Thursday, April 27, 2017

#117 / Power Is Good




Liu's book was favorably mentioned in a column in the April 19, 2017, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. Self-described "cynical journalist" Ruben Navarrette, Jr. gave Liu's book a thumbs-up review. 

The premise of Liu's book, and his claim that "you're more powerful than you think," is that we are powerful not so much "individually," but when we operate together

In other words, the kind of power that is most useful, and that is available to us, is the "political" power we develop through cooperation with others who share our goals and hopes. That kind of power is not something to be shunned, but sought. Our collective power to change the world, to meet the challenges of our times, and to accomplish our highest aspirations, is exactly the kind of power we need to seek, and to embrace.

Here are Liu's thoughts about power, from one of this TED talks:

Far too many Americans are illiterate in power — what it is, how it operates and why some people have it. As a result, those few who do understand power wield disproportionate influence over everyone else. We need to make civics sexy again. As sexy as it was during the American Revolution or the Civil Rights Movement.

Sexy, huh?

Me? I'm ready for a fling!


Image Credit:
https://www.ted.com/talks/eric_liu_why_ordinary_people_need_to_understand_power

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

#116 / Trump And Truman - Compare And Contrast



What do Harry S. Truman and Donald J. Trump have in common? 

For one thing, they both won presidential elections that "everyone" thought would be won by their opponents. In addition, as noted by David Ignatius in his April 18, 2017, column in The Washington Post, both Truman and Trump entered upon the presidency "with little knowledge of the international problems they were about to face, and with worries at home and abroad that they weren’t up to the job."

That comparison made, Ignatius says that that President Trump could learn a lot from Truman. Ignatius' column, as published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on April 19th, carried this headline: "Trump could learn from Harry Truman on trust." In the online edition, found on The Washington Post website, the column's headline reads: "Trump needs a dose of 'manly virtues.'" 

I have some thoughts about this Trump-Truman comparison.

First, I do NOT look forward to the idea that Donald J. Trump should learn from Harry S. Truman that it is "OK" to drop an atom bomb on an asian nation that has defied the United States.

Second, I think the Washington Post headline sends exactly the wrong message to our current president. A guy who felt compelled to make clear to the public that his "small hands" didn't mean that other parts of his anatomy were similarly sized, might have some suppressed concerns about just how "manly" he really is. Getting into wars with Korea, and dropping atom bombs (both accomplishments of President Truman), are NOT the kind of "manly virtues" that Trump should be seeking to emulate. At least, that's my opinion!

Here is the statement in the Ignatius' column that most immediately attracted my attention: 

In one of those curious rhymes of history, Trump faces a similar challenge to Truman’s in confronting North Korea. Truman went to war in 1950 to reverse a North Korean invasion of the South. Trump is now perilously close to conflict in his attempt to halt North Korea’s defiant nuclear program (emphasis added).

Ignatius seems to condone the idea that Truman could (himself) "go to war," and that Trump, following his example, could (himself) enter into a conflict with North Korea. Just to reacquaint the columnist with the Constitution, that is not the way it is "spozed to be." 


War Powers. Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to declare war. The President, meanwhile, derives the power to direct the military after a Congressional declaration of war from Article II, Section 2, which names the President Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

Truman did not, in fact, obtain a Declaration of War in the case of the conflict with Korea. The Korean conflict is one of those many examples in which the United States has gone to war without following the procedures set out in the Constitution. Here is a comment from a helpful article in The Atlantic, "All  the Previous Declarations of War":

The United States Congress has not formally declared war since World War II. All of our wars in the Middle East have been authorized using other means, which rather goes to the heart of the nature of those different conflicts. U.S. entry into World War I and World War II took place through joint congressional resolutions stating "a state of war exists between the Government of Country X and the Government and People of the United States," where country X was, variously, Germany, Japan, Italy, and so on. 
It would be impossible to write such a sentence about Syria today. In what meaningful way does a state of war exist between the United States and Syria? None. That's why Congress, if it approves anything, will approve an authorization for the use of force. And if history is any guide, that's going to be a rather open-ended commitment, as fuzzy on the back-end as on the front. 
[Furthermore], America has done a better job of winning its declared wars in the last century than achieving clear-cut victories in ventures authorized under legislative measures that fell short of a formal declaration of war.

I agree with David Ignatius that Donald J. Trump should seek to develop the following qualities that Ignatius attributes to President Truman: "quiet leadership, fidelity to his beliefs, [and] a disdain for public braggadocio. [Truman] never took credit for things he hadn’t accomplished. He never blamed others for his mistakes."

I think calling these "manly" virtues may steer Trump wrong, but there is a definite "contrast" between Truman and Trump, and I think Ignatius is correct that Truman comes off as having the better temperament for the presidency. It would be great if Trump were to model his temperament on Truman.

But let's not get carried away. It is imperative that American citizens make clear, in every way we possibly can, that following Truman's lead into an undeclared war with North Korea, and in his use of nuclear weapons, is NOT a model for our current president. 

And maybe, just maybe, we could get our members of Congress to do their job? No war without a declaration? How about that? I'd like to propose that we stop allowing "the president" to "go to war." 

When "the president" goes to war, it is "we" who go to war. It is we who are put at risk. We, through our elected representatives, are the ones who are supposed to decide whether or not we want our nation to unleash the destruction of war on others and ourselves. So far, in our history, the nation has only voted to do that eleven times.

Our presidents have not felt so constrained. Let's not give any clearance to Trump to follow Truman in that extremely bad example!



Image Credit:
http://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/harry-truman

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

#115 / Just The Facts, Ma'am



Jack Webb, pictured above, was an American actor, television producer, director, and screenwriter. He is most famous for his role as Sgt. Joe Friday in Dragnet, a television series that Webb created, and that was "perhaps the most famous and influential police procedural drama in media history." 

The way I remember it (and I definitely watched Dragnet), Joe Friday was always turning up at an attractive woman's doorway, and saying, "just the facts, ma'am." 

Snopes, the website that does accuracy checking on claims and assertions made on the Internet, says that my recollection is off the mark, and that the phrase, "just the facts, ma'am," is not really what Joe Friday said. He did say something similar, though, according to Snopes: He said, “All we want are the facts, ma’am” (and sometimes “All we know are the facts ma’am"), as he questioned women in the course of police investigations. I'm OK with that, though I do like my mis-remembered phrasing somewhat better. 

I was reminded of Sgt. Friday's commitment to "just the facts" as I read an article in the Tuesday, April 18, 2017, edition of The New York Times. Steven Ballmer, former Microsoft CEO and the current owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, has been spending his retirement (and his  own money) on setting up a new website that, like Snopes, aims to make "truth" accessible to the ordinary person.

In Ballmer's case, the effort is not to debunk bad memories, like my memory of what Joe Friday said on Dragnet. Ballmer wants to let people know what all levels of government actually do with our money. 

Ballmer's new website, USAFacts, provides access to a huge database on governmental spending at the federal, state, and local level. 

Andrew Ross Sorkin's article, describing this new website, is titled, "Steve Ballmer Serves Up a Fascinating Data Trove." Sorkin's article is a very helpful introduction to the USAFacts website.  

As for that website itself, my preliminary review indicates that USAFacts is definitely a "go to" place for anyone who wants "just the facts" about what's going on in the United States of America.


Image Credit:
http://pscelebrityhomes.com/celebrity-index-u-z/jack-webb/

Monday, April 24, 2017

#114 / The Genius Of Theory



National Geographic has announced a new series, "Genius." It appears that this series will be a kind of Einstein soap opera. Anyway, that's how I read the review in Newsday, which dubs "Genius" a "brainless Einstein bio." Here's Newsday's take: 

WHAT IT’S ABOUT National Geographic Channel’s first scripted series — 10 hours — is an adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s “Einstein: His Life and Universe” (2007), starring Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein. The first two hours toggle between the life of the younger Einstein (Johnny Flynn) and Einstein in 1922, just after the assassination of his friend Walther Rathenau, foreign minister of the Weimar Republic, murdered by right-wing proto-Nazi terrorists. Also starring Emily Watson as Einstein’s second wife (and first cousin), Elsa Löwenthal. This is a Brian Grazer and Ron Howard production. 
MY SAY You know you’re in for a bumpy 10-hour ride through the space-time continuum of Einstein’s life when one of the first scenes reveals him grinding against his secretary. 
Bumpier still when, as a callow lothario, he blandly dismisses the affections of a potential spouse with this line: “I’m not sure I want to spend life with someone who can’t carry on a compelling conversation on the nature of things.” 
Ah, what nature of things would that be, Albert? We find out soon enough: “I’m head over heels in love with your mind,” he tells future wife Mileva Maric (Samantha Colley), while both are under the sheets.

I have always venerated Einstein because his famous equation has always symbolized, for me, the power of "theory." As a theoretical physicist, Einstein published that very consequential equation: 

E = MC2

This equation tells us, theoretically, that a very small amount of mass contains an almost unimaginable amount of energy: 














Nobody really knew that, until Einstein's "theory" said it was true. Turns out (as everyone now knows) that Einstein's "theory" was correct. Finding out how to go from "theory" to reality was not that easy (a lot of work was involved), but until there was a "theory," no one would even have tried. To me, that is the most important point, and that is why it is important to maintain a "theoretical" perspective on the world we inhabit, instead of succumbing to the mistaken belief that what currently exists is an inevitable and limited reality. 

It is my theory that, within our "political world," the world that humans create, "anything is possible."  That brief "anything is possible" phrase is equivalent to Einstein's E = MCequation. As is true in the case of the Einstein equation, my "theoretical" statement suggests that almost unimaginable power and energy is available to us. However, as in the case of E = MC2, it is not all that easy to turn the "anything is possible" theory into a practical and existing reality (a lot of work is involved). 

If the theory is right, however, such a transformation can be accomplished. Human action can release incredible energy, and can transform the world that "is" into something else. 

Such a transformation can be for good or ill, of course (as in the case of Einstein's equation). The possibilities range from Utopia to the Holocaust, which means that the revelation that "anything is possible" may or may not be good news, depending on who finds out how to release the power of human possibility, and what they choose to do with it.

We can change the shape and character of our human world through the choices we make and the actions we take. Theoretically speaking, "anything is possible" within the human world. We live not in the world of theory, though; we live in an actual and existing world that is the result of our past choices and actions, and theory tells us that within this "political world," we can chose to act differently, and can transform, and create it anew, for good or ill.

Given that we can release incredible and transformative energy by our choices and our actions (that's what the theory tells us), it is about time for a Manhattan Project aimed at Utopia.

We don't have much time left, I think, to choose and to act, and we know, already, what happens if we don't move towards Utopia. Another Holocaust is possible, too. In fact, it is in the wings!



Image Credits:
(1) - http://variety.com/t/genius/
(2) - https://www.tumblr.com/search/atom%20bomb%20explosion

Sunday, April 23, 2017

#113 / Red For Resistance



Carmen Perez, pictured, graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2001. She is now the Executive Director of The Gathering for Justice, a nonprofit founded by legendary artist and activist Harry Belafonte. 

Perez served as a national co-chair of the incredibly successful Women’s March on Washington on January 21st, the day after the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. The March drew half a million people to the capital. An estimated five million people participated worldwide. 

Perez will be speaking in Santa Cruz during the upcoming UCSC Alumni Weekend. She will be presenting the keynote address at the Cocoanut Grove at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, April 28th. Click this link if you would like to register.

The Santa Cruz Good Times has published an article about Perez that is well worth reading, and that I have been referencing and relying on here. I was particularly struck by the following quote, which contains a kind of hidden message: 

What we launched immediately after the march were 10 actions in 100 days, and so we are now on our seventh action. You can go to our website [womensmarch.com] to see what actions we put together ... to elevate our partners, to ensure that people know that the work just didn’t start on January 21st, but there have been so many organizations doing this work for so many years that we need to support. 
We were able to bring together so many people for A Day Without a Woman [strike], where we created three entry points. One was for women and men and families to wear red in solidarity if they cared about women’s issues. The second was if you have to buy anything, purchase from local and women-owned businesses. The third was not to go to work. There were so many people that participated. 
And to this day the color red has been a symbolism of resistance. And it comes from our elders—Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez … (emphasis added).

Perez tells us that the color red is the symbol of resistance, and of course it is. But in Spanish, the word "red" means "net" or "network," the very thing that Perez describes in the quotation above, as she talks of the many organizations, over time, that have been struggling for justice, everywhere. 

We resist, and we win, when we are connected. When we work together. 

"Red" [English] is a symbol of resistance. "Red" [Spanish] is the collaboration and connection that is the resistance itself. 


Red is for resistance.



Image Credit:
http://goodtimes.sc/cover-stories/ucsc-grads-social-justice-activism-carmen-perez/

Saturday, April 22, 2017

#112 / We Can No Longer Allow...



I consider Jeremy Scahill to be an extremely reliable reporter. He is the author of the international bestselling books Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield and Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He has reported from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere across the globe. Scahill has also served as the national security correspondent for The Nation and Democracy Now!

On April 19, 2017, posting in The Intercept, Scahill quoted CIA director Mike Pompeo. Pompeo has accused WikiLeaks of being a “hostile nonstate intelligence agency.” For Pompeo, this apparently means that WikiLeaks is "operating outside of the protections of the First Amendment." Click right here for Scahill's full article.

“We can no longer allow Assange and his colleagues the latitude to use free speech values against us," said Pompeo. "To give them the space to crush us with misappropriated secrets is a perversion of what our great Constitution stands for.” Scahill's article notes that Pompeo went on to add this ominous assertion: “It ends now.”

Pompeo's claim that the Constitution of the United States would permit the government to cut off free speech by government critics is a prima facie demonstration that Pompeo does not really understand what "our great Constitution stands for," to use his own words. 

Since the head of the CIA doesn't understand our Constitutionally protected right to free speech, let's be sure that the rest of us do!


Image Credit:
https://theintercept.com/2017/04/19/assange-strikes-back-at-cia-and-talks-trump-russia-and-hillary-clinton/

Friday, April 21, 2017

#111 / May I Politely Disagree?



Brent Lewellen, pictured above, wrote a letter to the San Franciso Chronicle addressing the forcible removal of Dr. David Dao from United Airlines Flight 3411 on April 9, 2017. Lewellen's letter was published on Saturday, April 15, 2017, and is reproduced below.

The forcible removal of Dr. Dao from the airplane resulted in significant physical injuries to him, and the incident generated a great deal of public discussion (including several of my own postings on this blog, the latest of which was yesterday). Wikipedia now has a page devoted to the incident on United Flight 3411.

Here is Lewellen's letter:

Listen to authority next time
I believe the most important aspect of the United Airlines story is being overlooked. It’s not about overbooked flights or whether airlines should have the right to compel passengers to give up their seats (currently they do). 
The most important question this regrettable confrontation raises is what, as a society, we believe citizens should do when persons of authority, such as a security guard or a police officer, direct us to do something. Is it really OK now to simply disregard what a cop or security guard asks (then tells) us to do because we don’t want to? 
You can reasonably argue whether United Airlines should have brought in airport security, but once it did, a citizen in a free society has a duty to comply with its instructions. You are certainly free to complain (loudly) as that authority figure escorts you from the plane; threaten to sue, demand to see a manager. But you must comply with those instructions, or you violate the social contract. One reason United called airport security is that people have decided they don’t have to listen to airplane personnel anymore. We can’t continue down this path.

Brent Lewellen, San Francisco

It is Mr. Lewellen's contention that "a citizen in a free society" has a duty to "comply" with the instructions of a "security guard or a police officer" when such an official issues a direct order to the citizen to do something, and that this duty to "comply" applies without any reference, whatsoever, to how justified, or not, the order might be. In other words, it is Mr. Lewellen's belief that our duty as citizens is to "comply" first, and to complain later. This is how citizens must uphold "the social contract," according to the way Lewellen sees the world. This is, to repeat, what Mr. Lewellen contends is the obligation of "a citizen in a free society."

I want to disagree with Mr. Lewellen. Politely, I hope, but emphatically. 

My first posting about this United Airlines incident noted how much the series of events that occurred on Flight 3411 duplicated what we know about how totalitarian societies operate, how they seize control, and how they transform what has been a "free society" into something quite the opposite. 

Far from going along with what appears to be an abuse of official authority, I suggested nonviolent resistance, not only on the part of the passenger (Dr. Dao in this case), but also by everyone else, precisely so "citizens in a free society" could maintain that quality of freedom. If governmental authority has the right to act in apparently arbitrary ways, with the duty of the citizens being to "comply," no matter how arbitrary or legally unsupported the orders might be, then the chance to challenge the unjustified order at a subsequent time counts for very little. 

If the security officers had told all the Jews on the plane to stand up, and get off, we know that this would have been wrong, but as Lewellen sees it, anyone subjected to this kind of an order, and anyone watching it happen, should simply "comply," and then take up their objections later, in a different forum.

Again, I politely disagree.

My second posting about the United Airlines incident was about "adhesion contracts," and raised a legal question. Is it actually true that the airlines have a legal right to kick ticketed passengers off their planes, just because there is a 46-page contract that the passenger never read, but that the passenger supposedly agreed to? Lewellen thinks that these are the current rules. I am not quite so sure this is true. While I do think legislation to eliminate this possibility is appropriate,  as I argued in my blog posting, such an adhesion contract, in the circumstances in which Dr. Dao was kicked off Flight 3411, is quite possibly not a legally enforceable obligation to which he had a legal duty to "comply."

I would have no disagreement with Lewellen if he had said that he thinks that Dr. Dao made a very bad choice, in attempting to employ the tactics of passive resistance to oppose what the doctor thought was an improper order. In other words, had Lewellen been trying to give his personal advice about how it would be best to handle such a situation in the future - "comply" now, and take up the legalities later - he would have been making a responsible suggestion (thought I might politely disagree with that conclusion, too).

But Lewellen didn't say that he thought citizens should consider the "compliance and complain later" strategy as the best strategy to pursue, in cases like that in which Dr. Dao found himself. Lewellen said that it is the duty of citizens to "comply" with the orders of governmental officials (whether legal, justifiable, or not), and that this is what "citizens in a free society" are required to do.

I can't emphasize enough how much I disagree with Lewellen's approach to citizenship. It will be much better for all of us if every one of us refuses to "comply" with apparently arbitrary orders, and we need to refuse to comply at the time these orders are issued, not months or years later, in some completely different forum. 

A "free society" can only remain free if governmental authorities are required to demonstrate their legal right to issue orders, and to carry them out, in advance of executing them, rather than demanding immediate "compliance" with what appear to be arbitrary demands, backed up by the potential and actual use of violence for those who don't "comply" with those demands immediately. 

In my opinion, whether he really intended this or not, Lewellen comes down on the side of a totalitarian approach to government by saying that "compliance" is always the first duty of a "citizen in a free society."

In my view, the opposite is the case. 


Image Credit:
http://radaris.com/p/Brent/Lewellen/

Thursday, April 20, 2017

#110 / Just Following Up



The New York Times followed up on its earlier coverage of the United Airlines fiasco by analyzing just how new technologies have helped the airlines, but have failed to help passengers. Farhad Manjoo, writing in The Times, called what happened to Dr. Dao, on United Airlines Flight 3411 out of Chicago, "brutish capitalism." 

The point of The Times' article on April 13th, linked above, was to explore whether or not "technology" might provide a solution of some kind. You might think it could. Conclusion by The Times? Not really!

What was most striking to me in the Manjoo article, which is well worth reading, was the utter failure of the article to suggest the solution that I suggested yesterday: namely, governmental regulations setting out a set of fair rules for both passengers and the airlines, which would be the same everywhere, and for all airlines, so everyone would know what they might expect when they board a plane with a paid-for ticket. 

Manjoo does say that "regulatory failure" is one of the "many reasons for the sorry state of commercial aviation in America." My reaction to this acute observation? Duh! 

The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, signed into  law by President Jimmy Carter, has brought us to this pass, but please note, nothing prevents us from "re-regulating" the airlines. If the airlines can "re-accommodate" their passengers at the whim of the airlines (this being the phrase used by the United Airlines CEO to describe what United did to passenger Dao), we should feel absolutely alright about "re-regulating" them.

I'd advise it!

Democracy beats out technology every time, if what we care about is building a world that conforms to what WE want.


Image Credit:
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/12/technology/how-technology-has-failed-to-improve-your-airline-experience.html

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

#109 / Contracts Of Adhesion



I teach a course at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the Legal Studies Program. The course is called, "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom." During one class session we talk about "adhesion contracts." This topic is relevant to the course because persons who want to use social media sites, or to have access to various kinds of "applications," or otherwise to benefit from the advantages of new technologies, are almost always required to agree, by contract, to give up significant amounts of their personal privacy.

If the term "adhesion contract" is not familiar to you, the cartoon above gives you an idea of how an adhesion contract works. Wikipedia describes an adhesion contract as "a take-it-or-leave-it contract, where the terms and conditions of the contract are set by one of the parties, and the other party has little or no ability to negotiate more favorable terms and is thus placed in a "take it or leave it" position. There are lots of examples. We have all experienced them. If you'd like a scholarly evaluation, which outlines some legal ways to defeat these contracts in court, you can click right here, for a law review article that explores the legalities in depth. 

A more popular discussion of adhesion contracts can be found in the April 13, 2017, edition of The Wall Street Journal. The article cited below is a followup to that United Airlines fiasco, in which Security Police dragged a ticketed passenger off a United Airlines airplane, relying on the passenger's agreement to be "bumped," when the airline needed to use a reserved seat for one of its own employees.

The Wall Street Journal article is titled, "After United, a Look at Your Rights as a Flier." It's informative. The United Airlines contract governing Dr. Dao's rights was 46 pages long. Delta Airlines has a contract that is 51 pages in length. American Airlines' contract governing the rights of ticket holders is a relatively short 21 pages in length.

In terms of mechanisms for realizing our individual "freedom," contracts have traditionally been a powerful tool. When the parties can bargain on an equal footing, contracts allow individuals to create new realities by mutual agreement, in a way that benefits everyone. Contracts are great!

Contracts are great, that is, unless they are "take it or leave it" propositions, in which the parties to the contract do not have equal bargaining power. Then, the party with the stronger position can pretty much extract any condition that it wants. If you want to buy car insurance, or homeowner's insurance, or use Facebook, or do an Internet search, the companies with which you deal don't individually discuss what kind of provisions you want, or would find acceptable. These companies simply tell you how it's going to be.

Why bother to "read" an adhesion contract at all? I certainly don't. What's the point? If I am going to use Facebook, or a mapping program, or my new computer, I'm simply going to "agree" (I have to agree) to whatever provisions may be found in those contracts I never read. That's what we all do, pretty much. In court, you may have a way to defeat certain overbearing provisions to which you have agreed in an adhesion contract, though that is neither easy nor a sure thing. You can learn how that works from that law review article, "Challenging Adhesion Contracts in California: A Consumer's Guide."

The best way to deal with companies who want to put you in a "take it or leave it" situation, however, is not to approach them individually.

We are all individuals, of course, but we are more than individuals. We have "collective" powers. Those are powers that we exercise politically.

I have a hunch that the action of United Airlines, in dragging a properly-ticketed individual passenger off an airplane, may motivate a successful political effort to make sure that nothing like that will ever happen again. We are all Dr. Dao! Or we could be. The experience that Dr. Dao had will provide a good deal of motivation for airline passengers everywhere to demand that our representative government actually start representing us, not the corporations.

There do need to be "rules" governing passengers' (and the airlines') rights. Instead of letting the airlines draft their own, self-serving rules, and imposing those rules against individuals, by making all passengers sign individual, take it or leave it, adhesion contracts, let's do it a different way.

WE, the ordinary citizens (and potential passengers) can get together - through our representatives in government - and we can write the rules that WE think are fair. That's called "enacting a law." Once we have done that, then we can tell the airlines, it's either "take it or leave it." You can either follow the law (and run your business according to our democratically-enacted rules), or you won't be in the airline business anymore.

Ain't democracy grand? That's how it works!

Maybe we ought to try it out every once and a while!


Image Credit:
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/417357090444555430/

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

#108 / The Butterflies And The Bees



Ralph Benko is a political columnist, and he serves as a senior advisor on economics for the American Principles Project. He is also a member of the Conservative Action Project. CAP participants include "the CEOs of over 100 organizations representing all major elements of the conservative movement – Economic, Social and National Security – as well as representatives of the Tea Party movement."

In a recent article published by The Huffington Post, Benko proposes a modern "fable," focused on the "ecology of politics." Benko suggests his "fable" might inform our understanding of current political divisions. As you might guess from his affiliations, Benko describes himself as a "conservative Republican," so keep that in mind.

It is Benko's contention that "bees (like ants) live in a centralized hierarchical culture ... Bees have a Queen, fertilized by drones, who lays all the eggs from which more bees are hatched. The worker bees, all female, do the work of building the hive and foraging for nectar among the flowers, bringing it home to be refined into honey. Armed with stingers, consider them a militant species and, indeed, the hierarchical structure of the human military has many similarities with that of bees. 

"Butterflies live in a decentralized, non-hierarchical, culture. They engage in courtship, mate, the female laying eggs which turn into larva and then caterpillars, which, in time, turn into pupa and emerge as butterflies. Butterflies, too, feed on nectar. But they don’t bring it to a central location, nor are they regimented. Consider the butterflies as somewhat akin to Hippies (of which I, although a credentialed right winger, am an aging specimen) of human society."

In Benko's "fable," Republicans are the "butterflies," and Democrats are the "bees." This actually seems somewhat backwards to me, since I have not personally known lots of "hippie" Republicans, nor very many "centralized, hierarchical" Democrats. Read the article for yourself, and you decide! Benko's point is that both bees and butterflies do just fine in nature, and "there is no need for us to declare war on one another. There are ample flowers to support both of us."

That lesson got some applause from Roger Berkowitz, the Academic Director of The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. According to Berkowitz: 

Benko's metaphor makes political differences both comprehensible and palatable. If we can understand that those Republicans are butterflies and those Democrats are bees, it is easier to respect them. It makes eminent sense that bees and butterflies can share the same meadow even as they maintain their differences. 
This strange idea, that a plurality of people with different understandings of the good can join together in a political world is at the center of Hannah Arendt's political thinking. Politics, as Arendt understands it, begins with the recognition of plurality and proceeds to discover the common understandings that exist amidst our differences. Those common understandings begin with the recognition of facts and the sharing of experiences. Together, shared facts and experiences contribute to a common sense that weaves us together without requiring that we hold the same opinions or live life in the same ways. Arendt's idea of politics is a unity amidst plurality. It is probably closer to the culture of butterflies than it is to bees, for Arendt was deeply suspicious of sovereignty and the unitary single governmental power of the hive structure. But Arendt also believed firmly in constitutional limitations to the eccentricities of pluralistic communities. A constitution is an expression of those common truths we come to share in spite of our differences.

Berkowitz goes on to observe that we are "living through a time when common sense, common experiences, and common facts are increasingly rare. There is no top-down antidote to our loss of a common world. We can only re-create that shared world by talking to each other across divides, coming to share conversations, experiences, and encounters that will allow us to see and hear what holds us together and not only what keeps us apart."

To achieve this kind of "cross pollination" (to use a "bee" metaphor), Berkowitz suggests that those concerned about the future of our democracy ought to be engaging in "Living Room Conversations." 

There is an actual, structured program to try to make such conversations possible. Click the link if you want to know more. Benko, I guess, is personally involved.

I can't really say that I am too keen on Benko's fable. As I have already revealed, Benko's bee and butterfly designations seem to rub me exactly the wrong way.

I guess, though, I'd be willing to talk about it! That would be the idea of these "Living Room Conversations."




Image Credits:
(1) - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-bees-vs-the-butterflies-the-ecology-of-politics_us_58e50a73e4b09dbd42f3dc4e
(2) - https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41264988