Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Reading and Thinking

I've been reading a lot lately.  Finished the James Hockenberry novel "Over Here", read through the August edition of National Geographic and began the September edition, and continued my reading of the summer edition of Lapham's Quarterly called Fear.  It has helped that I have taken advantage of the many vacation days I have built up over the past 2 years, and that the nice weather has encouraged me to read in our sun room rather than plopping down in front of the TV in our living room.

Some of the things I have read about include the disturbing fact that close to a billion people on Earth still defecate out of doors, resulting in sanitation risks that create the needless deaths of tens of thousands of children a year.

That a private sector space race is in progress in an attempt to win the $20 million Google Lunar XPrize by being the first privately funded group to land a craft on the moon, travel 500 meters on its surface, and beam images of its trip back to Earth.

That new research into the workings of the brain is revealing an amazing connection between addictive behavior and brain activity, specifically in the area of dopamine release and interceptor cells.  Research that is inspiring not only new ways to look at destructive behavior, but some innovative approaches to ending the escalating cycle of craving, satisfaction, deeper craving that is creating far too many addicts and far too many opioid related deaths.

That there are indeed, present day messiahs roaming our planet preaching their own unique version of the meaning of life, the way to happiness, and the path to God.

I have also been thinking a lot lately.

That statues and monuments are merely symbols of our history, and that removing them won't matter one bit if we don't address the underlying cause which leads everyday people to hate other people because of a more pronounced degree of sun exposure.

That words matter more than symbols, and that when we do not condemn a mind set that places one race above another, or advocates the kind of hate that drove the everyday people of Germany to excuse, at best, condone and contribute to, at worst, one of the most heinous programs of genocide in our history, we are likely to repeat such terrible actions.

That while we debate about lowering the tax on corporations that demonstrate limited loyalty to America, choosing to move jobs, monies, and home offices to wherever they get the best deal, most inner cities schools are struggling to make payroll and provide basic teaching tools, producing children, who will have learned that rich people are more important than our youth.

That work ethic seems to be on the decline while drug dependency is on the rise.  If we assume that we engage in activities that produce pleasure, thereby training our brains to seek those activities, and given that the last 35 years has produced a minimum increase in the standard of living of most Americans as compared to a hundred fold for the wealthy, then perhaps it is no wonder that too many everyday people are reluctant to buy into the version of the American dream that depicts a relaxed retirement after a lifetime of hard work.

And, if the above continues, that more and more people will look to the lottery as the only way to financial independence, or worse, find contentment in the arms of the plethora of drugs, legal and illegal, that produce far too many addled brains, as well as too many rich pharmaceutical CEO's.

That the internet provides the world at our fingertips, all knowledge, all facts, all of history, but is too often used as a distraction from living, or as a way to spread falsehoods and distortions so as to gain power and money.  And that our phones have evolved from a lump of black plastic and metal that was more useful as a paperweight than a communication device, to a hand held wonder that takes better pictures than most cameras, and enables us to find out virtually anything we need to know, from directions to a list of the tallest trees, but is unfortunately mostly used to send pictures of cute animals, outrageous comments that have been taken out of context, and viral emails that depict the everyday activities of our lives as the greatest, the best, or the worst, as if the preceding thousands of years of mankind's existence had little meaning.

That perhaps if our political and religious leaders worried less about their personal legacies (and wallets) and more about the ability of everyday people to be happy, productive, and inspired that anything is possible with perseverance, then we might be able to create a world where the basic needs of indoor plumbing and accessible, potable water, a safe and solid education, and the guarantee that hard work, regardless of occupation will result in access to affordable health insurance and health care, will come before billion dollar sporting arenas and trillion dollar weapons systems.      

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Unreasonable Perspectives

In my last post I discussed my over riding belief that most people are reasonable, and that by appealing to that reasonableness, it is much easier to defuse confrontations, and engage in more civil discussions even about the most divisive issues of the day.

But what about people who act unreasonably?

Again, it is important to remember that one's own perspective of another's "unreasonable" opinion or perspective most likely equates to the exact same opinion of that person to your particular lack of understanding their viewpoint.  In other words, they consider you unreasonable as well.

Two weeks ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, a march was organized by some reasonable people who felt that removing the statues of Confederate Civil War heroes was inappropriate.  Some felt strongly that these statues honored not just the leaders of the South, but also the hundreds of thousands of men and women who died for their beliefs.  Additionally, there are those from the North as well as the South who feel that maintaining statues of Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson, etc, provides teaching points for our youth.  We must understand our past, the failures as well as the successes, if we are to move forward in our treatment of all people.

As a possible corollary, we maintain markers and monuments recollecting the various horrendous treatment of Native Americans by our government via the military, and by some of the pioneers who helped tame the vast lands of the West.  I am sure it pains many Native Americans to see those markers, as they remind them of their lost culture and the inhumane treatment their ancestors received by the settlers who perceived the taking of the Indian homeland as a divine right intrinsically paired with manifest destiny.  However, I might also conjecture that most Native Americans prefer to keep those memorials so as not to forget their ancestors, and their culture.

Unfortunately, many of the marchers in Charlottesville were there to express a desire to return to the time when white men ruled with impudence.  For them, the statues represented a time to be honored, even recreated.  The lesson of the Civil War, the spirit of the Declaration of Independence which proclaims that all men are created equal, the hard fought battles of the Civil Rights Era which brought down decades of Jim Crow laws, the understanding that we are all sons and daughters with diverse heritage and DNA, all these truths are lost on those who support white supremacist doctrines.

Conversely, most of the counter protesters at that rally were there to remind those marching for a more whiter America, that the 400,000+ Americans who died fighting to defeat Nazi Germany during World War 2 did so to bring freedom to Europe and guarantee the same for America.

Sadly, there were those on both sides who chose to express their beliefs in a violent manner.  It is those people that President Trump was referring to when he added the phrase "many sides" to his scripted speech.  In the absolute, there was aggression by some on each side of the protest, and so Trump is correct, many sides acted unreasonably when we assume that violence is never the answer to perspective differences.

However, and this is an important point, condemning the violence committed by some on each side, does not create a moral equivalence to the reason behind the marchers and the protesters.  Those who advocate white supremacy, who glorify the participation of those honored in marble and stone in a war meant to continue the barbaric practice of owning and abusing a class of people because of their race, represent a perspective that is not only unreasonable, but is anathema to the very heart of the meaning of America.  It is not another notch in the Make America Great Again slogan, but a slap to every American who gave his or her life, not just during World War 2, but in the execution of every war fought since the War for Independence.

This is the crux of the problem with President Trump's statement.  Had he condemned the violence which causes Americans to fight with each other on the street, he would have been on point.  A president, any president must often remind his constituents that the right to peaceably assemble, the right to protest, and the right to free speech, does not include the right to intimidate and threaten their fellow citizens.

Once established, that no one should resort to violence in the expression of their rights, he should have then separated the intent of the marchers from the protesters, making it clear that the tenants of white nationalism has no place in America today.  That it is an unreasonable perspective that he does not support, and that is not reflective of his overall philosophy of Making America Great Again. Unfortunately, Trump's campaign rhetoric struck a cord with those that believe that the mixing of the races weakens America, and his mutual condemnation of the violence during the march signals to those believers a justification to express that view.

Which brings us to people with unreasonable perspectives.

Every day we encounter people with whom we disagree.  Many of these differences are easily sorted out or tolerated if they are inconsequential.  But some of these differences are not so easily rectified. They may possess a cultural or religious foundation, or a learned bias that is not so readily countered with facts.

In the summer edition of Lapham's Quarterly, called Fear, which I am presently reading, there is an excerpt from Marilynne Robinson's book called Fear.  In September 2015, then President Barack Obama interviewed Robinson about the essay.  Robinson said "I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people," she said. "When people begin to make those conspiracy theories, and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that it made for a position that they don't agree with - you know?".  Obama replied, "Yes.".

The belief that one race is better than another is an unreasonable perspective.  It is held by people who may be reasonable in many other perspectives which means that they may be dissuaded of this viewpoint.  Perhaps through education, perhaps through example.  But when we make the mistake of equating unreasonable opinions with unreasonable people, then no matter of discussion or violence will change either party's mind.  We have to assume that someone is willing to listen to facts and truths if we are to believe we can alter someone's perspective. And, when we are bombarded every day with forces that prefer to emphasize radical perspective on either side so as to garner more profits, more and more people become unreasonable in their belief structure and less willing to perceive those with differing opinions as reasonable.

The challenge of both an active citizenry and its political leaders, is to promote an understanding that holding opinions which differ is an important facet of a vibrant democracy, that violence in voicing those opinions is not acceptable, and that perspectives which run counter to the foundations of our country as detailed in the Bill of Rights, may be voiced, but must not be condoned in even the slightest fashion or through any kind of moral equivalency.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Reasonable People

I had a job interview yesterday.  One of the questions asked was "How would you handle a customer who insisted on something that you knew was wrong".  As a current manager in a retail establishment, it is not uncommon for a customer to insist that they purchased a product for less money in the recent past, so it was not a scenario that I had not encountered many times. My answer, however, was different than when asked the same question during previous interviews.

Generally, whenever I am confronted by a customer with a complaint, I attempt to diffuse the cause for concern by asking for the customer to share their issue as opposed to getting it second hand from an associate, as most frequently, problems are brought to the attention of someone at the register or on the sales floor rather than direct to me.

Along with this step, I attempt to direct the customer to an area out of earshot of other customers. Once the problem is reiterated, I ask for their name while introducing myself as well.  I feel that this approach addresses those customers who may be experiencing an increase in the level of their irritation because so many of us have attach a negative perception of business, especially big corporate business, while forgetting that the person fielding the complaint is a fellow human.  By personalizing the encounter, I have found that some of the anger is tempered.

But most importantly, I listen to and answer the customer with the assumption that they are a reasonable person looking for a reasonable answer.  Put another way, I assume that most people are nice.  Using this idea as the beginning of any conversation, especially one in which there is a hint of conflict, sets the tone so that however the discussion might end, it involves two reasonable people who are resolving a difference in perceptions.   No crossing of arms, no interruptions by one speaker over the other, no hint of haughtiness when the mistake is obvious.

Granted, this can be difficult if the customer is aggressive or abusive, but again, that is not usually the case.  In fact, sometimes it is the lack of personalizing the conversation that escalates the situation.
So often, anger is the result of a feeling of helplessness, or vulnerability.  A "You can't fight city hall" mentality.  This is especially true for those who have been taken advantage of or abused when they were vulnerable.  For some, the lessons of letting one's guard down, or assuming the best of their fellow men, have scarred them to the point that self preservation rules the day, and any hint of future helplessness produces anger and harsh emotions.

I often credit my years of hitchhiking across America as proof that most people are nice, most people are reasonable.  As a hitchhiker, you go no where unless a stranger decides to stop and offer assistance.  Perhaps I was fortunate enough not to have had any serious negative experience in that time, but I maintain it is more because, most people are nice, and that helping others is as integral to our DNA as any other motivation.

This premise, that most people are reasonable, seems to be a missing component of so much of the dialogue concerning the topics of the day.  Whether that dialogue centers around liberal vs conservative, left vs right, or Democrat vs Republican, and whether the topic includes race relations, health care insurance options, or the uncertainly surrounding Russia's involvement in our elections, the conversations invariably revert to name calling and vitriol; in summary the premise that the other side in not nice, not reasonable.

Of course, this is nothing new.  Presenting our enemies, or those with differing opinions, as not quite American, or not quite sane, has been with us for all of history.  Fortunately, within the nastiness of those debates, there has usually been a countering force which helps both sides realize that no deal, no common ground can be found, unless we can rely on each other to be reasonable.  Every contract that exists, from the simple marriage contract to a 145 nations treaty, is doomed to fail unless each and every party is reasonable.

In the end, it is this ability to disagree yet still respect each other that separates us from the animals. It is certainly not an easy path to take, but it is a critical aspect, one that will help ensure that our species continues its slow, bumpy, tumultuous path towards the spiritual enlightenment that has been detailed by Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, the Dalai Lama, etc.    

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Over Here, over there, and eveywhere

I began reading a novel last week called Over Here, by Jame Hockenberry.  (My wife gave it to me for Christmas last year, autographed by the author; thanks Nora).  It is the fictionalized account of the activity that occurred in the United States just before America entered World War One.   While I am just about 1/3 through the book, I am finding it to be an interesting portrayal of the mixed emotions that existed in our country before we entered WW1 in April 1917, especially among those who considered themselves German-Americans, either because they were born in Germany, or because they were raised by German born parents in the United States.

Obviously, those Americans with ties to Germany, were conflicted by the war in Europe, a war which many considered to be the primary fault of German leaders' desires to break the Franco-Russia alliance, while elevating Germany to the class of world leader nation.  Throw in the rumors on both sides of the war of atrocities against civilians, and the unwillingness for all concerned to contain the initial outbreak to a localized war between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, and we have a recipe for both individuals and nations to be torn over which side to support.

Perhaps the parallel is not quite as solid, but I have to imagine that similar internal battles exist in the hearts of Mexican Americans when they here some of our our leaders disparage their country and its people, as well as those Americans who practice Islam, when they hear the phrase Islamist terrorist bandied about without regard to the vast majority of Islams who are not infected with a deep case of "ism-ness".  In each case, I imagine that being proud of one's heritage or religion, as well as one's adopted country, should not necessitate the need to choose one over the other.  Unfortunately, like some Americans during World War 1, distrust of their German neighbors, fueled by the occasional act of violence, is easy to see in action today by some who distrust people born south of our border or who worship a different God.    

One particular moment in the book struck me as both interesting and poignant.  At one point, one of the Bomb Squad detectives is discussing with his wife the recently released movie they had just seen; A Birth of a Nation.  The wife, Corinne, pushes her husband to understand that the awful actions of the KKK as depicted in the movie are similar to those being perpetrated by the mostly German American saboteurs that he is sworn to hunt down and stop.  But more importantly, while we might agree that their actions are horrible, to them their actions are in defense of their way of life.  In essence, Corinne is acting as the conscious of all of us to remember that men do many awful things in the name of self preservation, loyalty to country and family, and to defend their beliefs and values. She reminds her husband that those who used guerrilla tactics during the War for Independence were most likely considered barbarians and traitors by the majority of people in England at that time.

Corinne ends her side of the conversation with the question, if all people on both sides of a conflict believe that God is on their side, whose God is right if there is only one?

Which brings us "over there" where a nation of people institutionalized by government propaganda which controls their news, education, and virtually every aspect of their lives, believes that the only way to protect their way of life is to construct a huge military, enhanced with nuclear weapons capability.  While we may know that their leader, Kim Jong-un, is a brutal dictator who prefers to spend his country's money on weapons rather than food and medicine, they only know from years of teachings that America may strike first, at any moment, and their only alternative is to acquire similar weapons.  Certainly, Kim Jong-un is a despot of the worst magnitude, but when our President threatens to bring "fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen" he is only adding fuel to the fire of those poor people who live in an ignorant cloud of deception.  The sad thing is that it is those very same people who will suffer the consequences of some type of military operation, while the escalators of the violence, the two leaders of the countries, will emerge unharmed.  And, in the end, the majority of North Koreans who have no other source of information, will have their worst fears about American aggressiveness realized.  

And then there is Charlottesville, Virginia.  A small town rocked over the weekend by violence over the plan to move some statues of Civil War era heroes.  Certainly, there are some people who feel pride in their Confederate heritage.  They do not glorify the horrors of the War between the States, but do respect the values of the South, which helped build and bind their communities, perhaps conveniently ignoring the damage caused by slavery, but not maliciously so.

Unfortunately, there are too many who would eagerly bring back the days of white domination over other races.  Their rhetoric was all too obvious in the signs and speeches of the march, as was the intent of the young man who drove his car into the crowd of protesters.  The good news is that, while vocal, it is a minority of people who learned to hate, as ex-President Obama's tweet so eloquently described.  The bad news is that, purposefully or not, President Trump's election has emboldened some of these groups into thinking that making America great again means putting minorities back in their place, and recognizing that America was founded by white men for white men and that their heritage is at risk due to the insidiousness of diversity.

History, while occurring, is a fluid thing.  Individual historic moments can be recognized when they occur, but generally are not realized until time has passed.  We of course, egocentric as we are, tend to think that everything that is happening is historic.  With the advent of the "Breaking News" crawl on every opinion and news show, it is no wonder that we think our time is so important.

I can only hope that future historians will mark this time, and the next few years, as an important watershed in America, as a time when the electorate realized that a democracy ignored is doomed to collapse, that a true moral compass requires a moral foundation upon which the needle moves, and that those who have learned to hate can be taught, if not to love, at least to un-hate.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Joseph Heller, Fear and Immigration

Today I read an excerpt from Something Happened by Joseph Heller.  It is the beginning of the second chapter, entitled "the office in which I work", and I read it in the summer edition of Lapham's Quarterly.  I also spent some time today reading the recently released transcripts of President Trump's phone calls during his first weeks of office to the Presidents of Mexico and Australia.

The first paragraph of the reprinted portion of Something Happened is as follows:

"In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid.  Each of these five people is afraid of four people (excluding overlaps), for a total of twenty, and each of these twenty people is afraid of six people, making a total of 120 people who are feared by at least one person.  Each of these 120 people is afraid of the other 119, and all of these 145 people area afraid of the twelve men at the top who helped found and build the company and now own and direct it."

At some point in my career as a mid level manager, I internalized the notion that management by fear was an outdated concept.  While certainly, a respect for the chain of command was necessary for the orderly functioning of any organization, the management style that emphasized blind obedience over constructive disagreements, the promotion of yes men (women) over those who questioned inefficient procedures, and the overall belief that keeping one's staff in a perpetual state of fearing for the loss of their job or promotion opportunities, inexorably led to the best people leaving for more challenging opportunities, condemning the organization to mediocrity, at best, eventual failure at worst.

Of course, Heller wrote Something Happened in the 1970's, yet it seems that management by fear and intimidation is still alive and well, perhaps not surprisingly within the biggest corporations and most extensive bureaucracies.  What is unfortunate is that, as Heller continues to describe the various bosses at his present and past employers, it becomes clear that once fear is the modus operandi of an organization, it permeates all levels, from the top to the bottom, even going so far as to create the insidious feeling within many of the workers that "someone nearby is soon going to find out something about me that will mean the end, although I can't imagine what that something is."  In essence, an outlook of fear and dread is created which infects other aspects of the employee's life, even outside of work.

I recently saw this kind of dread in a number of people in my circle of acquaintances.  For one, a lurking fear that his employer, after 25+ years of service, is setting the table for dismissal, just when the fruits of his longevity are about to pay off.  For another, that a reassignment is the result of an opinion viewed, not as professional disagreement, but as questioning the decisions of those in charge, and for a third, the harrowing perspective that the skill set of a mature worker is not applicable in today's employment market, so its best to tolerate poor working conditions and sub par instructions for fear of loss of income and health care insurance.  

I had often stated that I hoped that those employers who took advantage of the recession of 2008-2010 by cutting benefits, salary or both with the admonition that workers "should just be grateful they have a job", would be the first to lose good people when the economy recovered.  Now, 8 years into the recovery, there is still little progress on raising minimum wages, addressing overall income inequality, and creating a foundation for the middle class to recapture the loss of buying power that has resulted from the love affair with trickle down economics.  All the while, and sadly, despite having a two term Democratic President, the incomes and wealth of the top 5% has improved at a staggering pace.

Which brings us to President Trump.

While I hope that these first 6 months can be chalked up to the learning curve of a CEO who must absorb the difference between running a business and running a government, I am not encouraged by his use of fear in his dealings with the media, his critics, those in the GOP establishment, various judges, our allies, our healthcare conundrum, and, it appears, even those he has chosen to be in his cabinet.

Clearly, his travel bans, a policy based on the fear of immigrants and refugees and which played well with those Americans with a similar fear, as well as his recent reversal of allowing transgender people to serve in the military, establish a pattern of blaming various minority populations for all our troubles which enhances the fears of those who find it easy to dehumanize a group based on their differences.

When I read the aforementioned transcripts, especially the one detailing his conversation with Australia's Prime Minister, I found a man unwilling to listen to the specifics of the deal created to provide new homes for some middle eastern refugees.  He had promised his supporters to ban those "bad" people, and was unable or unwilling to separate economic refugees from terrorists.  He had successfully used blind fear to gain votes, and was not about to attempt to separate blind fear from a reality based fear for those who were so easy to sway.

Additionally, in both conversations, President Trump emphasized, at times even exaggerated, his popularity, in part to hammer home his points that he couldn't go back on his campaign promises about the wall and about immigration, but also, it seemed, to remind the foreign presidents that they should also fear the ramifications of statements and actions not in line with Trump's perspective.  Not that I would expect our president to do anything rash against either of these countries, rash being defined as a military response, but it reveals an attitude that says "Your lack of cooperation and agreement will ultimately result in a detrimental consequence".  Whether that level of consequence is trade related or force related seems dependent on the country and its misstep.

Curiously, President Trump does not seem to exhibit that same attitude when it comes to Russia. Even in signing the bipartisan sanctions bill against Russia he found it necessary to express his displeasure with the bill, a displeasure that may reflect both his opinion of the sanctions and the fact that he felt compelled to sign them.

Is immigration, illegal and otherwise, the biggest threat to America?  Is ISIS and other forms of terrorism?  Is it North Korea and their over the top nationalism that is fueled by a dictator who is loved by all his citizens and takes pains to prove it everyday?

Or is it the threats to our democracy? Threats that have existed since the Cold War began and are very really positioned at the end of thousands of ICBM's pointed to Europe and America, threats that were exercised in both overt invasions of minor countries and subversive cyber invasions which created and enhanced misinformation meant to sow doubts in our allegiances to other democracies.  Threats that attack our democracy from within by legitimizing the power of money to sway elections, and that leave the vast majority without recourse when the minority creates laws that reinforce the circle of influence, power, and control.

We all feel fear, personally and collectively.  We don't always gauge it properly, whether it is an unhealthy fear of closed spaces, or a xenophobic fear of those who look differently.  But we should expect, especially from our leaders, an assessment of fear that is based on facts not phobias.