Friday, December 4, 2020

#339 / The Demandingness Objection


Kelsey Piper, pictured above, is a staff writer for Vox, an online news provider. If you want to, you can subscribe to the Vox "Future Perfect" newsletter for free. That is, apparently, where Piper most frequently holds forth. The purpose of the "Future Perfect" newletter is to discuss and to provide guidance on how to make the world better. Philosophically speaking, this effort to "make the world better" has an official name: "Effective Altruism." The British-based Centre for Effective Altruism defines it this way: "Effective altruism is about using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis." Effective altruism is Kelsey Piper's field of interest and endeavor.

One of my friends, who subscribes to "Future Perfect," emailed me a copy of the Kelsey Piper column I am republishing below. I couldn't find the column anywhere online, to provide a link, so I am including the column here in its entirety. There is really just one short phrase in the column upon which I want to focus. The phrase, or term, was new to me - though not the concept that the phrase describes. It is a phrase that is used in connection with a discussion of moral and ethical issues: 

The Demandingness Objection
That's the phrase! Does everybody know about that? As I say, I didn't!

In her column, Kelsey Piper describes the "demandingness objection" by way of example. For instance, it may be ethically or morally legitimate to demand that those who have the ability to help the poor should do so. But how much are those who have the ability to help the poor supposed to do? Maybe, says Piper, it really ought to be a reasonable moral requirement that a person give, say, 10% of that person's income to help the poor. But what about a claim that they should give 50%, or everything? That just seems to be an excessive demand - or, at least, many might think so. Objection to a moral or ethical demand that seems excessive is the "demandingness objection."

When you think about it, this "demandingness objection" is an objection that a person might make with some frequency, in lots of different contexts, when that person is trying to understand and decide what she or he should do. 

Take politics, for instance, which is my field of interest and endeavor. I am frequently saying that if we want to maintain our system of democratic self-government, then we have to get involved ourselves. Someone reading that statement might well agree that this makes sense, and understand that the statement is making a moral claim upon that person's life and time. If a person truly cares about democratic self-government, that person needs to sacrifice some or all of the life they are then leading to do something new, by way of getting involved in politics and government. My frequently made statement is actually a demand that people should start sacrificing at least some portion of their current life in order to carry out what they will probably admit is a recognized moral or ethical imperative, maintaining democratic self-government.

Let's be honest. The demand I am really talking about is not on some third party. I am basically talking about myself. My life is rather comfortable. I am happy with it, and I am doing many positive things both for myself and others - or, I can convince myself that I am. Yet I see that democratic self-government is gravely threatened, and I want to preserve and protect it. I know I need to do at least a little bit more. The Great Wave is on its way, just as I said in an earlier blog posting. 

"We" - and of course that means "I" - need to confront horrendous income inequality, pervasive racial injustice, environmental degradation, and the global warming crisis - and maybe that's just for a start. Caitlin Johnstone had a slightly different list, which also could be a good starting place. The point is, I see that something must be done, and I know that this means that I, personally, need to do something. I also know that to do something meaningful, I am going to have to change my current life, and probably significantly, in order to respond to the moral and ethical demands I count as legitimate.

Here is where the "demandingness objection" is vigorously unfurled in the back of my mind. I am already doing at least some things to counteract the possible loss of democratic self-government and to confront those other challenges I have just mentioned. Isn't that enough? How could it be right to demand even more?

Learning about the "demandingness objection" gives me a new way to think about my personal reluctance to take steps to change my life in response to what I truly do see as a moral and ethical imperative. We are "actors," I say - I say that a lot, too - and we are not just "observers." That means that I, personally, am supposed to act. Yet, that "demandingness objection" keeps ambushing me and holding me hostage. Certainly, I think, I can't really be expected to do that! "That" being some thought I might have had of something I might do that would require some real change.

A famous Quaker story has George Fox (the first Quaker) talking to William Penn. Though Penn was growing in his acceptance of the nonviolent message of Fox, Penn still routinely wore his sword as he walked aound the town, which was typical of men of his rank and fashion. What should I do about this sword, Penn asked Fox? Well, Fox told him, "wear your sword as long as you can." Reportedly, the next time Fox and Penn crossed paths, Penn had given up the sword. 

Reading Kelsey Piper on the "demandingness objection" has not only introduced me to a new ethical concept. I quickly came to see this term as a species of self-generated objection, an objection that bridles at a moral or ethical calling that seems to want "too much," that demands too much of a sacrifice, and that asks for too much change, and some sort of disproportionate submission to the moral claims that call out to me. 

In this understanding of the concept, the objection is just like Penn's sword, a weapon of defense carried simply out of custom and convenience but one to be kept at the ready. That's what the "demandingness objection" means to me. The way I am thinking about it, it is clear that I will be able to maintain that "demandingness objection" only so long. In fact, with thanks to my friend for sending me Kelsey Piper's little essay on the "demandingness objection," my mind is captured in the music of one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs: "I Feel A Change Comin' On."



Hey readers,


In most years, we anticipate the holidays with joy. But I don’t think anyone I know is feeling that way this year. For many of us, the holidays will likely be lonely, quiet, punctuated with Zoom calls instead of hugs. I vividly remember calling my parents at the end of February to tell them to cancel a planned trip to see me and our three-month-old baby in April. It won’t be safe for a while, I said.


I had no idea it would be this long.


Last week, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo posted a column about his struggle with the dilemma of wanting to be with your family for the holidays but also wanting to do the right thing for public health. He described tracing the contacts his family had, realizing that what they thought of as fairly safe behavior actually opened them up to secondhand exposure from hundreds of people, and deciding to go see his family for Thanksgiving anyway. The article was met with outrage and has since been tweaked (it now describes the get-together as an outdoor dinner, which is safer).


But when I read the initial version, I didn’t feel outrage. I felt a jolt of recognition. It is weirdly common to look at the evidence, conclude that, yes, Thanksgiving this year poses substantial risk of killing someone, and then be tempted to do it anyway.


This leads to a concept I’ve been thinking about lately. I’m in the effective altruist community, where we spend a lot of time discussing the best ways we can improve the world. In that community, there’s an argument we have a lot.


It’s over something called the “demandingness objection.” That’s an unwieldy phrase that gets at a pretty simple concept: acting in a moral way can sometimes demand too much from us.


Most people have a sense that morality ought to be, well, reasonable. It might demand that we donate a little to charity, but it doesn't demand that we donate everything to charity. It might demand that we sacrifice for others, but it doesn’t propose boundless, unending, infinite sacrifices. That’s why some people conclude we ought to donate 10 percent of income to charity — that's enough to make a huge difference but not so onerous on one’s standard of living. And it feels like morality should be allowed to ask that of us, but not allowed to ask everything of us.


But sometimes it does ask everything of us.


I believe that if you were in Nazi Germany, morality would demand that you hide your Jewish neighbors — even though this might mean sacrificing everything. I believe that if you were in the rest of the world, morality might demand fighting Nazi Germany, even if that meant sacrificing your life. I believe in the moral urgency of abolitionism, of smallpox eradication, of a thousand triumphs won through the unreasonable sacrifices of people who should never have been asked to make them. I believe that the moral urgency that’s easy to see in the past is sometimes present in the present, too.

Now, it is healthy, important, and essential to the functioning of thriving moral communities that we build a conception of morality that is self-sustaining and meaningful, that does not burn or bum us out, that does not demand infinite sacrifices in a way no one can relate to and achieve. It is a strike against a moral system if people cannot actually live it.


All that said, I think it is too convenient to believe that morality will never ask far too much of us.


This year, what morality asks of us is clear. When people avoid indoor unmasked gatherings with others, we slow the spread of the virus enough that the people who are sick can get good care, instead of dying in hospital waiting rooms. We prevent some infections entirely. We save lives.


And yet it does feel like morality asks far too much of us. Many people have been forced to risk their lives working in dangerous conditions to provide health care to dying people. Many people have missed their children, been unable to return to their home country, grieved alone when funerals were disallowed.


Even for the luckiest among us, this year has asked us to endure pain and disruption and suffering and heartbreak, and it has demanded of us that we endure it alone, together over the internet and together in our hearts but not together in our homes. It has asked us to wear masks and stay in and skip treasured parts of our daily routines and mark milestones alone, or not at all. I canceled my wedding this year. I text my family pictures of a grandkid they haven’t met.


But the sacrifice is not infinite. It is not eternal. It is for another six months, maybe, hopefully. It is now estimated that vaccines could be widely available within the US this spring.


We will one day be safe from the coronavirus. We will stop its spread. And then we will hug the people we love, and we will grieve with them, and we will catch them up on everything we have missed. For those of us who survive this year, we will recover from it.


Sometimes the world demands too much of us. This Thanksgiving, the world demands too much of us. But please, please, do it anyway, so that sometime next year as many people as possible still have families to hold and hug and grieve with.


—Kelsey Piper, @kelseytuoc

Image Credit:

Thursday, December 3, 2020

#338 / Awaken Or Die

Zen Buddhism is full of stories about practitioners staring death in the face in order to cut through their mental habits and force a direct confrontation with the fundamental matter. Monks doing zazen on a cliff’s edge to keep themselves alert, rōshis telling frustrated students to kill themselves if they cannot achieve satori by next sunrise, students taking death vows if they fail to awaken within a given period of time, etc.
In Helen Tworkov’s Zen in America, for example, we are told of “the monk who sat with a stick of incense in one hand and a knife in the other and vowed to kill himself if he didn’t get enlightened by the time the incense burned out. As always—at least in the stories that are passed down—he got it just in time, pushed to the breaking point by the pain of the burning stub.”

The quote above comes from Caitlin Johnstone, who suggests that humanity has "trolled itself into an Awaken-Or-Die situation." She makes a good point!

"We see humanity," Johnstone says, "as a collective in its own existential crisis as the ecosystem in which we evolved moves toward collapse, nuclear-armed nations move ever closer to direct confrontation, and governments get more and more authoritarian while democracy and transparency continue to erode."

I do think Johnstone is correct in her diagnosis. Our human situation is dire, and a lot of what Johnstone says is not very encouraging: 

We are hurtling in the direction of dystopia and armageddon, and the powerful elites in the driver’s seat have made it abundantly clear that they have no intention of swerving from this trajectory. We cannot use democracy to turn this ship away from the iceberg because the “democracy” we’ve been given is a fake child’s steering wheel given to a toddler to play with so they can pretend they’re driving. Even direct revolutionary action is completely barred from us as long as we are being successfully propagandized into consenting to the status quo by the manipulations of mainstream and social media corporations.

What to do about it, then? Johnstone's advice is that we must either "Awaken or Die." She thinks this means that we must have "a mass-scale awakening," a "mass-scale people's movement," and that you "can't have a mass-scale people's movement without a mass-scale awakening from humanity's unwholesome relationship with thought."

What on earth does that mean? What does it mean to say that we have an "unwholesome relationship with thought?" My favorite Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan, addresses this question, and he puts it this way

Gonna change my way of thinking,
Make myself a different set of rules.
Gonna change my way of thinking,
Make myself a different set of rules.
Gonna put my good foot forward,
And stop being influenced by fools.

Since we are all individuals, we have a fundamental and individual choice to make. We can either wait around for someone else to create that "mass awakening" we all need, or we can follow the Michael Jackson/Bob Dylan prescription and start looking at that Man in the Mirror

I am suggesting the latter, and here are a few little ways we might want to start "cleaning up" our individual thoughts, so they are less "unwholesome," and so that they might help initiate that "mass-scale awakening" that we need so badly. Let's make ourselves a different set of rules:

  • I can't be absolutely certain of what will happen when I do something, but I know that I can choose to do something new and unexpected, something better than I have ever done before, and something that no one would ever have guessed that I could do. I might even surprise myself about what I can do, as I start putting that "good foot" forward! We each have the first move, always. First move; first rule. Every one of us. Always. Check your mirror!
  • In our human world, nothing is "impossible." This second rule is pretty important. One reason not to step out with that "good foot" of ours is a thought that nothing we do will ever make any difference, anyway. But that's not true. It may take more than one of us to change the world, but let's not suggest that we, together, can't do something new, something better, something we need. We can.  
  • I did say, "we," didn't I? Here's the last rule. It is really important. It is just as important as the first rule. We are all individuals; that's the first rule, which means that we can always take that first step with our individual "good foot." But, individuals as we all are, we are in this life together. That's the third rule, remembering, always, that we are together in this life. By acting together we can change the world. 

Together we must change the world. We can begin by addressing Caitlin Johnstone's short list - the global warming crisis, the growing danger of nuclear war, and the seeming near-collapse of democratic self-government. Let's hit those, and then move on from there. Not only do we have to do it, we have to do it now. 

Time is short. That incense stub is burning our fingers. Caitlin Johnstone got it right: 

Awaken or Die!

Image Credit:

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

#337 / That News Is Coming Down The Wire


I was quite moved by an article in the November 8, 2020, edition of The New York Times Magazine (which may or may not be available to those who are non-subscribers). I hope the article is available to anyone reading this blog posting, since it really did make a big impression on me.

The article I am talking about was written by Hanif Abdurraqib, a Black poet, essayist, and cultural critic. In the hard copy edition of The Times, the article is titled, "Hard Times: The Patient, Sorrowful Optinism of the American Folk Masters Gillian Welch and David Rawlings." Online, the title is just a little bit shorter: "How Gillian Welch and David Rawlings Held Onto Optimism."

If you are not familiar with the music of Welch and Rawlings (as I was not), you can get an introduction by clicking this link, or starting up the video at the top of the page. The video has over twenty minutes of singing, and I particularly liked, "Ruby," the second song in the video [2:59 to 7:37]. "Ruby" ends with the following lines:

I'm that old time telegraph man 
And I came here with a simple job to do
Cause that news coming down the wire
Says that your world's on fire
And I'm trying to get a message through to you.

As you might be able to tell from my blog posting yesterday, I am in that kind of mood, myself. Check the temperature. Check the rain gauge. "I'm trying to get a message through to you."

What struck me most in the article was a discussion about "redemption," which comes near the end, as Abdurraqib talks with Welch and Rawlings about how they wrote their song, "Hard Times." 

They began talking about “Hard Times,” eagerly bouncing ideas off each other as if they were right back to sketching out the song for the first time. Not so much debating but weighing the merits of the song’s small machinery — clarifying the narrative, making the language more evocative.
“We like qualifiers,” Rawlings said, moving his hands as if he were fitting puzzle pieces into place. “There was the moment of thinking about a hard-times song and then coming up with ‘Hard times aren’t gonna rule my mind.’ And then going, ‘No more.’ And then going, ‘OK, this is now something that I understand and know how to express or deal with.’”
“Yeah, it almost relates to that moment of transformation or redemption, or some switch gets flipped,” Welch came in, lively. “Someone has said to me before that songs — there has to be a reason for them. They’re kind of about, you know, pinnacle moments. Precise moments.” She gave an example: “ ‘One more dollar, and I’m going home.’ These help us focus on this transformative moment.”

Redemption and optimism are subjects that I find difficult to approach, especially now, considering not only the masses of people dying but also the way lives have become mere numbers on a constantly ascending chart. Considering that the country itself might not be worthy of redemption. Considering, of course, that with every reason for optimism I’ve found, there is a new, darker, more cynical corner unearthed.
But now I found myself thinking about the arcs of redemption that flow through the duo’s songs. How gentle they are to their characters, their landscapes. Even when some might think they don’t deserve it. Throughout their career — even in some of “The Lost Songs” and the songs they chose on “All the Good Times,” there’s some relief at the end of the darkness. In their version of Dylan’s “Abandoned Love,” the two wring all the anguish out of the song’s first seven verses before patiently, gently, laying out the final verse: the one where Dylan asks to feel the love of his wife just one more time before he abandons their relationship. It’s hopeful — the kind of ending to a song where you know the answer was yes, just by how it is sung. It is the rigorous truth-telling that the two excel in: One cannot be redeemed without a clear articulation of why redemption is needed. And that’s the part that some other singers might gloss over. But Welch and Rawlings, as writers, dig their hands into the mess of a life that is worthwhile despite its messiness (emphasis added).

Is our country "worthy of redemption?" There are certainly lots of reasons to argue that it's not. When Abdurraqib raises the question, it seems certain that two centuries and more of racial oppression must be on his mind. And yet, of course, there is more than that. If redemption is to be hoped for, we must clearly articulate just why it is needed. And that is not hard to do.

Besides the still-living legacy of racial injustice that twines itself everywhere into our history (and into our present), our society is characterized, also, by massive income inequality, and by the unfeelingness of public policies that act as though those in need should help themselves, and that those in pain have no claim on us. 

And then, there is our arrogant presumption that the United States is "exceptional," and should be "the decider" in all events, worldwide, backed by the largest military force in the history of the world. Our wars, everywhere, are the terror of the earth, as are the nuclear weapons that we brought into the world, the only nation ever to have used them against other human beings. 

This is the nation that stole the land - everything - from the Native Americans who were here first. We slaughtered millions of buffalo to starve "Indians" to death. That legacy still lives. 

This is the nation that put Japanese citizens into concentration camps, with no basis for doing so, and the President Roosevelt Executive Order that instituted this injustice was upheld by the Supreme Court, the highest authority in the land, the court that is supposed to tell us what "justice" demands. Even now, the nation is tearing young children from their parents, as they seek asylum at our border, and are holding them in cages. 

We have desecrated the wilderness in the search for coal, and copper, oil and gold. We are the largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet, and we are putting the whole world in peril.

As politicians sometimes say, when listing their endorsers and contributors, "This is only a partial list."

Abdurraqib is certainly right to ask whether this country is "worthy of redemption." Let us be honest. This nation is not "worthy of redemption." But no nation is. No person is. We know this, all of us, because we are all unworthy, every one of us, and despite our knowledge of our own unworthiness, we know that "redemption" is exactly what we need - and what we must give to others. 

We will redeem ourselves - and we will find redemption - only as we do everything we can to change the things that make us so unworthy of it. That is the only way. And now is the time we must work this transformation. 

Redemption is a gift, and not an entitlement. It is the gift we can provide for ourselves only as we seek, together, to undo the things that make us, truly, unworthy of the gift. That may sound a bit confused, but it is really not that complicated! It's just like what that "old time religion" says, in those songs in the tradition in which Welch and Rawlings sing: Repent. Go. And sin no more! 

It's a hard message, but it's not that complicated. I think it's time for us to listen up!

I'm that old time telegraph man 
And I came here with a simple job to do
Cause that news coming down the wire
Says that your world's on fire
And I'm trying to get a message through to you.

Image Credit:

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

#336 / The Great Wave

When great danger comes, as when a great wave threatens to roll in from the sea, putting in peril all those who live upon the shore, some who learn of the danger will think only of themselves. These will scramble, individually, inland and uphill, to save their own lives and whatever they can gather together and bring with them out of danger. They will take no care for any others, perhaps not even for their family, not even for their friends. They may even put others in greater jeopardy as they rush to save themselves.


Others, of course, hearing of the danger, will refuse to believe it. The alarm will sound, announcements will be made, but these will choose to do nothing, refusing to admit that their existence could be so quickly overturned, all in an instant. That such a catastrophe could happen is simply unimaginable. It would be unfair! It would be too much to bear. It must not be true! These, when the wave does come, will perish in the flood.


But what of those who think first not of themselves alone, but of everyone together? What about those who seek to save everything, and everyone, when the alarm bells ring? Aren’t they the ones whom will praised, in history, fable, and song? Aren’t they the ones who, when the wave has washed over, taking what it takes, and leaving what it leaves, will be honored and remembered? Aren’t they the ones who will be said to have saved the world?


I tell you now, friends, the alarm has been given. There will be no time but this present time in which to choose. The Great Wave is on its way.


Image Credit:

The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Japanese神奈川沖浪裏Hepburn: Kanagawa-oki Nami Ura, "Under the Wave off Kanagawa"), also known as The Great Wave or simply The Wave, is a woodblock print by the Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hokusai. It was published sometime between 1829 and 1833 in the late Edo period as the first print in Hokusai's series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. The image depicts an enormous wave threatening three boats off the coast in the Sagami Bay (Kanagawa Prefecture) while Mount Fuji rises in the background. Sometimes assumed to be a tsunami, the wave is more likely to be a large rogue waveIt is Hokusai's most famous work and is often considered the most recognizable work of Japanese art in the world.

Monday, November 30, 2020

#335 / A Different Direction

Pictured is Jessica Byrd. Byrd is a political strategist focused on recruiting and electing people of color. On September 4, 2020, Byrd authored an opinion editorial in The New York Times." Her Op-Ed bore the following title in the hard copy edition: "A Different Direction for Black Politics." Online, The Times calls it, "The Future of Black Politics."

I am reprinting the entire Op-Ed, below. I will add emphasis to highlight the statements I think are of particular importance. 


A Different Direction for Black Politics

I led the planning team for the Black National Convention on Friday, and in the lead-up I was constantly asked for a list of familiar faces. People also pestered me with questions like: “Who is this against?” “What does the Democratic Party think about this?” “How much will you talk about Donald Trump?” People are often uncomfortable that the Movement for Black Lives, an umbrella organization of 150 Black-led groups, doesn’t answer to one leader, nor is it fighting for a single issue or type of person.

Instead, the convention, and our politics more broadly, put ordinary people in the foreground. Sanitation workers on strike in New Orleans. Mothers occupying vacant houses for 50 days in Oakland, Calif. We put at the center of our politics the voices and leadership of people whose appeals for justice are most likely to be ignored by the state — Black queer and trans people, people who were formerly incarcerated, sex workers, disabled people and people who have been made poor by violent and oppressive systems.

Why do we do this? Because the previous processes we used — engaging in elections in service of only the party or the person on the ballot — have not produced the outcomes we wanted. Black people are dying, from health care inequity, from criminalization and violent policing, from intra-community violence and from the climate crisis. And for Black voters, the feeling of being used without being listened to is pronounced. According to a 2019 survey by the Black Census Project, 52 percent of respondents agreed with the statement “politicians do not care about Black people.” In listening sessions with young Black voters in swing states, they told us they were reluctant to cast ballots because their grandparents and parents did it religiously while receiving little to nothing in return.

I have worked on campaigns in 43 states, trained hundreds of Black candidates and helped progressive Black women like Stacey Abrams and Tishaura Jones, the treasurer of St. Louis, run for office. In 2016, a collective of activists who use elections as a tool for social change, including Rukia Lumumba and Kayla Reed, came together to look very carefully at the political landscape. We knew that for more of us to participate in elections, we would need more than new faces. We needed a new process. After the election cycle that year, when headlines largely dismissed Black protesters as unwilling to engage in electoral politics and insinuated that the protest movement was partly responsible for the election of Donald Trump, we formed the Electoral Justice Project in the Movement for Black Lives to try to figure out how elections could be a meaningful tool for the movement.

The solution, as we see it, is not in traditional party politics, which asks us to hold our nose when we cast a ballot or to dilute policy solutions like Medicare for All. Parties want our votes while promising little and delivering less. That is because the electoral system was designed as binary; the entry points are two doors expected to fit the voices and policy needs of hundreds of millions of multiracial constituents.

Instead, for a new generation of Black activists, success lies in the process of making change — in politics, policies and social practices. On the campaign trail, we hire managers and organizers who have experiences in common with their communities. We design field plans with an eye to year-round engagement rather than a monthlong, extractive Get Out the Vote program. When we write campaign plans, we think about mutual aid and long-term governance. We want communications staff members who want to inspire and educate voters, not engage in the politics of fear. The ultimate goal of the ballot is to build and sustain coalitions of community members who can have a say in governance. We work to avoid what the political scientist Paul Frymer calls “electoral capture” — the Democratic Party’s habitual disregard for Black people’s political interests despite the fact that they are the party’s most loyal constituency and have no other reasonable alternative for representation.

You can see the results in the elections of activists like Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, as well as the primary victories this year of progressives like Cori Bush of Missouri and Jamaal Bowman of New York. You can also see its results in the closure of the Workhouse jail in St. Louis by a coalition of grass roots organizations, the approval of reparations by the Asheville City Council in North Carolina for historical harms and the organizing around Senate Bill 2123 in Mississippi that would have accelerated the parole process for incarcerated elders. (Although the Mississippi governor vetoed that bill, its passage in the Senate was a major victory for organizers.)

The call to defund the police is not separate from this organizing. It also helps to shift political terrain at the ballot box. Defunding was absent from mainstream political discourse even three months ago. By August, at least 11 cities had taken steps toward divesting from policing and reinvesting in Black and poor communities. Some, like Minneapolis, moved to dismantle their police departments. Black activists worked to organize people to reimagine public safety and transform how communities provide it.

The ultimate goal of a new Black politics is co-governance where elected leaders are not the destination but the vehicle to full civic participation. Co-governance requires more than representational politics; it requires elected leaders who are responsive to their constituents’ voices by creating transparency and real engagement. This way of doing politics is essential for reinvigorating democracy, given the decreasing levels of trust in government and our elected leaders’ inability to solve the most critical problems affecting ordinary people’s lives. It’s also about bringing people’s lives to a place of full participation and equal treatment.

That’s why we also drafted the Breathe Act, a 21st-century Civil Rights Act, amid global protests and in a political climate where 74 percent of Americans believe that police violence against the public is a problem. It would reduce federal funding for the police and incentivize state and local governments to seek alternatives to public safety. It also provides for several new grant programs that would encourage states to fund schools equally, address homelessness, expand Medicaid without work requirements and establish job programs that target the most economically disadvantaged.

The activist Charlene Carruthers gave voice to this new theory of Black politics in 2016 when she told a reporter: “We don’t need more elected officials that are just Black. We have Black people on the City Council. We need champions in the city.” So did Mr. Bowman, when he told The Times last month, “Every brother ain’t a brother,” borrowing a line from the rapper Chuck D. “It’s not just about being a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, but standing up and fighting for your people.”

We don’t just want our candidates to prevail on Election Day or for the public to agree with our demands. We also want to build the collective political will to extinguish injustice and expand our ability to win in the long term. At the convention, one of the sanitation workers on strike in New Orleans said his family had never respected him as much as it does now. He added, “I never expected to be on strike with 14 strong brothers.” These are our leaders (emphasis added).


I would like to suggest that what Byrd is talking about is not just how "Black politics" should change, but how ALL politics should change. Elected officials should be in office because they have been sent there by an engaged citizenry, ordinary people, people who continue to be engaged with them after election. Local, not national, efforts are the bedrock of any genuinely democratic politics. 

I was fortunate enough to be engaged in this kind of citizen-based politics from 1974 to 1995, in Santa Cruz County, California. It works. 

"Black politics" is leading the way. Let's learn this lesson and get in the parade. ALL of us!

Image Credit:

Sunday, November 29, 2020

#334 / This Is Just A Reminder

A news item in Yahoo News, published on November 4, 2020, one day after the election, suggests this possibility: "A Biden presidency might essentially be over before it can begin."

Here is how David Faris, a political science professor at Roosevelt University, seeks to justify that headline: 

The 2020 presidential election is a cliffhanger, and we may not know the final results for days. But Democratic nominee Joe Biden has pulled ahead in the critical states of Michigan and Wisconsin with plenty of blue-leaning mail ballots to count. Because [Biden] won Arizona as well as Nebraska's second congressional district and leads narrowly in Nevada, President Trump has probably been defeated. The real question is whether Biden adds Pennsylvania and Georgia to the tally or whether we are looking at the closest outcome in the Electoral College since 2000. Even if Trump were to wave a magic wand to stop ballot counting everywhere, at the moment he would still lose. Biden will win more votes than any presidential candidate in history and could still end up winning nationally by 6 points or more. 
In a functioning country with responsive institutions, it would be time for Democrats to pop the champagne. But the United States' anachronistic institutions grant a minority of the population outsized power, and even though Democrats held onto the House of Representatives, Republicans have a very good chance of hanging on to a bare majority in the Senate. This means any Biden agenda other than ruling through executive orders is basically out the window (emphasis added).

The premise upon which this analysis is based is that Republican Party members of the Senate will vote, in all significant cases, to advance partisan objectives, and that such Senators will be permanently unwilling, or will in some way be unable, to vote for a legislative proposal that is advanced by a president of the opposite party, or that is supported by Senators who are of the opposite party, no matter how reasonable and responsible that proposal might be, and no matter how popular.

The Faris' analysis, in other words, accepts as a fact that our system of government is totally partisan, not "representative," in the sense that the Constitution envisions, and that the kind of conduct that we have, indeed, witnessed over the past four years is an inevitable part of our political system. 

This suggestion is a hypothesis, not a fact, and our politics have not operated in that way for most of our 244 years of political history. Thus, I would like to suggest a contrary hypothesis. 

If the president were to propose legislation that significantly responds to the climate crisis, or that addresses issues of racial justice that clamor for remedial action, or that would deal in a meaningful way with the massive economic inequality that underlies much of the polarization that has afflicted our society, it would be possible to find two or three votes, or four, or more, out of fifty Republican Senators who would support reasonable and responsible legislative proposals on these and other subjects. 

Of course, there would have to be a very significant campaign based in the districts of the Senators, in which the Senators understood that there was strong majority support for these propositions among the voters who will determine whether or not they return to office. 

Would that be difficult? Absolutely! Would that be impossible? Absolutely not. 

This is just a reminder: If members of the public actually care enough to get really engaged in these political controversies, and if they decide to exercise their political power, instead of standing around like observers, and wringing their hands, our system of democratic self-government can, in fact, be made to work. It has before, and my bet is that it will again.

As I say: Just a reminder!

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Saturday, November 28, 2020

#333 / Dependent On The Government


You won't find me quoting Charles Koch very often. Wikipedia identifies Koch as "an American businessman and philanthropist, ranked, as of March 2019, as the 11th-richest person in the world." Charles Koch, and his late brother David, have usually been identified together, known as the "Koch Brothers." They have provided much of the massive funding needed to create the current corporate and right-wing dominance of our national politics. The Koch Brothers definitely figure in the list of the "Evil Geniuses" named by Kurt Anderson in the book by that name. They are not role models whom I would like to suggest should be emulated. Their views are not ones with which I agree.

I used the Charles Koch quote, above, because I wanted to mention, in today's blog posting, a less lofty statement to the exact same effect. The statement I am talking about was found in a letter to the editor printed in my hometown newspaper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, on election day, November 3, 2020:

“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” That was Democrat President John F. Kennedy. That’s not the Democratic party of today. They are attempting to destroy the United States and all it stands for. The Democrats do not raise your hopes. The Democrats want people dependent on the government.

Republicans want a strong economy. We want all to prosper. Republicans want fewer regulations so people can build their lives. Republicans believe in our Constitution. Why do so many people want to come here? We have to preserve our lives and liberties. Republicans want a great country because it’s simple, “We Live Here” (emphasis added).

This comment is an excellent example of the "splitting" phenomenon mentioned in my blog posting yesterday. It is not true, in fact, that the Democratic Party is "attempting to destroy the United States and all it stands for." It is also not true that Democrats "want people dependent on the government." 

These ideas about Democrats and the Democratic Party are representative of what right-wing political figures like the Koch Brothers claim. As noted in the image at the top of this blog posting, the Koch Brothers' analysis is that enforcing dependence on government is the mechanism by which governmental control over everyone can be achieved. In other words, building "dependence on the government" is a necessary step towards totalitarianism. Charles Koch makes this point as an observation. Linda from Scotts Valley posits this as a plot, an intentional step in the long term plan of the Democratic Party to "destroy the United States and all it stands for."

There is no doubt that Democrats and Republicans have a major disagreement over what the role of the government should be, and I would like to suggest that the way to help "heal the split," and to open a reasonable dialogue about what that role really ought to be, should begin with an acknowledgment that "the government" is not something different from the people, but that in our small-d democratic and self-governing nation, we are the government. The government is dependent on us. Not the opposite. 

Once we can see that what "the government" does, or is forbidden from doing, depends on our own political choices and decisions, we can then "reason together" about what, in any specific case, we want the government to do (or not to do). There are different ideas about that, of course! But let's get beyond thinking that these disagreements are between "good" and "evil" (Kurt Anderson's book title should not deceive us; while I think the points he makes are sound, it could be that the title encourages that "splitting" phenomenon which we need to be careful to avoid). 

We are "in this together," and that means all of us. We must quickly confront daunting challenges - and exciting opportunities. To do that, we need to get past "the split," and determine what we want our government to do. 

It is important to begin that debate, and make some decisions because, just to reiterate, we are not "dependent on the government." 

The government is dependent on us!

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Friday, November 27, 2020

#332 / Splitting


On November 4, 2020, the day after our most recent presidential election, The Wall Street Journal ran a column by Andrew Hartz, "A Diagnosis for American Polarization." Hartz is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. His column suggested that "splitting," a defense mechanism with which psychotherapists are presumably familiar, is what has caused the intense polarization that is in increasing evidence in our national, state, and local politics. 

"Splitting," according to Hartz, may be described as follows: 

A defense mechanism by which people unconsciously frame ideas, individuals or groups of people in all-or-nothing terms—for example, all good or all bad. The term was popularized in its current usage by the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein in the 1930s and ’40s. Its name describes how intolerable thoughts and feelings are split off from the subject’s awareness, leading to a partial view of the world. To see our opponents as pure evil, we have to split off the parts of them that are admirable. To see ourselves as purely righteous, we have to split off our shortcomings.
At the root of this process is distress over contradictions. It can be painful to think that the people we idealize are flawed and the people we loathe have virtues. By pushing these conflicts out of awareness, splitting reduces anxiety and makes the world appear more coherent—in the short term. It also severely distorts reality, making it hard to develop solutions to problems, which often grow worse as a result. Splitting can warp identity, morality, memories and desires. It makes conversation difficult, impairs relationships and can even lead to mental illness.
Splitting was theorized by Klein to be an entirely unconscious process, so people don’t realize they’re doing it, or why. They’re unaware of the uncomfortable mix of emotions that arose, the anxiety that drove them to split, or their inability to tolerate nuance.
How can we overcome splitting? In psychoanalysis, they say “interpret the defense before the content.” This means it is more effective to talk about splitting and how it works before shifting the dialogue to the pros and cons. Until we address the process of splitting itself, contrary evidence rarely penetrates.

I don't think there is any doubt that President Trump has adeptly speeded up this "splitting" process within our nation. However, the "cure" has to come from our individual refusal to "split" from those with different political views - no matter what the president says or does, and no matter what those on the other side of the political spectrum say or do. As Hartz suggests, we might best start with acknowleding the process and problem. Let's start admitting to ourselves that we are, in fact, quite capable of seeing those on the other side of political issues as evil, suppressing our knowledge that they all - even our president - have some "admirable qualities," and that in this sense they are not much different from ourselves.

If we can do that, we can move on from there. That, at least, is Hartz' advice.

Seems like good advice to me. It's worth a shot, at the very least!

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Thursday, November 26, 2020

#331 / Thanks (A Partial List)

For the beauty of the earth
For the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies.

Lord of all, to Thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.

For the bseauty of each hour,
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower,
Sun and moon, and stars of light.

Lord of all, to Thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.

For ourself and gift divine 
To the world so freely given,
For the great, great love of Thine
Peace on earth and joy in heaven

Lord of all, to Thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.

Image Credits:
(1) -
(2) - 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

#330 / Hair Apparent


I started thinking about haircuts, recently, when I learned, by way of a Facebook post, that one of my friends had recently had her hair cut. Her hair had extended way below her waist, and like the Bible says in First Corinthians 11:15, "if a woman have long hair, it is a glory...." 

That's the way she apparently thought about it, too. Although she let everyone know that the purpose of chopping off all that glorious hair was to donate it for charity, my friend clearly had a sense of a glory regretfully lost.

By the way, why does all that glory have to go to the females? What about guys who end up with hair like the man who is pictured above? Bob Dylan would have celebrated him!

I’m gonna grow my hair down to my feet so strange
So I look like a walking mountain range
And I’m gonna ride into Omaha on a horse
Out to the country club and the golf course
Carry The New York Times, shoot a few holes, blow their minds

I have always liked those lines from Bob Dylan's song, I Shall Be Free No. 10, but I have never wanted my hair to get anywhere near my waist. As my hair starts getting even a little bit bushy, I start getting extremely restless, and that's a problem, unfortunately, in this time of coronavirus shutdown. 

Luckily, I recently found a way (safe and sane, I think) to handle my personal problem: 

So, that's all good, but it looks like I am going to have to put off that trip to Omaha!

Image Credits:
(1) -
(2) and (3) - Gary Patton personal photos

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

#329 / What Would It Take?


In an excellent article in the November 16, 2020, edition of The New Yorker, Evan Osnos poses this question: 

What would it take to pull American politics out of the fire? To make democracy more functional and trustworthy? To make Americans feel, in any real sense, that we are all in this together?

Osnos is exploring, in his article, the same issues that Quillette examined in the article I mentioned in my blog posting yesterday. In the hard-copy edition, Osnos' article is titled, "The Violent Style." Online, which is where the next link will take you, the article is titled, "Pulling Our Politics Back from the Brink."

Absent some change, both Osnos and Quillette forsee a politics of ever-greater division, polarization, and violence. The nice thing about Osnos' article is that he does provide a number of examples from American history, showing that the kind of violent polarization we are now experiencing has been experienced before in our history, and that we have managed to survive and to prevail. 

Still, the "What's it going to take?" question must be confronted. We are, as Osnos indicates, and as I am rather fond of saying myself, "all in this together." That's the simple truth. So, how do we find a way to start "operationalizing" this fundamental fact?

    • #1 - Solitude, according to Osnos, is contraindicated. The "Bowling Alone" phenomenon indicates a breakdown of the kind of civic, social, and leisure connections that are vital to maintain a democratic society. We need to build new institutions of community engagement. 
    • #2 - "Words matter" Osnos tells us. Language that elevates the individual, and that makes individual selfishness the proper ambition to which we should all aspire, sends the wrong message. 

Not specifically mentioned by Osnos, or in "Our Common Purpose," is finding a national project upon which we can all cooperate - a project that is urgently required of us, and that binds us all together in exactly the kind of "common purpose" that serves as the title of the study that Osnos says can give us some hope. 

We don't have a World War II to galvanize such common purpose, but we do have the global warming crisis. Dealing with that urgent crisis will require us all to unite - not only nationally, but globally. 

As we are taking notes on how we can help everyone understand that we are, truly, "in this together," let's add a Green New Deal to the list!

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Monday, November 23, 2020

#328 / Our Problem Isn't Just Donald J. Trump


I think it would be fair to consider this blog posting as a follow-up to my blog posting yesterday

At just about the same time I was reading what the Brookings Institution has to say about the economic disparities that are associated with the voting patterns we saw in our last presidential election, I read an article in Quillette that was titled, "America Has Serious Problems. It’s Time to Stop Blaming Them on ‘Trumpism.’" Here is a sample from the article, to give you the gist: 

Quillette is not an American media outlet. Insofar as we’ve offered commentary on Donald Trump and the 2020 election, our editorial focus has been aimed at the social, cultural, technological, and academic factors that lie upstream from electoral politics more generally. To the extent our writers embrace any political agenda, they typically have opposed the centrifugal forces that are acting on western democracies—including both crude populism on the Right, and anti-liberal doctrines of race and gender on the Left. What we have observed, time and again, is that these two forces feed off each other. And to the extent anything called “Trumpism” actually exists, it will only be nourished by liberals’ insistence that the president’s appeal is rooted solely, or even primarily, in “white supremacy.” Trump rose to power on the idea that the “elites” despise the values and concerns of ordinary citizens. Even as his presidency enters its twilight, those same elites seem intent on vindicating his thesis.
Most of my friends and associates happen to be living, as I am, in one of those fewer than 500 counties that have, collectively, been producing 70% of our Gross Domestic Product. Our situation can be contrasted with those persons living in one of those many more numerous counties that have, in total, produced only 30% of our GDP. I do think it's fair to label the more fortunate of us as "elites." That is not a pretty word, admittedly, and Quillette doesn't try to soften the blow:

It is always tempting to portray one’s political opponents as consumed by some inveterate flaw or social contaminant that marks them as fallen creatures. This is a pattern that plays out on both sides of the political spectrum. And Trump himself often has demagogued whole swathes of America, sometimes lapsing into genuinely hateful language and bald-faced conspiracy theories. But ... as much as Trump enabled the worst qualities of nativist conservatives, he also brought out the most condescending and intellectually lazy tendencies of well-educated liberals. As economist Jeff Rubin recently noted, the ostensibly progressive rhetoric of upper middle class knowledge workers now bears little relevance to the hardships of impoverished Americans—of whatever race. And so pretending that America can simply be healed by curing some fictional disease called Trumpism isn’t just wrong, it’s counterproductive, because as we are already seeing, these rites of political exorcism inevitably will mean doubling down on race hustling and hashtag hectoring instead of actually addressing the problems that led to the rise of Trump ...


The Quillette article goes on to elaborate upon this theme. You are definitely invited to read it in its entirety. It is rather unsparing in its critique, and I think it makes a pretty good point.

Solidarity is what is called for now, and maintaining attitudes that can be characterized as "elitist" is not going to help. Let's hope our president-elect can help get us - all of us - to where we need to be!

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Sunday, November 22, 2020

#327 / The Politics Of Resentment, Visualized!


Confirmed vote totals for our 2020 presidential election are not yet fully available, but the following numbers, from an article I accessed on November 15, 2020, are pretty close.

Joe Biden received about 78,758,034 votes and Donald J. Trump received about 73,122,988 votes. 

According to the Brookings Institution, in an article that was published on November 10th, Biden "won" fewer than 500 counties, nationwide. Donald Trump "won" more than 2,400 counties. So, even in winning far fewer counties than Trump, Biden still significantly outdistanced Trump in the popular vote. Biden "won" the populous urban areas. Trump "won" the less-populated rural areas. We sort of know that. The "coasts" tend to be "blue," and the rural areas in the middle of the country tend to be "red."

The chart above, from that Brookings Institution article I mentioned, gives us a little more information. Startling information! The far fewer counties won by Biden (populous, urban counties, generally) generate 70% of our nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The far more numerous counties won by Trump (counties that are generally less populous and rural) only generate about 30% of GDP. You can get an easier to read version of the figure by clicking on this link.

I was stunned by the graphic, and by what it portends. We need to be able to deal with racial injustice, economic inequality and the global warming crisis that is putting our entire planet in peril. Without a truly unified effort, nationwide, I don't think we are going to be successful. Given the facts shown in the chart above, it is clear to me that we will have to redress the economic imbalance revealed by that chart as an urgent first step.

There is a lot of political resentment in our "rural" areas of relatively well-off "urban elites." That's not something that can be overcome without reducing with the economic disparities that are driving a wedge deep into the heart of our body politic. 

Let's not fool ourselves. If we want a "Green New Deal," we are going to have to make sure that the "New Deal" puts some winning cards into the hands of those Americans who live in those 2,400+ counties that voted for Donald Trump. 

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