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PRESIDENTIAL LIMBO: How low can he go?

In Politics on June 30, 2017 at 8:59 am

“Limbo” has two common meanings. One is a game in which people try to wriggle under a bar that is gradually lowered until even the best players can no longer go any lower. The last player to get under is the winner. The other is a state of existence between Heaven and Hell where lost souls get to contemplate their sins in the hope of salvation and the fear of eternal damnation.
Both meanings apply to the current President and his government.
It seems as though every time the President sends out another tweet, issues a new proclamation, makes a public speech, engages with a foreign government, or agrees to an interview there are subsequent cries that he has reached a new low, that the bar is already subterranean and still he surpasses himself.
This is the game of Presidential limbo, and it would seem that President Trump has no rivals.
But remember the second half of the meaning. The one who goes lowest wins. This is the current state and direction of politics (and much of the rest of life) in the United States of America. The one who goes lowest wins. The President’s race to below the bottom is not the cause of this phenomenon, but he is its current chief beneficiary. The lower he goes, the more his supporters see him as winning. And this applies to Congress as well. The harder the people’s representatives work to benefit the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor, the disadvantaged, the powerless and the needy; the more they use dirty tricks, draconian laws, gerrymandering, denial of demonstrable reality, and legal gymnastics in their quest to establish, in the words of Karl Rove, a permanent majority; and the more they proclaim moral certainties they are already violating; the more they win.
One result is that we have become a nation in limbo, applying the second meaning. We are spending precious time focusing our collective energies following the President’s ever more remarkable contortions as he wriggles his way lower, and not paying enough attention to the real damage being done. We are having to contemplate our collective sins and decide whether we will follow him down or strive to raise the bar again. We are lost souls, torn by a lack of agreement as to which way is Heaven and which Hell. There may be some consensus forming, the President’s approval ratings are at or approaching historic lows as he does, but there are still formidable forces working to drive us lower and far too many citizens who either are willing to go to hell, or don’t believe that’s where we’re headed.
We have, of course, been living in fear for a long time. Making us afraid makes us controllable. The people who tell us we should be afraid also tell us that only they can save us from the fear they are creating.
Uncertainty is a necessary element of our system of government. The greatest enemy of democracy is complacency. The moment we think we have won is the moment we stop paying attention to those who are already planning to beat us the next time. We cannot and should not ever assume that what we have achieved will always be. And some of what has been achieved needs to be undone. Rigid, moralistic, self-satisfied certainty is the second enemy of democracy.
So, here we are; playing limbo in limbo. Trying to see how low it can go risks getting our heads stuck in the sand. It is time to stop playing the game. It is time to set our sights higher and move upward out of this limbo. Good and evil aren’t places, they’re directions; and the farther you go in either direction, the harder it is to turn around and the longer the journey back. And while it is tempting, when one is rolling downhill to just let go and keep rolling, because the climb back up gets ever more daunting; turning around and making the climb is what we need to do.

“It’s Just a Joke”: “Humor” as deflection and excuse.

In PeaceAble on June 24, 2017 at 9:47 am

I think that I can claim a sense of humor. I can’t imagine that those who know me would not acknowledge that I can be wry, sarcastic, outrageous, droll, slapstick, sometimes vulgar and perhaps even an above-average punster. But that doesn’t mean that I will find humor in everything you think is hilarious.
So, if I criticize a meme or take exception to a “joke” please do not respond by telling me it is just a joke or telling me that I need to get a sense of humor. And I will promise to continue not telling you those things if you criticize a “joke” of mine.
“It’s just a joke” is not an excuse for being offensive. “Lighten up” is not a defense of inappropriateness, pointlessness, or trolling. “Get a sense of humor” does not address actual issues raised by objections to humor or attempted humor or the harm they can cause.
Humor is one of the most telling aspects of the norms of a culture. We are either laughing at those things which are not “normal” or we are laughing at those things which are so normal as to be indicators of our common foibles or faults. And it is usually possible to tell the difference. When we laugh at the “other” we are doing something very different from when we laugh at ourselves.
I have recently been seeing a new emergence of “humor” based on prejudice, bias, and the kinds of racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia and downright meanness that we seriously need to marginalize, not re-normalize.
So, a few suggestions from the point of view of my sense of humor.

1. Any joke which is not funny unless you make the butt of the joke a “dumb blonde” (or any other hurtful stereotype) isn’t funny to begin with. Any joke that is funny already is made less funny by making the butt of the joke a “dumb blonde.”
2. Any joke that uses an outrageous caricature of a Mexican or an Arab or an Asian or a person of color any other race or nationality in order to mock their culture, their customs, or their pronunciation of words in a language which is not their first, is not funny.
3. Any joke that marginalizes or grossly distorts the reality of any culture, nationality, race or group of any kind is not funny.
4. Any joke based on belief in a conspiracy theory, a deliberate untruth, or a misleading and debunked claim is not funny.
5. Any joke based on shaming of any kind is not funny. Any joke that targets the fundamental humanity of any individual or group, that furthers destructive stereotypes or keeps us from seeing each other as equally deserving human beings is not funny.

What is funny?

1. Jokes that point out the human frailties we all share are funny.
2. Jokes told by those on the inside of a group about themselves are funny when they tell them (but not when outsiders do).
3. Jokes that speak truth to power are funny.
4. Jokes that play with our common language, both verbal and non-verbal, are funny.
5. Jokes that point out the absurdities of life or create their own absurd universe are funny.

There are, of course, occasional exceptions to these “rules.” But those can be accounted for by differences in where individuals see humor. I don’t really mind if you don’t find something as funny as I do. And long as you focus on what is or is not funny about it, I won’t mind if you tell me it isn’t funny. I might even, on reflection, find that I understand or even agree with your perspective. I have no problem apologizing for “humor” of my I own if it has hurt someone, however unintentionally.
The problem I see here is that humor is becoming a dodge, a way to be mean-spirited, bigoted, and even cruel without taking responsibility for it. “It was just a joke” is simply another way to say, “I didn’t mean it.” But that’s a cop-out. It’s a deflection, a way of making the other person the problem rather than the action itself. This is what bullies do, and “humor” is becoming a way of bullying.
I love a good joke. Humor is an art form, and like all art forms it exists along a scale from simple, vulgar humor to sophisticated, complex humor. And at every stop along that line we can all find something to relate to. And like all art forms it has its genres, its specialties, its in-jokes, and it’s avant-garde, so that not all of it is equally appreciated even by its greatest artists or most astute critics. But I value genuine humor enough to call it out when it becomes hurtful, when it reinforces the stereotypes and biases our culture would rather keep in place.

 

Do Children Really Need to Know How to Grow Food?

In No Particular Path on May 5, 2017 at 2:28 pm

Our public schools should be teaching every child how to grow food in a garden.  They should be teaching every student how to change a flat tire, how to cook their own food, how to make change, how to balance their checkbook.  Comment yes if you agree.  Like and share.

Yeah, no.

While those are all admirable things for people to know how to do, they are also things that any adult can figure out and anyone with access to the internet or a library can find instructions for.  And that’s what we need to be teaching.

There is so much knowledge in the world; and new information, new discoveries, new important things to learn are being created every day.  This is the information age, and we are awash in things that it would be good to know.  But we don’t all need to know exactly the same things and we don’t all need to know them at the same time in our lives.

The biggest impediment to quality education for everyone is the belief that there are certain things, particular narrow ideas or “life skills,” that everyone needs to know.  What everyone really needs to know is how to think and reason effectively; how to ask effective and relevant questions; how to find relevant, valid, useful and credible answers; and how to apply those answers to the specific problems they need to solve or specific tasks they need to accomplish.

All the rest is optional.  Teach some of it so that students can see how to use the thinking skills they are learning, but focus on the thinking itself, not the specific tasks.

Teach students how to read well and nothing they need to know will be unavailable to them.

Teach them how to use numbers effectively and keeping track of their own money will never have to be a problem.

Teach them to think scientifically and they will be able to tell the difference between what they know, what they think they know, what they don’t actually know, and what they believe.  And they will understand the proper role of each in their lives.

Teach them how to think historically and they will be able to see how their own story intersects with the stories history tells us; and they will be able to use those stories to help make the world a better place.

Teach them to think and express themselves creatively and they will never lack for beauty or inspiration of their own, or for appreciation of the beauty and inspiration of others.

Teach them to express their ideas articulately and eloquently in speech and in writing and they will always have a voice that cannot be silenced.

Teach them to argue rationally and with civility and they will not need to follow demagogues or charlatans.

Teach them to think ethically and responsibly and they will become the leaders of a world with the potential for honest, compassionate and peaceable coexistence.

Teach them to listen effectively and the world will be open to them.

That does not, of course, mean that we might not choose to teach some “practical” skills.  But product should always be the servant of process, not the other way around.  If we teach students to garden it should be in the service of teaching them about other things.  A garden is, after all, more than just a collection of vegetation sitting in dirt.  There are reasons in science for why some plants need one kind of soil and others need something different.  There is a science to understanding why some plants should be paired with other plants, but avoid being too close to others.

There is much we can learn about gardens from the history of agriculture, from folklore and literature, from the politics of our relationship to the earth and its ecosystems.  There are ways to make a garden beautiful as well as productive, and to use what we grow to make aesthetically pleasing food served in beautiful surroundings.

In the skill of changing a tire there is much to be learned about applied physics, about risk assessment, about relationships between humans and their machines.

In balancing a checkbook, there is the application of mathematics, understanding of money and wealth as sources of power for both good and ill.  There is a chance for self-awareness in seeing how each of us thinks about money and possessions in our lives.  There are ethical questions that can be asked and answered.

All of these things are possible, but there are also a nearly infinite number of other ways to teach the same things, and we should be open to them all.

There is an old saying that if you give someone a fish you feed them for a day; if you teach them how to fish you feed them for a life time.  But fish is a very limited diet.  So, if instead, you use fishing as a way to teach them about a great deal more than that, then you will not only feed their stomach for a lifetime, you will feed their whole body, their mind, and their spirit.

Go Ahead and Overthink It

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble on April 14, 2017 at 10:55 am

I have often been accused of “overthinking” something.  So, naturally, I cannot help but think about that.

Usually, the offense is committed when I have encountered something that is either intended as a joke, or a clever analogy, or a meme with a narrow scope and that has, I admit, a very clear intent.  But I will see something in whatever it is that seems to need further thought, a bit more careful examination, perhaps something that takes the meaning in an entirely different direction.

So.  Guilty as charged, I suppose.  I do “overthink” things.

And I will continue to do so.  I will proudly overthink things whenever I feel like it.  And I encourage you to do the same.

We currently live in a culture in which we are repeatedly told, both directly and indirectly, not to think very much at all.  We’re told to feel, to react, to seek truth and profundity in 140 characters or less.  Reason is too slow, analysis is the same as bias, facts are whatever we declare them to be and they mean, like Humpty Dumpty’s words, whatever the source tells us they mean.  We’re told to choose our side in any dispute and hold our position against all attacks.  Intellect is suspect, emotions are power, thinking wastes valuable time.  We must act, we are told, and thinking isn’t action.

Culture, however, is not created mainly by the big things, but by the ordinary.  We tell a joke, sing a song, use a common expression we picked up somewhere, buy a product because we remember the ad for it, click on a hyperlink, watch a television show or go to a movie, leaf through the tabloids in the checkout line.

People are amused, they’re shocked, they’re enthralled, they’re outraged, they’re inspired.  And they move on.  they let it go, get over it, wait for the next shoe to drop, shake their heads.  They react; then it’s on to the next meme, the next chuckle or shock or inspiration or outrage.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

But they don’t think.

Often, they don’t even know how.

How many common logical fallacies can you name?  Do you know the order of operations in solving a simple math problem?  Are you proud to tell people that you never use algebra?   Do you understand the difference between a hypothesis and a theory, between a theorem and a law, or between argument, persuasion, and propaganda?  Do you know the structure of a deductive argument and an inductive argument; or why the differences between them are important?  Would you be able to distinguish an empirical study from an experimental one, or know the appropriate use of each?

Does all of that sound boring to you?  Do you think that none of that has anything to do with you or your life?  The fact is that you either use or encounter all of those things, or their direct products, every single day.  They have consequences that affect you, for both good and ill.

Academics and intellectuals are often accused of not knowing anything about real life, as though thinking prevents us from experiencing the things that affect all humans.  Thought and emotion are not, however, enemies.  When properly applied they complement each other.  Problems that are solved with just logic can be dry, unfeeling, even cruel.  Problems solved with only emotion can be rash, clouded with bias, and even counterproductive.  When, however, we apply both reason and emotion, we have the opportunity for both pragmatism and empathy, for solutions that address the human condition realistically and practically.

There is no aspect of human activity or experience that does not require both the mind and the heart for its best expression.  Music is mathematics, sculpture is physics, art is geometry.  Planting a garden is both chemistry and aesthetics, biology and design.

Choose anything that either delights or disturbs you.  Take a moment to examine it.  Try to step away from your initial reaction.  Think about it.  Overthink it.  Practice patience with both ideas and emotions.  Don’t copy, share, like or comment until you have taken a least a few moments to try to understand it, and to understand your relationship to it.  Resist the urge to stop at feeling and go no further.

Hate, prejudice and discrimination are literally thoughtless.  They rely on the triggering of emotion, not of reason.

Compassion and empathy require thoughtful understanding, and the ability to both feel and reason.

There is far too much over-emoting these days.  A bit of overthinking would be a welcome change.  The best answers will usually be found, of course, somewhere between the two extremes.  But you can’t find the center unless you can recognize the poles.

So go ahead.  Join me.  Overthink a few things, or even a lot of things.  Do it for a saner, less polarized, and better understood world.

Or tell me I’m overthinking it.

War is Easy/Peace is Hard

In PeaceAble on April 7, 2017 at 11:04 am

War is easy.

War is easy because it only requires a relatively few people to make it happen.  Currently, only about .75% of Americans between 18 and 65 years of age are serving in the military.  And it only takes 51 senators, 218 representatives, and 1 President to declare a war and fund it.  Of those people, an even smaller percentage will ever actually see combat, with the newest technologies reducing that risk even further.  And you don’t have to involve your adversary in the decision until it’s made.

Peace is hard.

Peace is hard because it’s something we would have to live every day to make it happen.  We are a nation of more than 325 million people, approximately 75% of those are adults.  In order for us to live peaceably in the world, we would first have to learn to live peaceably with each other.  The population of the world is approximately 7.5 billion.  They would all have to learn to live peaceably with themselves and then with us.  We represent about 4% of the world population, and we can only achieve a truly peaceable world if we can get the other 96% to go along with it.

War is easy.

War is easy because it’s profitable right away.  President Eisenhower warned of the military/industrial complex sixty years ago.  Since then, nothing has been done to change that reality.  The war machine eats up a lot of money.  Right now, the current President is proposing to spend 54 billion dollars more on the military.  There is big money to be spent and big profit to be made as soon as those funds are approved.  And that profit will mostly bypass the poor and middle class and go directly to the wealthy.

Peace is hard.

Peace is hard because it takes longer to turn a peace profit.  Make no mistake.  Peace is profitable, but it takes a bit longer to see the profit, and it goes to different people.  A peaceable world would allow us to use more of our resources to heal the sick, break the cycle of poverty for millions, better educate our citizens, clean up and beautify our world, end our dependence on fossil fuels and do a whole range of things we can’t do now because we spend so much on war and preparation for war and the consequences of war.  A peaceable world would make it easier for us to interact economically with other nations, profiting us both.  But the transition from a war economy (and we are always in a war economy) to a peaceable economy would take time, time to create the infrastructure, time to see where the jobs need to be, time to train people to live in such an economy, time for profit to work its way up from the bottom to the top.

War is easy.

War is easy because it produces heroes and glory and victories.  It also, of course, produces destruction, displacement, injury, disease, and death.  War produces great suffering.  But the amount of suffering is always considerably less, we are told, than the glory and the heroism.  And the glory, victories and the heroes give us reasons to party.  In fact, most, nearly all of our national holidays are celebrated with a military presence and a military flair.  Every parade has a contingent of active and veteran military, nearly every parade unit has uniforms and behaviors of some kind that are fashioned on the military.  Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, marching bands, various auxiliaries, all marching in straight lines with a military gait.  We celebrate so many of our holidays with explosions, loud militaristic and nationalistic music, grand speeches about our own greatness and the greatness of our military.  Even when we celebrate the ends of wars we celebrate the victory, not the peace.  When did you last hear a speaker at a Veteran’s Day celebration talk about the effort to rebuild Europe after WWI or WWII, to find a way to peace with Vietnam, to restore our economy, to live in peace with our former enemies?

Peace is hard.

Peace is hard because it produces invisible diplomats and unrecognized workers.  You may know the names of recent Secretaries of State –  Albright, Powell, Rice, Clinton, Kerry, Tillerson – and a few historic ones – Adams, Madison, Monroe, Rusk, Dulles, Baker, Kissinger – but how many diplomats can you name?  How many people can you name who have led efforts to reduce poverty and hunger and homelessness in the world?  How many pacifists and peace workers ever make it into the public consciousness?  And how often do we celebrate them?  How many awards do we give them for their service, how many parades, how many holidays?  Where is the glory in helping a third world community to build a self-sustaining agriculture, produce clean water, start an industry?  A member of the military is treated as a hero as soon as the uniform is donned.  To be a hero of peace you have to rise to the level of a Ghandi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Malala Yousafzai.  Why should we pursue peace when it is clearly so undervalued?

War is easy.

War is easy because we have the language for it close at hand.  Our common lexicon is flooded with words that are either directly or indirectly militarist.  From sports to business even to the pursuit of peace, we talk about campaigns that are waged, victories that are won, adversaries that are defeated.  When we want love, we read articles about how to seduce and win a lover, how to catch a spouse.  In our everyday activities we talk about beating, conquering, destroying, killing, and fighting.  We value winners, and second place is a loser.  We label enemies more quickly than friends, and we are always a bit suspicious of our friends.  We put our children into troops; and they may know the words for guns and rockets and bombs, but not really understand what love is, or empathy, or compassion.  Patriotism is rarely seen as pacifist or even gentle.

Peace is hard.

Peace is hard because we have too little language for it.  Try to describe what you think world peace would be like?  What words do you use?  How concrete and specific are they?  How general and vague?  We know what a battle is; but what is it’s opposite?  Are you stuck on words like love, acceptance, tolerance, understanding, empathy?  Can you make those concrete?  How do you actually do those things?  Perhaps we can’t all get along because we have no common language to describe what that would be like.  And so many of our peace words carry a cultural connotation of weakness: acceptance, accommodation, tolerance.  We not only don’t know what “love your enemy” means, we don’t want to do it.

War is easy.

War is easy because it can coexist with fear.  If we were not afraid we would not go to war.  Fear is essential to war, both declaring it and waging it.  If we cannot identify an enemy we are supposed to fear, how do we justify war?  Any soldier who does not understand and feel fear risks recklessness and is a danger to his comrades.  We don’t give medals to people who were not afraid, but to those who overcame their fear.  Fear is the enemy, we’re told; something to be vanquished as much as the physical enemy is.

Peace is hard.

Peace is hard because it requires us to be fearless.  In order to build a peaceable world we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to trust, see the human face of the other.  We must let the other in, and we must seek him out without fear.  We must learn to love unconditionally.  We cannot be afraid of our pain, our suffering, our challenges; but we must form the habit of seeking causes rather than blame, profound solutions rather than easy fixes.  We have to be in it for the long haul.  Peace requires courage of us all, we cannot pass it off on a small percentage of our citizens; we need to work at our problems together, all of us, not wait for someone else to make them go away.

And it is important that we learn that war never leads to peace.  War only creates the conditions that lead to the next war.  But war is easy.  Only living peaceably will lead to peace.  But living peaceably is hard.  Peace is hard.

The Fallacy of “Liberal Guilt”

In PeaceAble on March 24, 2017 at 7:53 am

There is an idea circulating that liberals seek things like civil rights, women’s rights, religious tolerance, LGBTQ rights, Native American rights, and so on, out of guilt; guilt about being male, about being white, about being Christian, about being whatever is the opposite of whatever they are championing.

Claiming that people act out of guilt is nothing more than an attempt to delegitimize their actions.  If you are doing something out of guilt, we are told, then it’s a bad thing to do, it’s dishonest, it isn’t genuine.  And it says to those who benefit from the work that the liberal activist doesn’t really care about you, it’s just guilt, so you should resent what they’re doing.  And you should be glad that I, who am doing nothing for you, am not demeaning you or being dishonest to you out of guilt. 

This idea of guilt is also associated with accusations of colonialism, of a supposed sense of superiority and entitlement.  In discussing the social safety net, for example, it works for the liberal activist this way:  1. You feel guilty about the fact that you have plenty of food and a home and a comfortable life when others don’t; 2. This guilt is derived from your belief that you are privileged and therefore superior; 3. When you advocate for the poor you are acting out your superiority, telling the poor that they need your superior largess because they can’t do it themselves; 4. This makes them dependent on you and deprives them of some of their freedom because they believe they are entitled to what you want to give them.  For the recipient it works this way:  1. The liberal doesn’t really care about you, he’s just feeling guilty because he has stuff you don’t have; 2.  What the liberal is telling you is that he is superior to you and you aren’t good enough to do what you need to for yourself; 3.  You should resent the liberal for his guilt and imperialism; 4. You need to learn to take responsibility for yourself instead of feeling entitled to help from guilty liberals; 5. We’re your real friends because we don’t feel guilty about our privilege and our wealth, and we want to give you the freedom to do it on your own, because we respect you.

In other words, if someone helps you they aren’t helping you, and if they don’t help you they are helping you. 

What a crock.

Guilt is an illusionary emotion.  It reduces complex events of cause and effect into simplistic arguments of blame. It masquerades as responsibility when it is really fear; it pretends to be empathy when it is really ego.  Guilt imagines that if one suffers sufficiently, then the wrongs of the past are atoned for.  And guilt doesn’t actually motivate action; rather, it seeks absolution and forgiveness. 

Guilt is a much more showy and public condition than responsibility.  Private, unexpressed guilt is a poison that slowly kills its host.  The only way to rid oneself of guilt is to make it known, and by making it known seek forgiveness.  On the other hand, we don’t seek to rid ourselves of honest and genuine responsibility, nor do we feel the need to make it public. Guilt emotes, responsibility acts.

Is it so hard to believe, especially among those who claim the mantle of Christianity, that any person, regardless of their political, religious, ethnic or other standing, might just have empathy, compassion, concern for another human being?

Is it not possible to feel a responsibility to correct historic wrongs without feeling guilty about the wrongs themselves?  A white person who recognizes that people of color have been enslaved, oppressed, discriminated against, disenfranchised and marginalized by white people can certainly also see that something needs to be done to correct those things without feeling personal guilt.  A man who sees that women have been disadvantaged and disenfranchised by a male-dominant culture can certainly also see that these things need to be corrected without feeling guilty.  A heterosexual or cisgender person does not have to feel guilty about the historic treatment of LGBTQ persons in order to want to correct the injustices.  When a wrong can be clearly seen, guilt is not necessary to motivate the desire to make it right.

If you feel guilty about something, examine it.  How is the guilt helping you?  What is it getting you?  Replace the guilt with understanding and knowledge about what the real problems and issues are, and what can be done about them.  Let your compassion come from empathy not from debt.  Let the past, both cultural and personal, put wind in the sails of positive change, not throw out an anchor that keeps us from moving forward.  And don’t listen to those who try to tell you that not feeling guilty means not having to do anything.

One Shovelful at a Time: When Life Gets Overwhelming

In No Particular Path on March 20, 2017 at 9:49 am

 

Sometimes life can be overwhelming.  It can be hard for anyone sometimes to simply decide on the next thing to do.  There are lists, obligations, needs; and too few resources of money or energy or spirit to get done what needs doing.

 

I will begin with a brief story.

 

I used to live in a rural home set back from a tertiary road.  It had a large turn-around and a 140 foot driveway.  All of this was back when it was still common in New England to get several big snowstorms in a single winter and have snow on the ground from November to April.  Some mornings I would get up and look out on a foot or more of snow from the front of the garage to the road, and the plows had piled even more at the end of the drive.

 

In those days I didn’t have a snow blower and I couldn’t afford to pay for someone to plow me out every week or two.  But I had a shovel.  And I usually got up early.

 

Standing in my garage looking out at the, literally, tons of snow to be moved out of the way could be overwhelming, to say the least.

 

That was when I developed a philosophy of “one shovelful at a time.”  I would start at the garage door and take one shovelful of snow and toss it to the side.  “Well,” I would say to myself, “that wasn’t so bad.  I guess I’ll do another one.”  I didn’t look up toward the end of the driveway until I had passed the halfway point between the turn-around and the road.  With each shovelful I assessed how I was doing.  Was I too tired to continue?  Had I done enough for now?  Could I take one more?  And my goals changed as I went along.  One shovelful became, as I made some noticeable progress, this small area here, as far as that tree there, might as well cut through to the road, and so on.  I always left myself the option of stopping at any time.  There were, after all other things I could do.  Each of those options had their own consequences, of course; they might cost me money, or time, or I might miss work or an appointment; but I knew that and knew that continuing to shovel could also have consequences other than a clean driveway.  I could injure myself, or be too exhausted to do other things that needed doing, for instance.  Usually, though, I persisted, one shovelful at a time, until the job was done.

 

There are five stages to this method.  The first is to know what has to be done and break it down into smaller tasks.  Try not to focus on the whole chore or the whole list or the entirety of the need, but to isolate smaller pieces that are manageable in the moment.  The second is to start where you are.  See what is right in front of you that you can do right now.  Don’t worry about how it is related to the whole overwhelming task; it is doable and that’s what matters. Third, let your goals be flexible.  Some days you’ll feel like you can accomplish more than other days; and there will be days when the most important thing you can do is rest.  Fourth, be pleased with yourself for each thing you do.  If today you had a couple of boiled eggs for breakfast instead of Cocoa Puffs, it probably won’t move you meaningfully close to your weight loss goals, but good for you, anyway.  Tomorrow you can make the choice again.  And fifth, give yourself permission to stop when you need to.  Sometimes, the most stressful part of any task is thinking that it all has to be done now.  When we know that it’s a choice at each stage, we can often get a lot more done simply because it feels good to do it, rather than feeling stressed by the obligation.

 

The one thing this method requires of you is that you pay attention and stay as much as possible in the moment.  Learn to recognize your own feelings and needs; your fears and griefs and limitations as well as your strengths, your hopes, and your skills.  And honor, respect and accept all of them.  They are who you are.  They are fair and legitimate and honest. In each stage, allow yourself to face them and use them to decide which shovelful to take first.

 

Every choice we make in life is a beginning of something.  Sometimes we can see where it will all end, but sometimes we have to act on faith that we are headed where we want to go.  As long as we can see what is right before us, right now, then we can choose. 

 

And it doesn’t matter whether you have a small shovel or a great big front-end loader.  A shovel is a shovel; your shovel, your shovelful; one shovelful at a time.

 

I have tried to remember this over the years as I have faced loss and grief and anger and fear.  On those mornings when I have gotten out of bed not knowing what to do next, not wanting to do anything, feeling overwhelmed, I have tried to remember.  I say to myself, “I know what this is.  I know that there is more here than I can face right now.  But I can take a shower, or I can have some breakfast, or I can sit and feel what I’m feeling, cry or laugh or pound my pillow; and I can know that all of it is movement; all of it is a choice; all of it is a shovelful.  And when I have done whatever I have done in that moment, I can do the next thing or I can stop, knowing that one less shovelful of whatever it is stands between me and where I need to get to.

 

The blizzard is temporary.  The snow is finite.  The shovel is real.  And all you have to do right now is decide whether to use it.

 

 

 

A Warning About the End of Life as We Know It

In PeaceAble on March 7, 2017 at 1:40 pm

 

Life as we know it is in danger.  If we are to prevent the end of life as we know it, we must all remember these basic truths:

 

The Others are not like us.

 

They speak a different language and when they learn our language they speak with a strange accent.  They think that we should learn their language.  They dress differently and strangely, they eat strange food, they worship false gods and they have strange customs and habits.  They have their own laws that are not exactly like ours.  You can recognize them because they look different from us.

 

The Others hate us.

 

They hate our laws, they hate our customs, they hate our beliefs.  They may even hate us because we have things they want to take away from us.  They hate our culture and our way of life.

 

The Others are trying to destroy us.

 

Because they hate us and want what we have, they are determined to attack us, go to war with us.  They want to destroy our culture, our country; they will kill our people; they want to destroy us and everything we have.  They want to steal from us all that we value and take it for themselves.

 

 

 

But if we are to prevent the end of the world as we know it, we must also forget some basic truths:

 

Whenever we leave this place and go elsewhere in the world, WE are The Other.

 

We want to believe that The Other must always be The Other, because WE are WE.  There can be no greater truth than this:  as I look out onto the world, I am at its center; all else is Other; and wherever I am is where the center is.

 

When WE are The Other, everything stated above is still true.

 

This is life as we know it.  This is the world as we wish to preserve it.  It is this we will prevent the end of by remembering the truths above.

 

When all The Others have been destroyed then life as we know it will end.

 

And what will be left will not be what we thought it would be.  We will find no life-as-we-know-it paradise.  Whenever there are at least two people in the world, there will be I and there will be The Other. And perhaps then we will learn that if we destroy The Other, WE destroy ourselves.

 

Perhaps it would be better if we stopped trying to prevent the end of the world as we know it and started working together to build a better one.

 

The Nonlinear Narrative: A Rhetoric of Donald Trump’s Mind

In Politics on February 21, 2017 at 10:28 am

 

Here’s what you need to realize about Donald Trump’s speaking style; and why it is both revealing and dangerous.

All of us experience reality in a non-linear way.

Each new thought, each new response to the constant barrage of stimuli is disconnected from the last thought or response until we make the connection intellectually.  Because the universe is not selective, we have to be.  We cannot respond equally to every new stimulus because there is simply too much information coming into contact with our senses all the time.  So we filter out some information, paying attention to whatever our brain in the moment considers most important.  Every stimulus except the one we have chosen to focus on is noise. 

What happens next is that we make a higher level selection that allows us to string certain stimuli together into a coherent, linear experience.  In effect, we create a story that allows us to understand and create meaning out of the experience.  The longer we can continue to string together stimuli in this way, the more coherent our experience becomes and the better able we are to articulate that experience.  Often, however, the rapid pace of life keeps us from focusing very long on any one string, any one story, while we are having the experience.  As a result, we have to create the narrative of our experience through memory at a later time.  We sort through all the stimuli, select those that seem connected, create meaning, and develop a linear narrative that expresses that meaning.  When we can’t do that, or choose not to, the result is stream of consciousness, non-sequitur, incoherence and inarticulateness.

That’s where Donald Trump lives.  He is unable or unwilling to string his thoughts together in a selective, coherent, linear narrative in order to articulate a specific complex meaning.  It would be one thing if this were simply a fault in the moment; that is, if his initial thought process was chaotic and disorganized.  That’s simply the way it is for most of us.  We need to focus, perhaps take some time with our experiences and thoughts, and find the most reasonable narrative to help us understand and express our experiences.  The problem, however, arises when we can’t make those connections in the moment and can’t or won’t do it later, either.  The mind just leaps from thought to thought, unable to maintain a linear narrative for more than a few moments. There is one advantage to this rhetorical style: it allows us to see how Trump’s mind works.

It’s easy to interpret his ravings as simply ego, but it is actually a little more complicated than that.  Everyone has ego needs.  We all want a degree of validation of our self-identity and ego gratification.  But we also have more and less dominant needs that inform that validation.  Some of us focus a significant amount of our ego on altruism; we get ego satisfaction from doing things for others.  Some focus on intellectual validation; we want others to see that we know things, are learned.  Some of us focus on material things; we are constantly telling people about our possessions. 

Trump seems to focus mostly on his social needs; he is constantly referencing what other people have told him, especially about himself.  He wants us to know how many people voted for him, how many of these people or those love him.  He wants us to know that when he claims something is true, it’s because other people, the best people, smart people, have told him they are true.  And it doesn’t really matter who, exactly, these people are, there just has to be a lot of them.

Trump references everything back to himself, of course, but it isn’t simply self-importance.  He simply has no other useful reference points for his experiences, so when he drifts off topic to talk about himself, he is making the only logical connection he can find between his otherwise random thoughts.  Instead of arranging things according to the usual linear logic, Trump creates something more like a thought web, with himself at the center and all things connected through himself.  When you listen to him speak, you can follow what is happening by looking for the rhetorical linkages back to himself.

This rhetorical style is tolerable, though certainly frustrating, in your quirky relative who thinks himself a raconteur, but actually just rambles interminably without ever finishing any particular story.  In the President, however, it is dangerous.

That’s because it means that those who recognize this rhetorical trait can use it to manipulate and control him. If you want him to believe something or act in particular way, you merely need to give him a narrative that connects the parts of the argument you want him to follow back through his self-reference.  The argument doesn’t have to make any kind of logical sense whatsoever on its own.  It only needs to make sense in the filter of that self-reference. 

It also means that you are most likely to be successful if you can make your voice the last one he hears before he has to make his decision.  Because he doesn’t develop a coherent narrative, he has no way of reviewing that narrative later to understand or even accurately remember his own process.  He only knows what his final decision was; and since it was his decision he cannot question or change it.  He can, however, be led to make a new, even contradictory, decision by the next person who can make the appropriate connections through his self-reference between the old decision and the new.

Moreover, the President cannot respond effectively to sudden or unanticipated changes; that is, think on his feet. We can see this in his press encounters and Twitter rants, where he either cycles the unexpected through his self-reference or falls back on tried and true attack lines or dominance strategies.

The danger in this, of course, is that we can neither understand nor predict his actions based on his prior choices or his current rhetoric.  The chaos of his mind leads to chaos, inconsistency, unpredictability, and lack of trust.  This chaos is especially dangerous when applied to decisions affecting domestic policy or international relationships.

For this reason, we need to pay less attention to his rhetoric, which becomes a distraction, and more attention to the rhetoric of those he has appointed as advisors and members of his administration.  We have to assume that his positions and policies will reflect not his reasoning, not his narrative, but those of people like Steve Bannon.  Whoever has his ear at any moment will create the narrative that informs the policy.

Cultural Normalization and “Manchester by the Sea”

In PeaceAble, Uncategorized on January 30, 2017 at 11:48 am

Aspects of the norm in any culture are expressed and reinforced in small, subtle and pervasive acts of acceptance.  There are innumerable ways in which our cultural norms are transmitted, with public media an important part of the whole.  My intent here is to use a personal critique of the Oscar-nominated film “Manchester by the Sea” to illustrate how we are led into unconscious acceptance and reinforcement of cultural norms.

First, let me say that media do not, for the most part, create norms or cause cultural change.  The media, including the artists who work in the media, reflect more than create subjective reality.  Films are created at least in part with an intent to make money.  They will only do that if they appeal to a significant part of the available audience.  The best way to ensure that is to reflect the feelings, attitudes, ideas, and perceptions the audience already holds.  Films that challenge our perceptions may achieve critical success, but rarely achieve box-office success.

Also, it is entirely possible for a film to be artistically successful but culturally problematic.  When that happens, it is useful to point out both the artistic quality and the cultural problems.  Failure to do that, in my opinion, reinforces the expressed norms and inhibits cultural change.

“Manchester by the Sea” is in many ways a very well made film.  There is some remarkable acting, though I did not find Casey Affleck’s performance equal to the over-the-top hype that so many reviewers seem intent on propagating.  It’s a solid performance, but hardly revolutionary.  And the film is not without its flaws.  I was especially disappointed in the script over all.  Despite some nice moments of dialogue and character interaction, the story is slow to get started, keeps wandering off into side stories that are never adequately resolved or clearly connected to the main thrust of the narrative.  And the resolution at the end of the film seems hurried and not well developed.  The final decisions of everyone involved seem nearly a deus ex machina rather than a clear consequence of the characters’ earlier choices.

But the larger objection I make to the film is not about the quality of the production.  In fact, the quality of the production actually exacerbates the problem I have with it; for the higher the quality of the art, the easier it is for us to overlook the cultural issues it raises and the problematic norms it reinforces.

The film’s characters, who are faithfully and authentically portrayed, represent a privileged masculine norm that goes unrecognized and unquestioned.  The men are uncommunicative, shallow and misogynistic.  The female characters are all treated badly, either directly abused, or ignored and dismissed, or left hanging in unfinished side stories.  The 15 year-old boy, Patrick, is sleeping with one girl and plotting to sleep with another; and his uncle blithely and without comment agrees to keep everything a secret so that the girls’ parents don’t find out about the sex and the girls don’t find out about each other.  Patrick’s mother is presented as unfit to raise him because she is portrayed as a frightened, somewhat dim-witted and hysterical woman under the sway of a “Christian” fanatic in a side story that is unnecessary, stereotypical, and unexplained.  Lee Chandler blows off his ex-wife’s attempt to come to terms with the past in a particularly cruel way and the whole thing is just passed over, providing no closure and no attempt at understanding.  Several smaller female characters are introduced for a moment to offer criticisms or critiques or some small incident, but their contributions are either ignored or trivialized.

And the men don’t fare much better from this version of what it means to be a guy.  Lee’s brother apparently never told Lee just how close to death he was, nor asked his permission to assign him as guardian for Patrick, nor provided any clue as to how that could be managed.  Given Lee’s emotional state and the conditions of his life, those failures are cruel to both Lee and Patrick; and have the potential for absolute disaster.  While that is part of what creates the core conflict in the film, it is never addressed honestly for what it is.  Lee and Patrick communicate mostly through grunts and shrugs, although Patrick often seems the closest to an adult in the room; and most of the really consequential communication Lee has with his brother’s friends and associates seems to take place off-screen, while the on-screen exchanges are fraught with unspoken emotions.  This, we are to accept, is how these men communicate.  And that’s true, but the possibility that that might just be the real problem here is never explored and nothing about it ever changes.

I bring all this up not because I want anyone to not see the film.  As I have said, it is over all a well-made film, with much about it that is worth seeing.  And the characters, however flawed, are portrayed honestly by talented actors.  I am really talking here about culture and how norms are established and reinforced.

Day by day, we all encounter situations where we are presented with examples of cultural norms in action.  We see advertisements all around us for cosmetics for women and power tools for men.  We see magazine articles that propose to tell men and women separately what the other really wants and how to “win” them.  We click on a FB link because we are teased by a sexy body or a provocative headline.  A co-worker tells us a joke involving a dumb blonde woman or a grotesque caricature of a “Mexican.”  And we hear people “man-splaining” and “white-splaining” and “straight-splaining” why things are as they are.  And if we do not, whenever possible and safe to do so, point out the cultural norms inherent in those things, or fail to say why they are a problem, then the normalcy of them is reinforced.  Every time we fail to question the logic in the ads, every time we buy the magazine and read the articles without response, every time we click on the link or smile politely at the joke or fail to see things as they really are, the norms are reinforced.

I know that movies are fiction.  I know that they are portraying real things.  And I know that we are all capable of convincing ourselves that we have the maturity, the insight, and the self-awareness to consume these things without being corrupted by them.  But cultural norms aren’t fixed by our opinions of our own virtues.  If there are things about the culture that you feel need to change; if you believe that women, non-whites, people of other nationalities or religions or ethnicities, the disadvantaged and disenfranchised need to be included, given equality of representation and opportunity, and given a chance for economic equity; then the culture will need to change.  And cultures are most permanently changed by the small, everyday reactions we have to the constant onslaught of normative messages.

Do you think that our culture is too violent, too warlike, too quick to attack and too slow to seek more peaceable solutions to our problems?  Then look for the violence in your own life, in your entertainments, in your myths and heroes.  Acknowledge that it is there and question its place in your life and in the culture.  And look for the opportunities you are given to choose the peaceable route.

Do you think our culture makes second-class citizens of our women?  Look in your own life for the small things you do or fail to do that are consistent with that.  Recognize how your own life has reinforced those things in you.  Know that you are not immune, and that changing the culture requires constant checking in with ourselves to see how we are falling prey to norms we claim to disdain.

Do you want to support equal and fair treatment of non-whites, non-Christians, and the LGBTQ+ community?  Take note of your own internal reactions.  Do feel you afraid, even slightly, in encountering the other?  Can you acknowledge that the racism or xenophobia or homophobia of the culture that has raised you has affected you, that you are not completely free of its influences?  Can you recognize and own those times when you have behaved badly, perhaps without intent or awareness, but badly all the same?

And did you go to see a film like “Manchester by the Sea” and not at least make note of the fact that what you just saw was filled with misogyny and male privilege and a cultural perspective that is exactly what we need to change?  And did you say anything?

Art is one of the most powerful purveyors of cultural norms.  Film has a way of drawing us into the reality it seeks to portray.  Indeed, the suspension of disbelief, the acceptance of the terms a film sets for itself is central to its success.  But after the viewing, take the time to talk about more than just whether Casey Affleck is the best thing since Brando, or who might get the Oscar nod, or how interesting and beautiful the cinematography was.  Talk about what the film has to say about all of us as human beings, and what it has to say about what is normal in our culture.  Then ask yourself what you want to do about it.

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