he’s a citizen and has values and goals he’d like to see reflected in and upheld by a person who goes to Washington claiming to speak and make laws on his behalf. Beyond this, though, there are three reasons.

  • Maine is a microcosm of America; I love it as I love my country, and it’s just as divided. What makes Maine starkly symbolic of our national struggle is that it has only two congressional districts, to which it is tempting to ascribe the full weight of opposing value systems, though we must do our best to check emotion on this and veer our broken shopping carts away from fanaticism, which is where they want to go, and toward humanity.
  • You are a self-described moderate and I am not. I’ll level with you, to me, “moderate” used to mean someone who hedges bets and double talks to scoop up as many votes as tepid positions can gain. But in the escalating shouting match of American politics, a sincere moderate can stand in the broadening middle ground, as partisanship comes to resemble the hallucinations of a high-grade fever, and recover vast stretches of lost principle. What do you see, from your middle ground? Foremost are you finding that the emperor has no clothes? Or is that tiny reelection campaign manager in your head causing you to identify a robe, a crown?
  • Relatedly – this is my most important point, and the reason that, when I sit up late at night talking to America, it sometimes feels like I’m talking to you, and to all those like you in leadership – the nation seems to be locked in daily battle for your favor, pausing to hear what you’ll say once you’ve weighed the arguments, and trying to appeal to that core of you that thinks with clarity and integrity about our shared fate. This makes you, in a sense, the conscience of the country, and a kind of barometer. I wake up every morning, look at the weather forecast, and check my news feed to see what Senator Collins believes today.

Senator, I’ll be honest. Based purely on your actions since inauguration, I believe America hasn’t yet lost, but is losing. Do you remember that surreal moment you made the choice to publicly break with your party’s nominee for president? Think of what drove you to such a singular, unprecedented decision. Surely you saw shades in his campaign of the destructive presidency he envisioned. Senator, I ask you: has that vision not played out? Is it not even worse than you or any of us anticipated? Why, then, despite a few bold choices, are you selectively speaking out and not actively caucusing with the Democrats, who aren’t perfect but have the survival of our democracy at heart?

I want to take, as case in point, Ms. Betsy DeVos, whose confirmation hearings for Education Secretary, impressively, made a mockery of both education and our government, and whose bald conflicts of interest and lack of credentials are no less than a test balloon floated by a cynical president, to the American people but to Congress most of all: accept this, and you’ll accept anything. I have friends who cheer your opposition to Ms. DeVos as bravery, and others who see it as calculation, because, as of this writing, the vice president could still break the expected tie and render your vote meaningless, winning you easy favor, at no cost to the administration, with progressives who don’t ask why you didn’t just kill the nomination in committee.

Both interpretations are plausible but only one is supported by the surrounding evidence, which tells me that your fight feels half-hearted, and not nearly equal to the test being presented to you and to us, with no small number of blaring alarm bells, by this president. Senator, the people of Portland have gone shopping for your replacement, and I don’t doubt you face a serious threat to your reelection, but I’m not interested in a vote of no confidence in your leadership, not yet. For now, I choose to believe in you, and I respect you, as I do anyone who tries to serve. But make no mistake: you’re not fighting hard enough, and the people of your state expect to see more. We’re engaged in the rescue of the republic. We hope you are too.

Which returns me, at last, to the matter of your comfort. Here I sit, descending into original panic, but holding that in balance as I make choices with my time that I calculate will do the most good, staunch the most bleeding from our wounded state, to the extent any one citizen can. I may emerge from this period without a scratch, or I could, as my rights dwindle and emboldened aggressors taunt me in the president’s name, experience a world of hurt before this is done. So be it. I have deprioritized my own comfort. And so I’ve deprioritized yours.

Which means you need to go, inwardly, to the places that scare you, and be willing to get tossed on the angry waves of public opinion, with your moral compass furnishing your sole trust in the location, even the very existence, of eventual shores. Do this now, and do this for us. My vote is not yet cast.

Many thanks,
Joe Pinto
Portland, Maine

Surges of Conscience

Members from the Great State of Maine
United States Congress

January 30, 2017

Dear Representative Pingree, Senator King, Representative Poliquin, and Senator Collins,

I stared today at the hand-drawn map of America on the Reiche Playground blacktop in Portland, particularly the top-right corner blob that is Maine. I thought of the four of you. You are the legislative voices of that great smudge of color crowning New England. You are a caucus, bound, in some respects, more to each other than to your party fellows from other states. You are a bloc, together protecting our dreams and expressing our way of life.

It felt mournfully appropriate to have this thought on a playground, because increasingly I fear you are being – or are soon to be – played. It was an especially trying weekend in America, with the world crying foul on our reckless new president, and Americans of every stripe in airports protesting, somewhat abstractly, his moral failure and, far more practically, his clear constitutional disregard. In the end the crowds were exhausted but semi-victorious. I couldn’t help wondering if this was what the White House inner circle, as it systematically cuts the flow of information in and out, wanted.

If this is what it wanted from us, what then did it want from you and your congressional colleagues? Across party lines, with the exception of Mr. Poliquin, you seemed to rise to the cause of basic humanity, and so it is basic humanity that will take the rap should an attack occur on our soil, and all of Congress will be held to account. If there is an accounting at all. More likely, the executive will simply take the rest of the power it craves, our other branches having more or less played into its hands, in this episode. How I wish it wasn’t the kind of story we would fall for.

This, I know, is speculative. But it’s plausible. And even if the administration isn’t specifically betting on it, they will succeed in undermining you nonetheless, if the American people get scared and your surge of conscience this weekend can be cast as weakness, as conscience so often can be. I would not say, though, that the solution is therefore less conscience. No, it’s more. The National Security Council, not coincidentally this same weekend, was reconstituted to shut out the expertise you will need to make any strong cases, and without which it’s just you and your conscience, hanging in the wind.

Respectfully I suggest it’s time to get serious about the threat posed to our country by the man who runs it. Every member of Congress needs, now more than ever, an unwavering moral compass and an appetite for choosing every battle, because the one you don’t choose will be the one used to dismantle your authority. The writing is on the wall. It is nowhere else, because the people in our many fine agencies who would write it are under gag order, and anyone with critical institutional memory is being shown the door.

You aren’t just two Democrats and two Republicans. You are four legislators. And the legislature – for the past eight years a place where partisanship has come to override principle – is too important to let slide into perceived irrelevance by presidential bait-setting. The way to avoid this is to reinstall principle where it should be. It lives in your hearts and your constituent interactions, but publicly has been largely superseded by politics and calculation.

This calculation drags on your moral compass. All I ask, as someone who believes in you, is that you throw off that drag, and see where your compass can take you. I’m not confident the White House is acting in good faith toward you, so what you have to say across the aisle matters less than what you have to say to its dark-minded team. No one in this administration will care how capably you sidestepped radical points of view and meaningful ethical quandaries. So, for the sake of your state and our country, do not sidestep them.

Thank you in advance.

Joe Pinto
Portland, Maine