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.

img_20170121_125919156_burst000_cover_top

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.

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.

Modern Works: The Watch That Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan

The Watch that Ends the NightThe Watch that Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book came to my attention thanks to the Tragically Hip song “Courage: For Hugh MacLennan.” The song draws on the following quote from the book:

“But that night as I drove back to Montreal I at least discovered this: that there is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.”

This book, which spans the time from Great Depression to about 1950, is a product of its place and time, which helps it make observations about the human condition like the one above that are universal. In a strange way, it seems the more we change, the more we stay the same as people.

While I am not entirely sure how I feel about the narrator of the book, I realize that I can like the book without entirely liking the narrator. This book is a collection of love stories set against the backdrop of history, but they are the love stories of intense and flawed people. So the stories are somewhat unconventional, because it is not just love for other people, but also for ideals, and sometimes those things get confused.

At the same time, we see the changing world through the eyes of the narrator, who is a political commentator for the CBC. So at the same time that we get observations like the one above, we also get insights like this:

“The evil inside the human animal — the fascists are charming it out like a cobra out of its hole and the capitalists let them do it because they think it’s good for business.”

I feel like this is as true today as it ever was, though perhaps it is not the fascists, exactly. But that evil gets charmed out, and some people think it is good for business.

People like historical fiction, Canadian literature, and understanding how a specific time and place can reflect universal themes will like this book. If the quotes above can’t pique your interest, then leave this one alone.

View all my reviews

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.