Wednesday, January 31, 2018

States of Mind

Last week, I began reading the Winter Edition of Lapham's Quarterly called States of Mind.  As is the case for most of these wonderful editions, it has immediately fired all kinds of thoughts.

Last summer, I titled a post, Reading and Thinking.  In it I touched on a few of the things I had recently learned by reading, and made some other comments as I am wont to do.  After reading a few of the essays in States of Mind, the preamble by Lewis Lapham, an excerpt from Diane Ackerman's An Alchemy of Mind, and one from Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, it strikes me as unfortunate, perhaps even, if I may be so sanguine to say, disconcerting, that the concept and execution of "reading" has changed so dramatically in the past few decades.

First, of course, we read less than previous generations, especially those that grew up without the great distractions of television and the internet.  The printed word was king for 600 years, breaking open the shackles that had hid the knowledge of the ages from the everyday man, providing a medium and a market for new ideas, exposing the hypocrisy of rules and taboos that were created by those seeking to maintain their power and control over the masses, and freeing the mind of so many who before were constrained by only what they could experience.  More than anything before, Gutenberg's press provided the imagination with an infinite source for creating new states of mind.

But more than that, why we read seems to have changed as well.  Where in the past, one went to the library, book store, or magazine rack to learn as well as for entertainment, to increase one's knowledge or to escape, if even for a little while, into a world created by the author's imagination, now we seem to read as much to confirm our opinions as to seek new information.  And, perhaps unbeknownst to us, our go to place for reading, the various sources of social media on the internet, have been programmed to direct us to opinions, sites and news that reflect our past clicks.

It is as if, when walking through the doors of a library or into a bookstore, your library card, or debit card were scanned for past borrows and purchases, and only those sections were now open for you to browse. As if, once a science fiction book borrowed or purchased, that is all you would be offered again.

What was conceived as a way to ease one's navigating the internet, cookies which track your previous queries and algorithms which predict where you might want to go based on where you already went, is now more often used to tempt you with the goods and services that someone with your profile might like, or to direct you to sites which share your previously espoused opinion, or present you with news that might influence and confirm how you might vote.

In short, where reading was once a personal experience, limited by one's own desire for entertainment or willingness to seek new sources of information, internet reading via social media vehicles is too often controlled by the unseen forces of a technology without a value system, or an advertiser in search of a sale, or an opinion manipulator with goals both insidious and unnamed.

I have always thought of reading as a way to improve oneself, promote self reflection, increase empathy, perhaps even make one a better human.  To create a state of mind that is free from the restrictions that make us turn towards destructive behaviors, individually or as a group.

When I engage in discussions with people, especially my dear wife Nora, about the obvious problems we see with the present direction of our leadership, I generally try to assuage her fears with the pendulum analogy.  Great progress and change is challenging, and threatening.  It should be no surprise that after 8 years of the first African American President, one with visions of real equality, racial, gender, marriage, etc, after 8 years of agreement that climate change is a real threat and that our nation needs to move away from fossil fuels, after 8 years of slow, steady growth after the near depression of 2008-10, after 8 years of the hard truth about the inequalities in our judicial and penal systems, in our boardrooms, and in our spending priorities, it is natural for the pendulum to swing back a bit.  

I tell her that our state of mind, while alarmed, must also be hopeful that the pendulum will soon slow in its current backwards path, and begin to swing back in a direction that reflects true Christian values if that is your choice, loving thy neighbor as thyself, turning the other cheek, helping the least among us, etc, or reflects the goals of a generation who believed in the message and visions of Kennedy and King.

In the meantime, I encourage those who might "read" this post to reconnect with your relationship with reading if you recall a pleasant one when young.  And, for those for whom that relationship did not flourish, consider trying again.

Create your own state of mind before one is created for you.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

An Open Letter to President Donald Trump

Dear Mr. President,

As we approach the one year anniversary of your inauguration, I sense that you might be confused and surprised about the level of dissatisfaction among the citizens of the United States concerning your work to date, especially that which emanates from those of us who did not vote for you.

I recently finished reading the January/February edition of the Smithsonian magazine, and I would like to recommend that you obtain a copy and read it through.  Perhaps the various articles which detail many of the explosive events of 1968 might shine a light on the angst which is demonstrated daily by some us.

You see, the entire edition reflects on what some people believe was one of the most exciting, depressing, challenging, historic years in recent memory.   A year which brought to mainstream consciousness a number of the issues still being debated today; environmental protection, women's rights and treatment, social justice, war and our place in the world, worker's rights, politics and protests, the explosion of technology in our everyday lives, and race relations.

It was a time during which many people thought the direction of our great country, and hopefully the world as a whole, might be marked as the beginning of a new social contract.  A contract which truly reflected the founder's beliefs that all men were created equal, not just those with money, power, male genitals and white pigmented skin.  We thought it might be a turning point, despite the horrific sacrifices paid via the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the thousands who died and were mentally damaged from the Vietnam experience, and the invisible men and women who stood up for their principles even when social norms and outdated concepts of race and gender blocked their paths.

Change is always difficult, and generally not linear.  There are peaks and valleys, pendulum swings of progress and stagnation.  We still believe in the promises made in the 1960's and America's ability to lead the world towards such far reaching goals.  We still believe that America can be the shining light on the hill. But we don't believe that your agenda matches those goals.  We don't believe that selling the environment to the highest bidder, bribing the working class with $1000 while opening the flood gates for even worse income inequality, calling fake news any story with which you disagree, and early morning tweet storms aimed at anyone not in line with your thoughts, are the ways to achieve those aspirations.

Please Mr President, turn off the TV and read this magazine.  Open your mind to the possibility that those who disagree with you do, indeed, love America, so much so that we are willing to be counted among those who voice our disagreement with your vision, and ready and willing to offer an alternative which is more inline with what we believe were the dreams of those who made 1968 a watershed year in America.

Respect and regards,

Joe Pugnetti

Monday, January 15, 2018

Finding the positives of being born in a Sh%@hole country

Been trying to catch up on some reading this month.  Working through the December edition of the National Geographic magazine, I recently read a wonderful article called Africa's Tech Generation.  It detailed the amazing contributions of some African born entrepreneurs who are simultaneously creating a better life for themselves while improving the lives of those in their communities.

For those of us who take for granted internet access as well as all the other advantages that the tech age has provided for us, it is important to remember that if not for our good fortune to have won the birth lottery in being born in the western world, in general, and America in particular, we might be faced with the daunting challenge that 78% of the population born on the African continent face; no way to go online.

That the individuals detailed in the article overcame this obstacle, first, by being identified as an above average student thereby qualifying for a more advanced education, then by applying the knowledge they were given to identify and address a problem in their world, and finally to have the perseverance and drive to obtain the computer time, funding, and opportunity to make their dream a reality, is inspirational  But, when perceived in the context that for every one who made it, there are tens of thousands who never had even a glimmer of a chance to walk a similar path, it is also very sad.  The sheer magnitude of the realization that there exists such a loss of potential is staggering.

The good news is that start-up money, access to other young people from the West with similar characteristics, and the encouragement for others who can see hope in the successes of those from their home countries, will combine to quicken the pace of internet access, in addition to the more overriding belief that the time will come when an African born child will be provided the same opportunities and advantages that a Western born child enjoys.

Unless, of course, the attitude expressed by President Trump in his recent description of those born in Haiti, and in African countries, is not addressed.  While many people are as alarmed by his overt racism as I am, there are far too many Americans that either share his viewpoint, or are unwilling to take him to task for fear of losing the opportunity to advance their political and economic agendas.

In some ways, I feel sorry for President Trump and those who are so willing to dismiss those born with a different skin color or in a different country, without regard to the depth of their character or the size of their heart.  They are missing out on such possibilities!  We all have our prejudices and preconceived notions which limit how much of life we might enjoy.  When we refuse to eat certain foods that look or smell strange, or refuse to travel to or learn about certain areas where we might encounter people of different cultures, or when we avoid engaging with certain people who express their individuality in ways that are foreign to us, we miss out on life.  And we only hurt, and limit ourselves.

Does President Trump ever wonder why our creator developed a world where people spoke different languages, looked different, fell in love without regard to gender, and established cultures, religions, and institutions in a myriad of ways?  Does he and his ilk ever think that life is not just about amassing large sums of money but about exploring the host of variances that exist within mankind?  It is certainly not easy to remove oneself from the rigors of everyday life, but to consciously avoid the knowledge that the world consists of a tremendous variety of people, and that those unlike us are inferior, is a shame.    

There is no honor is telling the poor, huddled masses of the world, the refugees fleeing war torn countries, or the children whose only crime was that their parents crossed an arbitrary line in the sand in hopes of providing a better life, that they are unwelcome in America.  Especially when the reason is prejudice and fear.

It is very easy to only invite people like yourself to your home, or your country.  There is no easier a task than to stay in one's comfort zone.  Fortunately, our ancestors, those who do not have an American Indian heritage, thought differently.  They took the risk to leave their birth nation to provide a better life for their progeny, just as my grandparents did, just as President Trump's grandparents did.

For those young men and women on the African continent who were presented to us in that Nat Geo article, they shared an even more amazing trait; to stay where they were born and make life better.  In some ways, it is even more noble than the trek of our ancestors who sought a better life, and reflects even more poorly on the attitude expressed by President Trump, who, in his ivory tower of discrimination, thinks his dismissive perceptions of those born in Africa makes one iota of difference to those dreamers.   They will succeed with or without our help.  We can only hope they treat us better should the circumstances change and we are the people living in a sh%$hole country.

In the meantime, perhaps we need to stop pretending that America First is anything more than an excuse to justify the dehumanization of anyone that doesn't look or think like ourselves, and embrace the creator's vision of Earth; a cornucopia of life filled with a diaspora of humanity that emerged (from Africa) in pursuit of liberty and happiness.


Friday, January 5, 2018


Happy New Years!!

I've been engaged in a brief battle within; to continue to blog or not.  Of course, this was not the first round of this particular war, and will certainly not be the last.  One might even postulate that without such times of doubt and questions, a particular effort or desire or goal might wither and fade.  In this case, the part of me that is eager to continue to express and comment was victorious over the part that fears that everything has already been written.  As has been said before, a life not reflected, is not worth living; let's hope that my continued reflections might produce the occasional thought or idea that encourages others to reflect as well.

I have recently discovered an idea that suggests that us liberals, progressives, Democrats, etc, have been missing a critical component of our new President; the fact that he has an inscrutable sense of humor.
In other words, we take him at his word, expecting serious comments and solid logic when in fact, he loves a good joke, and clearly believes that we are taking it all far too seriously.

A 30 foot wall separating Mexico and the United States?  Only kidding as he himself alluded to when he admitted that ladders could be used to scale such a wall.

Lock her up?  Of course he was not serious, only autocrats and dictators treat their political rivals in this manner.

Climate change is a hoax?  Obviously, the climate changes all the time, especially in the northern states when we move from one season to the next.

Fake news and liberal media bias?  Just his way of saying that he would prefer that all printed thought, as well as TV and radio transmissions only report news that he believes, thereby creating a unified perspective without dissent and making it that much easier to make America Great Again.

Voter fraud?  Obviously it exists, and the lack of documented evidence is proof of it.

Russian collusion in the recent presidential election?  Of course it did not happen, and the voluminous evidence is proof that it didn't happen.

The recent tax overhaul a boon to the rich, both corporate and individual?  Of course we are advocating the continued shift of income and resources to the rich.  Taking care of friends and family are the most important things in life.

"I will only hire the best people".  He already knows more about war than the generals, more about fixing the government that career politicians, more about running our economy than economists, so he already has the best people, that guy he sees in the mirror.

Clearly, President Donald Trump is an amazing, terrific, tremendous individual, smart, very rich, no nonsense, tough on our friends, and even tougher on those Americans who hate our wonderful country by resisting his plans to divert even more money to the wealthiest 1%, to use nuclear weapons against our enemies without any nuclear fallout, to eliminate the insidious flow of immigrants, squash equal pay for equal work, expunge voting rights for those who vote the wrong party, reverse marriage equality and gender identity protections, and all those other confusing, politically correct, social changes that have pale skinned, males in an uproar.

And if you are unsure of the truth of this, just ask him and he will tell you with a wink and a smile and a nod, both actual and figurative to himself, kidder-in-chief.