Thursday, September 19, 2019

#262 / Two Stories And Two Quotes

A month ago, on Sunday, August 18, 2019, The New York Times carried two stories with a common theme. Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi has initiated a kind of "national cleansing" effort within India, seeking to expel from the country any "non-Indian" person, meaning any person who is not a Hindu. Stephen Miller, who is guiding President Donald Trump in the president's anti-immigrant efforts, is seeking both to repel and expel non-white persons. It is race, not religion, that primarily figures in Miller's guide to discrimination. 

The stories do not cross-reference. Nothing in The Times' front-page story on Modi, "A Dragnet to Find Who Is, and Who Isn't, Indian," mentions the story on Miller. Similarly, the front-page story on Miller, "Shift Against Immigration Lifted a Young Firebrand," doesn't reference the story about Modi. [In each case, I have given the title of the story as that title appeared in the hard-copy edition that I actually read on Sunday morning. The online headlines are different, but the stories are the same].

Both of these stories are horrific. If you can evade the paywall that may confront you as you seek these stories online, you can experience the horror of what they report, firsthand. I think both stories, which don't appear to be related, have something important in common. Both of the stories describe what can only end up as quite similar, and futile attempts to impose a system of governmental segregation, racial and religious, upon a world that is ever more clearly "one world," and a world in which all of us are coming to appreciate that fact. More and more, we realize that "we are all in this together." A news story earlier in August, focused on support for immigration in the United States, and that story indicates that the nation as a whole is not on board with the Miller-Trump effort to shut down immigration to our country. Emma Lazarus is winning the debate. 

I would say that this inevitable realization of our human unity is the "upside" of the global warming crisis. We really are "in this together," and that is increasingly obvious. To survive, all of us, of every race, religion, and nationality, will need to work together to redirect our human efforts in a completely new direction. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that. 

Bob Dylan said that!

This is good advice from two persons who were on the stage at the 1963 March on Washington.

I still have a dream, and you are included!

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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

#261 / Good Fortune

The Chinese character for "good fortune"

One Story recently mailed me a brief, seventeen-page story called "Good Fortune." The story takes place in a hotel, located sixty miles north of Miami. The patrons of this hotel - or many of them - are engaged in what is called "birth tourism." 

In the story, three notes were slipped, at different times, under the doors of three different persons. Consequences ensued. Here is what the first note said: 

You Will Be Found Out

Who wrote that first note, and who wrote the other two, and what did they mean? Of course, these are the questions that drive the story. The ending of the story reveals who wrote the first note. You'll have to read the whole story to find out about the other two. Here is the secret of the first note:

I am not sure I even want to tell you, it's so absurd, such a meaningless coincidence with which to begin or end a tale. But the truth about the first notes is this: a thirteen-year-old girl - the oldest daughter of an older woman on a second marriage and pregnant with twins - wrote it. She'd copied the idea out of a book she read. A prank, but an angry one, a protest. She was being sent to a boarding school, and this was her bitter goodbye. What was the point of more babies? Why, she wondered, did they feel the need to replace her?
The note wasn't wrong. Children do find us out. Sooner or later they realize we are so much weaker, more flawed, and more scared than they ever imagined, even when they were imagining the worst. And they find out because they, too, become weak and flawed and scared, at least the lucky ones do. I suppose it's the best we can hope for. Even weak and flawed and scared, sometimes we do all right. 
The girl intended to put a note under every hotel door, but she almost got caught on the very first one. The girl threw the rest of the notes into the hotel dumpster. Some of them are still there, plastered to the bottom. The rest have made it to the landfill. Except for the one that escaped on the wind. Maybe you've seen it?

It is good fortune, indeed, when we find ourselves out. It is good fortune, too, when others discover us and find out who we really are. When we are discovered, by ourselves and others, we learn that "even weak and flawed and scared ... we do all right." 

I like the idea of that note flying around out there: "You will be found out." 

Maybe You've Seen It?

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Tuesday, September 17, 2019

#260 / Someone Even Worse!

Stansberry Research provides investment advice. At least, that is what you will deduce from a visit to its website, which I have linked above. Click on that link and you will see how Stansberry Research is presenting itself to the world at large. 

If you click this link, on the other hand, you will find yourself presented with the image I have placed and the top of this blog posting, along with a video presentation narrated by someone named Bill Shaw, who is associated with Stansberry Research.* This link was sent to me in a recent email, which I duplicate below: 

Naturally, since I am following the Democratic Party presidential primaries rather closely, I was interested in what female candidate for president could possibly be "even worse" as a president than Hillary Clinton, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, or Michelle Obama. Could it be Kamala Harris? Or, what about Amy Klobuchar? Maybe the "even worse" candidate that is being talked about is Marianne Williamson. Whoever this person is, Stansberry Research claims that she is "practically guaranteed" to win!

Frankly, I don't know who Stansberry Research is talking about. I simply lost patience after five minutes or so, and if you'd like to watch the video, and to get the answer, you should be prepared to spend lots of time. The video is really an extended sales pitch for publications from Stansberry Research, and I got bored before the "punch line." The marketing plan here appears to be premised on the idea that if Stansberry Research can generate hysterical fears about the future of American politics then those people made hysterical will be persuaded that they need Stansberry's advice to protect themselves from economic disaster. If you are willing to listen to long minutes of finely-crafted hysteria, you can click this link to get access to the video and find out who that "even worse" female presidential candidate could possibly be. 

I do have a reaction to the approach being taken here. While I am quite distressed by the nature of our current politics (mostly worried about our current president and the Senatorial sycophants who are allowing him to hollow out our government), I refuse to be hysterical about our political and economic future. When we no longer have confidence in our system of self-government, we disempower ourselves. Whether you feel disempowered by concerns about incipient "socialism," or by fears of incipient "fascism," a belief that our government is now almost certainly guaranteed to do horrible things, and that our government is beyond our control, will undermine our ability to make our government do what we want. 

We actually do have the power to make our government operate on behalf of the people, but only when we become actively engaged in the political process. I am not afraid of getting engaged, and I am not going to let Stansberry Research, or anyone else, convince me that economic and political doom is "practically guaranteed." 
* Interestingly, I initially tried to post the video link to Facebook, intending to make a brief comment about it, and to make it available to my Facebook Friends, along with my comment. Facebook wouldn't let me post the link, saying that the link violated their community standards. 

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Monday, September 16, 2019

#259 / What I Like About Facebook

I have a Facebook page. I think if you click that link you'll get there. The picture above is not immediately visible on my Facebook page (not at the current time, anyway), but it has served, in the past, as my "Cover Photo." I love that picture, which I took myself. It shows a scene from downtown Santa Cruz, the town in which I live. I switch those Cover Photos around every once in awhile. Currently, my Facebook page features another photo that I love, a photo I took on the Great Barrier Reef, with black and white birds on the wing against turquoise waves.

At last look, I have something on the order of 3,000+ "Facebook Friends." Most of them come from around the Monterey Bay Region, or maybe from Sacramento. I don't know all my "Facebook Friends" personally, and the ones I do know personally are mostly not the kind of friends who are likely to invite me to their birthday parties or to drop in on me, unannounced, at dinner time.

That's fine with me, by the way!

I do have some other friends - they would want to be called my "real" friends - who are skeptical about my dedication to Facebook. And I would have to admit that I do spend a lot of time with Facebook. I post a lot of things on that Facebook page of mine, and I read a lot of what other people post. That takes time, and my "real" friends question my decision to spend so much time on Facebook. Also, those "real" friends believe that any kind of relationship based on the Internet is, inevitably, totally illusory. I don't agree, but they do have a point. "Real" relationships are not "viral" or "virtual." They involve flesh and blood in real physical contact.

There are also some real problems with the Facebook platform. I have studied some of those problems, which are serious, in connection with that course on "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom" that I teach at the University of California, Santa Cruz. One of those problems is Facebook's determination to vacuum up every shred of information about me that it can, which it then uses for its own dubious purposes, and which it essentially "sells" to those who want to try to persuade me to buy something - including persuading me to "buy" a particular political candidate. I have been told that our president, Donald Trump, is the largest single political purchaser of ads on Facebook. Information generated by my use of Facebook may, in a very real way, be providing him with the ability to influence people who have had some contact with my Facebook page.

I don't much like that!

Here is what I do like about Facebook: I like the fact that the "Facebook Friends" I see on my Facebook page, and their friends, and the friends of their friends, mostly come across as decent, caring, concerned, and intelligent people.

In order to redeem our politics - the urgent task that I think must be our highest priority - we need to come together to take effective political action. We can't do that unless we believe in the reliability and the worth of "we the people." We need to have confidence that the people who live in our local communities, and in the state in which we reside, and in the United States of America - and even, it's important to acknowledge, in other countries - are in fact good, decent, caring, concerned, and intelligent people, just as we are. We need to trust that there are many, many "good" people out there, beyond the people we are lucky enough to know in person. If we don't have faith that this is true, our willingness to take political action, in concert with others, will be much diminished.

To confront the challenges we face - these are huge challenges - and to realize our opportunities, we need to find ways to act together. We can't even begin to try to do that if we don't think that there are others out there who will respond to the same concerns that motivate us. When we know that others, too, are wrestling with the problems with which we are wrestling, and are, in great good faith, trying to do right, and to make change, and to manifest love over hate, and reconciliation over division, then we might be able to gain enough confidence to be willing to step beyond our personal routines, and to make common cause with people we don't yet know, and to take the actions we need to take, together.

We are going to have to do this, and we are going to have to do it soon. If we don't find the energy and the willingness to do that, it's another 200 dead reindeer, and then more dead reindeer, and then us.

When I post my thoughts and concerns to my Facebook page, and when I then see what people think - when I see what others say themselves - I am encouraged. I am energized. I grow in confidence that those "Facebook Friends" out there are, in the end, very much like my "real" friends, and that together we will be able to do what we know needs to be done. I know that many are willing to "make a change," as Michael Jackson says. I know that the hour is coming, too, the one Bob Dylan talks about, below, and that my "Facebook Friends," like my "real" friends, are ready for that hour!

That's what I like about Facebook.

Image Credit:
Gary A. Patton personal photograph

Sunday, September 15, 2019

#258 / Wanna Bet On It?

I recently found out that there is now a way to transform our national politics into an opportunity to make money by gambling. Or to lose money through gambling, if you really want to be honest about it.

Would you like to place a bet on what's going to happen in American politics? Click on the link to be transferred to PredictIt. An article by freelance writer Whitney Kimball, published in The Daily Dot, will give you some guidance before you put your money on the line. 

I am not very much tempted by this invitation to turn our all-too-typical "horse race political commentary" into a chance to gamble (just like on the real horse races). First, I am just not the betting kind! Second, I have an objection based on my deep concern about the future of politics in the United States. This idea of turning politics into a betting game gives me the shivers.

I believe we create our human world, the world upon which we most immediately depend, through the political actions we take, individually and collectively. I never tire of telling my students that the "equation" I set out below is the political equivalent of E = MC2

Einstein’s equation tells us about the incredible power that resides in the matter that constitutes the physical world. This is the World of Nature upon which we ultimately depend. The following equation tells us about the power that resides in politics, the activity that creates, sustains, and transforms our human world: 

Politics > Law > Government

Political “action” is what powers our institutions of self-government. “Betting” is an activity that is based on “observation.” We are, of course, both actors and observers, but democratic self-government is based on the idea that we must at some point stop "observing," and that we must take “action” to make things happen the way we want them to. 

Instead of “betting” on Elizabeth Warren, or Bernie Sanders, or Cory Booker, or Joe Biden, or Kamala Harris, or Julian Castro, my advice is to do something about it! Take action to support the person you want to represent you.

Political power comes from political action. Our political actions elect those who will represent us, and pass the laws by which we tell ourselves what we want to do.

If you care about self-government, you need to get involved, yourself, in the politics that will define our future. "Betting" on what is going to happen to us is the antithesis of trying to make things happen the way we want.

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Saturday, September 14, 2019

#257 / When It's Time To Make A Move

Raj Chetty
The Atlantic recently published an article titled, "The Economist Who Would Fix the American Dream."

Raj Chetty is the economist so identified, and according to The Atlantic, there is no question about whether or not Chetty will receive a Nobel Prize. The only question is when. The Atlantic article gives us the details of Chetty's formidable resume and lists his many accomplishments. He has already been awarded one of those MacArthur genius grants.

With respect to that "American Dream" deal, Chetty's research says that if you want to have the American Dream for your children, the best thing you can do is to move to an upper income area. "Moving" is the key thing. The article is worth reading, although the "insight" provided is certainly not going to be big news to any parent who cares about the future that his or her children will experience.

As it turns out, "moving" is exactly what my parents did, and to my benefit, when I was in first grade. 

At that time, my family lived in Redwood City, and I might well have been on my way to becoming a genuine juvenile delinquent. I had not yet attracted the official attention of law enforcement, but I was certainly heading in that direction. The Spanish word "travieso" means "naughty." I was definitely travieso! I can't remember all the incidents of shameful misbehavior in which I was involved, but there were a number of them. My parents must have been concerned. That might have been one of the reasons that they moved. 

At any rate, whether I was the cause or not, my parents did move from Redwood City to Palo Alto, a considerably more upscale environment, and while I continued to carry out minor depredations from my new home at 1201 Parkinson Avenue, adjacent to what was then the Palo Alto Military Academy, I ultimately shaped up and became a model citizen. Probably, my income-earning potential was improved, too, by my parents' move, and this is the main claim that Chetty makes. People should try to "move" to a better area as a way to "move up" to the American Dream. His statistics prove it works!

A nonprofit with which Chetty is associated, Opportunity Insights, is trying to develop programs to help families move to areas where their children will benefit from the increased opportunities found there. The group has "created a program with 'housing navigators,' who point participants toward areas with relatively high opportunity, help with credit-related issues, and even give neighborhood tours."

As I say, my personal experience convinces me that Chetty is definitely "on to something," but I doubt that the insight that underlies his efforts is any "news" to anyone. Moving to a better area, an area with more "social capital," as Chetty calls it, will definitely help the children of those able to make such moves. After the move, the children will advance more than they otherwise would. I have a hunch, though, that trying to do this in any large-scale way (and that is the ambition of Opportunity Insights) is not going to be easy. "Housing Navigators" won't be able to change the realities. In fact, it might be fair to question Chetty's probable eligibility for a Nobel Prize, if the award of that prize were to be based solely on his suggestion that the solution to poverty is for the family to move to a more upscale neighborhood. The problem, of course, isn't that parents don't ever think about "moving" as a worthwhile strategy for family success; the problem is that most families can't actually do it.

My advice to the Nobel Prize Committee is to keep looking, as the Committee considers upon whom to bestow its prize in economics. Speaking personally, I do want to give a shout out to my parents. They didn't have any "Housing Navigator" to help them find out where to move. They figured it out on their own. They didn't win the Nobel Prize, either. They were not awarded a MacArthur "Genius Grant." They were just really wonderful parents.

Luckily for me, my parents were in an economic position that allowed them to make that move. I think we need to consider the issue of income inequality as we think about that "just move" advice that Chetty is providing. As Bernie Sanders has been saying since 2016, and before, we need to rearrange our politics to redress that 1% / 99% imbalance that is the real cause of many of our problems.

There are a LOT of wonderful parents out there! Let's make sure our political decisions give them the economic wherewithal to "make the move" that can change their family's future!

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Friday, September 13, 2019

#256 / It's Time To Learn A New Word

stan, n. - An overzealous or obsessive fan of someone, esp. a particular celebrity.

The New York Times wants to improve our vocabulary, all the better to help us understand our parlous political situation. In a special section published on Thursday, September 12, 2019, The Times talks about the "Stanning of American Democracy." For those not acquainted with the word "stan," the newspaper defines it, as above.

The contents of The Times' special section is presented in two different articles in its online edition. "United We Stan" provides the argument. "How Fan Culture is Swallowing Democracy" provides examples.

Amanda Hess is responsible for both articles, which have been joined together in a special section in the print edition of The Times. Hess suggests that our democracy has been "reimagined" as fandom. She goes even further, in fact, to suggest that such "fandom" is now "the dominant mode of experiencing politics."

I commend these articles to you. They are definitely worth reading, and worth thinking about. They are fun, too! I subscribe to The Times, so I never have any trouble accessing their online content. I hope those reading this blog posting will be able to penetrate any paywall obstacles that The Times may have erected for non-subscribers. The questions that The Times is addressing are important.

Absent your recourse to the originals, here is my brief synopsis: Hess and The Times are arguing that our politics has now been swallowed up by our appetite for "entertainment," and that serious politics, and serious news, have now pretty much disappeared, as we all turn into "fans" of the political views that most appeal to us. More and more, we use "memes" both to promote and to oppose the political actors whom we either like, or dislike. Reasoned discussion and debate is disappearing, and our "Ship of State" is heading for the rocks.

Let me restate that.

In view of the fact that the American electorate has placed Donald J. Trump into the presidency, I think Hess and The Times are actually saying that we have definitively "hit" the rocks. Many of those reading this blog posting would probably concur. Unfortunately, if you agree with this observation, The Times goes on to suggest that the phenomenon is not limited to our current president. All the major Democratic Party candidates have turned into "memes," the way The Times sees it, and that means that The Times doesn't see any help on the horizon. We are "on" the rocks, in other words, not just "heading that way."

My reaction to The Times' analysis turns on my belief that any genuine politics depends on us understanding that the role of a citizen is to be an "actor," not an "observer." As long as we relate to politics by "experiencing" politics - which is the way The Times characterizes politics, in the quotation I have provided above - democracy is definitely "on the rocks" with no good future in store.

We are not, however, only "observers" of the world. We create the world through our own actions, and that is what it takes to be a citizen: ACTION.

And the time for that action is NOW.

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Thursday, September 12, 2019

#255 / Just Think Of It!

"Just think of it, Charles - yesterday I was a caterpillar, and tomorrow I'll be dead!"
I happened to come across this New Yorker cartoon, published in the August 19, 2019, edition, the day after I watched the 2013 movie About Time, which is available on Netflix. Those who have access to that streaming entertainment smorgasbord are certainly encouraged to watch the movie! Wikipedia synopsizes About Time in this way: 

About Time is a 2013 British romantic comedy-drama film about a young man with the ability to time travel who tries to change his past in hopes of improving his future. The film was written and directed by Richard Curtis, and stars Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams and Bill Nighy. The film received mixed reviews from critics. The review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a rating of 70%, based on 154 reviews, with an average rating of 6.36/10. At the box office it grossed $87.1 million against a $12 million budget.

I am not, in general, a fan of either romantic comedies or "sci-fi" type movies of any kind. About Time, however, gets a very good review in my book because of its wonderful portrayal of a father-son relationship, and because of its ultimate message, valuable for we non-time-traveling types. 

The premise of the movie is that the young man mentioned in the Wikipedia write up, who is at the center of all the action, is informed very early in the film that he has the ability to travel backwards through time, an ability that is handed down, in his family, from father to son. 

At the end of the film, after the father has died, the son keeps making trips back to earlier times, so he can be with his father again. He has to be careful, of course, not to do anything very significant while he is back in time, lest he really screw up the future in which he is, actually, then living. Ultimately, the son realizes that he needs to say goodbye to his father in some final way, because his wife is pregnant, and he has already had a demonstration that time-traveling can really have an impact on the time-traveler's wife. He just can't risk it. Much as he loves his father, he has to let him go.

So, at the end, both father and son get to think about what it means to be alive. The cartoon from The New Yorker reminded me of the film's ultimate statement on this topic, as the son recounts how life has been, since his days of repeated time-traveling: 

I think that I have learned my final lesson from my travels in time. I have even gone one step further than my father did [the father having told his son that the father used time travel to go back to the start of each day, and to live it over again, and thus to realize, for each day he has lived, how wonderful it is to be alive]. 
The truth is I now don't travel back at all, not even for the day. I just try to live every day as if I have deliberately come back to this one day to enjoy it as if it were the full final day of my extraordinary, ordinary life.

Just think of it! How magical it truly is.Yesterday I was a caterpillar!

And today......!

And today, how glorious it is to be alive, as we most mysteriously are!

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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

#254 / Franzen (On Not Pretending Anymore)

Jonathan Franzen (pictured) has written a controversial article in The New Yorker. His article was published on September 8th, and is titled, "What If We Stopped Pretending?" Franzen's article mentions my hometown, Santa Cruz, California, and it specifically mentions one of our most beloved nonprofit organizations, The Homeless Garden Project

I was fortunate enough to have heard Franzen present this article in a speech made at a benefit for The Homeless Garden Project, on Saturday, August 24th. Franzen's speech was, I think, one of the most powerful personal presentations I have ever heard. I would like you to read his article! As far as I know, The New Yorker will let you have access to the article even if you are not a subscriber. Franzen's article should appear before you if you click this link.

Some people don't like what Franzen had to say about global warming. The Business Insider, for instance, headlined its review as follows: "Scientists blast Jonathan Franzen's 'climate doomist' opinion column as 'the worst piece on climate change.'" The Nation magazine has also published an article, by Jeet Herr, that takes issue with what Franzen has to say. Read those articles, too, and come to your own conclusion. Both Franzen and The New Yorker declined to comment on the characterization of his article by Business Insider.

As you might imagine, I think Franzen has the best of the argument, vis a vis the Business Insider. I think The Nation's article should be taken more seriously, but I end up not reading the Franzen piece the way The Nation has. Normally, I would quote something from Franzen's article right here, to let you know why I think the article is so important. However, I would really like anyone who reads this blog posting to read Franzen's article in its entirety. Click the link, read Franzen's article, and come to your own conclusion.

Franzen suggests that we are fooling ourselves if we think that we can "stop" a worldwide climate catastrophe. Maybe "theoretically," he concedes, but not "really." Having come to this conclusion (and he makes a pretty good case), Franzen ends up suggesting that it is this understanding of our current situation that can liberate us to begin taking action to make positive changes in the world. 

Making positive changes in the world is exactly what we have to do. And we have to imagine change on a scale that will allow each one of us to act, to do just that. 

A friend of mine, who had not heard Franzen present this article at The Homeless Garden benefit, read the article in The New Yorker and then immediately sent a bulletin to all her friends, urging them to read the article, too. In other words, my friend was making exactly the same suggestion to her friends that I am making to you. 

In sending me her bulletin, appealing to me to read Franzen's article, my friend said this:

Somehow  it gave me hope for the future of our world.

My reaction is exactly the same!

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Tuesday, September 10, 2019

#253 / Who Are You Going To Believe?

Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?

Groucho Marx, widely believed to have been one of America's greatest comedians, may well have been the one who asked this question first. Groucho is pictured above. Supposedly, this question about who to believe was posed by a husband to his wife, right after the wife caught the husband in flagrante delicto with another woman. My research (quite brief) has not actually resolved the question of provenance. Other attributions are also common

I got to thinking about this quote (which suggests that the truth might be something quite different from what you see) as I read an article published in Amor Mundi, the weekly blog of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. The article, by Uday S. Mehta, poses this question: "Is Lying A Political Virtue?

Mehta teaches political science in the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), and his article contrasts the views of Hannah Arendt with the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi. Those persons who might be surprised to learn that Arendt can credibly be cited in support of the proposition that lying is a political virtue, might want to check out what Mehta has to say. Gandhi believed in satyagraha, of course, and so he is definitely an advocate for "clinging to the truth" in every situation. 

I have always considered Arendt to be an extremely truthful person, a truth-teller to the core. How is it, then, that she can say, "Truthfulness has never been counted among political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings?" This quotation from Arendt, featured in the very first paragraph of Mehta's article, is meant to suggest that Arendt justified and approved, however reluctantly, the use of lying as a "virtue" within the political realm.

Is this a fair interpretation? I think not. Arendt is describing the reality of political life. She is speaking, in other words, as an "observer." Gandhi almost never spoke as an "observer." In Gandhi's writings, he does not formulate his main point as a description of "how things are." Gandhi almost always speaks as an "actor," outlining what he thinks would be the right thing to do in whatever situation he is discussing.

As I have developed my personal philosophy of politics and life, I have come to see that this distinction between being an "observer," and being an "actor," is a distinction of critical importance. In his Eleven Theses on Fuerbach, Marx makes the point quite well: 

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

I am with Marx on this observation! Call me a "Marxist" if that makes you feel good! 

I don't know if Arendt ever said anything about this quote from Eleven Theses on Fuerbach, but she would not, I think, have ever put herself forward as an "activist," or as a political "actor." Gandhi, of course, would have. Gandhi wanted to change the world, not just describe all of its problems and possibilities. I am with Gandhi on that!

Lying is a fact of life in politics - at least in the kind of politics with which we are most directly acquainted. So when Arendt provides a description of politics, Arendt is absolutely correct in what she says. I know of no statement by Arendt, however, and Mehta doesn't advance one, in which Arendt suggests that lying is a positively "good thing," in the political realm, and thus is virtuous in that sense. I know what Machievelli would say, but I don't recall any statement from Arendt that suggests that we, as "actors," should make use of lies whenever convenient to achieve a laudable political goal. But aside from what Arendt says, what about Machievelli? Should we, in fact, fill our politics with lies to achieve positive poltical objectives? It's an important question.

I think of things from an "actor's" perspective, and the question of whether or not we should we lie to achieve what we have convinced ourselves will be positive political results needs to be taken quite seriously. It's a typical "ends and means" question: do the "ends" justify the "means?" My own bias (built upon my Quaker experience) is definitely on the side of Gandhi. As I recall an antiwar slogan from my youth: "There is no way to peace; peace is the way." In a very similar fashion, I profoundly doubt that it is possible to lie one's way to any political result worth working for.

Mehta's article points out that our "politics" is, largely, a Hobbesian construction, and that we establish political entities, and then defend them, based on fear. We fear that without a political entity to shield us from other individuals (and then from other political entities), we will be exposed to and succumb to violence. Thus, we need to band ourselves together, and to defend ourselves at all costs (including by way of using violence ourselves). Building our politics upon lies is definitely helpful, as we try to defend ourselves against an endemic fear that permeates every aspect of our common life together. 

Mehta's article is worth reading. It certainly made me think about the role of truth in politics. But then, what about that question I pose at the top of this blog posting? Do you believe ME, or your lying eyes?

If our political life together is, in fact (as Arendt says), inherently influenced by lies, then what do we "see," when we confront our politics as "observers?" We see "lies," of course, and what we "see" should not, in fact, be believed. Our "eyes" do lie to us about the ultimate nature of our political relationships. What we hear from Congress, the President, and the press is almost certainly a compound containing much untruth. "Fear" has distorted the actual truth of our political life, so we no longer believe that we can, by simply joing togethert in political action, create a new and different human reality. 

When I tell you that politics is the salvation for us all, and when I say that joining together in direct political action - person to person - can and will redeem our world, I want you to believe me. 

So who are you going to believe? 

Me, or your lying eyes!

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Monday, September 9, 2019

#252 / Meet Your Microbiome

For every cell in your body, there’s another tiny single-celled creature that also calls your body home. Far from being germs we should eradicate, these ancient friends allow us to digest food, breathe air, and fight off disease. They were here long before us and will undoubtedly remain long after we’re gone. They are our microbiome ...

The illustration above, and the quotation that follows, are from a website advertisement for a conference presentation that was made in June, 2018, at the World Science Festival. Both the illustration and the quotation suggest that human beings are not really distinct from, and unconnected to, the incredibly complex Worldwide Web of Nature that sustains all life. 

It has always been our human tendency to see human beings as distinct from all other forms of life. Animals, plants, microorganisms and whatever: we're different! We are more important, and "better," too!

It appears that we may have been seriously wrong about some of our fundamental ideas about who we are! "We" are a complex mix of human genetic material and independently-existing organisms. We can't really go it alone. 

A fabulously wealthy tech-guy, whose headquarters erection now dominates the San Francisco skyline (see below), has decided it would be good for humans to get a better handle on the microbiome, all the better to manipulate it for what we, as human beings, decide is in our best interest. The high-tech guy to whom I refer is Marc Benioff, founder, Chairman, and Co-CEO of Salesforce. He and his wife Lynne have recently given $35 million to UCSF and Stanford. The objective is to spur research on how we can manipulate the microbiome to achieve therapeutic results.

Thinking of "science" as the front door to useful technologies that can benefit human beings is the way we usually think of it. There is another approach to science, however, and that is to see "science" as a window onto the wonder of life itself. We might best practice science not to gain power over Nature but to behold its splendor and majesty. As we meet our microbiome we are finding out that "we" are not the persons we thought we were. This deserves some "wonder," I think, before we start trying to make technical changes to this mysterious web of life that we have clearly not really understood up until now. 

A quest to "understand," which is at the root of all science, inevitably begins with our "standing under," looking up, as at the stars, and simply beholding reality in all its mystery and majesty. I am thinking that we should probably meet our microbiome in this spirit of wonder, and not in an immediate effort to manipulate it through technique. 

The effort to achieve human domination, our immediate instinct, expresses itself in a visually impressive way in the Salesforce Tower on the San Francisco skyline. But there is another approach to Nature and to life. Wonder, not an effort to dominate, is perhaps our better option.

Since my visit to Assisi, I am tempted to say: "Marc, let me introduce you to my good friend Francis!"

The Salesforce Tower

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Sunday, September 8, 2019

#251 / On Not Getting The Point

I have been visiting Assisi, the home of Saint Francis. You probably know the story of Saint Francis, at least in general. I found it quite moving to hear the story again, as told by a guide who provided a very small group of us with a tour of Assisi, introducing us to a number of churches where Francis had worshipped, and where it is possible to see the relics of his life.

Francis was born to a wealthy family. While still young, Francis was called to follow Jesus, and to lead a life of poverty. His father was not pleased. Francis nonetheless "persisted," to use a word that Elizabeth Warren has helped make prominent as a description of a person who will not bend personal principle to conform to the wishes of the powers that be. Francis' father was one of those "powers." Francis put a life of wealth and privilege behind him, and in an early action that infuriated his father, took monies from the family business to restore two small churches. Francis had felt himself called to "restore the church," and he began his work of restoration by engaging in a very physical reconstruction of two churches which were falling into ruin. 

One of the two churches that Francis restored is now called Porziuncola, or Portiuncula, in Latin. Literally, the word means "a small portion of land." A picture of the small church can be seen above (ignore the surroundings for the moment). I visited this small church personally, and sat inside. Its outside dimensions, I would estimate, are something like 20 feet wide by 30 feet, long, and perhaps 30 feet in height. It truly sits on a VERY "small portion of land." And it sits, still, in its original location. It is the Church in which Francis died.

Now, let's talk about the surroundings. The photo below is a picture of the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, located in the valley below the hill city of Assisi. Its scale is monumental, rivaling the very largest cathedral you can imagine. As you can see from the first photo, the Portiuncula sits inside the walls of the Basilica, which has been built around it, surrounding it. The little church is like a very small sparrow in an immense cage, a cage so large that an eagle would feel free to soar without limit.

The "humility" of the Portiuncula may not be immediately apparent from the picture at the top of this blog posting. The spectacular illumination of the church makes it appear lustrous and ornate. The actual church is anything but that. It is simple. It is basic. It is, in fact, a perfect representation of the message of Francis of Assisi. The Basilica, on the other hand, is a monument to a powerful church that has not quite gotten the point. It is ironic, in the extreme, that the preaching of Francis, which asked us to live simply, and which finds a physical representation in the little church that he restored, has been captured, and swallowed up, by a Church that would benefit from learning, once more, the lessons that Francis taught. 

We, too, should learn from the little church, and not pursue the example of the grand Basilica. The lessons of Saint Francis are exactly the lessons we need to remember today!

Image Credit:
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(2) - Gary A. Patton, personal photo

Saturday, September 7, 2019

#250 / Earth Alienation

On June 29, 2019, Roger Berkowitz published an essay he called, "Human Being in an Inhuman Age." Berkowitz is an Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights, and is the Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. My advice is to subscribe to the Hannah Arendt Center newsletter, Amor Mundi, and to read what Berkowitz and other contributors have to say as the newsletter comes to your inbox each week. 

In his recent essay, linked above, Berkowitz has this to say: 

For Hannah Arendt, the launch of Sputnik ... was ... an event “second in importance to no other.”  Sputnik meant that human beings had taken a real step toward actualizing a long-wished-for goal: to escape the earth. In Arendt’s telling of the story, earth alienation is part and parcel of the all-too-human dream of freeing ourselves from our humanity. Sputnik’s launch thus signified not simply the lowering of humanity’s stature, but humanity's destruction of humanity itself. 
By destroying humanity, Arendt does not mean the replacement of working people by robots or even the possibility of nuclear Armageddon. The danger Sputnik poses to humanity is something else. She names the danger “earth alienation.”  
At the core of Arendt's concept of earth alienation is her imagination of earthliness as an inextricable part of the human condition. As Arendt writes, “The Earth is the very quintessence of the human condition . . . ” 
For Arendt, to be human is to be earthly. We are born. We die. We make our way in a world that is mysterious. While we humans can also make and remake our human condition, our earthliness remains as the simple fact that our lives on earth are ultimately subject to fate and fortune beyond our control. The earth is Arendt’s name for that one condition of man’s world—his being a free gift from nowhere—that has been part of the human condition since the beginning of human history.

I have advanced what I call the "Two Worlds Hypothesis," which suggests that we cannot really understand our existence without understanding that we live in "two worlds," simultaneously. We usually don't make this distinction, and many of our most difficult problems come from the fact that we don't. We conflate our two-fold existence to the idea that we live in one world only. This is the human world that we create, that "political world" that I reference in the title to this daily blog. 

While we do, most immediately, live in a world that we create together, we ultimately live in and must depend upon the "World of Nature," too. This is the "World that God Created," to use a religious language that seems fine to me, but that many people might not like. That World of Nature is "mysterious," as Arendt mentions in the quotation provided by Berkowitz. We didn't create it, and yet here we are! We are totally dependent upon that World of Nature. In any ultimate sense, we are creatures, not creators.

To be honest - as Arendt always sought to be ruthlessly honest - we try to avoid recognizing that our human world is, in fact, wholly dependent upon a world that we did not create, and a world into which we have been most mysteriously born. Our world takes second place to the "World of Nature," or the "World that God Created." You can pick some other way to describe it, if you like, but by whatever name we call it, this is the world that ultimately sustains all life, and upon which we are totally dependent. 

Since human beings have gone to space, we can now see that the World of Nature that sustains us is nothing other than Earth itself. Remember, if we are honest, we need to confess that human beings have always resented being dependent upon a Creator, or upon anything or anyone else. This is one of the points that Arendt is making. Call it arrogance, or call it pride, human beings arrogate to themselves their supposed right to determine what will and should exist. The picture at the top of today's blog posting illustrates one of the things that Berkowitz is saying about Arendt's view of how human beings regard the Earth. Human beings have always wanted to escape the Earth, and to escape our dependency upon it, and this is a dangerous very wish. The picture suggests that it is we who "take care of the Earth," when the exact opposite is the case. The Earth takes care of us!

Alienation from the Earth is leading us to the end of our "human world," the world that we usually call human "civilization." Our efforts to escape from the constraints that Earth imposes, and to disregard its laws, are not a route (as we suppose) to liberation. They are the efforts that mark our doom. 

Remember those two hundred dead reindeer. First the reindeer; then us!

If you would like to take your theology (and political theory) by way of the music of Bob Dylan, you can watch this video of Dylan singing "License to Kill" on the Dave Letterman show. Dylan's lyrics start out with this observation:

Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth
He can do with it as he please
And if things don't change soon, he will
Oh, man has invented his doom
First step was touching the moon ...

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Friday, September 6, 2019

#249 / Tax Carbon To Death?

I have a lot of friends who think we should deal with the global warming crisis by "taxing carbon to death." In These Times, a publication that generally leans to the left, ran an "Up For Debate" item in its September 2019 issue. Owen Poindexter advocated a "Tax Carbon to Death" approach, arguing that a carbon tax would be the best way to eliminate the hydrocarbon emissions that are putting life on this planet in peril.

Cynthia Mellon, policy coordinator at the Climate Justice Alliance, argued to the contrary. Her article claimed that "Carbon taxes will, at best, reduce emissions only modestly." Putting carton "to death" is definitely what we need to do. Can we do that simply by taxing it? Mellon said, "no," and I think Mellon won the debate. 

Like California's "Cap and Trade" approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a "carbon tax" attempts to bypass direct regulation and to utilize "the market" to achieve a needed result. I am for the direct approach!

If we are in a crisis situation, and we are, then I think we need, collectively, to tell everyone who is now emitting greenhouse gases to stop doing that at the earliest time possible, and if such emissions cannot be completely eliminated then to reduce such emissions to the maximum degree that can be achieved. A carbon tax, like the "Cap and Trade" program, attempts to let everyone believe that we can pretty much continue doing what we are doing now, and that the "market" will deal with the problems, and achieve the changes we need to make, if only we can get the pricing right. 

To me, this "tax carbon to death" approach is simply a way to avoid looking at the problem directly in its very bloodshot eye. If there is a way to reduce emissions, we need to reduce those emissions immediately. As politically difficult as that might be, that is really the only way to deal with our global warming crisis. The direct approach is not always "friendly," but that's what we need to do.

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Thursday, September 5, 2019

#248 / No Exceptions? How Utopian Is That?

In November 2019, the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) is holding its annual meeting in Washington, D.C. If you would like to learn more, or sign up to attend, you should click this link. "This year," say the organizers, those in attendance will "lobby our government to end its strategy of endless war."

Wow! That sounds pretty utopian!

Utopian or not - and I definitely do have a soft spot for utopian thinking - it is undeniably true, as the conference organizers point out, that "nearly two decades of war hasn’t brought more peace."

Since that is true, let's reverse the polarity of one of John Lennon's favorite sayings and consider what that can tell us. We have, clearly, "given war a chance." It's time to try another approach.

The prescription to "Love Thy Neighbor (No Exceptions)," which is definitely a different approach, isn't really "utopian," the way I see it. It is actually pragmatic advice designed to help achieve human survival.

Human survival is in question. Can we make the changes we need to make? You can call it "utopian" if you want to, but I don't think we have much choice.

If we don't change our game plan, it's "game over."

You don't have to be a Quaker to go to the FCNL Annual Conference. If you want to try to change the world this November, you can sign up right here.

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Wednesday, September 4, 2019

#247 / What Would George Say?

Pretty soon, right at the end of September, I'll be teaching a course at UCSC on the "Political and Ethical Implications of Emerging Technologies." The class will be doing some reading in George Orwell's 1984

I am thinking of ordering one of these shirts for the occasion. 

Seems about right!

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Tuesday, September 3, 2019

#246 / Reflections On Compromise

I was an elected official for twenty years. Not in Congress, admittedly. Not in the State Legislature. I  was a member of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, from 1975 to 1995. As a County Supervisor, I was one of five persons who were elected, from different districts, to run Santa Cruz County. 

Many of the issues faced by the Board, during the time I served as an elected official, were extremely controversial. Specifically, our Board was required to address growth and land use issues upon which the community was very significantly divided. I happened to represent a district in which the majority of the voters clearly wanted to slow down or even terminate the runaway growth that was affecting Santa Cruz County. That majority also wanted to preserve and provide permanent protection to agricultural and open space lands. The majority in favor of doing these things was not a large majority. I was on the "anti-growth" and "pro-conservation" side of the public debate, and while I won election five different times, I think I never got more than about 55% of the vote. 

I think it is fair to say that many people regarded me as "uncompromising." That was a "negative," in their view, and not a positive characterization. I was continually tempted, during my entire time on the Board, to "compromise" just a little bit, and to try to make more people happy. This idea was presented to me in pretty much the way that the Uncle Sam / Joe Biden figure above is making a pitch for compromise to the nation today. Compromise, as some see it, is a positive good. That is what Joe is telling us. The public interest wants YOU to compromise. Nobody gets everything they want, and everyone gets something!

I pretty much resisted this temptation. I did everything I could to win a vote for the policies I thought were the ones desired by the majority of the voters I represented, and policies that would be effective in achieving the objectives they desired. If I could get three votes for those policies, then I was almost totally unwilling to "compromise" those policies, in order to go from three votes to four, or from four votes to five. 

To give a specific example, I could get three votes for language that said that agricultural land "shall" be preserved for agricultural use. Period. No exceptions. I refused to provide any escape hatch language, saying things like "agricultural land shall be preserved for agricultural use, unless a finding is made that the public interest is best served by a conversion of such lands to more productive uses." I got lots of invitations to vote for language like that. If I had three votes for my language, I always refused. You can see how I got that "uncompromising" reputation.


I would like to outline my thinking on "compromise," since I do think that compromise can sometimes be a sign of political good health. Sometimes! But not as a goal!

Our system of democratic self-government is a system that recognizes that there are lots of different ideas about what we should do. Should we tax the wealthy more, or not? Should we go to war in Iran, or not? Should we reconfigure our national health care system, or not? Should we impose rent control, or not? There are different views on these questions, and also different interests. So, how do we decide? Politics is how we decide, and in politics, the majority is supposed to rule.

My idea, then, has always been that any elected official should work to achieve what the majority of that official's constituents think should be done. In my case, the majority of my constitutents wanted slow growth and strong policies to protect agricultural and open space lands. A significant minority didn't agree. My idea was to represent the majority. As long as I could get three votes for strong policies to achieve the objectives that the majority wanted, I thought it was my obligation to use those votes to enact laws that would put such policies in place. I well knew, and the voters well knew, that my ability to advocate for, and vote for, policies that I supported could be terminated by having someone run against me and beat me in the next election. I took that for granted. That is how the system works. 

I thought that working to enact strong slow-growth and environmental protection policies was what a majority of my constituents wanted, and I could have been wrong. As it turned out, I was right. About 55% of the voters in the Third Supervisorial District wanted the kind of policies that I helped get adopted. I would have been betraying that majority if I had settled for less than what they wanted, in the hopes that by doing that I might make myself more popular. Many politicians take a different approach, which means that they often try to make sure that the government doesn't actually do anything significant at all, since if a politician votes to have the government do something significant someone is going to be mad at them.

Of course, I didn't always get those three votes on the Board. The "goal" was always to get those votes, and to have the government do what the majority of my constituents wanted. But when I couldn't do that, when I couldn't get a majority on the Board to support the policies that I thought were right, then "compromise," getting the "best deal" available, made a lot of sense. I was not, actually, "uncompromising," but I only compromised when I didn't have the votes. 

That's my rule on compromise. Do what you think is right, if you can get the votes, and if you can't, then do the best you can!

Because people have different views, and different interests, compromise is sometimes inevitable and is a practical necessity. It is inherent, in fact, in the political process, and if we can't compromise, we have a big problem. We absolutely need to be able to compromise, but compromise is not the "goal." 

Unfortunately, our national politics has degenerated into a winner-take-all approach in which compromise is rejected. That is as bad as compromising the right decision when you don't have to. 

Let's remember that we have two political parties for a reason. There are almost always good arguments for both sides of any policy disagreement. Politics is how we decide what to do, in view of those different ideas. 

The first rule for any elected official should always be to try to win the argument, and to get the policies enacted that will achieve what the majority of that politician's constituents want. That should be the goal for any elected official. If an elected official can't win the argument, then compromise may well be in order. 

Compromise? Sure. Sometimes! But never as the goal!

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