What is getting ahead?

Americans tend to view getting ahead as acquiring more stuff. Houses, cars, furniture, appliances, vacation homes, boats, motorcycles, and more define where we believe we stand measured against other people. As Roxy and I were taking our walk today we met two little boys and their mother. The boys asked if they could pet Roxy, and I readily agreed. I told them that while she wouldn’t lick them, she would “sniff” them. One of the boys exclaimed, “she blew on me!” His brother told me that they just got a new basement, and it was important for them to clean up their toys every day so that it would stay nice and if they didn’t clean up their toys then it wouldn’t stay nice and so they were going to because they wanted it to stay nice. I told him that my wife made me clean up my toys every night, so I knew it could be hard but that it was important, too. Sensing, I suspect, that more secrets were about to be revealed, their mother told the boys they should let us continue on our walk.

Imagine if we could return to that view of life. What if we decided that the measure of whether or not we were succeeding at life was whether or not we cleaned up our toys before we went to bed at night? We would almost certainly collect less detritus, not wanting to add time to our bedtime cleanup routine. We would either stop being so competitive or the nature of our competition would shift from getting ahead at each others expense to doing the best job possible putting our toys away. That would by much healthier than the current system, because there is nothing about me being the best at cleaning up before bed that could possibly destroy another person’s life.

The problem we have right now is that we tend to see each other as obstacles that stand in the way of our happiness. Seeing each other as an obstacle is very different that seeing each other as human beings. It’s the nature of an obstacle to be overcome, eliminated, defeated, or destroyed. Human beings don’t fare very well if they are overcome, eliminated, defeated, or destroyed. If we see human beings as obstacles standing in the way of our goals we quickly dehumanize them. After that, we quickly find that we don’t care if they live or die as long as they are moved out of our way in the process. At that point two hundred thousand people dying becomes an abstract concept that we will be incapable of mourning. Imagine having to clean that mess up before bedtime!

Facebook has a Problem

I don’t know if you are a Facebook person or not. I suppose you could say I used to be, and I still have a presence there mostly to promote my work, but the truth is I hate signing on to Facebook. Not only has it become extremely polarized, along with most of American culture, but Mark Zuckerberg seems to have no interest in attempting to remedy the problems that plague Facebook. From Russian and Chinese bots, to Internet trolls, to disreputable sources of disinformation, to faulty algorithms, to advertising overload, Facebook has become like that sleezy dive bar at the edge of town that you might stop at if you had no other reasonable choice but you sure wouldn’t use the restrooms. In short, Facebook is out of control and Zuckerberg seems to have no interest in reining it in.

Remember Tom from Myspace? He of the ubiquitous presence on one of the earliest social media sites? I sometimes wonder what has become of Tom from Myspace. I don’t believe I ever knew his last name, or if his name really was Tom. What I do know is that the people who ran Myspace profoundly misread the public and so their site faded into obscurity. Their site was the largest social media platform from 2005 until 2008, and although it’s still active I wonder how many people know that. They were eclipsed by Facebook, and perhaps the only serious challenger to the Facebook monopoly was Google+ but Google+ is no more.

What I do know is that when a space, whether virtual or physical, becomes Toxic people start looking for alternatives. Facebook used to be a place to connect with people, and although you would occasionally have an unpleasant encounter it was the exception rather than the rule. Now, as in so much of life, greed rules the day at Facebook and the results are clear for all to see. What Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to realize is that if people start leaving his platform his advertisers will follow them – but then it will be too late to save Facebook. Maybe that will be a blessing rather than a curse.

Facts is Facts

I saw an interview on one of the news channels of a corona virus denier. The man said that he didn’t really believe the virus was any worse than the flu. When the reporter countered with the fact that (at that time) there had been over one hundred fifty thousand deaths in The United States, the interviewee responded “I don’t agree with that number.” This one statement reflects the heart of the problem – facts are not opinions.

You can’t disagree with a fact, at least not if you are a rational human being. Perhaps more accurately, you can’t disagree with a fact without dire consequences. If you disagree with the fact of gravity, it will not end well for you. When presented with a fact, our job isn’t to agree or disagree, but to respond. We need to ask ourselves how we are called to respond in light of the fact. Pretending the fact doesn’t exist will only lead to foolish choices. Sadly, at this point in time we see many people making just such foolish choices and paying the price for them. Still the fact deniers continue. Maybe that’s the appeal of denying facts. Maybe you feel quite wise and powerful until you don’t, but then you’re dead so you avoid responsibility for your foolishness. That’s a steep price to pay for a few seconds of delusional certainty.

I believe that part of the reason we see so many people eager to exchange opinion for fact is that we have, as a culture, bought into the idea that we have to be perfect. That idea is fiction, nothing more. We learn from making mistakes, and nobody comes into this world immune from mistakes. Mistakes are how we learn, and to avoid them is to ensure than we learn nothing. It is uncomfortable to fail, sometimes profoundly so, but I have never had a failure that wasn’t a learning experience. Pretending that we have never failed reveals more about us that any success ever could.

The Fiction of Individuality is Killing US[A]!

Rugged American Individualism is a long ago expired truth which today is nothing more than a fiction. Allow me to demonstrate with a few questions…

When you woke up this morning, what woke you up? Was it an alarm clock? Did you make the clock, and did you make solar panels which you installed yourself on the ceiling of the home you built from materials you grew or made? Can you see where this is going? The clothes you put on this morning, I take it you made them yourself from cotton you grew in the back yard, spun on a wheel, and loomed to perfection? Then, after you washed up with water you drew from the well you dug, you probably had breakfast. Coffee? Well, Juan Valdez, I would imagine you grew those beans, harvested and roasted them, too. The eggs were from the chickens in the yard that appeared from nowhere, because only God can make a chicken. I suppose you put the food on plates that you made on your potter’s wheel and fired in your own kiln, right? We aren’t even done with breakfast and your rugged individualism has been blown to hell. We haven’t even gotten to the car you drive that you made all by yourself, fueled with gasoline made from oil you refined from the oil that came from the well you made AND that you drive on the roads you made from the concrete that you mixed using the gravel from your quarry.

So, Daniel Boone, I guess the days of rugged individualism are long gone. They persist today only as a fiction we hang on to in direct proportion to our own ignorance. About the only thing we do today that doesn’t require someone else is go to the toilet in the outhouse we built ourselves in the backyard from wood we got when we cut down trees we planted when we were three years old. You may be thinking that you got much of what you needed from exchanging goods or services with another person, but the key phrase there is “another person.” If another person is involved, it isn’t rugged individualism. If other people are involved it is called living in society and interdependence. The truth is that we need one another and depend on each other nearly every minute of every day. You may not like it, you may wish it was different, but unless you are starting work on that outhouse right now the truth is that you don’t object to it all that much.

By now most of you have seen the video of the jackass in the Costco store who refused to wear a mask. When approached by store employees who explained that Costco requires all employees and shoppers to wear a mask, Jackass announced that he woke up in a free country and wasn’t going to wear a mask. At that point they whisked his cart away, revoked his membership, and escorted him from the store as he stood by slack-jawed. What he missed is that waking up in a free country doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. There are restrictions on our freedoms to ensure the common good. You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater, you can’t run naked down the street, you can’t crap in your neighbor’s outhouse, you can’t kill other people, you can’t just park your car wherever you like, you can’t drive while intoxicated, you can’t rob banks, and a host of other things.

You also have responsibilities when you live in a society. We are responsible for taxes whether we like them or not, we a required to obey laws, when we see something we should say something, we should look out for each other – especially the elderly and infirm, and a host of other things. If you are the kind of person who comes across and old lady trying to cross the street and immediately starts making book on whether or not she will succeed, sooner or later society will put you away. We dispose of our garbage appropriately because to do otherwise creates a public health risk. Similarly, we wear a damn mask during a pandemic. The fact that you may not want to wear the mask is irrelevant. As members of society we have shared responsibilities. If you don’t like that, I’d recommend you prepare to become a very rustic hermit. Those of us who are responsible members of society don’t want you around using our resources any more than Costco does.

Conspiracies and Monsters Under the Bed

When I was a child my brother had a toy robot that would walk a few steps, its chest would fly open, laser machine guns would pop out, and lights would start flashing as it fired at you. After about five seconds the doors would close and the cycle would begin again. It was actually a pretty neat toy, especially for the early 1970s. At night I would have nightmares that Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows lived in our basement and would send that robot toy up the steps. When it fired at me I couldn’t move, and it would walk up to me, lift up its robot arms and grab my calves, inflicting excruciating pain. For those too young to remember, Barnabas Collins was a vampire on a daytime soap opera called Dark Shadows. I’m not aware of any Barnabas Collins conspiracy theories, but if Dark Shadows was on television today I am quite sure more than a few lunatics would think he was real and determined to influence the next presidential election through voter fraud.

Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins

As a younger child I believed there were monsters under the bed. My paternal grandmother always used to tell me “don’t let the bedbugs bite,” and since I had no idea what a bedbug was I was pretty sure they emerged from under the bed looking more or less like a lobster. The belief that monsters live under the bed is normal and age appropriate for healthy children, but if a person reached thirty years old and still was afraid to look under the bed that would indicate some serious issues that would require professional help. Imagination is wonderful as long as it is voluntary. If we find ourselves sliding into imagination and fantasy in an involuntary way it can become not very wonderful at all. In fact, it is one of the hallmarks of a delusional state and quite possibly serious mental illness. Imagination can be a very effective way to hide from reality, but that escape comes at a cost. When we find ourselves slipping into delusion involuntarily, we may be in deep trouble.

Over the last few decades, unscrupulous people in the media have sought to take advantage of those inclined to dwell in fantasy, whether voluntarily or not. Most of them have been discredited, but that doesn’t damage their credibility among their followers. To the paranoid, the fact that one of their icons has been discredited actually adds to their credibility. While these people believe their spokespeople are the victims, the real victims are their patsies and those who have been impacted by true tragedy and so are targeted by the Alex Joneses of the world. While to you and me these hucksters and their message are obviously false, to someone who yearns to feel wise and accepted or for whom the world as it is structured isn’t working out for them, the most outrageous nonsense seems an opportunity for them to finally know more than everyone around them. These people need the monsters under their beds to be real. While we might be tempted to reason with them, it won’t work – it will only reinforce their paranoid delusions.

I mention all this because we have a President who preys on these people as well. He is already attempting to lay doubt about the integrity of the upcoming election, despite the fact that the evidence is clear that his election was in part the result of interference from Russia. Of course, the people to whom he appeals will believe him, and won’t change their mind about him (or Sandy Hook) because he makes them feel wise and insightful. Our job isn’t to change people’s minds. That can’t be done because most people’s minds are shut. Our job is to vote anyone who would take advantage of others the way this President seeks to do out of office and to do our best to ensure people like him never find their way to public office again – no matter their party affiliation. That task is so crucial that the future of our republic depends on it.

What is “Normal”?

It seems to me we tend to confuse “normal” with “what we are used to,” and I don’t believe that always serves us well. If you are like me, during the summer months you get pretty used to not having to worry about wearing a jacket or boots, but when autumn comes around and temperatures drop you get out heavier clothes. We don’t say, “this isn’t normal, so I’m not going to do it!” The reason we don’t object is that the change of seasons is normal, even though it’s not what we are used to come the onset of the falling leaves.

Given the onset of worldwide pandemic, we are all experiencing a new normal. People resist wearing masks, claiming it’s not normal, but anyone who has ever worked in healthcare knows that in that setting masks are quite normal. It’s more accurate to say that for many of us wearing masks isn’t something to which we are accustomed. Masks are, for people in the midst of a highly contagious illness, quite normal. What would be abnormal is refusing to do the things we need to do to protect one another. Sadly, we are seeing abnormal all around us claiming to be a reaction to what isn’t “normal.”

Back in biblical times normal was understood to be majority practice. People who were outside majority practice were defined as evil, which didn’t bode well for left handed people, people who could float, and a host of others. Many of us thought we had evolved beyond such a distorted view of normal, but we are learning that may not be the case among a significant segment of our population. Don’t confuse the two. What we are used to may have no relationship to normal. Normal may not be a reasonable response to current circumstances. Since circumstances change all the time, so does normal – and that really is normal!

Happy Interdependence Day

On this 4th of July we don’t need any more independence. Americans are obsessed with independence, to the point where it has become a hindrance. We have so perverted the idea of independence that it has come to mean that I can do whatever I want, no matter who it hurts, and everybody else has to deal with it. What we fail to see in all of that is the truth that we need each other. If we didn’t live in a society, we wouldn’t have jobs on Monday because our employers would have no customers. If we didn’t live in a society our trash would simply sit at the curb because we couldn’t come to an agreement with all the other “independent” jackasses to get it collected. The truth is that our “fierce independence” is quite selective and overblown.

Whether we like it or not, we live in a global era. That means we have a global economy. Our businesses have customers around the world, not only around the corner. We all depend on each other, and what we do impacts people way beyond our line of sight. When we act out in ways that hurt those people, we hurt our own best interests. If the corona virus has taught us anything, it should be the truth of interconnectedness. The choices I make and the actions I take during this pandemic may infect other people, who in turn may unwittingly infect others while they are still asymptomatic. Those people may further spread the virus before they become symptomatic. Since very few people are sociopaths who spread this virus intentionally, the process I just described is how we developed a worldwide pandemic – and still Americans want to talk about independence.

We need to wake up. We need to stop championing independence on the one hand and on the other engage in spittle-filled screaming episodes trying to impose our distorted view of reality on other people. As a nation we need to make healthier choices, and we cannot allow people who cannot or will not see the wisdom of those choices to hold us back. In any relationship, as one partner becomes more healthy the other partner or partners are called by the healthy example to do the same. No explicit persuasion is necessary. It’s time for us to grow up as a nation.

Do Values Still Exist?

Remember values? They were those old fashioned things that gave us a somewhat consistent outline of what we would and wouldn’t do. Most people would say, for example, that killing other human beings is wrong. Other values included the idea that it was a good thing to be honest, to avoid cheating, to act with integrity, to be a reliable friend and a good parent. Most people would agree that stealing is a bad thing and that fairness is good. Sleeping with someone else’s spouse was frowned upon, even if it was a value to which we didn’t universally adhere. A man’s word was his bond, and a oral agreement was binding.

Back in the days when we had values, conservatives generally held forth against what they called relativism or situational ethics. Something that was wrong was always wrong, no matter the circumstances. Of course, that proves a rather immature ethical stance that doesn’t hold up, but they tried. You may hold that it’s wrong to go into another person’s home unless invited, but going into a burning house to save someone doesn’t require an invitation. Today those same conservatives seem to have no problem with deceit and outright lying. All you have to do is listen to a politician to know that neither conservatives nor liberals have any problem with selling the Brooklyn Bridge over and over again. What would be the consequence of acting that way in our own workplace? I suppose that depends on where you work and who your customers are.

One thing is certain. A society without values cannot survive long because a lack of values erodes trust. If we cannot trust one another we will not long be able to live in proximity to one another. In America, our society is polarized as never before, and some would counsel learning to get along no matter the cost. I disagree. It simply isn’t possible to get along with valueless, deceitful fools. What we need to do is rise above this nonsense and vote. Those of us with integrity need to reassert our influence in society and speak truth to power and deceit, reemphasizing the value of character. Nothing less will do.

Let the Cleansing Begin!

It is almost predictable. Watch the White people scramble to purge the record of racism and White Supremacy in America. Scrub the history books and convince yourselves that you have done something worthwhile. No more “Gone With the Wind,” get it out of here so we can pretend that never happened. For the record, I never watched that movie anyway so I won’t miss it, but that’s not the point. Then there is a sketch from “Whose Line is it, Anyway?” that lampooned racist police practices but is now seen as racist because, after all, we can’t have any record of any racism in America! Oh the liberals gather appearing skynews-gone-with-the-wind_5010033to want to do something about racism, but in truth what is happening is an attempt to remove the evidence of racism so that we can look good without becoming vulnerable enough to effect actual change.

Country group Lady Antebellum has apologized for having “antebellum” in their name because the word refers to the pre-Civil War south in America, a time in which slavery was legal. They are now “Lady A,” something their fans (who may or may not be able to spell “antebellum”) have called them for some time. There is an unfounded rumor that the name “Fucking A” came in a close second in balloting for the new name, both because of doubts about spelling and a desire to avoid being known as “F-n A,” but I digress.

The point is that when we remove every trace of bad behavior from our memories we become complicit in perpetuating them. Ask you kids if they learned about the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s in school. You may be shocked to learn they didn’t. Ask them if they really know why Martin Luther King, Jr. is important and you may find out your kids believe it’s because streets and plazas are named after him. It’s vitally important that we work to eliminate racism in our society today, but purging records of racism from the past is counter productive and uses energy that would be much better expended in addressing what is happening in 2020!

The Six Dimensions of Everything

We are trained to believe there are three dimensions. I don’t believe that. I believe there George Floydare at least six dimensions to everything. By now you would have to be living in a cave without internet (the nicest caves have WiFi, by the way) to not have heard that the Minneapolis Police Department murdered George Floyd. I say the department did it because while the officers on the scene were the direct cause, the culture in the department is the broader cause. The fact that other officers stood around while Derek Chauvin, et. al. knelt on his neck is clear evidence that this isn’t an isolated problem within the Minneapolis Police Department – or any American department. As we assess this incident there is the act of Chauvin, the culture within the department, and the failure of other officers on the scene to overcome those factors and intervene. That’s three dimensions right there.

The fourth dimension is the militarization of the police in America that rendered violent protestwitnesses to the murder powerless to intervene. Even with people capturing video of the murder, Chauvin and his colleagues persisted. Clearly the officers didn’t see anything wrong with their actions. How could bystanders intervene? They wouldn’t have had a chance if they tried to intervene physically. The fifth dimension is the city’s hesitation in arresting Chauvin and his colleagues. The city attorney spoke of wanting to be sure he had all the evidence before making an arrest, but if I go out onto the street and kill someone in front of witnesses who take video of my actions I can promise you I won’t be walking around free for a few days while the city attorney gathers evidence. The sixth dimension is race, and all of its implications.

Now consider the demonstrations and subsequent violence around the country. The first protestsdimension are the peaceful protesters. The second is the presence of outside agitators who appear at these events. They have different agendas – some are anarchists, some just like to incite violence, there are allegations some may be foreign nationals – but their methods are to agitate protesters and increase the likelihood of violence. The third dimension are police, national guard, and others charged with containing the protesters and others on the street. The fourth dimension are the local government officials, the decisions they make and the things they say, wise or foolish. The fifth dimension is the media, their presence for better or worse, and the insights they provide the rest of us into what is happening. Finally, the sixth dimension is each of us at home. How will we respond? How will we interpret what is happening and what will we be called to do?

I mention all of this because when we look for solutions to any problem we tend to over Kaepernick Floydsimplify the problem, reduce it to a single cause and try to find a single solution. The we wonder why our “magic bullet” never works! We can address the officers who participated in the murder of George Floyd, but if we don’t address the culture that allowed it to happen we will be here again in the near future. We can change police departments, but if we don’t address the cultural oppression of people of color all we do is push the anger back under the surface where it will wait for another trigger to bring it to the surface. The truth is that we have a lot of work to do and we have waited far too long to begin.

Sadly, at times like this there is no shortage of people who want to tell us how we should respond. I am amazed at people who want to tell us with great specificity how we should act, not taking into account each of our abilities and aptitudes. Nobody can tell any of us how best to respond. The message we need to hear is that we must respond, we must reach out across the divide that is race in America, that each of us has a stake in this change, and that none of us gets to sit this one out. Start now.