Saturday, August 6, 2011

Perspective, Opinion, Information, Decision Making

A while back, I was watching the news as the water levels of the mighty Mississippi were growing dangerously high. The reporter gave a very logical report about what this situation meant. She gave information about how high the water would get, and how very likely, on a specific day, the Army Corps of Engineers would have to release a certain amount of water that was at that point being contained, and how that water would, when released, flood a certain area of cropland, but, how that same release would spare a certain residential town from destruction.  The trade off seemed obvious. Some damage to a few individuals economic well being, versus the loss of everything to a much larger group of people.

Within the week the release of water was completed as prophesied and the cropland was flooded. I saw a piece from the same reporter, from the flooded cropland, and the story was reported completely differently. It was for the most part about the pain and suffering of the farmers with flooded lands and their suspicions that the Army Corps of Engineers was incompetent or uncaring. Vanished from the story was any information about the town that had been saved or even a mention of the fact that it had needed to be saved. Apparently, the town, no longer needing saving, was no longer news worthy but the pain of the farmers and their suspicions were.

This bothered me. While the reporter did not herself accuse the Army Corps of Engineers of anything, she also provided no information to balance the opinions expressed in the interviews with the farmers; her focus was on their pain. It troubled me that someone not having seen the first story could come away with a completely negative opinion of the Corp as a result of not knowing the whole story. It also occurred to me that the story didn’t mention something that I learned in grammar and high schools, namely, that the great rivers flood farmlands on a regular basis and that, this process of flooding deposits a rich layer of silt on the farmlands that regenerates their fertility. I don’t know if this science fact from my early education is still true in the case of the Mississippi. For all I know the process of damming and releasing water may prevent the water from having access to that silt and completely take this rhythm that farmers have counted on for most of human history completely out of the equation, but, I would love to know if these farmers were whining about a short term loss which is really a long term gain.

That said, it’s hard to blame the reporter. This wasn’t an hour long documentary on Mississippi floods and farmland. It was a three minute report from the field on a broadcast of the news of the day and, there was more news that day to be gotten to. The reporter felt the news that day was the pain of the farmers. I’m sure that she hopes that she has a dedicated audience who sees her every day and gets the whole story in daily bits. It does cause me to question the way that most people get their information.

Now, as far as I know, this reporting didn’t cause any problems for anyone. However, I can imagine a scenario in which a political candidate is running for office and saying that the Corp is incompetent and should be dismantled while his opponent is claiming that they would be more competent with more money and that they should have their budget increased. I often wish for a third party with a candidate who says “hey, they did what they were supposed to; let’s leave things as they are.” In that case, people would be being asked to make a decision. If they only had a part of the story, that decision could be made badly. I’d like to say that it’s a bad thing to only be partially informed.

Most of the decisions that we are called upon to make in life are a matter of perspective and point of view. Being human, our perspective and point of view is limited. We only see and know what is right around us. The farmer doesn’t necessarily know or care about the town that was saved and the townsfolk are probably unhappy that some facility is collecting water that can destroy them if the switch isn’t flicked at the right moment… if they are even aware that such a situation exists for them. The situation may be different if people actually were given a choice about the sacrifices that they may have to make for each other and, perhaps it wouldn’t be, people can be selfish or generous. In any event, decisions are made better when the decider has a multitude of perspective and points of view to study.

Given the pace of our daily lives, we are often called upon to make seat of our pants decisions on the fly without a lot of time for study or reflection. In that case we have to trust that we are as well informed as we can be. Whether a decision can be studied first or has to be made quickly, it is to the benefit of ourselves and our kind to be well informed. It is our duty to have as much information as we can on anything that we may have to make a decision on. I hear you cry that there just aren’t enough hours of the day to collect every point of view and perspective and every last scrap of data on anything that may come up. I understand that and am in the same boat but the fact is that being well informed is every bit as important as anything else that we have to do to survive on this planet and in some cases directly impacts our ability to survive in the long and short terms. People who are successful at their jobs have become expert at their jobs. They know what needs to be done and how to go about doing it. Even if there are many options to choose from, their experience allows them to pick the one that is best. People who don’t gain that level of expertise fail. The people who are good at their jobs can be trusted get it right. They gained that experience and expertise through a dedicated effort over a long period of time dealing with any number of possible permutations of situations in which they made mistakes and corrected them. We must be just as dedicated in our personal lives and in the lives of our communities even if it means less time for entertainments and pleasures. The result of not putting in this effort is to always be a pawn of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar who knows we can be manipulated with bread and circuses.

Part of this is being informed not just on facts but on other people’s opinions, points of view, perspectives and emotions, all of which are factors in any decision. I think the best starting place is that of the philosopher Socrates who begins by admitting to himself that he doesn’t’ know the answers and seeks out experts to ask them questions, finds their answers wanting, but learns in the process and never stops asking questions and never admits to having the answers. Thinking that you know the answers creates blind spots to what you may not know. So many people today think that answers to any sort of question are easy; a matter of common sense, but my experience is that there is nothing common about these easy answers. I see that peoples’ easy answers vary by local, culture, ethnicity, religion, family background etc. Recent studies have shown that people tend to make decisions based more on emotion than on reason. To some extent this makes sense as emotional well being is certainly something that we are concerned about but emotions shift considerably moment by moment and this is part of why we may often make decisions based on short term good rather than long term good. The farmer emotionally devastated by the flood of his farmland may well be very concerned about the well being in the people of the town once he’s calmed down and the question is put to him.

Those who are reading this have no excuse for not being well informed given how much information is currently at their finger tips. The only thing holding you back from examining every aspect of any question is desire or lack thereof.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Conspiracy Theories

It seems like it's getting harder and harder to avoid conspiracy theories. In part because I have good friends who actually believe some of them and are pretty evangelical about it, in part because they keep surfacing in main stream media, probably because more and more activist voters seem too believe them. I've even known some very intelligent people who I have found to be very wise on a great many things who totally shocked me when I discovered that they believed some conspiracy theories that I considered pretty "out there." When intelligent people who know a great deal start believing conspiracy theories, I suppose they depart the realm of the lunatic fringe and become something that needs to be thought about.

I guess you could say that I do believe in conspiracy theories to some extent, after all whenever two or more people agree to work towards a common goal and do so on the QT, they can be said to be conspiring. However, a quick look at a few dictionary definitions shows that, given the way most people take the word, that common goal needs to be illegal or evil to be a conspiracy. That being the case, a lot may depend on your definition of evil. For example, to a Fundamentalist Christian who believes that homosexuality is evil, a meeting behind closed doors of a group dedicated to making gay marriage legal across all fifty of the United States could be considered a conspiracy. Partly what that means is, the narrower, shallower and more exclusive your definition of evil is, the more conspiracies you are likely to see in the world around you. However, that can run both ways. I'm sure that a group of gay people who want to legalize gay marriage would view a group of Fundamentalist Christians meeting behind closed doors to figure out how to prevent legalizing gay marriage as a conspiracy too. In a country as divided as to what evil is as the United States is, there will always be people who see conspiracies.

Criminal conspiracies on the other hand, would seem to be a greater matter for public concern. That there are criminal conspiracies, there can be no doubt. Organized crime is by its very definition a criminal conspiracy and there is no doubt that there are drug cartels, terrorist groups and any number of groups with the term "mafia" attached to them out there conspiring to break any number of laws. I assume that these conspiracies will always be with us. As long as there are laws there will be someone trying to get around them. I also don't doubt that there are criminal conspiracies in the hallowed halls of big business; again, as long as there are rules about how it is legal and illegal to make money, someone will be trying to figure out a way around them. I do dislike the fact that the government seems less concerned about the latter than the former, but I don't know how that will change as long as politicians need large sums of money to buy TV commercials during campaign season and as long as 50% of the American voters believe that they have to let big business do whatever they want to protect the economy. However, the conspiracies that I keep hearing people screaming about are political in nature.

I assume that a political conspiracy is the same thing as a criminal conspiracy but that it takes place within government. Most of the political conspiracy theories that I hear about are about concentrations of wealth and power and suggest that various people who already have wealth and power are the real government of the United States and that the organs of government created by the constitution are at this moment in history only for show. This I don't think that I believe because it seems fairly obvious that as much as we don't like our politicians, they do seem to be bending over backwards to convince us that what they do is right, because they want our votes. Sometimes the bend over backwards to give us what we want even if we don't quite know what we want, which doesn't make their job any easier. Sometimes they fight for what we want when what we want is foolish or misinformed.They fight each other because large chunks of the population want something that disagrees with what other large chunks of the population want. Politicians disagree based on whether they are from blue or red states. All of this behavior on the part of politicians does seem to be indicative of what you would expect in a democracy. I think that most of the problems we face as a nation are due to voters misunderstanding or being misinformed on issues, as well as bad decisions made in the suites of CEO's and board rooms of huge businesses. Whether or not those activities are criminal, evil or just stupid is another matter.

The first political conspiracy theory that I ever ran across was about something called The Trilateral Commission (Wikipedia has an article on them here:  and as it turns out, they have their own website at For a secret organization bent on ruling the world there seems to be a great deal of information available about them. Similar groups include The Bilderberg Group ( and and the Council On Foreign Relations ( and These organizations are made up of people who, separately and together, wield a great deal of power and money (except maybe the Council on Foreign relations which also seems to include journalists who don't have a great deal of money but could be said to have great influence).

Now, I know that those of us who don't have a great deal of power or money have a tendency to be suspicious of organized concentrations of a great deal of power and money, perhaps rightfully so, but, it only makes sense that  people with a great deal of power and money, like birds of a feather, will flock together. People who have common interests always form groups. It is no more surprising that rich and powerful people will get together and take action on common goals than that great writers ( or artists will group together, or that block clubs will form to take care of neighborhood problems (you can bet that some people in the neighborhood that aren't members of the block club or condo committee will think that the club is oppressive).

The question isn't really whether or not groups with great power promote a political agenda, I'm sure that the do and, we have every right to oppose that agenda. The real question is do those groups involve themselves in illegal activity? As with organized crime or white collar crime, that is a matter for law enforcement. Once a crime is committed, law enforcement seeks out a criminal. Whether or not law enforcement is competent or powerful enough to deal with crimes by the rich and powerful is another question but, as we shall see below, it isn't impossible for the rich and powerful to be brought low. In any event, if we want to maintain our own political right to freedom of assembly, the rich must be allowed the same right. I once knew a woman who went Yale and knew quite a few guys from Skull and Bones ( who was sure that the only thing they were up to was drinking and partying and I suppose that could be a criminal conspiracy if any of their members are under twenty one years old.

Now, there is a second class of political criminal conspiracies that are all too dangerous and real, namely, people in political power who use the power of their office to circumvent the law. Normally this is called corruption and seems all too common. The most spectacular example would be the Watergate scandal in which it was shown that a sitting president of the United States was using government intelligence assets and campaign contributions to spy on and sabotage political opponents. (As an aside, I would like to paraphrase something I once heard said by G.Gordon Liddy, who was a participant in and did time for that conspiracy. "I believe that there are political conspiracies, more than one, and that they compete with and oppose each other. So I'm not worried about them because they balance each other out.") The Iran/Contra scandal in which government officials illegally sold weapons to Iran in order to raise money to help rebels against the Nicaraguan government during the administration of President Ronald Regan also falls into this category, as would the assassination of President John F. Kennedy if, as many people think, he was murdered by the military or CIA, which, as far as I'm concerned, remains unproven,  but so does any Senator or Congressperson who takes a bribe, sexually harasses an employee or uses his or her power for something illegal.

As with organized and white collar crime, this will always be with us, however, I do have some faith in law enforcement. While I am sure that not everyone in politics who commits a crime gets caught or is adequately punished, I have enough faith to give me some confidence that law enforcement is at least trying to be on the case and, for what it's worth, I'm sure that only a fraction of all law breakers in every part of society are ever caught or punished. While big media may have fallen down on the job in many instances, news media brought down Richard Nixon, the president of the United States, as a result of the Watergate break in. I suppose it is a bad thing that corrupt politicians and white collar criminals don't often do a lot of hard time for their crimes but, removing them from power is something.

Then of course, there are the fringe conspiracy theories. I am tempted to call them "the lunatic fringe conspiracy theories" except that I have known some very sane and intelligent people who believe fringe conspiracy theories. One example is that of a very wise man that I knew who believed that the government agency FEMA is gearing up to set up death/prison camps. As wise as this guy was he didn't see that part of FEMA's mission would be to set up refugee camps in the event of a huge disaster, say, something like, San Francisco being destroyed by a massive earthquake and that you'd need the sort of gear that could also be used for setting up a death/prison camp to set up a refugee camp. I have no idea why he thought he saw what he saw in FEMA's stockpiled materials, I do know that when they needed to house refugees from New Orleans' after hurricane Katrina they were completely incompetent and one can only hope that they would be just as incompetent if ever called upon to set up prison/death camps.

There are way too many fringe conspiracy theories to discuss them all but I think many of them would (and do) make good novels, movies and TV shows, like, say, any of the many many conspiracy theories that involve aliens. (I have often wondered why beings that have the technology to travel distances that it takes light longer than the entire history of the human race to traverse would need to conquer/aid us via stealth.) A lot of fringe conspiracy theories are racist in nature, like the idea that our democracy is secretly controlled by something named ZOG (Zionist Occupation Government). Many are religious and go back to the problem of a narrow definition of evil, for example, that some of the organizations above are actually occultists or Satanists. (Actually, I'm all for occultists but many with a narrow definition of evil think that occultists and Satanists are the same thing.) Of course everyone's favorite of the last few years is that Barak Obama is a Kenyan born Muslim terrorist with a secret anti American agenda.

The more I think about conspiracy theories the more that they disturb me. The human psyche seems to create them as a reaction to fear and a sense that we have no control over our own lives. I suspect that most people learn to deal with insecurity fairly well, after all, it is a part of life that everyone does have to learn to deal with, but when I see preachers, pundits and politicians capitalizing on that fear for power, or, just to make a living, it makes me angry. I find it fairly easy to forgive an ignorant backwoods preacher who honestly believes that secret societies are out to destroy Democracy, Capitalism and Christianity or the deluded, but I think our civilization has a serious problem with people who market this fear for money, fame or political power. While fear may be an effective tool in getting people to do what you want, I don't believe that it is as easy to turn off as it is to turn on and it has long lasting consequences on the course that our society sets for itself. Furthermore, it spreads disinformation that clouds every issue and these days we have way to many seriously important issues to deal with that are already more complex than the average person wants to or has the training to deal with. That may be part of the problem. It may be that conspiracy theories make things seem simpler. We don't have to learn macroeconomic principles as part of deciding who to vote for if we know that the Rothschild's, the aliens and Satan have already taken control over the world. Conspiracy Theories help us to go back to a simpler time when everything was black and white. Well, unfortunately, it's not that simple and tilting and windmills projected by ignorance and paranoia isn't going to help.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Stream of Conciousness Staring, God, Moses and The Upanishads with a Guest Appearence by Rene Descartes and Popeye The Sailor

I can't seem to escape from God. Some would call me a God drunk mystic. I love to speculate and meditate about the nature of God. My favorite stream of consciousness on God's nature goes something like this: In Exodus (3:13), Moses asks God his name. God uses several names in the Old Testament and there are a lot of interesting traditions as to what that's all about. The idea of God's name certainly captures the imagination. Where this takes my mind is actually to some ancient Egyptian mythology (that Moses, as a former Egyptian prince, would presumably know more about than I do, and may be why he asked in the first place) in which God, as a transcendental, infinite being, begins the process of creation by coming up with some names for himself and those names come alive as aspects of himself, aka, the gods.

This Egyptian myth isn't entirely contradictory to the creation myth as presented in Genesis. Looking at the Ancient Greek of the Septuagint text of Genesis, I have been struck by the fact that the Greek word used for "named" or "called" ("and God named/called the light day") can also mean invoked, meaning that the author believed that the act of naming was also somehow an act of summoning into material existence or "calling forth". So, if I assume that a transcendental, infinite God is beyond our finite brain's ability to comprehend, somehow the process of God naming himself and creating gods, is about  creating a finite idea/thought form that the infinite transcendental can inhabit and give us some finite frame of reference with which to explore the idea of God.

So, anyway, Moses asks God his name and his first response is "I AM WHO I AM". (I always think about Popeye at this point "I am what I am and that's all that I am." I can't help but think that Popeye's function as an aspect of divinity has yet to be fully explored.) A little later God says "Say this to the people of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.'"

So, we have a finite concept with which to explore the infinite God. That concept being, "I AM". Okay, now I break it down. "I" is a way that one identifies oneself. "Am" means "exist". So, we could translate this name into "I EXIST". "Exist" can mean "Being" so we can translate this name into "I BEING"… I think that this name can mean I exist, or I am existence. I know that there are some philosophical leaps in there with the addition of the extra "am" but this is more a meditation or stream of consciousness than an analysis so I go with it, besides we get a couple of "am"'s in "I AM WHO I AM"

It pops into my head next that the Greek word Ego mean, I am. "I Am" in philosophy and psychology mostly seems to be about self awareness. God is then perhaps, self aware, or is self awareness. In the Hindu Upanishads "SELF" is the word used to refer to what we westerners would think of as God.This may explain why the human ego is always trying to place itself at the center of the universe.

Then my mind skips from Greek to Latin and the word "Sum", which means, "I am" and from there to philosopher René Descartes who did a very famous meditation. He was concerned that he didn't know what was real and what was illusion. After all, our primary connection to the world seems to be our senses and our senses really don't give us a very accurate picture of how things are, in fact, they can be quite misleading. So, Descartes was going to think about everything and imagine away anything that he couldn't prove to himself was real. What he finally ended up with were the famous words "Cagito Ergo Sum" or, in English "I think therefore I am." Meaning, because he thinks, he knows he exists. Where that brings me is, God and I both can say "I am". After that I want to get all monistic and pantheistic and think that God and I are one (which is the upshot of the Upanishads) and that God and I are either existence itself, or self awareness… or both. Still.. this is a finite concept of God invoked into existence by God naming himself for Moses. So I'm left with a belief that self awareness is an aspect of God and, being self aware, that includes me.

Friday, June 17, 2011

We Had It Tough

The human ego is such a funny thing. I don't know how we manage to have any relationships at all given some of our tendencies. Have you ever been in a bragging match about who has it worst? Here's a video of a comedy routine about what I mean.

Sorry to be cliché but, it's funny because it's true. I know people who have gotten really angry in conversations like this because what makes them feel special in this life is the suffering they have endured and if someone else has suffered more, or, if they are just claiming that they have, it undermines that thing that they believe makes them special or heroic. I've known people who you just can't vent to, or open up to about some tragedy or other because rather than show sympathy, they just have to prove that they've had it worse. Maybe all you've wanted from a conversation is a bit of sympathy and instead you got proof that if your friend got through something so much worse, you'll get through this, which, may help, but may also make you angry or hurt because your feelings have been so casually brushed aside as less important than their own.

I think that's the crux of it. Our ego wants to be important, maybe even the most important. Early on in high school I used to identify myself as someone with an inferiority complex. Towards the end of high school I realized that all I was really saying was "look at me!" which, was every bit as egotistical as endlessly touting some accomplishment.

 It may be true that bragging about one's accomplishments or good fortune and stepping on someone's feelings surrounding a rough patch because you had it worse are equally obnoxious, but, the later is easier. To brag about your accomplishments you probably actually have to have some.

People who try to build themselves rather than leave their lives up to circumstances will set small goals for themselves that they can easily accomplish as they work their way towards bigger things. This is a good technique and I find that it works, but, some of those steps seem so small in comparison to what people tend to brag about, that, bragging about them might lead to being emotionally undermined if people look at you as if what you are so proud of is of no importance. It's much easier to show how circumstances have been against you. However, everyone can play that game and there is always someone who has had it worse.

Now, we all want to be loved and we all want to share our victories and our defeats with our loved ones. Hopefully we have had, have, or will have loved ones that we can share the victories and defeats with but given the tendencies of the human ego. I think my best strategy is to try and not take myself too seriously. That way I don't have to worry about winning or losing these sorts of pissing matches.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Compromise is not a Dirty Word

A little while back, twice within a relatively short span of time it looked as if the Federal Government of the United States would shut down. The new Republican, mostly Tea Party driven, majority in the House of Representatives were demanding large budget cuts before approving spending measures that would allow the government to continue writing checks.

This has happened before of course. During the Clinton administration the government was shut down for a bit but once the Democratic president and the Republican legislators cut a deal it was back in business.

This time around it had me much more worried. My wife works in a VA hospital and is therefore a federal employee. When the government was shut down during the Clinton administration she was declared an essential employee and had to report to work anyway. This meant that for awhile she had to work without pay until the checks started flowing again. It wasn't that big a deal to us because I had a good job and we did get her back pay after the government started up again. This time around, I'm unemployed and her job and my unemployment benefits are our only sources of income. If the government had closed down we would have been in big trouble. My unemployment could probably have paid for food but certainly not our mortgage, car payments, utilities, gas etc. We could have lost everything in a prolonged stalemate between the branches of government. (And that fear isn't quite over yet, there is another possible shut down coming up soon.)

As the deadline approached and the talks didn't look like they were going well, I was really scared. Then I started reading a lot of stuff that changed that fear to anger. I have a lot of politically opinionated friends on both sides of the aisle and I expose myself to an awful lot of news and punditry so, I feel well informed and think I have a grip on what both sides of most questions think. Suddenly I was reading liberal commentaries (and I consider myself liberal) calling for President Obama not to "wimp out" by compromising. I also read a lot of conservative stuff screaming to conservative politicians not to compromise, that to do so would be a betrayal of the people who sent them to Washington to oppose business as usual.

I was glad that President Obama didn't listen to his base and compromised. I don't think it was because he was a wimp, I think it was because he actually cares about people in my situation. But when it came to the people making all the noise, I was livid. This wasn't about some ideological struggle about the best way to govern the country or get the economy back on track. This was about my wife and me becoming homeless. Liberal ideologues that I know felt that I should be willing to take one for the team, that I should be willing to sacrifice for the greater good. Conservatives told me that in this case it takes three to tango and that a shut down wouldn't be the Republican representatives' fault but the Democratic Senators' and President's. I tried to remind the former that liberal politics are supposed to be about helping people, not about people taking one for the team and I tried to remind that latter that this wasn't happening until the Tea Party Republicans arrived in the capital and that I would certainly hold them responsible but that in any event, I wasn't interested in the blame game, I was interested in making sure that my wife's employer continued to pay her for work that they expected her to do whether the checks were going out or not.

Nobody's opinion seemed to be budged by my personal plight. The plans of the ideologies were what was important. The fact that compromise was weakness was what was important. I wondered, when did compromise become weakness? When did it become practically a dirty word to some people?

Compromise is not a dirty word and it is not weakness. Compromise is a fact of life that we all deal with every single day. No one likes compromise. By definition compromise means you don't get everything that you want but, since life involves dealing with other people, and people want different things, if we're going to deal with each other in a fair and reasonable way, then we have to compromise. When does anyone ever get everything that they want? If we don't as individuals, why would we as political parties? Compromise is also a part of self control. If you want conflicting things like, good health and to consume a quart of ice cream, you probably can't have both, but, you can cut a deal with yourself in which you treat yourself to some ice cream after doing something like, say, working out for a couple of hours. That's creating your own system of sticks and carrots but it's also a compromise between conflicting desires. We compromise with our friends, mates, families and co-workers. Whenever our desire conflicts with reality on any level, we compromise. So why in God's name wouldn't we compromise over things that effect millions of lives just to keep intact the purity of political agendas?

There are two reasons ideologues don’t want to compromise. The first is because they all have a master plan that will save the whole world and that plan will fall apart unless it is implemented in its entirety. This is a big mistake in their planning because no plan ever goes without a hitch and nothing is going to stop the existence of unanticipated consequences or the sudden appearance of unexpected problems. It's not possible for a plan to deal with everything that could happen so it's a bad idea to make a plan that can't be implemented in parts.

The second reason is good old fashioned ego and pride. My way is the best way so we have to do it my way or no way.

I know that people on both sides of these arguments feel that if they fail to get their way, millions will suffer. Okay, so, you're going to start your plan to stop millions from suffering by starting me to suffering?

People who want to play in politics in this country should spend some time learning American history and see that this country was built on compromise.

The writing of the U.S. constitution was an exercise in compromise. Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention with the title "The Great Compromiser" because he played a role in getting people with radically different ideas to compromise. The two most famous compromises to come out of the convention were "The Great Compromise" which created a Senate in which each state would get two representatives regardless of population so that small states wouldn't be at the mercy of states with much larger populations during the legislative process and the "3/5ths Compromise" in which slaves would be counted as 3/5ths of a person for the purpose of determining population and therefore representation in the House of Representatives. The Great Compromise is still debated today by those who favor a purely one man one vote system of government. The 3/5ths Compromise is still pointed to as a reason why compromise is bad. It allowed slave owners to have their cake and eat it too at the expense of a people in chains. However, without that compromise there would have been no constitution and very possibly no United States and there still would have been slavery. The 3/5ths compromise didn't create slavery, it allowed it to go on and allowed the slave holders a greater share of government than they perhaps deserved.

The Declaration of independence while written by Thomas Jefferson, as most people know, was done so as a part of a congressional committee process. After Jefferson wrote it, fellow committee members Ben Franklin and John Adams made changes and then the document was submitted to congress where eighty more changes were made. Each and every one of those changes was a compromise. Not the least of those changes was the striking of a paragraph that was anti slavery. John Adams was willing to scrap the whole document if that paragraph was stricken and he had to be persuaded by Ben Franklin that, in a new country, free states and slave states would have to live together and without this compromise there wouldn't even be a new country.

Thinking about the Declaration of Independence has gotten me thinking about the movie "1776" which is a musical about how the United Colonies of America declared independence and became the United States of America. I don't want this to become a movie review but for those of you who want to see compromise in action at the very start of our republic but don't particularly care for long dry history books I would recommend it. I know that musicals are only slightly more popular than long dry history books but if you can tolerate the music, it's an important film to see. It's not a history book, it's a movie, but, it's a very well researched movie that makes use of the founding fathers' diaries  and letters in making it as close to historical reality as a movie musical can be and it shows how our Independence from Britain was a compromise every step of the way. At the start of the movie, six colonies are for independence and six are against. New York can't make up its mind. I live in New York State. It still hasn't made up its mind. Highlights include South Carolina declaring that while it is against independence, it will join the revolution if all the other colonies decide that this is the way to go and the representative of Georgia who says that the people of Georgia are against independence, he is for it, and he has to decide whether the people who elected him just want him to vote the way they want him to, or if they've sent him there to rely upon his own wisdom and best judgment. While the debates rage on, George Washington is in the field with real men and boys, many of whom are about to die, as they face a force of British soldiers and German mercenaries who outnumber them five to one.

In any event, with a little knowledge of history I have to say that being unwilling to compromise is, well, un-American.

The Federalist Papers is a series of news paper articles written by three of the founding father's to convince the citizens of the United States to vote for the constitution.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

One Size Doesn't Fit All

I don't need to tell you that we face a lot of problems. We face those problems as individuals, as families, as communities, as nations and as a species. It seems like no matter what direction we turn, problem after problem vies for our attention, if we're lucky, because someone brings them up to us, if we're unlucky, because they hit us in the face demanding our immediate attention. With the many problems that we have, we are also faced with many people who claim to have solutions. Like the problems, the people with solutions are on a vast scale, from well meaning friends, family members and associates, to local know-it-all's, to experts, to pundits and ever campaigning politicians.

How we deal with problems and people with solutions, of course, always has to do with circumstances. If the problem is that the sewer is overflowing into your basement, your grandmother might just have lots of experience with this problem and be happy to give you advice. If the cause of the overflow is in pipes owned by the city, the local know-it-all or politician may just have the answer. Probably you're going to need the expert aka a plumber.

Sometimes problems come in a cascade of problems. You may not have the money for a plumber, the local politician may be inaccessible due to how your problem falls on his priority list, corruption (he takes bribes from the guys who put too much stuff in the sewers) or incompetence.  Fixing the pipes isn't enough, you also have to disinfect the basement.

If the problem is a relationship problem, your mother or sister may have a lot of wisdom to share, or might be completely clueless but, sure that she has lots of wisdom to share. You may want that advice, you may not want that advice preferring to deal with it on your own, which, may or may not be wise. Mom and sis could be problems in and of themselves, refusing to leave you alone, always at you with their advice, making you feel worse than you already do. Sometimes mom can feel so much pain in sympathy with you over your problem that she becomes a problem. You don't want to hurt her, so you don't tell her your problem, even though, you'd like to talk about it with someone that you trust.

Sometimes you want the expert advice which could again be mom... or... could be a shrink. The problem with the plumber, the shrink or mom is, how do you know that they really know their stuff? Sometimes mom's are clueless, sometimes plumbers and shrinks are incompetents or con men and always expensive. It's always best when we are the experts. We may be a plumber or a shrink. We certainly should know all the details of our relationships more completely than mom or sis.

The thing with our example problems is, they are unique. While plumbing is plumbing and relationships are relationships, meaning that the basics are the same to every house with plumbing or every relationship, it is also true that different houses have different layouts and may be constructed with different materials. If you need a plumber, you have to have one who can figure out the layout of every house he walks into and can work with pipes of lead, copper, plastic or clay. Every person has unique quirks, outlooks, likes and dislikes so every relationship is going to have it's own unique spin.

The biggest problems that we face are the most intensely personal, you've lost your job, there's a guy pointing a gun at your head, you're sick. But... these problems can be the results of large social problems. You lost your job because the popping housing bubble bankrupted the company you worked for, the guy pointing the gun at your head is from a neighborhood ruled by drug gangs, your illness is part of a pandemic sweeping the world.

These Larger problems are the reason we have governments. To do the things together, that we can't do ourselves. This is also why we have big business. Producing products that thousands, millions, even billions of people want.. requires a large operation.

One of the reasons why government solutions to big societal issues seem so unsatisfactory is the disconnect between the deeply personal and the institutional. It's like the difference between home cooking and fast food. If you are cooking for you and your family, and have the time and ingredients, you can make a meal with an eye to detail that will please everyone (or at least yourself.) With fast food, the menu has to be prepared with an eye to pleasing millions of someone's and, as a result, the meal may be acceptable but it's most important value isn't how good it tastes or how nutritious it is.. but how convenient it is. 

Government solutions have to do the best that they can for an enormous number of people, if we're talking the United States, that's over three hundred million people to please. Global solutions are even tougher. Take climate change. It's a big issue and getting six billion people to agree on solutions seems like an impossible task. So, while a big solution to a big issue may help you personally, the odds are that it isn't going help you as much as you'd like, or in the way that you'd like, or take into account the cascade of problems that flowed off of the original problem.

This governmental problem is a problem not only with specific issues, education reform, unemployment etc. but with the law itself. The idea of equality under the law is a good one. Everyone is treated the same. Sure, a law may sometimes list exceptions to a rule but, it isn't really possible to think of every possible circumstance that might occur, at the time the law is written and forever after. That's one of the reasons that we have judges, juries and courts. So that each circumstance can be examined. So that the intersection of "the public" and "the personal" has a chance of being fair to "the personal". Whether or not this system works is open for debate.

The American system has tried to deal with this disconnect by, as much as possible, letting issues be decided and administered locally. I'll use education as an example. I've heard an enormous amount of complaint that government programs "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top" are no good and doomed to failure because, among other reasons, that, they create a one size fits all style of education that is completely divorced from the uniqueness of each teacher and student and that therefore, it is best for the government just to give the money for the programs to local school boards and let them tailor programs to the realities in their classrooms. The same arguments can be seen on both sides of any number of other important issues. The problem of course is... what do you do when, at the local levels, the well meaning friends, family members, associates, local know-it-all's, experts, pundits and ever campaigning politicians are incompetent or corrupt or just have no idea about what is going on in the larger world. In a worse case scenario, like many uncovered during the civil rights struggles of the 1960's, it is possible that local government can be down right oppressive.

So what do we do? If a problems needs all of society to pitch in on it... aka... the government needs to handle it... but.. the solutions have to work in individual personal ways which, just isn't possible, how do we get solutions? Well... there is no one answer to that. (There are probably six billion answers to that.) The more people are affected by any particular issue, the more complex the problem really is, the more complex the solutions have to be. The complexity of course will be expanded by the fact that we have to expect that a certain percentage of the people with problems and the experts offering solutions will be incompetent or con-men. 

As we struggle with our problems, we have to be aware that the reality is, we are not going to hear answers in five second sound bytes on television, no one person or ideology will have all the answers, as there are no simple problems there will be no simple solutions and that, solutions themselves may cause a cascade of new problems that no one anticipated. This is the way life is. We must always be working towards solving our problems, and yes, make sure that the people we elect to represent us in the larger world really understand our problems. We must listen to and critically judge experts and those with experience and when we find them wanting add to their experience and expertise by sharing what we know that they may have missed. But.. we must be realistic and realize that, there will always be problems and that constant fault finding adds to them and doesn't help in solving them. We must also know that sticking to a position or idea from which we will never allow ourselves to budged is very dangerous. If the problem is a tidal wave headed right for you, standing your ground might be a really bad idea.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Taking Lack Of Respect Too Seriously... AKA Oversensitivity

      I recently wrote an article on lack of respect (which you can find at "" I'll try to remember to post a link elsewhere on the page.) and I wanted to follow up by talking a bit about oversensitivity.
     While I know that there are some people out there who are just mean, or who just don't give a damn if they are stepping on someone else's toes... aka... they really don't respect anyone, I feel sure that most of the time lack of respect is caused by a combination of the human ego being lost in it's own little world and ignorance of what is going on around them. For example, people in traffic who are in a hurry seem to often loose sight of the fact that the people in other cars have places to be too that may be just as (or more) important than what they have to do. Being so narrowly focused they don't stop to consider how negatively they can effect the lives of someone that they cut off (or how seriously they can hurt themselves for that matter if they cut us off without giving us enough time to stop). We all tend to think that our problem, our need, our desire is the most important thing in the world. That's the ego. We may have been raised to think differently but, when we are narrowly focused on a task, it's easy to start doing things automatically rather than thoughtfully and when that happens, the ego gains more control and with that control comes an overblown sense of the importance of ourselves and blind spots that block out the needs of others. But... this is the topic of the article mentioned above.
       I did however want to point out that being upset when someone disrespects you can often be just as egotistical. Okay, so you're at the grocery store, you've had a tough day, you just want to get home and you see someone, who shouldn't, park in a handicapped space, or, who cuts you off and pulls into the parking space you were angling into, or cuts in front of you in the check out line... and of course the check out line is for people with seven items or less and they've got eight, well, I don't know about you... but I can have a whole lot of reactions. I can get angry. I can get depressed. With anger comes fuming and fussing and an internal dialogue about how that other person doesn't respect me, about how they think that they are more important than me, about how they somehow took something that was rightfully mine. With depression comes self pity about being invisible. My favorite is disgust, looking down on the person like he's been caught with child pornography because he's got one to many items in the express line. Several events like this during the course of a day can be responsible for me having a really bad day. Then of course, when I go home to my wife or out with my friends, or to work... I have to stuff that hostility or sadness or what have you, down deep inside somewhere because they shouldn't have to deal with it. Of course... at that point that negative emotion is only waiting for one small spark to set me off... again, with anger or sadness, but with more force because it had been repressed and the chances are, I'm going to be responsible for someone else having a bad day. This is of course assuming that I don't go off on the person who disrespected me right there in the parking lot or the store. I've done that. I've seen it done by others a lot more than I've done it. It always makes everyone more uncomfortable than they already are and I've never seen it actually solve anything. Sometimes it looks like it could lead to violence. On very rare occasions I've seen someone apologize for disrespecting the other person. They were wrapped up in their own little world, they admit it and are sincerely sorry but 99.9% of the time they deny that they did anything wrong and go on to express there own anger at the person whose toes they stepped on.
       The problem with all of the above is... I don't own or have a right to any of those parking spaces, or that spot in line. Even if someone cuts me off in traffic when I have a legal right of way, I don't know what that persons situation is. Sure he's probably just in a hurry to do something work related, or to get home, or to get someplace where he's going to relax... like me... but.. for all I know his mother could be dieing in the hospital or his wife could be having a baby. My own perceptions are sometimes off... I've been furious at someone for cutting me off only to have my buddy in the seat next to me tell me that it didn't look to him like I was cut off. We can't trust our perceptions... we are wrong a lot. I saw a piece on criminal court cases a few months ago that proved (to me anyway) that eye witnesses to actual crimes are often completely wrong about what and who they think they saw. Some fear that they are wrong more often than they are right.
       The powerful negative emotions that we feel when we think that we have been disrespected are every bit as much a product of our ego as disrespecting others is. The anger is because that fool thinks he's the end all and be all of existence and somehow missed the memo that I'm the end all and be all of existence. The sadness comes from "oh look at me.... did you see what she did to me." Of course the central part of that phrase is "look at ME... did to ME." My favorite, again, is disgust which sounds something like "Ha, look at that jerk breaking the rules, not me, I obey the rules, that makes me a much superior human being." And, lets not forget that, when we are focused and set on automatic, we are completely unreceptive to the idea that we might be perceiving the situation incorrectly... that we might be :::gasp!::: wrong! Hell, I can think of two people who I've only seen admit that they were wrong twice in the last forty years... and... everyone is wrong more often than that.
      In any event, I said in the article on being disrespected that the world would be a better place if people tried to be more aware of what was going on around them and more aware of how their behavior effected others. I also want to say that our little individual worlds would be better if we didn't take ourselves so seriously. No one will want to be around us if they have to tip toe around us like and egg basket. We often get lost in our own little worlds and we need to cut others a bit of slack when they do. Most of the times we are slighted it wasn't intentional and most of the times we dis someone else it isn't intentional. We need to look at our egos and laugh at them for taking it all so personally, and, once we can do that, we can laugh at others who are oblivious. That laughter disperses the anger and sadness.. and that makes the world better.
      P.S. I would have a word with the person parking in the handicapped space though. Thoughtlessness to someone with limited mobility may be as forgivable as any other thoughtlessness but a gentle word at the moment of the error in judgment might just help someone who really needs the help.