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.


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.

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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.

Do It Yourself America: The Declaration of Independence

This entry on the Declaration of Independence means skipping ahead a little in the reading list, which can be found in the link above the picture. Sometimes, though, circumstances can change your order, even when reading the classics.

Every Fourth of July in Boston, the Declaration of Independence is read from the Old State House downtown, just as it was in 1776. In 2014, the reading was moved to Faneuil Hall because of Hurricane Arthur. I had gone down to hear the Declaration read, as I have done every year I have lived in Boston. I got to the Old State House and found that it had been moved.

After walking over to Faneuil Hall, I found that the hall was full and no one else was being admitted. There was at least one man with his kids who was very disappointed that they would not hear it this year. After thinking about it for a moment, it occurred to me that the rebels who started the country would not have been put off by a full hall.

I walked into the shop area of the Hall and bought a copy of the Declaration of Independence. There were only a few drops of rain. I walked out into the area between Faneuil Hall and the shops of the marketplace, and said that since we could not get into the Hall, we could do our own reading.

I started to read, and a small group gather, with one man encouraging me to read on.

The Declaration of Independence is an important document in the history of the United States, and it is a product of its times, enumerating the problems that the colonists had with England. At the same time, it sets out some of the ideas that make the country what it is, and reveals some things about human nature.

The writers of the Declaration make an observation that I think is fascinating: “accordingly all experience hath shewn, that man-kind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” I can’t help but read this sentence without thinking about what evils are ‘sufferable’ and how do people make that determination. Despite some of the outlandish rhetoric that finds its way into the public discourse in the United States today, we do not suffer under the same kinds of tyranny that existed then, or that exist in other parts of the world today.

It is hard to know how one can identify an insufferable evil — do we need to have a certain amount of knowledge to do so? In places like North Korea, do they realize that another way of life in possible in a totalitarian regime that offers so little to the average citizen? I have said before, one of the most important reasons to study the humanities is to recognize our own humanity and that of others. It is to give us the self-awareness to question those who would set themselves up as our leaders or try to control us. The humanities give us tools to help develop a code of honor and a wider awareness to understand how to live. While we can do it without books, they help us avoid needing to reinvent the wheel.

What the Declaration teaches us about the United States is that the founders never saw it as a heredity nation. I read somewhere once, and I wish I could remember where, that the fundamental notion of the United States is that its people are a political people. In other words, it is our agreement on certain principles that make us Americans, not the accident of our birth location or our genetic heritage. These fundamental principles are laid out in the Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is easy to be cynical and dismiss these words because they were part of a document signed by slave owners. It is tempting to point to the history of the United States and the many times that it has failed to live up to these words and declare that they are empty and meaningless.

Instead, what we should realize is that the existence of these words gave the United States something to live up to, something to strive for. These words gave us something to consider as we strove with battles over slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. They are with us today as we deal with ongoing problems of freedom and justice for everyone.

It is worth noting too, that the language in the Declaration gives hints of what is to come, and the outlining of grievances against the British Crown provide a framework for the Constitution that was to come and the Bill of Rights. The Declaration describes how the colonists “have Petitioned for Redress int he most humble terms:” which presages the First Amendment to the Constitution, which ensures “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The ending of the  Declaration provokes some interesting thoughts as well.

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

I feel like we have lost a little of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence as time has worn on. Even in our language, we have moved away from the idea of the United States as a political entity towards one of a state where people are born to it. We have a “Department of Homeland Security.” We are afraid of immigration. We hold ideas about people that run counter to the high ideals set out in the Declaration.

Our country may be in danger of falling short of those ideas again. But we still have them to guide us, and we still have the ability to live up to them. It will take work, but I think that we can do it. We just need to remember these ideas and study them.



“Act Your Age!” Montaigne Warns

After a detour, it is time to come back to the reading list that started this whole blog. This discussion of Montaigne has taken awhile to write, since I have been distracted by other things. All the same, Montaigne likely would not mind, since he thinks it is as possible to fall too deep into wisdom as anything else.

“Now I want to be the master of myself in every direction. Wisdom has its excesses, and has no less need of moderation than does folly. Thus I feel I may dry up, wither, and grow heavy with prudence…”

It is interesting that the set’s editors included this essay. It is a warning against getting lost in the books to the point that we do no thinking or living of our own.

Montaigne warns us against being too serious. This is one of those essays that should probably be read at different points in a person’s life. First of all, it would have a different meaning as people go through different stages of their lives. Second, it would serve as a reminder of some important things.

One of them is to know and act your age – but not in the traditional sense of behaving the way society expects you to behave. Instead, it is about being fully engaged in your life. I think it would be fun to see how people of different ages would react to this essay. It is interesting how for much of our lives we wish we were any age other than the one we are at that moment.

“I would rather be old less long than be old before I am old. Even the slightest occasions of pleasure that I can come upon, I seize.”

I can imagine what it would be like to present this essay to a classroom full of undergraduates, especially those who fancy themselves connoisseurs. In the digital age, it is easy to be obsessed with something and to become snobbish about whatever your particular hobby easy because more information is immediately available and more positive reinforcement can keep people in a cocoon, whether you are into being a foodie, craft beer, obscure sports, etc.

“We should take the whip to a young man who spent his time discriminating between the taste of wines and sauces.”

Montaigne quotes ancient authors and acknowledges himself that there are certain activities and pleasures suited to different stages of life. One of the advantages of living in modern times is that our increased understanding of the body and how to maintain and train it that we have a better chance of bringing wisdom and good health together than Montaigne’s contemporaries did.

That said, Montaigne did not simply surrender to the inexorable flow of time.

“Since it is the privilege of the mind to rescue itself from old age, I advise mine to do so as strongly as I can. Let it grow green, let it flourish for awhile, if it can like mistletoe on a dead tree. But I fear it is a traitor. It has such a tight brotherly bond with the body that it abandons me at every turn to follow the body in its need….There is no sprightliness in its productions if there is none in the body at the same time.”

“Our masters are wrong in that, seeking the causes of the extraordinary flights of our soul, they have attributed some to a divine ecstasy, to love, to warlike fierceness, to poetry, to wine, but have not assigned a proper share to health – an ebullient, vigorous, full lazy health, such as in the past my green years and security supplied me with now and then. The blaze of gaiety kindles in the mind, vivid, bright flashes beyond our natural capacity, and some of the lustiest, if not the most extravagant, enthusiasms.”

This is really only the first half of the essay. In the second half, Montaigne talks about love, marriage, sex, and gender equality, but those are weighty enough that we’ll save them for another entry.

Privacy is About More Than Having Something to Hide

Edward Snowden’s release of information about how the National Security Administration is gathering information about people’s communications both in the United States and abroad raised the issue of privacy in the digital age. Unfortunately, the fact that the NSA is listening has become a punch line rather than a call to action.

Of course, the NSA is not the only one that is listening. The private sector is doing its best to gather information on all of us as well. Acxiom, a data mining company, recently has begun inviting people to long on and view what data it has collection on each one of us. Acxiom invites us to correct our data so that we can get ads that are more relevant to us. Every purchase we make with electronic means, every loyalty card we scan, every search we make is gathered and cataloged by people who want to manipulate our behavior.

Some people ask what is the big deal? Who cares that the government or corporations are building profiles on us? The most common refrain is: “if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about.”

But that misses the point. Privacy is not about having anything to hide. It is about our personal sovereignty. We don’t need to give everyone access to levers that make it easier to manipulating our habits. While the upside is that we are supposed to have an easier time finding those things that matter to us, the downside is that helping us find what we want is not necessarily the interested of those collecting the information. Instead, they are more interested in convincing us we want something that they have to sell. That may be something that is not good for us, or something that we don’t need.

There is another reason that privacy is critical for human beings. Privacy is what provides intimacy. Having everything out in the open deprives us of the ability to choose with whom we share things and what we share. Our hopes, our dreams, our fears are all part of make us who we are. And when we limit who we share them with, we get closer to those people. Our relationships have more meanings when we have inside jokes, shared experiences, and more understanding of those close to us than the rest of the world.

If everything is an open book, then we all are diminished in a way to a collection of facts and observations. If we all know everything, then it is harder to have shared experiences that make our shared lives special. These experiences, shared words, and inside jokes are not necessarily sinister or something to hide, but they are something to treasure. One determinant of value is rarity. Keeping things out of the public eye, out of databases, and away from marketing snoops, government snoops, and even the snoops in our personal circles makes those things more valuable.

If you are interested in other ideas about privacy, and why it is not about something to hide, take a look at Professor Daniel J. Solove’s essay “‘I’ve Got Nothing to Hide’ and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy.”

Additionally, when it comes to the realm of buying things, this article from Forbes Payment Privacy: Are untraceable Purchases Ever Okay? provides some interesting discussion points.

Modern Works: Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate LifeTwelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My karate dojo is reading this book as a group to learn about compassion and to expand out training beyond punching and kicking. We plan to tackle a chapter a month, though I have read the whole book in keeping with the author’s suggestion and will go through each step along with the rest of the dojo.

It is a thought-provoking book that has led me to try to look at people and events in my world in a different way. I try to think about approaching situations from a position of compassion rather than aggression or dispassion.

The author of the book, Karen Armstrong, perhaps by design raises more questions than she answers. Compassion is never strictly defined. So, there are points in the book where compassion seems to be identical to politeness or doing a good deed. I don’t think this is exactly compassion. I think that there needs to be an element of commitment of one’s personal power, or resource to be in compassion.

There are aspects to the book that I think are interesting from a philosophical point of view, though I don’t know that they matter to the overall message.

First, she talks about Socratic dialogue being a compassionate tool and says that Socrates was compassionate with those he spoke with. Yet, Socrates was put to death as a result of how he treated others when speaking with them and dismantling their arguments. Anytus in “Meno” unlikely found Socrates compassionate.

Second, I don’t think that Armstrong gives Western civilization enough credit for Compassion. Compassionate organizations such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and hundreds of others grew from the Western notion of the importance of the individual. I understand Armstrong’s desire to promote cross-cultural understanding, but I think she misses some important examples of compassion in that emphasis.

I have a few other quibbles (for instance, I think she takes an unjustified swipe at E.O. Wilson), but overall I think this is a worthwhile read for anyone who is interested in living a life that includes concern for other people across the planet and for those trying to develop a broader sense of the interconnectedness of people.

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