I Knew You’d Be Surprised

Ask a happy person to tell you about the place where they live and chances are you’ll hear good things about that area. The way we feel directly affects, and for some people determines, how we perceive reality.

Most of us who live in our neck of the woods, even on our bad days, know that we are fortunate to be here, and that knowledge increases in direct proportion to how many other places we have lived or visited.

Nevertheless, we do live in interesting times, in a strange age of confusion in which the way many people perceive reality is affected as much or more by the virtual world as it is by direct experience.

It’s human nature to be vulnerable to stereotypes and prejudice of all kinds. Our brains are differencing engines with a limited capacity for compiling data on more than just a handful of individuals, and anyone outside that small group, or anyone we perceive as different than our group, is considered “the other.”

Our fears and prejudices were bad enough long before the age of information came along to leverage those shortcomings and facilitate even further divisions. For its effect on our national identity and civil society, “anti-social” media is perhaps a more accurate description for what we commonly refer to as “social.”

Long before “social” media and the ascendancy of virtual reality, our part of the world often got a bad rap. Even today, southern states are assumed to be homologous organs of a monolithic south, and now stereotypes about southerners, hillbillies and rednecks, encouraged by mainstream media, have merged with stereotypes about “red states” versus “blue states.”

Here at home, we always knew differently. Now we have the data to back us up.

The Atlantic magazine recently sponsored a study on partisan prejudice. The analytics firm, PredictWise conducted the study. Towns County, Georgia, ranks in the 13th percentile, which means that 87% of all US counties are more politically intolerant than we are.

In fact, all of North Georgia and most of the Southern Appalachians rank as being significantly more tolerant than the rest of the country. Fannin County is in the 9th percentile, Union County is in the 20th; Clay and Cherokee counties in North Carolina are in the 2nd percentile.

The most intolerant county in the nation? Suffolk County, Massachusetts, in the heart of the most “liberal” part of New England. No county in the state of Massachusetts ranked below the 85th percentile. None of Georgia’s hillbilly counties ranked higher than the 20th. The most politically tolerant city in America, according to the study, is Watertown, New York, which is in a county that voted for Donald Trump by a 20 point margin. I knew you’d be surprised.

The most intolerant demographic group? Older white educated urban dwellers who tend to associate much more with “their own kind.” Ironic, isn’t it? That some of the loudest voices calling for it have the least experience of diversity.

One thing is clear. Prejudice knows no geographical boundaries, and the same is true for tolerance. We are fortunate that tolerance has taken root in the place we call home. .

(To read more about the study, go to the Atlantic article here.)

Just Sayin’

As we’ve discussed here often, one of the secrets to having a good life is the ability to curate. We choose, as much as possible, the elements we allow in our physical and mental space. Our success varies.

With this in mind I recently decided to curate my experience of information with extreme prejudice. This is something I do periodically, and more frequently as time goes by. The thing I seek to manage we sometimes refer to as”mass media,” but we struggle to find a fitting term for something that is ubiquitous and difficult to escape. Nevertheless, I was determined to severely limit my exposure to news of all kinds, commercials, websites, opinions and social media.

The power of the human psyche to adapt is remarkable. Our youngest media consumers have no idea that the information inundating their daily lives is a howling wilderness compared to the early days of the information age and the time before that.

We long ago accepted that the price we pay for entertainment includes the time we spend enduring ads and commercials, and that includes all those websites dressed up like news providers. We don’t begrudge these efforts to pay the bills. But what we often forget is the sophisticated science that informs the manipulative power of the ads.

To some degree we all carry within us an empty space of want and need, unfulfilled desires and unrealized dreams. Religion, spirituality and Faith have been trying to teach us for centuries how to fill that void, but in a culture where the secular and the carnal is paramount, we are losing the knowledge and the ability.

Ads are designed to tap into that void, to create need where none existed before, and the longer and more frequent our exposure, the more habitual our behavior becomes as we “eat” to satisfy the “hunger.” Our needful economy depends on constant and ever growing consumption, and we are conditioned to follow the fashionable and the viral.

Our job as curators would be difficult enough if manipulative marketing was the only contaminant in our flow of information, but there are elements even more toxic to our peace of mind. Politics and propaganda have polluted the river in concentrations that threaten the very survival of our civil society.

Elections never end now, and the two dominant tribes of red and blue are more than willing to tear the country apart in order to gain and regain power. Unfortunately, we are helping them do it. Someone red speaks; someone blue tweets and someone is offended. Someone else slams, attacks, destroys, calls out, and stuns and we comment and repost, and it all happens in a phantom world of pixels. The sun is shining, the green shoots of spring are emerging from the cold ground and the birds are singing, but we are angry because someone whom we’ve never met, and never will meet, said or typed something.

You might be surprised at how quickly anger fades and hunger diminishes when they are not being artificially stimulated by mass media. You might also be quite surprised at how addicted you have become if you decide to abruptly cut off your exposure to Facebook and Twitter, to close the laptop or turn off the television. I challenge you to resolve to try it for a day and take note of your reactions. Notice how quickly you can rationalize a retreat from your resolution. You may not be able to cut off the flow cold turkey the first time you try it. Don’t despair if you can’t. A lot of study has gone into getting you hooked on pixels.

I should be more proactive in my own efforts to curate. They tend to occur at moments of frustration or disgust which could be altogether avoided if I was more vigilant, but like many of you, my business interests require a constant gathering of information, and there are many road hazards on the information highway.

It was a productive vacation, this brief departure from media. Work was easier and sleep was sounder. A few more books got read that had been collecting dust. Several projects which had been put on the backburner got some much needed attention.

Returning once again to the flow, I found the nation right where I left it, a land once known as a melting pot now defined and divided by our insufferable identities. I hear “diversity and inclusion” but I see instead a kind of Balkanization.

It’s more than a little embarrassing to watch our elected leaders performing playground rituals of he said, she said and indulging in name calling. Oh, and the victims, the racists, the bigots, the anti Semites and the Islamophobes. “I know you are, but what am I?” The posturing, the recriminations, the spin, all packaged up in tweets and sound bytes ready to be propagated into the echo chambers.

But you know, another technique for curating our experience is to shift our perspective just enough to see the humor, and once we learn to do that, humor is abundant. In fact, Nancy Pelosi provided me the biggest laugh of the season so far, and almost as soon as I opened my laptop. I’ll leave you with her quote, taken out of context but able to stand on its own for the purposes of a good laugh. She said,

“I don’t think our colleague is anti-Semitic, I think she has a different experience in the use of words, doesn’t understand that some of them are fraught with meaning that she didn’t realize.”

Or, to put in another way, in the succinct language of youth, “Man, she was just sayin’.”

Presidents’ Day

By the time you read this, my friends, the warm memories of another Presidents’ Day will be receding, but today we pay homage, blissfully and reverently engaged, somewhere between celebration and commemoration.

Our discussion will be brief today, for duty calls. There is a sale, multiple sales, actually, to which we must attend in order to continue the tradition of observing holidays via consumption. It seems fitting, actually, for what finer salesmen have ever hawked their wares than the long line of hucksters, peddlers and costermongers that have occupied the White House?

Of course some of us may also be remembering George Washington and the birthday of the man who could have been king but set aside personal ambition for the good of the nation. He was a complicated man, flawed, but a man of integrity and substance even when viewed through the modern lens of retroactive social justice.

With the signing of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1971, however, we set aside history in favor of three day weekends, and bundled our celebration of all presidents into one extended opportunity for taking advantage of sales and discounts. The banks are closed today, along with federal offices and many businesses across the land. Congress will also be resting from their labors, for about two weeks, taking a much needed break from campaigning and making resolutions.

Meanwhile, soldiers at 800 military bases in 70 countries around the world will still be on duty, safeguarding our ability to shop without interruption. Many, still stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, continue to be in harm’s way as we celebrate the people who put them there. Law enforcement personnel, firemen, EMT’s and nurses will not be taking the day off.

Come to think of it, perhaps this year we should be more mindful of those people than we are of our long line of pompous potentates. After all, it takes skill, training and a willingness to sacrifice to do those jobs, but anyone can be president.

The Mystery

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea

My mother crossed the bar ten years ago last week, and my father followed her not quite five years later. The old family home passed into our keeping.

There are a great many things contained within that house. My parents were collectors of memories. Great grandmother, Eula’s rocking chair, the length of strong hemp rope Great Grandfather, Will, used to climb down into the wells he dug by hand, hand forged farm implements, quilts, tools, documents and pictures were among the many things that were carefully kept and preserved. Every birthday card we ever gave our parents was there; artwork from grade school, compositions, awards, trophies, and toys. A history of our entire family was kept under that roof.

If you have lost a parent or loved one and if you are as sentimental as your humble scribe, then you will understand. For a time, we do not suffer a single thing to be moved or removed from the possessions of the deceased. Some things preserve memories better than a photograph, almost as if the spirit of the departed lingers for a while among them.

In time, we realize that our spirits are not, nor should they be bound to earthly possessions, and we begin to let them go. If you have done this, you know, there is catharsis in that process, and grieving is never finished, only deferred.

All of this and more have I realized as we prepared for the estate sale that will finally empty the family home and allow new life to occupy it, new memories to be born. But there has been an unexpected reluctance which has slowed this process, and I did not realize until quite recently what was at its root.

As we sorted through the possessions of times past, mysteries were uncovered. Love letters from one parent to another, four leaf clovers pressed in wax paper, birthday and holiday cards from long lost relatives, arrowheads, coins and scrap books were found hidden in nooks and crannies. One by one, the old house gave up its secrets, until finally there were no more to reveal.

We are a curious species. We love mysteries, and we love even more to solve them. Our curiosity has led us from the depths of the ocean to the outer fringes of our solar system to the inner workings of the atom, and our imaginations would lead us even farther.

I think, however, that we should not rush to nor insist on knowing all. Perhaps some stones should be left unturned, some paths untraveled. We need mystery. We need undiscovered country. We need wilderness for the sake of wilderness.

Imagine a world without mystery, where all is known, developed, monetized and surveilled. We are fast approaching that world, and since our bodies are currently earth bound, our civilization turns from pioneering and adventure to gratification and habit. You can see it in the way we walk, no longer looking to the horizon, but slumped over in the constant sharing of the disjecta membra of our daily routines.

In solving the mysteries of our old family home, opening my mom’s cedar chest and the steamer trunk my dad kept locked in the hall closet, plumbing the depths of the big steel toolbox in the basement, I confronted unwillingly an uncomfortable truth. There are limits to this human life. We are granted only so many days. We will write a finite number of love letters. We will find only so many arrowheads, and there is a number, however distant, that is the reckoning of our last breath.

One day we will solve the puzzle of our own earthly lives and confront the mystery of the next . We will cross the bar ourselves on a journey into the next unknown, and someone else will sort through the remnants of the earthly possessions we leave behind.

The Sweet Spot

 

With the passing of the recent taxpayer subsidized marketing and sports spectacle (for many of us, football ended in January with the National Championship), the season of traditions which begins around Thanksgiving, that time of year which, with its celebrations and observances inspires us to temporarily set aside our differences, can be said to be truly over. 

Our assumed national obsession with politics and identity will soon continue the long and insufferable crescendo of drama that accompanies our never ending campaign cycles. 

For those of us who lost friends and suffered anxiety during the last cycle, it might behoove us at this point to take a step back and speculate on the nature of the things which separate us.

For some time now we have struggled to better understand  what we perceive to be a false dichotomy that divides almost half of the nation, or at least those of us not too busy making a a living to have time for such concerns. Just what is it that separates us into warring camps of conservative and liberal, democrat and republican?

The loudest and angriest among us follow leaders, and leaders in the vast majority of cases carry a red or a blue banner. Yet government itself, and the business concerns which direct government, seem more apolitical. Once elected, our leaders are political only as far as it is necessary to be reelected, and the vast bureaucracies of federal, state and local governments act as entities unto themselves, with their primary goal being their continued existence. 

To put it bluntly, politics is for little people, but since our numbers are overwhelming, we hold if we do not in fact wield a power which is actively sought by business and government alike. Politics is the method by which our power is divided, diluted and controlled.

Political control is achieved by identifying and leveraging the natural divisions which exist between people. By understanding what those divisions are, it might be possible to reduce the amount of manipulation to which we are subjected. 

Think of a round of firewood we intend to split. To do so, we look for cracks in the wood and we guide our axe to that “sweet spot.” If we hit it just right, far less effort is needed to split the wood. We are not firewood, but we do have vulnerabilities which are used over and over again. In this limited space we can only address a few of those. We will speak in generalities, and we concede the point that there are many exceptions to each of these.  Our intention is not to judge, but to observe.

There are several “sweet spots” where a wedge can easily be driven between democrats and republicans, conservatives and liberals. In our opinion, a sure sign of the path of the wedge can be found in the logical inconsistencies, some might say “hypocrisies” that result from our forced separation. 

Generally speaking, conservatives tend to be more religious while liberals tend to be more humanist.  Conservatives believe in the higher power of God while liberals trust more to the higher power of collectivism. Both yield individual responsibility, the conservative to a belief system and the liberal to a government. 

Observe the many splinters left by the passing of the maul. One of the biggest and sharpest is the issue of abortion, which is kindled every election cycle to the point where it is now a litmus test of political affiliation. The conservative postures as a pro life advocate, but has no problem with capital punishment. The liberal abhors capital punishment, but accepts the termination of life in the womb in a culture which, in its admixture of science and faith cannot agree at which point a human life begins. 

The liberal is predictably a defender of the environment. The conservative, when it comes to the environment, has been more of a consumer than a conservator.  The conservative would consume the environment to create jobs. The liberal would conserve the environment, but consume the wealth of working people to support the jobless.

Both conservative and liberal allow, and even encourage business and government to go adventuring around the world with our blood and treasure, to meddle unceasingly anywhere that it seems possible to extract wealth. Distracted and content or angry and made fearful by the wedge of politics driven between us, we have allowed death and destruction and debt, and the transfer of vast amounts of wealth into ever smaller numbers of hands.

Throughout history, every time wealth inequality has become extreme, volatility has ensued. Inequality leads invariably to the rise of collectivism and of socialistic forms of government that are doomed to fail. Even capitalism, the core of the American way of life, degrades as free markets are gamed into crony capitalism and oligarchy. In the end, the only proven method of reducing inequality, is disaster. 

Every civilization, every philosophy and belief, every form of government and every nation has a shelf life. All human institutions contain the seeds of their own destruction. Human nature dictates that we evolve and devolve in cycles. When we work together, we slow down the turning of the wheel. Conservatives want to preserve what we have accomplished and hold back the tides of change which threaten those gains.  Liberals want to use change to improve the general well being. Each side has valid ideas to contribute to the common good. But as long as we allow it, the only people who will prosper are the ones driving the wedge. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Greatest Show on Earth

At the time of this writing, parts of the federal government have been shut down for almost a month. Perhaps we’ll all get a refund on our taxes, though it’s more likely this time without government will cost us more in the same way that food without additives or preservatives costs more at the grocery.

Last year, “Tax Freedom Day,” the day when all of our tax obligations to federal, state and local authorities were met, was 19 April. Government spending in the US then, consumes about a third of the productivity of its citizens. Very little of that money, however, goes to compensate federal workers. Though the federal government is the nation’s single largest employer, excluding soldiers and postal workers, only 2 million Americans work for the government, or approximately .6% of our population.

During the partial shutdown, about 420,000 federal workers will work without pay, and approximately 380,000 will be furloughed. We grieve for those workers and their families. They do not deserve to be political pawns in this current contest of egos. Perhaps Congress can tell us why, given that the salaries of government workers are such a small fraction of the federal budget, the choice was made to withhold their pay but still meet other obligations.

Speaking of Congress, members will receive their paychecks on time (though Congressional staff members will not). About 100 of the 535 members of Congress have elected not to be paid during the shutdown, but fear not; about half of the members of Congress are millionaires, so they’ll be just fine.

Every day now, someone from mass media predicts impending doom should the shutdown continue. Government, it would seem, has become essential to our survival. Apparently we are in a codependent relationship with our own government. How and why this happened is a long story with numerous points of contention, but as for the “who,” that much is clear. Democrats and Republicans did it.

Every successive administration along with every Congress in living memory has managed to increase the size and coercive power of government, speeches and campaign promises aside. Quite recently that trend has begun to reverse. Partial credit for the slight reduction in the size of government can be given to the current Administration, but the reasons are more complicated and that is a story for another time.

If we are indeed at risk because of the sudden inactivity of our dysfunctional government, common sense would suggest that we need to return that portion of the economy appropriated by government back to the free market. However, if one should refer to that process as “privatization,” an adverse reaction would be triggered in those who prefer to socialize the economy.

The irony and the hypocrisy are palpable. Some of the same democrats who vilified President George Bush for his overreach when Homeland Security and the TSA were created are now predicting doom unless these very same agencies are restored to their full might. Some of the same republicans that helped orchestrate that huge increase in the size of government are pointing fingers at “tax and spend” democrats. Partisan politics trumps common sense as well as our national interest.

Ostensibly, this clash of egos is about border security, and again, the stink of hypocrisy is enough to peel back your lips. Just a few years ago, Senators Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer and a number of Democrats who now appear to oppose President Trump’s initiatives, all voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006. The bill passed with bipartisan support. Now some of the same democrats who voted for the act have referred to any effort to impose a physical barrier at the border as “immoral.”

As for the Republicans, the US Chamber of Commerce, a conservative leaning organization which has historically supported Republicans and conservative Democrats, has lobbied repeatedly to block restrictions on immigration in order to maintain a continuous supply of cheap labor. Very little support or acknowledgment could be found among the Republicans for President Obama’s record deportation of our uninvited guests, or his expansion of detention facilities to hold them.

The point is, our elected leaders have been too busy spinning, posturing and seeking political advantage to make any real effort to solve the immigration problem. Republicans want to appear tough on securing the borders to play to their base, but without doing anything that would jeopardize the flow of cheap labor desired by their corporate masters. Democrats want to appear compassionate and avoid offending potential voters, but when they hold the reins of power they discover, like President Obama, the harsh realities of waves of human migration.

At the extremes we have at one end a President who, in order to fulfill his campaign promises, is threatening to declare a national emergency, seize private property and invoke military powers in order to bypass our system of government. This is a solution which may appeal to the extreme right today, but wait until a Democrat president does the same thing or worse in turn. At the other end of the spectrum are the young liberals calling for open borders and evoking discredited theories of socialism to solve the nation’s problems, all to be paid for under “modern economic theory,” which holds that sovereign governments have an unlimited ability to pay their bills simply by creating money.

It’s a circus, but the entertainment value diminishes in direct proportion to the human suffering it causes, not the least of which is the fear and anger driven like a wedge between partisan factions. If it isn’t the greatest show on earth, it certainly is the most expensive.


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The Right to be Happy

Benjamin Franklin said, “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”

The relationships we have with our fellow humans often present us with a choice between being right, and being happy. Every couple who has been married for more than a month knows this. But humans are and always have been naturally competitive, and we are often prideful as well. You know I’m right about that.

The insistence on being right affects not only individuals, but large groups of people. In politics, it has been institutionalized to a point of paralysis.  There were many times in our history when we became so adamant in our opinions that we eventually went to war to prove who was right.

In between breakups, divorces and wars we can, individually or collectively, regain some of the humility necessary to acquire new information or suffer someone else’s opinion. We usually enjoy periods of  general peace and prosperity under those conditions.

In the Age of Information, however, we have become quite confident again in our opinions, having googled every source that agrees with us, and opinion is joined at the hip to identity.  This is not a formula for happiness at a time when a fragmented national identity is struggling to reform. “There’s battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong,” and apparently being right is a zero-sum game. The broken news reports every day that we aren’t as happy as we used to be.

The trouble is, this competition of ideas is not fun. It isn’t a game anymore. It’s not even a sport.  We struggle to have even a civil debate, much less a cordial one. We are conditioned now to frame things, instead, in terms of conflict, to “fight” for our causes and “slam” our opponents. Or so it is reported, repeatedly, endlessly, and in detail.

It’s primarily verbal, of course, this fight to see our opinions prevail, this pixelated virtual reality of hostile adversaries fighting for what’s right. Too much media and not enough social, coming to you live and late breaking. But it’s all just theater, isn’t it? Well, it is until the pent-up unhappiness starts to affect our decision-making. Am I right?

There’s not much we can do about the theater. We can choose not to click on the provocative link, to ignore any headline that contains the words “fight” or “slam.” This goes directly to the prime motivation behind provocative headlines, as clicks are the life blood of corporate media.  But we’re addicted to drama. Media serves it up because we consume it, and addictions are not easy to overcome.

We can keep our opinions to ourselves. But that, too, is difficult when identity is ascendant and everyone we know is posting and tweeting like a flock of mockingbirds.

So if we can’t stop ourselves from consuming the drama, and if we just have to keep putting our opinions forward, what can we do to keep the peace? We’ll close with more timeless wisdom from Benjamin Franklin, who said, “I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition.”

Ask anyone who has been happily married whether what Franklin said is true.