Tuesday, October 23, 2018

#296 / Why Rent Control Is An Issue



The latest edition of The Sun magazine (pictured) just arrived in my mailbox. The following observation by Kin Hubbard, an American cartoonist, humorist, and journalist who died in 1930, was included in the "Sunbeams" section of the magazine. The "Sunbeams" section always appears at the end of the magazine, and so tends to be the place to which I turn first. "Sunbeams" contains brief quotes of relevance to contemporary life.

Hubbard's quote does seem relevant to Proposition 10 on the state ballot, and Measure M on the Santa Cruz City ballot, both of which relate to rent control: 

The hardest thing is to take less when you can get more. 

Image Credit:
https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/515

Monday, October 22, 2018

#295 / Our Bodies Know



In "Look Up From Your Screen," an article published in Aeon, the online magazine, Nicholas Tampio mounts a compelling argument against computer-based learning. Some call it "personal learning," or "personalized learning." Tampio says that efforts to tie education to computers, the definition of "personalized learning," is undermining genuine education. 

People like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Betsy DeVos, our current Secretary of Education, are all in favor of letting children immerse themselves in individual work on computers, as a way to help them learn. DeVos calls personalized learing "one of the most promising developments in K-12 education."

The phrase in Tampio's article that first drew my attention, as I scanned through it quickly, was his statement that "our bodies know things we can’t articulate." We "learn" with our bodies, in other words, not just with our minds. This has definitely been my personal experience. Tampio makes a good case for an educational system that is based on a whole body involvement in learning activities.

As I read further in Tampio's article, though, I ended up thinking that a profound philosophical issue is involved in this debate about the value of "personalized learning," and that the political implications are enormous. As part of his argument, Tampio cites to French Philosopher Merleau-Ponty:

To better understand why so many people embrace screen learning, we can turn to a classic of 20th-century French philosophy: Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945). 
According to Merleau-Ponty, European philosophy has long prioritised ‘seeing’ over ‘doing’ as a path to understanding. Plato, René Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant: each, in different ways, posits a gap between the mind and the world, the subject and the object, the thinking self and physical things. Philosophers take for granted that the mind sees things from a distance. When Descartes announced ‘I think therefore I am’, he was positing a fundamental gulf between the thinking self and the physical body. Despite the novelty of digital media, Merleau-Ponty would contend that Western thought has long assumed that the mind, not the body, is the site of thinking and learning. 
According to Merleau-Ponty, however, "consciousness is originally not an 'I think that,' but rather an 'I can.'" In other words, human thinking emerges out of lived experience, and what we can do with our bodies profoundly shapes what philosophers think or scientists discover. "The entire universe of science is constructed upon the lived world," he wrote. Phenomenology of Perception aimed to help readers better appreciate the connection between the lived world and consciousness.

The "Mind-Body Problem" is fascinating, and it's an ancient one, but here is what got me thinking about politics, as I read the discussion I excerpted above. The statement by Merleau-Ponty that "consciousness is not an "I think that" activity, but an "I can" activity, correlates with the fact that we can see ourselves either as "observers" or as "actors." So often, we observe, think about, and analyze the [political] world in which we most immediately live, but forget that we are not only "observers" of that world, but that we, in fact, "create" the realities which define it.

In other words, an education that conditions us to think that we are "educated" when we can "observe" and thus know about the world, is an education that will tend to convince us that we are "observers" not "actors." In the world of politics, that means that we would be receiving an education that tell us that we are "subjects," not "sovereigns."

The kind of whole-body learning that Tampio is urging is really the only kind of education that is consistent with democracy, a political system that is based on the claim that we have the power to, and do, create the world in which we live.

So, there is an important political  issue involved in this "personalized learning" debate. Do we want to educate our children to see themselves as "observers" and "subjects," or do we want them to learn of their creative power to change the realities they find around them? A desire to teach our kids the power of democracy, instead of telling them that they are subject to authority, is a good reason not to let our kids "learn" by getting their lessons from "personalized" sessions with a computer.

Out and about in the real, physical world. That's where we find out who we really are.


Image Credit:
https://aeon.co/essays/children-learn-best-when-engaged-in-the-living-world-not-on-screens

Sunday, October 21, 2018

#294 / A Little Theology



I noted in a blog posting some time ago that Michelangelo, in painting his wonderful "The Creation of Adam" on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, might really have been engaging in a highly subversive exercise. The painting suggests (once you see it this way you won't forget it) that the God so thrillingly depicted, giving the gift of life to Adam, is really the product (along with all those other celestial characters) of something happening inside the human brain. 

The lesson that Michelangelo seems to be teaching is that our whole idea and picture of God is a human creation. We have created God, in other words, not the other way around. There is no God outside ourselves. 

This idea, of course, is definitely subversive of the tenets of religion, and I tend to think of Michelangelo as an artist of great courage, advancing this thought, so contrary to Christian doctrine, inside a temple located within the heart of the Vatican, command central of the Catholic Church.

The suggestion that our idea and image of God is a human creation is, of course, a "modern" notion, widely acceptable to what may well be a large majority of those who ever think about theology. 

There are some other ways of trying to figure out the truth about the Creation and to understand our place in it. The Old Testament claims (in Exodus 3:14) that God is beyond any human naming or definition. When asked his name by Moses, God makes that abundantly clear: "I AM WHO I AM." The Holy God of the Jews can never be named, in witness to those words spoken to Moses. 

The New Testament idea, of course, is a pretty radical departure from that. Jesus, undeniably human, a person who bleeds when pierced and who dies on a cross, essentially claims that the Old Testament idea that we can never know God must be modified in a significant way. Jesus himself, so human, claims to incorporate God in his human form: "I am in the Father and the Father is in me" (John 14:11). When we wish to see God and to comprehend his being, Jesus suggests that we should look into the human face.

I do think about theology (quite a bit, as a matter of fact), so I have naturally puzzled over these thoughts about the nature of God, and whether or not God "exists," in any sense different from the obvious fact that God exists as an idea that human beings have developed. I cannot, in the end, come down on the side that believes that we have "created God," though I admit that our "ideas" and our "pictures" of God are all human creations. Inevitably, since we are human, they would have to be. 

In my opinion, the Old Testament gets it right in saying, as Moses tells the story of his personal encounter with God, that the one true claim about God is that God is beyond naming and claiming. I happen to think that Jesus gets it right, too, by suggesting that we should look for God within ourselves, within each and every human person. The Quakers have a little phrase that gets to this: "There is that of God in every person." 

The bottom line theological truth, for me, is that "something is happening here," and we don't know what it is. We live, we know not why, but being alive is serious. Naturally, as we try to explain the unexplainable, we conjure up pictures (like the one on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel), but the important truth is to recognize that the things that we have done, and that we have created, are all subsidiary, and wholly dependent on the existence that "God" created. Failure to admit our dependence upon the Creation, and to recognize our status as creatures in a world that makes our life possible, is the very definition of sin. That's what I learned from Professor James Sanders, at Union Theological Seminary, in 1971.

And sin is a serious mistake. Forgetting that we are utterly dependent on the Creation is a fundamental error in understanding, and will have serious consequences. As the Bible suggests, "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). 

The global warming crisis that threatens to sweep away all of our human creations in flood and fire is the perfect example, it seems to me, of how we need to have a right relationship with the Creator of all life, however depicted, and however unknowable. 

This is just a little thought for a Sunday, aimed at those who like to think about theology from time to time.


Image Credit:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Creation_of_Adam#/media/File:Creación_de_Adán_(Miguel_Ángel).jpg

Saturday, October 20, 2018

# 293 / The Great Equalizer



For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes must get lonely
  --- Bob Dylan (It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)

The Nation recently published a review of Barbara Ehrenreich's latest book, Natural Causes. The book is a personal and philosophical statement about death, and about how we should deal with death, and the review makes it seem like the book is well worth reading: 

Natural Causes was inspired by a particular moment in Ehrenreich’s life: her acceptance of her own mortality. But that moment gives way to a broader inquiry into the biological, social, and political implications of the American denial of death. In fact, one reason the book is so compelling is that Ehrenreich moves fluidly back and forth between discussing our physical limitations, our social and political limitations, and the relationship between the two. 
Ehrenreich begins with microscopic observations of cell behavior to paint a detailed yet accessible picture of the body in conflict with itself. Macrophages, she tells us, are the “blue collar workers” of the body, cells that dispose of dead and injured cells and eat microbes that have made their way past the barrier of the skin—so it’s easy to see them as the good guys, “the vanguard of bodily defense,” as Ehrenreich puts it. But more recently, scientists have discovered a sinister role played by these cells, at least “from the point of view of the organism”: They can serve as “cheerleaders on the side of death,” accumulating at the site of cancerous tumors and encouraging their growth. 
Macrophages—and the cancers and autoimmune disorders these cells promote—increasingly seem to be not just an error or mutation, but something happening within the natural responses of the body. For Ehrenreich, this opens up a much more philosophical question about the very nature of human autonomy and control: “If cells are alive and can seemingly act in their own interests against other parts of the body or even against the entire organism, then we may need to see ourselves less as smoothly running ‘wholes’ that can be controlled by conscious human intervention, and more as confederations, or at least temporary alliances, of microscopic creatures.” Just as our efforts to control our individual bodies are doomed, Ehrenreich argues, so are our efforts as individuals to uplift ourselves. The interdependence and chaos created by the body also lead to the same conclusions as the interdependence and chaos created by modern life: We can’t just go it on our own.

The "bottom line" here is a lesson we need to continue to relearn. In politics, and in liffe (and death): "We can't just go it on our own."



Image Credit:
https://www.thenation.com/article/the-great-equalizer/

Friday, October 19, 2018

#292 / Say Goodbye To WCA



Robert P. Jones has written a book called The End of White Christian America. Jones is the Chief Executive Officer of the Public Religious Research Institute. PRRI is a non-profit, nonpartisan "think tank" that is dedicated to "conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy."

And what does PRRI find at that intersection (the one with that nice old church on the corner)? Well, you have to read the book to get the full report, but the title does rather sum it up.

It used to be, according to Jones, that our political, cultural, and social life was dominated by a paradigm directly related to Christian religious principles (and these were, by and large, "Protestant" religious principles, and those Protestants were, almost overwhelmingly, White). Now, even Muslims are being elected to political office. So, if you thought that WCA was the "way it spozed to be," you had better say goodbye to all that. That is Jones' message.

White Christians (including evangelical Christians, who came somewhat late to the party, but then had a pretty good run, in terms of their cultural, social, and political impact) are now being forced to deal with the "Three R's": Remembering, Repentance, and Repair. 

Jones does an Elisabeth Kübler-Ross style analysis of how WCA must now face the death of its past cultural and political dominance. "Religion," per se, doesn't come into the book very directly; the emphasis is on how White Christians have taken for granted that it is their prerogative to decide what being an "American" is all about. No more!

While I am both White and a Christian, I identify with being "American" more than I have ever identified with either of those other aspects of my personal situation. Thus, I did not much "see myself" in any of the descriptions that Jones painted of the now-disappearing WCA. To the degree that there has been a concerted effort, backed by money, to assert the political and cultural dominance of White Christians (and Jones makes a pretty good case that this has, indeed, been an intentional project since the early 1800's), I can only say, "it is high time for that effort to be terminated." Those who agree, but who might wonder what's happening now, will be comforted by Jones' "Afterword," which discounts any idea that WCA is making a comeback, in connection with the election of our current president.

If someone were to focus on what the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have to say about religion, one would find that the very first statement in the Bill of Rights makes clear that the whole idea of a "WCA" is totally at odds with what this country is supposed to be all about: 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...

This is the very FIRST statement in our Bill of Rights. Let's read that document as if it were a Protestant prayerbook. It has a lot to teach us as we leave behind a WCA that never should have existed in the first place.



Image Credit:
https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/7/18/15958214/age-of-white-christian-america-over

Thursday, October 18, 2018

#291 / Let Them Eat Cake



According to someone who has posted the graphic above on the website for the "Nextdoor" group covering my neighborhood, various proponents of Measure M, the rent control initiative measure that appears on the City of Santa Cruz ballot this November, are using this graphic in connection with the "Yes on M" campaign. The "No on M" group labels the measure, "Too Expensive, Too Extreme." According to this Nextdoor posting, here is a "Yes on M" come back.

I can't remember which of Shakespeare's characters said, famously, "the first thing we have to do is kill all the lawyers." As a lawyer myself, this idea of how to solve society's problems never quite warmed my heart. A proposal to kill all the landlords, the implication of this graphic, isn't going to warm the hearts of the landlords, either, many of whom (like many lawyers) aren't really the kind of bad people who should be marked for extirpation.

In other words, if this graphic is actually being used in connection with the "Yes on M" campaign (and whether or not that is true, I don't know), it's not what I would call "good politics." Kind of consistent with the Donald Trump approach to his political opponents: "Lock them up" (or, take them to the guillotine, if one happens to be handy). Saudi Arabia seems to have put this concept into current practice.

Besides providing my "this is bad politics" reaction to the graphic, I do want to make a substantive comment about rent control. The excesses of the private market are destroying the lives of the average and below average income members of my local community. I mean those who are employed here in Santa Cruz County in "ordinary" jobs. You know, the jobs that make the world work.

High-tech workers and others whose employment by Silicon Valley firms gives them salaries that are often double (or more) what ordinary workers here can earn are using their "gold" to "get the goods." That is to be expected, of course. Everyone wants to live in Santa Cruz, and if landlords set their rents to what the market will bear, and to make the most for themselves (and that is, exactly, what the private market suggests that they ought to do) then those with more income get the right to occupy the scarce real estate available in the community. Make no mistake, this is the "Golden Rule" of politics. Those who have the gold make the rules, and they get the benefits.

A good antidote for the bad effects of out of control individualism is collective action. In two words, "government regulation." That is tried and true. When private markets start having truly detrimental social impacts, the community as a whole can step in and establish a set of rules that makes things a bit fairer. That is what the Measure M proponents are suggesting. Some think the measure is "too expensive and too extreme." There's a judgment call there, of course, but the need for some kind of intervention in our current circumstances seems very clear to me.

I would like to remind any California residents who might be reading this blog posting that a YES vote on Proposition 10 could give the elected officials of Santa Cruz, as well as the elected officials of other local communities throughout the state, the right to craft a rent control approach for their local community that is neither "too expensive" nor "too extreme."

Whatever a Santa Cruz voter's view might be on the specifics of Measure M, if that voter agrees with me that some sort of collective response to our out of control rental market is absolutely needed, I urge support for a state measure that will return to local elected officials the ability to take action locally, in a way that they determine their local communities will support.

One final thought. When people get desperate enough, they do resort to violence. Marie Antoinette had advice for those who couldn't afford bread - and the popular reaction to her "let them eat cake" statement was, in fact, the guillotine. A society's continuing failure to make things "a bit fairer" will lead to violence almost every time.

We do know that - so we should know better. A resort to violence by those who are desperate is an observable phenomenon, throughout history. Wealth and income inequality is a national problem, and our national leaders, in giving ever bigger portions to the wealthy while cutting back on support and assistance to those who have little, are making things worse, and are daring the oppressed and distressed to try to do something about it.

"Politics" (and politics even at the local level) is how we can do something about it, without killing all the landlords (or the lawyers, or anyone else). Measure M is one attempt to do something about a real problem. We need to be sympathetic to those who are so graphically bringing the problem to our attention. If it's not "M," what's it going to be?

Just remember, by voting "YES" on Proposition 10, you will be giving our local elected officials an opportunity to try to answer that question in a positive and locally-acceptable way!*





_______________________________________

* An article in today's San Francisco Chronicle indicates that current polling suggests that Proposition 10 is going to lose, even in the politically-liberal Bay Area. Those opposing Proposition 10 are quoted in the article, saying they "believe in a free market, free economy. Rent control may help certain people, but it disadvantages others." That is, of course, true - and that's the point; rent control advantages those who are being driven out of their homes. A "free market" means those with the most money get things; those who have less money don't get things, including basic necessities like food and shelter. Americans have always believed that it is both fair and appropriate for the government to step in to level the playing field when the "free market" starts having socially destructive effects. Minimum wage laws, for instance, are an example. When it comes to housing, which is a basic human necessity, the operation of the "free market" in Santa Cruz is resulting in a catastrophic housing crisis, in which ordinary working families are being thrown out of their homes. If you think local communities should be able to use their local government powers to try to make things a bit fairer, a "YES" vote on Proposition 10 is what's needed.

Image Credit:
(1) - https://nextdoor.com/news_feed/?post=93713537
(2) - https://voteyesonprop10.org/news/yes-on-10-launches-rent-is-too-damn-high-bus-tour/


Wednesday, October 17, 2018

#290 / It Started With Sputnik



The article is brief, only six pages long, and it is not necessary to have read Arendt's book, The Human Condition, to make sense of what Berkowitz has to say. Of course, I do recommend that you read Arendt's book, but reading it is not a precondition for understanding the issues that Berkowitz discusses.

As outlined by Berkowitz, Arendt slightly disagrees with the quotation from Bob Dylan, which I featured in my blog post yesterday

Dylan suggests that our human doom began with "touching the moon." Arendt, as Berkowitz notes, says that the successful launch of Sputnik 1 was the key point. And Arendt doesn't use the word "doom," either, but she might just as well have. 

Berkowitz' article explores, without ever using the term, what I call the "Two Worlds Hypothesis." I recommend the article. I do note, however, that both Berkowitz and Arendt seem to believe that when we say that "everything is possible" this should be taken to mean that everything is possible in both the human world and the World of Nature. 

I don't think so!

In our world, as Arendt's seminal book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, showed us, "everything" is indeed possible. Horrible things beyond imagining are, in our human world, a possible outcome of human action. "Progress" is not inevitable, as was more or less taken for granted before the Holocaust, and the future of our human world will be determined by our own choices and actions. This truth about our human situation is why, to quote Bob Dylan once again, "we live in a political world."

Of course, "good things" beyond imagining are possible, too, as well as "bad things." As Arendt has made clear, perhaps most directly in On Revolution, every new human being coming into the world has the gift of freedom, which means the ability to do something that has never been imagined or thought of before, and by taking such action, in cooperation with others, to transform reality. 

But the Berkowitz discussion, and presumably based on Arendt, who was a secular and not a religious thinker, seems to indicate that "everything is possible," not only in our human world but in the Natural World, as well. 

There is no doubt, as Berkowitz' article makes clear, that we do think that having escaped the Earth, we are now free of earthly, natural constraints. The picture below shows one manifestation of the arrogance of this kind of thinking. Elon Musk seems truly to believe that we are no longer "confined" to the Earth and that we will, one day (if we are rich), be able to drive our spacecraft into the far reaches of the solar system (and possibly beyond), the same way we drive across the country, today.

I don't think so!

The difference between the human world and the World of Nature is this: WE create the human world within the World of Nature. We did not create, and cannot modify or replace, the Natural World,  a world upon which we are utterly dependent. For those who think that "science" has turned us from creatures who live within a world that we did not create, and that science has transformed us into some species of the  Creator, let me quote Bob Dylan once again. 

What Dylan said to Columbus, in Dylan's 115th Dream, is what I would say to anyone who thinks that Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil are correct in their claim that we will soon have the ability to "transcend biology."

The funniest thing was
When I was leavin’ the bay
I saw three ships a-sailin’
They were all heading my way
I asked the captain what his name was
And how come he didn’t drive a truck
He said his name was Columbus
I just said, “Good luck”




Image Credits:
(1) - https://www.chopshopstore.com/products/sputnik-from-the-historic-robotic-spacecraft-series?variant=9586945027
(2) - https://www.businessinsider.com/starman-elon-musk-car-orbit-collision-risk-calculations-2018-2

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

#289 / First Step Was Touching The Moon




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

Now, there’s a woman on my block
She just sit there as the night grows still
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?


These lyrics are from Bob Dylan's song, "License to Kill," which is found on his Infidels album (1983). They are particularly relevant to my "Two Worlds Hypothesis," which I continue to believe is worth thinking about. 

The idea is simple enough. Though we assume and act as though we live in a single, unified "world," and that pine trees and the U.S. Capitol Building are congruent realities, that is not actually the case. 

We live in two different worlds, simultaneously. Most immediately, we live in a human world that we create. Ultimately, however, we live in and are dependent upon the World of Nature. Humans may "rule" the Earth, but that doesn't mean that we can "do with it as we please." At least, we can't do what we please with the Earth without paying the price!

Humans do tend to think that we can do whatever we want to do with the World of Nature, but that is a big mistake. Let's take another look at those California wildfires (one of which is pictured below), and try not to fool ourselves about global warming. We are destroying both our human world and the Natural World by ignoring the laws that govern the World of Nature.  

We have acted, as Bob Dylan says, as though we can do as we please with the Natural World. I guess,  literally speaking, we "can." But if we do as we please, and ignore the laws that apply in the Natural World, we will suffer the consequences: 


















Some thoughtful observers have already declared "game over" for human civilization, based on our continuing human refusal to confront the global warming limits that ultimtely determine whether or not human life on Earth will continue. The fact that there are such limits is becoming ever more apparent. Is it really "game over?" This might be true. 

But whether or not we are already at the end of the game, did it really all start with "touching the moon?"

I think that this assertion could be a kind of poetic license on Dylan's part, but a human determination to escape the limits of the Earth is definitely connected to the kind of human arrogance that continues to ignore all kinds of limitations imposed by the World of Nature.

I was intrigued by a recent article by Barry Vacker, writing in Medium. Vacker says that the picture at the top of this blog post is the "original" of the famous NASA "Earthrise" photo, the first photo of the Earth from space. Here is how we are used to seeing this picture: 


That isn't actually the way the photo was taken, according to Vacker. NASA "tilted" the picture to give Earth preeminence, something that Vacker says turns the photograph into "NASA’s Icon of Human Narcissism."

Rather than illustrate our actual place in the universe, the photo was altered by NASA to maintain the illusion of human centrality amid the cosmic void surrounding Earth. Five decades later, NASA’s move has proven prophetic for post-Apollo culture. Earthrise is the first “Earth selfie” and points directly toward the Anthropocene, social media culture, and humanity’s deep narcissism—still pretending to be the center of the universe, the center of all value, purpose, and meaning on Earth and beyond.

I think it is time to stop playing "let's pretend." Let's not pretend, anymore, that we are not utterly dependent on Planet Earth, and the World of Nature. 


Who gonna take away his license to kill?


Image Credits:
(1) - https://medium.com/explosion-of-awareness/nasas-icon-of-human-narcissism-the-50th-anniversary-of-earthrise-and-what-it-means-for-the-21st-155082710212
(2) - http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-lopez-climate-action-08122018-story.html(3) - https://medium.com/explosion-of-awareness/nasas-icon-of-human-narcissism-the-50th-anniversary-of-earthrise-and-what-it-means-for-the-21st-155082710212

Monday, October 15, 2018

#288 / Honest Don?



The New York Times ran two stories on Sunday, October 14, 2018, spotlighting our president's penchant for barnstorming political rallies. One article was titled, "The Trump Rally: A Play in Three Acts." The other article was titled, "A Guide to Trump’s Stump Speeches for the Midterm Campaigns." They are both worth reading.

I remember back to the presidential primaries, in 2016, before now-president Trump had secured the Republican Party nomination. I almost accidentally ended up watching a complete Trump rally, and my heart sank. Just looking at the rally, as someone with political experience, I had to admit that Mr. Trump was really good at what he was doing, building a strong political base of support for himself, and energizing voters for the things he was advocating. 

He is still doing it, and I am similarly nervous about the current primary season. The fact that our barnstorming president is back on the road, whipping up the voters and demonstrating his political fervor for the political goals he is advancing, is not good news. 

In connection with what I could call my version of the "Worried Man Blues," because I am worried, I must report on a column by Marc Thiessen, also appearing in my Sunday newspapers. Thiessen is a conservative columnist for The Washington Post, and his column on Sunday was called, "Trump could be the most honest president in modern history."

Considering that the president is so well known for his consumate and seriatum prevarication, what could Thiessen possibly be talking about? 

Well, Thiessen is talking about the fact that President Trump appears to be carrying out his campaign promises - or at least he is trying to (which is exactly what our elected officials are supposed to do, and something that they rarely do in fact).

I am not about to start calling our president "Honest Don," but I do think Thiessen's point is well-taken. The American people are sick up to here with a politics that doesn't live up to its purpose, which is to reflect and accomplish the hopes and aspirations of the voters. A politician and an elected official who does that is rare.

I, personally, think that what the majority of the American voters hope for and aspire to is a future quite different from the future that is featured in the Trump rallies. But if those with different hopes and dreams want to have a government that can (and will) accomplish them, we're going to need candidates who seem "honest" in the way that Donald Trump seems honest. 

I'm looking at what happens to Beto O'Rourke, in Texas. He strikes me as another one of those "honest politicians," but one with much better values. 

We need a lot of those!


Image Credit:
https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/10/12/donald-trump-talks-civil-war-ulysses-grant-robert-lee-ohio-rally/1619764002/

Sunday, October 14, 2018

#287 / Playing The Arenas



Michelle Obama has written a book. It will soon be available for purchase, and the author is going on one of those promotional book tours that generally accompany the publication of a new book that the publishing house thinks will be a big seller. Michelle Obama's book tour is going to be a bit different from the typical book tour, however: 

While other authors typically follow a circuit that may include podcast interviews and stops at the 92nd Street Y in New York and Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., Mrs. Obama is set to embark on a 10-city tour put together by Live Nation, the world’s largest concert promoter, which manages about 500 artists, including Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé and U2. Tickets are available, while they last, from Ticketmaster. 
A fifth-row seat at the Barclays Center goes for $1,256.00. A seat in the front row, with a “meet & greet package” thrown in, will cost you up to $3,000. Wheelchair seating in the back of the house is listed at $400, while a spot in the upper tiers could be had for $29.50. 

The last First Lady to do a promotional book tour, Hillary Clinton, spoke in auditoriums which seated about 3,500 persons. Michelle Obama is shooting to sell those pricey tickets in arena venues with seating capacities on the order of 20,000. 

In The New York Times' article from which the quotes above were taken, Anand Giridharadas, who has written a critique of modern philanthropy, made the following comment, which caught my attention: 

An arena with tiered seating is a powerful metaphor for everything they presumably want to destroy. What this illustrates to me is that cashing in has become our common culture in a way we don’t realize. It’s the water in which we’re all swimming.”

I have a couple of responses to Giridharadas' observations. First, not all of us are swimming in the "cashing in" culture that does seem to infect some former Presidents and some former First Ladies. I think it's too bad, frankly, that the Obamas have also caught the bug. In my opinion, one of the reasons that Hillary and Bill Clinton are not very much liked as persons (and I do contend that this is true, though I may just be reflecting my own feelings) is their very public and very successful effort to "monetize" their past public service, charging something like $250,000 for a single speech. 

The conflation of extreme wealth with public office is the opposite of what our democracy needs. Our current president, of course, went from being a real estate and media mogul to the presidency. According to the article, which indicates that the Obamas are starting a new film production company, former president Obama is attempting to reverse the Trump trajectory, going from president to media mogul.

Here's my second response related to Giridharadas' observation that locating the former First Lady's speeches in "arena tiered seating" sends exactly the wrong political message to those whom are being addressed. 

I agree with Giridhaaradas. Democracy is not a "spectator sport," and political figures who promote a culture of watching the "stars" perform send exactly the wrong message about what we need to do to save democracy and save our nation.

Want a good model of a former First Lady? Think about Eleanor Roosevelt. After she was no longer First Lady she worked tirelessly for passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - and  she succeeded, too. 


Image Credit:
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/21/business/media/michelle-obama-book-tour.html

Saturday, October 13, 2018

#286 / Jobs For Everyone



William Darity Jr. is an economist and the director of Duke University’s Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity. He is pictured above. According to an article from the OZY.com online news site, Darity not only has a viable plan to provide a quality job for everyone; he plays the blues harmonica, too. Hey, what's not to like?

The truth of our human situation is that we are "in this life together." If that is true, then every one of us has a motivation to make sure that every single person can live a productive, positive life. When that is true, we are all better off. I remember how inspired I was when I first read about the WPA, which was a response to the Great Depression, and which did, in fact, aim to provide quality jobs for those who weren't otherwise able to find them. 

The OZY article on Dr. Darity's ideas is well worth reading. Making that commitment to our mutual productivity would be a commitment well worth making! 




Image Credits:
(1) - https://www.ozy.com/rising-stars/a-job-for-everyone-this-21st-century-keynes-says-its-possible/88688
(2) - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Works_Progress_Administration

Friday, October 12, 2018

#285 / In Person



If you'd like to spend an hour with Hannah Arendt and Nobel Prize Winnter Günter Grass, by all means click on the link above, which will take you to a conversation in German, presented with English subtitles. 

Some of the comments on this video (presumably made by persons with a good command of both German and English) indicate that the English translations are not the greatest. In addition, both Arendt and Grass spend the entire hour smoking, virtually continuously, which was certainly disconcerting to me. 

That said, this video does provide a wonderful example of Hannah Arendt's penetrating mind, and demonstrates her prodigious ability to explain her complex thoughts in a way that makes them understandable. It is also a wonderful demonstration of her profound humanity. 

In the current climate of extreme political polarization, I have been trying to argue for the idea that "good people do exist," and that our "plurality," to use Arendt's term, and our "diversity," to use a more modern rendition, do not automatically preclude the kind of debate and discussion that can lead people to change their minds and find agreement, thus making collective self-government possible. 

To achieve that that kind of dialogue, courage is a primary requirement. We must have the courage to state our views and beliefs forthrightly, not tailoring them to what we know will be acceptable to those with whom we are engaged in discussion. We must have the courage, as well, to change our minds! Real politics demands nothing less.

At the very end of this video, Grass asks Arendt to talk about her statement, which he quotes: "Humanity is never acquired in solitude, but by a venture into the public realm." 

What do you mean by this "venture into the public realm," asks Grass. Arendt's response, I thought, was a profound statement of her basic approach to thinking and to taking political action. 

A "venture into the public realm," says Arendt, can be of two kinds. First, one must be willing to expose oneself to the light of the public by both speaking and acting, with speech being understood as itself a kind of action. That is one form of the venture. The second form of the venture is that "we start something." When we do "start something," Arendt says, we "weave our own, created strand into a network of relations. What comes of it we never know. We must all say, 'Lord forgive them, for they know not what they do,' for that is the plain fact, true of all actions." 

Arendt concludes her response to Grass by saying that a "venture into the public realm," the thing Grass has asked her about, is only possible "when there is a trust in mankind, a trust in what is human in all people."

We must, in other words, as I understand what Arendt says, have the courage to believe that we can, in fact, find "what is human" in all people. That is, in a way, a kind of "faith." Without that faith we will never be able to speak out or act, either one, and while we never know what will come of any action we take, or words we say, there is a truth, which we do know well (and this, I take it, is the truth that Arendt explains in her response to Grass' question):

Nothing ventured. Nothing gained.

Image Credit:
https://youtu.be/dsoImQfVsO4

Thursday, October 11, 2018

#284 / Grading The Truth Test



Paul Krugman didn't mince words in his October 9, 2018, New York Times column:

Many people are worried, rightly, about what the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh means for America in the long term. He’s a naked partisan who clearly lied under oath about many aspects of his personal history.... Putting such a man on the Supreme Court has, at a stroke, destroyed the court’s moral authority for the foreseeable future.

Krugman is always a promoter of and an apologist for the Democratic Party and its policy positions, so it is no surprise that he had the reaction to the Kavanaugh confirmation that I have quoted above. Krugman was not just "venting," however. His column was issuing a call to action. 

Identifying the Republican Party as "an authoritarian regime in waiting," Krugman addresses the question that is implicit in that characterization, i.e., what are they waiting for? Here is Krugman positing that question (and then answering it):

As I said, the G.O.P. is an authoritarian regime in waiting, not yet one in practice. What's it waiting for?

Krugman suggests (and this resonates with my own sense of where we are) that the Republican Party is waiting to see whether or not they will retain control of both houses of Congress in the upcoming midterm elections:  

Think of what Trump and his party nmight do if they retain both houses of Congress in the coming election. If you aren't terrified of where we might be in the very near future, you aren't paying attention.

Krugman's "call to action," in other words, is for Democratic Party voters to go to the polls in record numbers and to vote for Democrats. Again, I'm with Krugman on that!

I want to explore just a bit further, however, Krugman's idea that the Republican Party (and perhaps the Supreme Court) might move towards an authoritarian form of government, and what can be done about it. Authoritarian governments always operate in an environment in which the government (and its apologists) ignore "truth" and "reality," and essentially take the position that "if I say something is true, then you must accept what I say as truth in fact."

As we know, our President definitely takes this approach. It is Krugman's complaint that this is just what the Senate did, too. Those who paid attention understood quite well that Brett Kavanaugh did not tell the truth, as he confronted questions about his drinking behavior and preoccupation with sex as an adolescent and young adult. This statement about Kavanaugh's dishonesty applies even if you assume that he did not attempt to rape Christine Blasey Ford (and I think he did), or that he simply had no recollection of this event (something I also think is unlikely, but might be true). If he wanted to take either of those positions, hopefully, because they were true, Kavanaugh could have admitted to an adolescence and early adulthood in which drinking and an outsized preoccupation with sex played a big part. That is what was demonstrably true, and yet this is what Kavanaugh essentially denied. Asking forgiveness for his past bad behavior, and apologizing for any actions that may have hurt others, would have allowed the Senate to do what it did anyway, but to do so on the basis of what might well have qualified as an honest presentation by Kavanaugh. Instead (and I agree with Krugman), Kavanaugh lied, and the Senate pretended that he didn't.

It is the "pretended" part that is the most troubling. The president pretends that things he says are true when they are demonstrable lies. And the Senate did the same thing with respect to the Kavanaugh testimony.

This gives us two branches of government that have demonstrated a willingness to pretend that truth and reality aren't what they actually are. What about that third branch of government, the Supreme Court?

Putting a liar on the Supreme Court isn't going to help, of course, but I'd like to point out that the Supreme Court has already demonstrated its willingness to "pretend" something is different from what it really is, in the course of justifying governmental conduct that infringes on liberty and human rights. If you'd like to read the decision in Trump v. Hawaii, which validated President Trump's "Muslim ban," all the while denying that this is what the Court was doing, you can click this link. The Supreme Court that made this decision did not include Brett Kavanaugh. His supposedly more "moderate" predecessor, Anthony Kennedy, joined with the majority to ratify the President's actions imposing a "Muslim ban," while pretending that significant issues of national security were the motivating factor. The dissent of Justice Sotomayor makes it all quite clear.

When our governmental institutions are willing, officially, to "pretend" that something is true, when it is actually not true, then we are definitely on the doorstep of authoritarianism.

Electing Democrats would definitely help stave off further examples, but what REALLY keeps our potentially authoritarian government "in waiting" is us! Just remember what happened when the president first tried out that "Muslim ban" idea. Thousands of citizens thronged the airports and shut them down. The version of the "Muslim ban" that the Supreme Court approved this past June was much watered down and was the president's third version.

Authoritarian actions by our government can be stopped. We just need to insist on the REAL truth, not on a "pretend" version of the truth that can be justified by some sort of contrived documentation (as the third version of the "Muslim ban" was, and as the Kavanaugh confirmation was, with the demonstrably incomplete FBI report playing the validating role).

Electing Democrats will help; that is what Krugman is advising. But get ready for direct action, too. We may need to go back to the airports, and we may need to be prepared to show up in other places, as well, if our authoritarian government "in waiting" decides to stop "waiting" and tries to implement actions that will put our democratic freedoms in peril.

Authoritarian actions can only prevail if an authoritarian government can make the people accept lies in place of the truth. Whenever such an effort is made, we are put to the test - and so are the claims made by the government.

The Senate has been tested by a lying president. It failed the test. The Supreme Court (before Kavanaugh) has been tested by a lying president. It failed the test. In the end, however, it is our entire nation that will be tested by efforts to transform our system into an authoritarian government, and it is we the people who will grade that test!


Image Credit:
https://www.centralmaine.com/interactive/truthtest2012/

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

#283 / Snitch Culture



I was impressed by the article, "I Was the Mob Until the Mob Came for Me." The article is the confession of an online social justice crusader who crusaded by attacking those who were not sufficiently committed to the social justice causes he championed: 

I was a self-righteous social justice crusader. I would use my mid-sized Twitter and Facebook platforms to signal my wokeness on topics such as LGBT rights, rape culture, and racial injustice. Many of the opinions I held then are still opinions that I hold today. But I now realize that my social-media hyperactivity was, in reality, doing more harm than good.
Every time I would call someone racist or sexist, I would get a rush. That rush would then be reaffirmed and sustained by the stars, hearts, and thumbs-up that constitute the nickels and dimes of social media validation. The people giving me these stars, hearts, and thumbs-up were engaging in their own cynical game: A fear of being targeted by the mob induces us to signal publicly that we are part of it. 
Just a few years ago, many of my friends and peers who self-identify as liberals or progressives were open fans of provocative standup comedians such as Sarah Silverman, and shows like South Park. Today, such material is seen as deeply “problematic,” or even labeled as hate speech. I went from minding my own business when people told risqué jokes to practically fainting when they used the wrong pronoun or expressed a right-of-center view. I went from making fun of the guy who took edgy jokes too seriously, to becoming that guy. 
When my callouts were met with approval and admiration, I was lavished with praise: “Thank you so much for speaking out!” “You’re so brave!” “We need more men like you!”

Here is how it came down:

Then one day, suddenly, I was accused of some of the very transgressions I’d called out in others. I was guilty, of course: There’s no such thing as due process in this world. And once judgment has been rendered against you, the mob starts combing through your past, looking for similar transgressions that might have been missed at the time. I was now told that I’d been creating a toxic environment for years at my workplace; that I’d been making the space around me unsafe through microaggressions and macroaggressions alike.
I drive food delivery for an online app to make rent and support myself and my young family. This is my new life. I once had a well paid job in what might be described as the social justice industry. Then I upset the wrong person, and within a short window of time, I was considered too toxic for my employer’s taste. I was publicly shamed, mobbed, and reduced to a symbol of male privilege. I was cast out of my career and my professional community. Writing anything under my own byline now would invite a renewal of this mobbing—which is why, with my editor’s permission, I am writing this under a pseudonym. He knows who I am. 
Social justice is a surveillance culture, a snitch culture. The constant vigilance on the part of my colleagues and friends did me in. That’s why I’m delivering sushi and pizza. Not that I’m complaining. It’s honest work, and it’s led me to rediscover how to interact with people in the real world. I am a kinder and more respectful person now that I’m not regularly on social media attacking people for not being “kind” and “respectful.”

The phenomenon talked about here isn't uncommon. The warning is one that all of us who communicate online should take seriously.

To me, the key observation is that we need always to be in touch with "people in the real world." The digital/virtual world of social media tempts us to detach ourselves from the people who will be affected by our actions and our words.

Always better face to face!



Image Credit:
https://quillette.com/2018/07/14/i-was-the-mob-until-the-mob-came-for-me/

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

#282 / Don't Pull That Trigger



I have a theory, mentioned in earlier blog postings, that people very often do what they think is "expected." A recent article published in Medium provides a bit of corroborating evidence, in the context of a social science experiment on "trigger warnings." 

If you teach, you will have heard about trigger warnings. The idea is that certain students may have had past experiences that were profoundly traumatic (the trauma caused by a rape, or by child abuse, etc.) and that talking about a subject like that, particularly with no advance notice, will "trigger" an emotional upset in such a student, related back to the original incident. By telling students in advance that the teacher will be discussing some such topic, students who might suffer an emotional reaction form a discussion of the topic are warned, so they can be prepared; or, in some cases, can actually exit the classroom to avoid the topic entirely. 

There are strong feelings on both sides about whether trigger warnings should be routinely provided in college classrooms, and otherwise. Because there is a debate about this issue, social scientists are, naturally, addressing it by doing various social science experiments. A Medium article entitled, "It’s Official — Trigger Warnings Might Actually Be Harmful," reports on one such experiment intended to reveal the actual impact of trigger warnings. If you are interested in the topic, by all means read the article, linked above. 

While I am interested in trigger warnings, since I do teach college classes, what most struck me about the article was not so much the specific findings of the study discussed but a more general rule that the study might reveal. Here is how the experiment was set up: 

In an online experiment, Benjamin Bellet, Payton Jones, and Richard McNally divided 270 Americans into two groups. Each group was assigned to read a series of passages from classic pieces of literature. All participants read ten passages, five of which contained no distressing material, and five of which contained severely distressing material (e.g., depictions of murder). 
The two groups randomly created by the researchers were labelled the “trigger warning condition” and the “control condition”. In the trigger warning condition, each passage was preceded by the following statement: TRIGGER WARNING: The passage you are about to read contains disturbing content and may trigger an anxiety response, especially in those who have a history of trauma. No such warning was given in the control condition.
Emotional ratings about three “mildly distressing” passages were taken before and after the block of ten test passages. This let the researchers find out participants baseline levels of anxiety, and to establish whether the presentation of trigger warnings affected this baseline rating. Emotional ratings were also collected after each markedly distressing passage (a measure of immediate anxiety). In addition to this, participants also provided ratings in relation to their perceptions of emotional vulnerability following trauma (both in relation to their own vulnerability, and that of others), their belief that words can cause harm and that the world is controllable, and finally completed an implicit association test measuring their own sense of vulnerability/resilience.

The result of the experiment? 

After controlling for various factors, such as sex, race, age, psychiatric history, and political orientation, the researchers found that those participants who received trigger warnings were significantly more likely (compared to those in the control condition) to suggest that they and others would be more vulnerable to emotional distress after experiencing trauma (emphasis added).

I see these results as a minor confirmation of a general truth about human behavior: we tend to act (not in all cases, but for the most part) as we believe that others expect us to. 

If I am right about this general truth, then we need to train ourselves to "expect the best" in all our human encounters. If we don't, we will likely find that we "experience the worst."

Getting what we expect. I do think there is a lot of truth in that.


Image Credit:
https://theunityprocess.com/what-is-an-emotional-trigger/

Monday, October 8, 2018

#281 / Fear Not



The illustration above comes from an article in the Saturday/Sunday, September 1-2, 2018, edition of The Wall Street Journal, "This Is Your Brain On the Internet." I think it is true, as the article suggests, that we worry far too much about dangers and disasters that are certainly possible, but that are not very likely to occur. I was particularly appreciative of what Lenore Skenazy had to say about childhood independence. She is the president of Let Grow, a nonprofit that sets out this statement of purpose: 

Treating today's kids as physically and emotionally fragile is bad for their future – and ours.

A real-life example of what Skenazy is talking about was a featured news story in the September 2, 2018, edition of The Mercury News. The article was titled, "The 'Invisible' Kid," and consisted of a long and hyperventilating description of how a five-year-old Oakland boy, Jackson Kirby, managed to make a three-mile walk from school to home with no adult participation.

One might have thought that this story would be framed as an inspiring tale of how a young man (a really young man) demonstrated self-reliance and fearlessness in the face of what could only appear to him to have been an abandonment. [The adult who was supposed to take him from school to an after-school daycare facility mistakenly left him behind]. Rather than telling the story that way, the article was a hysterical rumination on how could this young kid have walked three miles without anyone noticing that he was unaccompanied by an adult. "He doesn't know the gravity of what could have happened," the boy's father said.

Fear immobilizes. If we structure our lives around what we fear, we automatically make sure that our lives will be less productive, as we shortchange the possible. There is a new book out that makes just this point. I think it's a point worth making.

Like it says in the Bible (just plain old good advice, as much as spiritual teaching): Fear Not!




Image Credits:
(1) - https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-world-isnt-as-bad-as-your-wired-brain-tells-you-1535713201
(2) - https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10209553554183365&set=pob.1462673770&type=3&theater

Sunday, October 7, 2018

#280 / Maybe Nationalism Is Not That Bad



Yoram Hazony, writing in The Wall Street Journal, makes a pitch for the value of "nationalism." His article, "The Liberty of Nations," is worth reading. One of the points he makes, but perhaps not his main point, is that a nation-state provides a structured "container," within which effective and democratic political action is possible. 

This is pretty much the same argument made by my favorite political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, in an essay entitled, "Nation-State and Democracy," published in Thinking Without a Banister. Without some sort of political structure to support political action, totalitarianism results.

One lesson might be: make no excuses for your country, but love it all the same. Fix it. Don't nix it. 

Something like that!


Image Credit:
https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-liberty-of-nations-1535120837

Saturday, October 6, 2018

#279 / Another World Is Within Reach



The way I think about it, a scientist often takes some very theoretical statement that tells the truth about how the world works, and then uses that scientific theory as a way to discover how to accomplish some very "non-theoretical" things. My favorite example? Einstein's equation: 

E = MC2

That famous formula suddenly reveals that even a very small amount of matter contains a prodigious amount of energy. So, there should be some way to turn matter into energy, right? Theoretically, that should be possible. And the scientists worked at it, and what do you know? That equation was right on the money! Now we have the atom bomb! 

Science can employ theory to create new realities in lots of other ways, too, including more positive and less destructive realities. Theory to practice; that's the scientific method.

Well, what about political science? Are there political theories that we can use to create new realities in our political world? I am saying, "yes."

One of my personal political theories is that our "political world" is a world in which anything is possible. That is because the world we most immediately inhabit, which I do insist is a "political" world, is not constrained by the kind of physical laws that govern the World of Nature. The World of Nature is a world that we did not create, and upon which we ultimately depend. Our "political" world is different. We do create that world. And we can create it as any kind of world we want!

In other words, to give an example, there is no reason that "marriage" has to be the union of a man and a woman. That's how it was, for a long time. But we decided to change that reality, and we did. Virtually all of the laws and rules that govern our political, social, and economic life - rules of taxation, and rules governing land use - are subject to change, based on human choice and human action. 

This brings me to the Labour Party in Great Britain, and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who is pictured above. Corbyn and the Labour Party are proposing new forms of property ownership. That would be a real change! Click the link, above, to read an article discussing the proposals in some detail. Here is a brief introduction:

Who owns and controls capital – productive wealth – is among the most fundamental questions of political economy, central to understanding the operations of any economic system ... Responses to capitalist private ownership of the economy have traditionally divided along two main lines. In greatly simplified terms, state socialism placed ownership and control of capital with the state, whereas social democracy left it largely in private hands but sought to redistribute the returns through taxation and transfers. 
A neglected third tradition, however, largely eclipsed by the left’s great twentieth-century projects, is to be found in the long-running socialist commitment to economic democracy. The central idea of economic democracy is the notion of extending principles of popular sovereignty from the realm of politics and governance into economics. In A Preface to Economic Democracy, Robert Dahl defined economic democracy as 'help[ing] to strengthen political equality and democracy by reducing inequalities originating in the ownership and control of firms.' Approaching the question from the opposite end, G. D. H. Cole, the British socialist theorist and economic democracy advocate, argued that principles of democracy should apply 'not only or mainly to some special sphere of social action known as ‘politics’, but to any and every form of social action, and, in especial, to industrial and economic fully as much as to political offices.'

Essentially, the Labour Party is proposing that workers should own the "means of production" but not through "the state." Instead, turning workers into owners would be accomplished through the political process, by passing new laws that would redefine the way the economy is structured. Labour leaders are saying that this is not a "redistribution" of wealth, but a "predistribution."

A change like this would have an explosive impact in the political world. Would it be "destructive" or "constructive?" Such a change should be debated. The point is, if you believe my political science theory, this change in how our economy is structured is completely possible. That makes it well worth thinking about.

Seriously!


Image Credit:
https://thenextsystem.org/learn/stories/how-uk-labour-partys-radical-plan-economic-democracy-could-shake-global-politics