Unaccountable

Any group of people with power or authority, who are not held accountable in some way, will end up doing bad things.
 
If you see any group; cops, politicians, priests, judges, jailers, professors, doctors, dentists, business tycoons, psychologists, faith healers, karate instructors, whatever… anyone with authority over others… who is trying to ward off attempts to check on their behavior either is doing something unethical or are afraid they are.
 
It’s not as if people set out to do bad things, generally, but the first slip happens, and if there’s no blow-back there are fewer reasons to fight against that next slip. If there are rewards for slipping, then pretty soon you have institutionalized secrecy as a rule for group membership…
 

Trump… and a meditation on buying stuff to make yourself feel better.

Most of us know — or suspect — that we don’t always buy things because we need them, but because we think we’ll feel better/more complete. Advertisements and reviews can hint that you’ll be better looking/cooler/more manly/more well-liked (or whatever) if you just had this watch, or that jacket, or the new car, blender, book (OMG the promise of books…).

Then we buy it, and often experience buyer’s remorse, or just a vague sense that it  just wasn’t right. In any case, the promised perfect future isn’t here.

Most people either run out of cash to keep trying again or go deep into debt to keep buying more/ better quality/faster/bigger/more expensive things. Some people with more money actually buy stuff and then give it away soon after to make room so they can buy the latest stuff.

Some recognize the futility and try to find other paths to personal fulfillment, or try things like volunteering instead of purchasing.

These are really hard paths, not least because our whole society is set up to keep us hoping the next gadget or guru will be The One.

Even volunteering to help people can lead to the same disappointment; “oh, look, there are still homeless people, I’ve failed again.” (I’m not trying to discourage volunteering, by the way. 🙂 I just suggest that you meditate a little on why you’re doing it. Being really clear on your motivations will probably keep you focused for longer and prevent burnout. Heck, it might even keep you from being badly used.)

But now imagine that you are so rich that you not only have marketing people manipulating you to think “this is it!
you also have hangers-on manipulating you to keep spending money because their chance for wealth depends on you thinking that.

If you’re not particularly self-aware, it’s not even likely that you’ll recognize what’s going on.

It’s certainly easy to see this pattern in Trump. If he can just build the best resort, the biggest tower, the fanciest golf course… he’ll get the adulation and satisfaction he craves.

Picture Trump in 2015: his 70th birthday is looming. He may not have many years left. He has his name on towers, golf courses, luxury resorts. It’s all a bit flat.

He sets his sights on a new project; running for president. It’s absurd, over-the-top… it’s classic Trump. Ahh, now the hangers-on are really excited. This next vanity project is one that they can not only make serious money on, but maybe even get serious power, which is the ultimate prize at this level…

It’s easy to see Trump as a buffoon; it’s less easy to remember that nearly all of us have similar base urges; we just have more obvious limits. If you make $30,000 or $100,000 a year, you’re pretty likely to run into your limits fairly soon. If you make $10,000,000 a year, your limits are probably less obvious.

I’m not saying that understanding that we have something in common with this guy means letting him off the hook. We absolutely have to fight him; and even more importantly, we have to fight the manipulators who helped him get to the point of being elected as the President of the United States, but we should at least be aware of our similarities, even if… or maybe particularly if… looking in this mirror makes us uncomfortable. I suspect that it’s hard to fight efficiently and effectively if we are in denial about our own weaknesses.

My bias against bullies

I’ve been thinking about one of my biases, and how it undoubtedly influences my view of current events.

My entire school career, from about 3rd grade until I left school, I was the designated safe target for bullies.

My experience of trying to get help was that it leads to teachers telling you that you should not to make up stories, because those boys came from good families and would never do such things. It’s of teachers punishing me if I dared to fight back, and never protecting me or punishing my tormentors.

Nine or ten straight years of being called faggot, nerd, loser. Having my homework stolen and destroyed, having food thrown at me as I got off the bus, of being beaten repeatedly, of hiding during recess, of having drinks poured over me, of being told I was entirely worthless.

I’ve had an absolutely great life since I left school. Amazing adventures, the craziest jobs (and finally finding my niche), great friends. I no longer suspect that I’m worthless, and I don’t hang around with people who don’t value me.

But I still twitch in reaction when I hear people shouting mean things; I assume they’re targeting me, I guess, at some deep level.

When I recently learned the word “gaslighting,” I understood it — and its implications — right away. I was told for years that, essentially, the bullying was my fault. Or that I was just imagining it. Or that I was just weak and should let it roll off my back. It has taken me a long time to stop believing that.

I’m not writing this to get sympathy. That whole thing ended 38 years ago. A guy I knew in the Navy talked me down from the last serious bad reaction I had. Done.

I’m writing because when I see stories of bullying, this is why I’m more primed to believe the victim’s stories and disbelieve you when you say “that was staged” or “this is just people being too sensitive.”

So there’s my bias. I freely admit to being on the side of the underdog, not the side of the bully, the big man on campus, the Good Boy from a Good Family.

Cold air, false history, and privilege

I’m not sure I have the skills or knowledge to turn this into a decent blog post, but I keep finding myself mulling over these ideas so I figured I’d write them down, trying to clarify my thinking.


During the summer of 2015 I was reading the news about the attempts by various activists to get the Confederate battle flag removed from official government locations, including from in front of the statehouse in South Carolina, where I live. The conversations on social media during that time also frequently included a message along the lines of “check your privilege.”

A Twitter poster whom I generally enjoy reading posted several angry comments, saying that he didn’t want people to yell at him any longer about “privilege” because it was a concept that included no path for taking action. He said that he didn’t mind being told that he needed to treat people more fairly, or stop doing something that caused distress …whatever… but that there seemed to be nothing that he could do about privilege. If we white men are privileged in America just by accident of birth, he said, then there’s nothing he could do to change it. He wasn’t going to stop being male nor white, so everyone should just shut up already…

I knew right away that I disagreed with him, while also sympathizing with him to some extent. After all, being blamed for something you aren’t even aware of benefiting from isn’t much fun for anyone.

My problem was that I couldn’t figure out — any more than he could — what to do with this concept of privilege.

A few days later, it occurred to me that a great use of being aware of social privilege is in checking assumptions for things like… oh… the idea that police treat everyone fairly. I saw posts this summer that were variations of the old “hey, if you don’t like being mistreated by the police, maybe you shouldn’t do any crimes, then the police won’t have an opportunity to mistreat you.” This can only be spoken by someone who has never had to fear that they’ll be pulled over while driving just because of how they look, stopped and searched just because of how they’re dressed while walking through a neighborhood. If you know that privilege exists, then you can, perhaps, pause while reading a news story about someone being arrested and not automatically assume that the person deserved to be arrested. You might start realizing that there are people who ‘do the time,’ even if they haven’t ‘done the crime.’ There is value in this not only in the sense of your being a more discerning consumer of news, but even in a larger sense of perhaps supporting changes to some future legislative efforts to bring about police reforms.

I think that one of the reasons privilege is so hard to think about when you’re a beneficiary of it is that it spoils you, and no one likes to give up comfort. It’s like someone who is sound asleep in a warm bed on a cold night, and their partner steals the blanket. Without even waking up they grab the edge of the blanket and grumpily pull it back into place. Feeling the cold air outside your cocoon is uncomfortable.

Here’s a real-world example. I know mature, responsible adults; upstanding members of their communities; valued employees; parents… who did drugs in their 20s. It would strike them as completely absurd if you tried to explain to them that the world would somehow be a better place if they’d spent the last 20 years in jail for their indiscretions. It’s obvious that punishing them for something that hurt no one would not have helped the world. Their current lives clearly enrich the world, and strengthen the fabric of society. But somehow they manage to ignore the fact that our prisons are chock full of people who committed no worse crime. People who will have no chance to ever turn their lives around, because very few businesses are willing (or even able; it’s often against the law) to hire anyone with a felony conviction. These people don’t see that having an entire underclass of people who can never hope to contribute to society weakens the country. Some of these prisoners didn’t even commit the crimes they are in jail for.

You don’t even want to get me started on the subject of the way that prisons have systematically removed proven programs for educating and reforming prisoners over the last few decades, essentially ensuring the profit structure of the prison industry (all in the name of being tough on crime).

Then, just this morning, several more pieces fell into place in my mind.

I recently listened to a podcast profile of the “father of PR,” Edward Bernays. The podcasters described how Bernays helped create the consumer culture we live in today, but they also touched on his forays into politics, including his involvement in the overthrow of legitimate governments in Latin America. This clicked with a complaint that was popular a few years ago among right-wing columnists; the idea of “historical revisionists” who were re-writing the history of the US and, for that matter, all the history of western civilization. I doubt that any real historian would use the term revisionism, because the practice of history involves (or should involve) going back and checking assumptions, checking the work of other historians, making sure that we try to describe what really happened.

The columnists, of course, were upset because their cherished mental images of glorious, flawless founding fathers were being shown as the figments of imagination that they actually are. Great men and women are never flawless (which is not to say that they were not great).

Where does public relations and marketing come in? All of this hinges on the old idea that history is written by the winners. I’d take it further; I’d say that history, perhaps particularly so in the US, has been written by marketing experts, often in the guise of the writers of heroic stories and songs, but just as often by patriotic textbook authors and newspaper columnists. It’s very easy to buy their product’s authenticity when their stories are providing the warm blanket that reassures you that all is well with your world. That the USA is a glorious bastion of freedom, that your religious leaders are moral paragons, our soldiers clean and upright young patriots, and our police firm- and fair-minded defenders of justice.

This is why the argument by poor, disenfranchised white men — that since they are poor and disenfranchised that they clearly are not privileged — doesn’t hold water. Privilege doesn’t imply that you have all good things in life. It implies that you’re able to continue to believe the comforting stories that you’ve grown up with. That the police only arrest bad people (of, if they make a mistake, our justice system will correct the problem), that our military only serves to protect our shores from evil men, and our leaders have our best interests in mind. I’ll grant you that the fabric of this mythology starts looking more than a little thin when you’re poor.

Becoming aware of the layers of unreality you live behind… in other words, becoming aware of your privilege… won’t, in fact, directly change anything. You can’t stop benefiting from it. But becoming aware of it might help you see through some of the illusions and, if nothing else, help you make decisions based on something closer to reality. Who knows, perhaps you’ll even help someone struggling under an unjust system somewhere.

(First draft dashed off without edits on Dec. 20, 2015… I reserve the right to edit for content (as I learn more), clarity, grammar, wording, or anything else…)


“The history of a nation is, unfortunately, too easily written as the history of its dominant class.”
Kwame Nkrumah

Center-left

Possible essay topic I’m mulling over.

I’m not gradually moving left on the American political spectrum because I have some love for governmental intervention (rather the opposite, I suspect).

No, I’m moving left because most of the kindest people I know seem to be on that end of the spectrum.

I have, with a little luck, a few decades left alive. I’d rather spend them working toward solutions to problems than being told that I need to be afraid of other humans who are also dealing with really bad problems.

I can’t ignore the legacy of political maneuvering and disastrous political experiments of the last 100+ years, but if you can hold that legacy to one side and look at the people involved, I keep finding the bravest and kindest ones (the people I want to hang with) seem not to be on the far right.

I know this isn’t much of a basis for making decisions on, but it feels… at least honest to the person I want to be.

A rant against simply wishing the world would change

<rant>

Just a reminder: posting heart-wrenching meme images and videos can raise awareness of your social concerns, but without a clear set of goals, a plan, hard work (like years of effort), money, compatriots, people with political savvy, more hard work, and (quite possibly) essentially dedicating your life to the issue, it’s unlikely you’ll see any changes in your lifetime. If you want to fight for women’s rights, gun control, the reduction of influence of big money in politics, the environment, minority rights, health care, domestic violence… I say more power to you. If all you do is share memes on Facebook, though, I’m not going to be particularly impressed with your commitment.

Not that I expect anyone’s particularly trying to impress me, nor should they. But you should know that I think that there’s a real difference between feeling deep emotional pangs about an issue and doing something about that issue.

Nothing that’s been achieved in the last 200 years that has helped open up our society and bring greater freedom and equality has happened because people shared slogans. People worked really, really hard, and in many cases risked their lives to cause change for issues like a woman’s right to vote, for the end of legal Jim Crow discrimination, for the rights of workers to not be treated like chattel, improved health care, rights for poor people (you’re aware that people used to be imprisoned just for being poor?), universal education, religious liberty, freedom of speech, child labor, repression of sexual minorities, protection of the environment, rights of privacy in the digital age… the list is very long.

I invite you; if you post something about any of these or 80 other topics I could come up with, then consider writing a paragraph or two about exactly what your goals are, what steps you think would move us in that direction, and why you think they’d help. Tell us what you’re doing to convince a congressperson or senator to get behind this issue, how you’re planning to apply political and popular pressure to them if they don’t comply, what money you’re raising, and why we should consider donating….

In other words, show the world what you’re doing, not just that you’re horribly, horribly unhappy about it.

</rant>

The good things…

I complain. Okay, I complain a lot.

But I’m not in a bad mood all the time. Today I thought I’d list a few things I’m happy about this week. It’s been a stressful week, so it’s good to look at some good things, too.

First: my arms actually aren’t hurting for the first time in ages. So there’s that!

Today is a Friday, and I’d normally be preparing for our weekly Toastmasters meeting, but with the holiday we’re taking a week off. Our corporate club has been incredibly welcoming and encouraging over the last three months. I’ve learned so much from all of you!

This afternoon is the start of our autumn Aikido seminar with Donovan Waite Sensei; he’s an awesome teacher, and I get to spend time with everyone at my dojo, all of whom have graciously welcomed me and helped me learn over the last year. September 2 was my first anniversary.

September 2 was also my 17-year anniversary with Wells Fargo. That’s pretty amazing for me; it’s more than three times longer than my longest previous job. I had a couple of difficult days this week at work, but my manager and my team backed me up and helped it get better.

Somewhere in September will mark my 20-year anniversary of when I first got sick. Cancer isn’t something to celebrate, but surviving cancer for 20 years certainly is. I was fortunate that I had an excellent surgeon who kept working on my case when the early test results were confusing. I suspect that I would have died without his determination and skill. I’m also thankful for the friends who supported us during that time, and my lovely wife, who worked, cared for our animals, and spent every spare moment at the hospital with me. Thanks!

I appreciate everyone who has helped me be a better person.

Thank you.

A ‘plague of offense’?

I’ve been seeing posts and articles claiming that “everyone is offended these days,” with the implication, at least, that everyone should just get over themselves. I agree to a point, but I also think that some of this is a passive-aggressive way of saying “stop pointing out that I’m a bigot.”

Here’s my take on the ‘plague of offense’ that we’re apparently suffering through. Subject to revision/refinement as I think this through…

I don’t expect to get through the day without being offended
(I’ll try not to whine about it beyond posting a snarky comment).

I don’t expect to get through the day without offending anyone, but I don’t go out of my way to do so. I think people who do are just showing that they’re jerks. If I cross the line from expressing an opinion to being deliberately offensive, call me out on it.

My “being offended” is different from pointing out discrimination and bullying behavior. If you think that you can silence me by telling me to quit being easily offended, you’re wrong.

There are problems that won’t go away by being ignored; if someone points out racism, sexism, or any other social issue that they think is a problem, don’t imagine you can shut them up by claiming that they just need to grow a thick skin.

Why don’t we teach our kids critical thinking skills?

I was reading this thread on Quora, and one of the comments included the observation that we teach American schoolchildren scientific facts (if even this), but rarely teach the scientific method, which would better enable them to figure things out for themselves.

I have thought about this off and on, and my conclusion is that there are many institutions, not just religious ones, that benefit from a population that doesn’t think critically about the world. I’m not saying there’s a coherent strategy to keep people uneducated (there’s no need to imagine a plot), but there’s no push to make it happen, so it doesn’t happen. Here are a few such organizations or institutions that I thought of off the top of my head:

  • Marketing: you would prefer it to be easy to convince people to buy your stuff
  • Politics: easier to get people to vote for you if you can use emotion and not logic
  • Military: people with good critical thinking skills might see that military action is usually not your best first option (probably a sub-category of politics)
  • Religion (of course)
  • Professional team sports (probably a sub-category of marketing)
  • Parents who want their kids to grow up believing in the same things they do

 

Leaping forward… into the quiet center

I haven’t fully worked out what I want to say here, but I wanted to get something typed out so that I don’t forget that I want to write about it.

I spend a lot of time online. Twitter, Google Plus, even Facebook. I see a lot of posts by people encouraging everyone to seize the day, start their small business, travel to exotic places, write their book… and I’m sure that’s all great advice. Really! I probably will try to write a book someday, and even though I’m not cut out to be an entrepreneur, if you are, then you probably owe it to yourself to give it a real shot.

But not all of us need to be world travelers, even if we can afford to, which (obviously) most people cannot. Some of us like going home at the end of the workday and leaving work at work… people who start their own businesses probably need to be thinking about their business pretty much all the time, or that’s what I hear. And so far, I haven’t thought of a single story or non-fiction book idea that’s just burning up in me, trying to get out to the world.

My resistance to the “rah rah rah” cheerleader crowd goes deeper than that, though. I think it has to do with a feeling that the go out and burn your mark on the world idea is hooked to an assumption that fast movement, outward-facing action, loud & forceful speaking, and shaking things up are the only ways to be “a success.” As if the only right mold is the one that produces extroverts. I think, too, that it’s aligned with the “growth = success” model that sees wilderness as “undeveloped” and not gorgeous and complete in itself, that sees efficiency and productivity as the only modes of action, and counts speed and size as sole measures of value.

To be honest, none of that appeals to me. I need to think that way at work a lot, because they pay me to get lots of work done. But when I come home, I want to be, not produce.

I seem to be attracted to things that are not quick. I am one year into training in Aikido, where (at my dojo at least) I am not likely to reach the first level of black belt for at least eight to ten years. In my free time I’m likely to be reading, knitting, or learning to weave.

I think there’s a place in the world for taking time, for not rushing to a goal, for learning the subtle aspects of something.