It’s Time to Change the Conversation

The United States is in a strange place right now. With the inauguration of Donald Trump, it seems like every conversation has become political and many people are living in a state of permanent distraction.

On the right, considerable gloating could and can be heard about the changes that are supposed to come and the over throw of the old system. As the opposition grows more vocal, so do the growls of retaliation from the administration and its supporters. A sense of discomfort is settling over the right as they realize they have no mandate and less support than they thought.

On the left, the election results were met with disbelief and wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was concerning to hear people say that they could not function in their daily lives. If the results lay them out, then how will they be able to take the hits that will come? Now people speak of resistance and with cautious hope that occasionally dips back into despair. Meanwhile, a riptide of violent talk and action is starting to filter through the left. People talking about (and actually) punching Nazis and trying to establish their violence bona fides from their history of fighting at punk concerts.

At the center of it all, however, remains one constant topic — Trump himself. This central position is what gives him so much power. By becoming the locus of all the efforts, energy, and attention, all the moves become his. Everyone else is reduced to reaction. So, he is setting the tone and the agenda for the entire country. He runs the conversation.

It is time to change the conversation.

The president is not the only political actor in the country. The Federal Government is not the only political actor in the country. Yet the reactions point to an ugly truth that maybe no one wants to hear — perhaps the left really has become to dependent on the government.

What should the conversation be?

Instead of making everything about Donald Trump, we need to start thinking about the issues facing our nation and our world. We need to start with facts and data, identify the problems, and begin working on the solutions. Since the federal government is no longer going to be of much help, it is time to find state, local, and private solutions to problems we face. There will be some federal battles to fight.Those are important, but for this discussion let’s think about the things that can be solved.

With the Democratic party unable to provide leadership, the resistance will be local.

We are starting to see some signs of this. For example, in Massachusetts, there is a bill that would require the state to get all of its energy from renewable resources. At the same time, Governor Charlie Baker, a republican, has said that if the Affordable Care Act goes away, then he will work to reinstate the previous universal coverage bill in Massachusetts that the ACA was based on (also known as Romneycare).

Money Magazine took a look at 17 programs that the Trump administration wants to cut and calculated that the cost per American citizen is $22.36 per year. This includes funding for things like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($1.37), the National Endowment for the Arts ($0.46), and the Minority Business Development Agency ($0.11). All of these are worthy programs, but given the amount in the budget, maybe it is time to remove them from the political football field. This way, instead of being kicked around, they take the loss of federal funding, use it as a call to action, and build up their own private endowment. Call it an “Ice Bucket Challenge for the Humanities.” We can get people to kick in a little extra. I realize that not everyone can afford to donate — the battle cry of the left whenever someone suggests that people should do some of their own funding — but it becomes a case of from each according to his/her ability, to each according to his/her need. What would it cost to cover five Americans? About $111.80? I’ll cover myself and four others.

Yes, private funding can be fickle (so can government funding). But really, the question now is what do we value, and are we willing to support it, whether through our state and local governments or our own efforts.

The point of these examples is not the examples per se. It is that solutions exist, and they don’t need Donald Trump or the federal government to bless them. Maybe by changing the conversation, we can start to prevent some bad things from happening by creating sustainable, smaller scale solutions.

Did White Women Suddenly Wake Up in 2017?

The left has once again begun turning on itself and succumbing to infighting. On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States. On January 21, 2017 more than two-and-a-half million Americans joined Woman’s marches around the country to protest various aspects of the Trump administration’s plans.

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By January 22, 2017 the members of the left began to complain about the march. “Where have all these people been? Why were white women only marching now? Where have they been before this?”

First of all, let’s start with the election itself. Hilary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2 million votes.

Clinton: 65,844,610

Trump: 62,979,636

(http://www.cnn.com/election/results/president)

So, a lot of the women at the marches were there for round 1 and they were showing up for round 2, and the painful rounds to come.

I made this point in response to a critique of the marches, and someone said that white women have not been present for a lot of social justice fights. The assertion was that these marches were the first time white women have cared of thought about social justice.

Nonsense.

They have been there all along. What do people think Hillary Clinton has been doing all her career? (Trump supporters don’t need to bother to answer. This is a conspiracy-free post.) What do people think Elizabeth Warren has been fighting for all these years?

Maybe those people are too high profile? Too big? What about all the white women who were out there protesting for the the right to vote and part of anti-slavery societies? Harriet Beecher Stowe? Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Susan B. Anthony?

Maybe those don’t count because they are too far in the past?

All right, let me give two recent examples of people I’ve met.

Gale Cincotta was a community organizer in Chicago who was famous for giving banks a hard time about redlining communities — particularly minority communities — on Chicago’s west side. Her work led to the creation of the Community Reinvestment Act, which required banks to make loans and investments in low-income communities. She was a tough character, but she was also mentoring younger women and trianing them to join the fight for social justice for all groups of people.

Second is Mary Houghton, one of the four founders of ShoreBank, which helped to launch the community development banking movement both in the U.S. and around the world. The mission was to make loans and provide financial services in underserved communities, starting with the south side of Chicago.

I could go on, because there are many others. But the point is this, the left needs to stop turning on itself and start paying attention to its own history. Maybe someone’s particular problem wasn’t solved, but grassroots movements are often local and don’t always get the attention they deserve.

So, did white women suddenly wake up to social justice on January 21, 2017?

No.

They continued the work they have been doing for along time.

So the left should stop turning on one another and start working together to keep the positive momentum going.

 

 

Sorting Out Right and Wrong With Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell Ticket Stub.jpgHow do we know what is right and wrong? This was the question that Malcolm Gladwell put to his audience at the New York Fest on October 7.

Gladwell set the stage for the question by comparing to pieces of literature: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson and In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien. He compared the treatment of what combat meant to veterans after World War II and after Vietnam. In The Man in the Grey Flannel suit, there are harrowing depictions of combat, but the effects of the war on the main character come from an affair he had with a woman while overseas and not the violence he faced. On the other hand, the main character of In the Lake of the Woods is greatly affected by the violence that he was caught up in during the Vietnam War.

Gladwell found this quite strange, and I don’t think there were any combat veterans among the New Yorker Fest audience to explain how one veteran might be able to put aside the experience of the war and another could not. But Gladwell used this as a jumping off point to talk about our sense of right and wrong and how it has changed over time.

In the first book, the violence committed was not wrong, but the extra-martial affair was, whereas in the second book, the violence was part of what was wrong.

But Gladwell acknowledged that it was not that simple. He noted that our sense of right and wrong has changed over time to the point that we now measure right and wrong not by a more sense, but rather by how much harm has been done by an action. In the first book, the wrong was an affair that caused no particular harm. In the second book, the harm caused by the violence made it wrong.

Acknowledging that there were difference between the wars and the generations, Gladwell confronted the question a little differently. He raised the question of childhood sexual abuse. He gave as an example a study done by Bruce Rind that found that survivors of childhood sexual abuse were able to overcome the trauma and go on to lead normal lives. The response in the media was that Rind’s study was somehow minimizing sexual abuse, rather than the positive interpretation that people can overcome terrible experiences. Rind essentially said that just because people could overcome the effects of the abuse, that didn’t make it any less wrong. (You can read more about it here.)

Gladwell said that this recent approach — that wrongfulness is strictly related to the amount of harm it causes — is a result of secular thinking displacing religious thinking, and that it has impoverished our moral conversations. He mentioned the controversy over the Woodrow Wilson school at Yale, and noted that the students protesting against the name were claiming they were harmed by it.

“You can’t argue , if you are a student at a great school. you aren’t being harmed by the name on the outside of the school,”Gladwell said.

Gladwell asks why they can’t just argue that it is morally wrong to name the school after him, and instead have to claim harm.

I think Gladwell has missed two currents in American society that have led to the shift in our definition of wrong and right from moral to level of harm.

First, the United States legal system has made the determination of harm a fundamental part of determining right and wrong. You can’t bring a case in the courts unless you can prove harm. This is the ‘case or controversy clause,’ which comes out of Art. III, Section 2, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution, and was part of Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife. You need to show that you have suffered actual harm in order to bring a case. I believe that this kind of thinking carries over, even if unconsciously, into the American psyche.

The second current that I think Gladwell has missed is more controversial, but it is the fact that there is a certain power in being a victim. Rory Miller, a corrections officer and tactical team leader, has written a number of books on violence and its aftermath. On of the things that he has mentioned is that people will sometimes adopt the role of victim/survivor because it gives them the power to manipulate situations and groups of people. Miller cautions that we should be careful about this, because survivors of trauma and attacks have the capability to recover and even become stronger after something terrible happens to them. He notes that the anyone who might have to deal with violence could end up in the position. But there is a notion, almost unspoken, that victims never truly recover and thus must always be catered to. Miller notes that it is not unreasonable that someone might try to turn that weakness into a strength.

The upshot is that claiming harm has been done and that one is a victim lets people feel as though they are in a stronger position than just making a moral claim. The problem is that spurious and manipulative claims of harm make it harder to help people who have really been hurt.

I think Gladwell would benefit from talking to Miller before writing anything because Miller understands the power of victimhood and the processing of trauma. I don’t know that either of them will ever see this, but I think the conversation would add dimensions to both of their works.

I also think that Gladwell has it right: we do need to think about right and wrong both in terms of harm and in terms of a moral calculus.

“I’d like to see is hold both notions. There are times when what is harmful is wrong. I’d like to say that there are times when you don’t have to make a harmful claim if you are going to make a moral claim,”Gladwell said.

Shouting at Shadows — Facebook is Plato’s Cave

I was thinking about Plato’s Republic — like you do — and wondering why the allegory of the cave is taught so often. Then it occurred to me, we are living in versions of Plato’s cave.

You would think with all the knowledge at our fingertips, we would be more enlightened, but Plato/Socrates was right:

Socrates: And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: — Behold! human being living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners, there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets….

and they only see their own shadows or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave….

To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing by the shadows of the images.

This is the world we live in right now. Facebook is Plato’s cave. We all sit, looking in only one direction at the digital shadows that dance in front of us. Sometimes we cast the shadows ourselves.

This led me to the question: who chained us here?

My first thought was that it was Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk. We’ve been chained to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and so on by the owners and operators of these companies. They are the ones tending the fire that casts the shadows. And we know that they try to manipulate us to be happy or unhappy, maybe even the way we vote. But the reality is, they didn’t chain us here. We sat down.

It also occurred to me that these aren’t our only caves. As we move through our days, markets, advertisers, politicians, and even the new media try to get us to sit in their version of the cave. We all move through these caves, and we pay admission to them.

The current election cycle, with its madness, is dedicated to making us think that the shadows are the truth. I don’t mean this in the conspiracy theory sense, but more in the observation that we don’t really get to see the world as it is, because it is not perceived as the thing that sells.

In the Republic, Socrates talks about what happens to these prisoners if they are brought out of the cave and into the light.

Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects with are now shown to him?

And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will be conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

We wonder why people disregard evidence that goes contrary to their belief, but Plato recognized this weird behavior over two thousand years ago. The only explanation is that we are living in these caves.

The Internet has given everyone the ability to chain themselves into the cave of their choosing. They will not need to be confronted with facts and ideas that go against their beliefs — that is unless they want to crusade against misguided shadows. If they hear a shadow somewhere saying something that is “wrong,” then they will comment. (Never read the comments.)

It is interesting  that people will say terrible things to friends, family, and strangers online, through comment threads and on message boards. they will use the worse language and imagery they can think of and treat each other terrible. You often hear people say words to the effect that they would never say those things in the physical presence of people. I think it is because on the Internet we are all shouting at shadows.

It is easy to say something terrible or hurtful to people when they are just shadows. While it would be best if we could all take off the chains and step into the light, the second best option is to remember that the shadows are cast by people, who are chained just like us.

 

Modern Works: Should I Stay or Should I Go? “Leap” By Tess Vigeland

Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really WantLeap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want by Tess Vigeland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Have you ever thought about just saying ‘Forget it, I am not going into work tomorrow?’ even if you didn’t have something else lined up? This book is about people who have done just that.

Tess Vigeland starts with her own experiences in leaving Public Radio’s Marketplace without a plan B in place. Much of the book is structured as a memoir, but it is designed to help people ask the questions of themselves about whether they should stay or go. One of the most interesting ideas is whether or not quitting something is as bad as it is made out to be. We are all taught early on not to be quitters, but there are times when it makes sense to walk away.

This is not a how to book, but there are plenty of references in it for people who want to follow up with those kinds of reading. Instead this is about preparing yourself mentally and emotionally to make a change when you need the change to happen — even is there is no plan B in place.

View all my reviews

Locke and Responsible Citizenship

In reading Locke some ideas have come back to the front of mind that I want to talk about here briefly, perhaps with more to come in the discussion about Locke’s essay.

In political discourse today, we sometimes here assertions such as “all taxation is theft” or “all government is based on violence.” Locke’s essay talks about why and how people form governments: the primary reason is to solve disputes in an impartial way and to help ensure everyone’s freedom. In “An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government,” Locke writes about how people can exist in a state of nature and then form governments as a way of managing affairs among a larger number of people. The government, then grows out of the desire of people to have a society that uses reason to extend beyond the state of nature.

So, when someone says that all government is based on violence, it means that they do not have an understanding of what government is or what it is supposed to do. Similarly, to say all taxation is theft on the part of the government is to assert that the government is some kind of other entity.

In a representative democracy, however, the government is us. We are the ones that are doing the taxing and spending the taxes. Reasonable people can disagree about the best way to do that, and mistakes will be made, but to assert that all taxes are theft implies that the speaker is too lazy to be involved in the government at even the most superficial level to make sure that the money they contribute is spent correctly. Alternately, making the assertion that all taxes are theft could simply be a reflection that the speaker is a freeloader who wants all of the benefits of living in our society, but doesn’t want to pay their fair share. It is the person who goes out to dinner with the group, orders the expensive meal and then disappears before the check shows up.

As for government being based on violence, again this is an assertion of the lazy. Government is based on the agreement that everyone needs to play by the same set of rules to keep society going. It is not important that the policeman has the gun; it is important that the policeman has a set of laws that everyone has agreed to in order to keep the society running. While any individual can say that they did not write or create a particular law, that is a cop out for the self-indulgent. A person, particularly one living in the United States, has the ability to work to change the laws or, if that fails, to leave. But either do one or the other.

Don’t sit around whining about how the government is bad. We are the government, and we get what we put into it. We live in an age where outrage and extreme views are attention getting. We live in an age where everyone has a broadcast platform, thanks to the Internet. Sadly, there are not enough editors and reasonable readers to challenge the extremism. While we all seem to have a good sense of our rights, no one wants the responsibilities that come with them. Yes we have the right to free speech, for example, but we also have the responsibility to speak up when we think things are going wrong.

Government is an agreement that we all make. If there are problems with the government, then it is because we are shirking our responsibility to make sure it runs well.

How Do We Really Deal with the World’s Problems?

In the face of the world’s problems, it can seem like a waste of time to spend a lot of effort understanding philosophy and old books. What do all these old books mean in the face of problems like climate change, the rise of the Islamic State, and what looks like the renewal of the Cold War with Russia?

In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, there was discussion of a “clash of civilizations” echoing ideas presented by Samuel Huntington several years earlier. This idea occasionally resurfaces, but it is easier to talk about violence and military solutions.

The problem with this is that it only goes so far. As the recent events in Iraq have shown, we can win the battle, but the battles, there needs to be an alternative to an endless war between ideologies. Despite beating enemies in Iraq, the chaos that resulted and equipment left behind have helped create a new, terrible enemy in the Islamic State.

It is worth noting that the unraveling of the Soviet empire came about in large part because of ideas and tools to spread them. Smuggling fax machines into Poland and showing Gorbachev the grocery stores had a lot to do with the outcome of the Cold War.

People follow leaders because they believe in the ideology that leader is selling. It is easy to convince people to follow if they have no other frame of reference and no ability to think outside of their immediate context.

Understanding philosophy, religion, literature, and science are all going to be important to solve the problems that face us. We need to give people new options of thinking or every military victory will be temporary. The only way that we can offer people new options of thinking is by knowing them ourselves, by being able to think in new ways, and by understanding others. The set at the core of this blog is not complete, but it is a start to understanding where we come from, and that is way to begin understanding others. Being able to bring a convincing argument about why people deserve rights, why beheadings are wrong, and how a new way of thinking will lead to a better life for everyone.

Reading is fundamental. So is having the great conversation with people who think differently than us.