Category Archives: Human Interests

The Time Traveler

A shooting star, you say,

But no, a meteor scorching earth’s delicate skin

Just a rock haphazardly spewed from space

And out of time

That is, our time

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A time traveler sent to remind us

The time we know does not exist

Except in our creeping consciousness

As we slip through our brief window

That is time’s dominion over us.
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AJD 12/17/2016

How to Survive in a Post-Modern World

How does one define the “modern world”? Most would say it is our contemporary world. But what makes it modern versus its predecessor? Many historians would agree with me that the answer begins with the American Revolution and the new republic formed in its aftermath. The principles that formed that republic were partially foreseen during the Age of Enlightenment, courageously declared in 1776, and then experimentally constituted in 1787. But even at its founding, there were cracks in its foundation that fourscore and seven years later shook a budding nation to near collapse. But the experiment was destined to continue, even after the spilling of much blood and the imposition of martial law over much of its territory. Initially, America was referred to as the “new world.” What was discovered as “new” became “modern” because of its initial declaration that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These were the rights used to justify the institution of a new nation subject to the “consent of the governed.”

Later, in the formal Constitution of this new “model” of a nation, a marker was set down that has bedeviled America ever since. The goals expressed in this document were ambitious enough: “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence (sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” What made these goals extraordinarily ambitious is that they were stated as means to an end. That end is the new nation’s fundamental underlying purpose, namely, “to form a more perfect Union.” In that purpose we find the crux of nearly every internal conflict this nation has endured since its founding—from Civil War, to reconstruction, to women’s suffrage, to civil disobedience, to the initial revulsion against almost every new wave of immigrants, to segregated housing, and to contemporary issues of fairness in the criminal justice system, in policing, in the provisioning of public services, and, as witnessed in the recent campaign, in the treatment of immigrants on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or legal entry into the country. The problem with this “more perfect Union” is that it implies social assimilation as well as de facto equality under the law. The former is a responsibility of every citizen. The latter is the purview of the government that guarantees the Constitutional rights of every citizen.

Even a very cursory review of human history must recognize how America’s very existence is a break with all of human history. Previous to its founding, nation states were formed around racial, tribal, and/or religious identities. America broke with this past and aspired to be different. What it created inspired many nations to form liberal democracies, though none as pluralistic as America would gradually become. The ongoing struggle to form that “more perfect Union” is at the very heart of America, its founding principle. It is also at the center of America’s evangelical influence on the rest of the world to follow its example in governance. Especially since the world wars, American diplomacy has encouraged the formation of democracies and a world order that mimicked its rule of law. The result has been the United Nations and so many other international organizations that influence trade, currency, worldwide humanitarian interests, and so much more. Europe, in particular, has benefited with NATO securing its borders and with the impetus to form its own interdependent union of historically distinct nations. It is almost as if the American Pledge of Allegiance has been extended from “one nation under God” to one world, “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Globalization, for example, is an analogue for America’s interstate commerce. The United Nations, the World Health Organization, the Geneva Conventions, and so many other international agreements and treaties reflect America’s federalist propensities. For better or worse, America has become the archetype for the modern world.

If you will concede that America has become the blueprint for a modern world, then you must also admit that it is a work in progress. And, as President Obama recently admitted, that work does not progress in a straight line. Besides the internal conflicts already mentioned, there have been many obstacles to that progress. For example, the nineteenth century gave birth to two very different economic/philosophic ideologies, namely, communism and capitalism. The former never really took root in America, despite the fears raised by McCarthyism. The latter actually undergirded the institution of slavery, for cheap labor was the underpinning of the South’s economic juggernaut and its plantation lifestyle. Its moral justification—that Blacks represented an inferior race—was a bit of sophistry to win public support for an inhuman economic system that perverted the key founding principle of America. After the Civil War and the failure of reconstruction, capitalism was the engine behind a new age of industrialism. It unleashed an era of wealth for a new class of economic barons who threatened to control the country in the service of growing their businesses and profits. President Teddy Roosevelt feared this threat; but, more importantly, wanted both labor and business to work fairly in the interest of the nation as a whole. While he introduced legislation to curtail monopoly and corruption, the breach between the economic wealth of the rich and poor widened until the stock market crash of 1929. It was Teddy’s cousin, Franklin, who began to introduce the bank controls and safety net legislation that established some measure of control over unbridled capitalism and of economic security for Americans.

Why do I bring this history into my narrative? Well, it is prologue to another hurdle for this grand American experiment in a self-governing pluralist nation. We just experienced an election campaign where we granted to an elitist billionaire the power to purge America of his self-ordained undesirables, namely, immigrants who are neither Christian nor white enough. His campaign promises regarding undocumented immigrants and Muslims categorize people by ethnic origin or religion in order to deny them the American experience and acceptance into the American community. His campaign was divisive. In addition, he is appointing other billionaires to his Cabinet who have supported policies that further divide the nation by undermining universal public education, nationwide environmental protection, union membership, American Indian treaty rights, criminal justice system reform, fair housing programs, and affordable health insurance for the poor, while proposing tax advantages for the very rich. The gap between the rich and poor, to illustrate just one example, will be further widened by making healthcare and education too expensive for millions and by changing the tax system to favor the rich more than it already does. Whatever might work towards a more perfect union he seems intent to dismember, defund, or simply negate by executive fiat.

Most of these policy positions cannot be enacted without the support of Congress. But many will find support in Congress where similar positions on repeal of the Affordable Care Act and tax reform have already been proposed. In addition, the Speaker of the House would like to privatize Social Security and replace Medicare with a voucher system. A compromise between the Speaker and the President Elect might deliver legislation that suits both of their interests. The Speaker’s ideas for tax reform are already very similar to the President Elect’s proposal. The Speaker’s plan, however, is not as generous to the super rich as the President Elect’s, whose plan would increase taxes for the few poor barely living above subsistence level (earning less than $18,550) by 2% and decrease taxes for the upper middle class (earning between$151,900 and $231.450) by 2% and for the very rich by 2 to 6.6%, on an ascending income scale. Billionaires, of course, would rake in many more billions under these proposals. These policy positions have the net effect of increasing income inequality and further polarizing the nation into the “haves and have nots.” This economic polarization further accentuates the divisions he has already advocated between native or naturalized citizens and the undocumented, and between Judeo/Christian and Muslim.

When the President Elect admitted that the nation is already divided, I suspect he was referring to the urban and rural divide that he exploited so successfully. But he has yet to propose anything concrete that would bring these groups together either. It is true that globalization has incurred job dislocation along with the benefits of free trade. He promises to address the concerns of rural communities that are often disproportionately affected by the loss of manufacturing jobs to foreign labor markets. He has promised to make better trade deals and to repeal NAFTA. Even if he could repeal NAFTA, the net effect would likely be some decline in the Mexican economy, more border crossings for job seekers, higher prices for goods manufactured in Mexico, fewer jobs currently dependent upon our exports, and less income from the export business we now have with one of our biggest export markets. The net effect is not readily determinable and was certainly never itemized by the President Elect. Besides, he has not included in his analysis the impact of technology on manufacturing or other blue-collar jobs. It is not likely that a forty year out-of-work steel worker and head of household will be able or even want to obtain a college degree in order to support his family. The President Elect has made no mention of alternative blue collar work that might be made available, such as building windmills or assembling and installing solar panels. Like the current Administration, he supports infrastructure programs that would require unskilled labor. Unlike President Obama, he makes no mention of an infrastructure bank that would rely mostly on private investment. Instead, the President Elect wants to invest public money towards a trillion dollar infrastructure restoration. His purpose is laudable, but it does not address the loss of good paying blue collar manufacturing jobs. Many of the applicants for the jobs he wants to create are the very people he wants to deport. Moreover, his tax plan will not support these expenditures without blowing up the Federal debt. Besides the groups he has already alienated, like minorities, immigrants, and Muslims, he offers no solution for those others who feel isolated and adrift in an economy that is leaving them behind.

The actual promise of the next administration is further division and a dismantling of policies that might actually bring the nation together. Wittingly or unwittingly, Donald Trump is whittling away at America’s founding principle. If allowed to continue on this path, he will not make America great again. America’s greatness has always been in the future, not in its past struggles to advance the goals initially set in our founding documents. Our history has always been about realizing what it means to declare that all men are created equal and have unalienable rights. Plainly, America is about assimilating all groups within its borders and governing “with liberty and justice for all.” By contrast, President Elect Trump conducted a campaign that succeeded by “divide and conquer.” But if he governs in this manner, he will not be able to continue this nation’s progress towards a more perfect union. Instead, he will become liable for its deconstruction.

Earlier, in the twentieth century, after the communist revolutions in China and Russia, many feared the threat communism posed to American democracy, especially after the socialist legislation of the New Deal. But communism exploited social justice in a way that socialism could never imagine. It was not communism that threatened American democracy, but communists. While China never presented an existential threat, Russia’s very real nuclear threat did. The Cold War exasperated this threat. It was not, after all, Russian communism that unnerved us, but Russian militarism. Henry Adams, the renowned historian and progeny of two American Presidents, had foreseen this military threat of the Russian bear as far back as the beginning of the twentieth century. Now, after Russia’s unprovoked invasions of Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Syria, President Elect Trump seems to favor some form of partnership with the Russian dictator. Vladimir Putin has long sought to reclaim the Soviet Empire’s status as a co-equal super power with the United States. He would welcome any form of joint agreement that might divvy up the world into equal spheres of influence. But appeasing Putin would unsettle all of Eastern Europe and weaken the NATO alliance that protects all European borders (reference “Why does Putin Favor Trump”). In addition, the President Elect’s remarks about abandoning America’s policies on nuclear non-proliferation not only threaten to undermine the Iran nuclear agreement but also encourage South Korea and Japan to become nuclear powers. Taken together these policies could spell an end to the Pax Americana or, at least, to America’s ability to maintain peace through diplomacy alone.

After having drawn this bleak picture, I must pause to admit that conjecture is not necessarily prologue to the future. Certainly, there are signs that point to a pivot from what we have come to believe to be the “modern world.” Populist movements seem to be gaining strength in many western democracies. The European Union, for example, seems to be near the breaking point. The BREXIT vote in England and the recent no confidence vote in Italy may just be the beginning of a wave. But, as Mr. Trump said during his campaign, he would not govern the way he campaigned. Listening to his recent interview with Chris Wallace, I was impressed with his sincerity and obvious emotional commitment to bring constructive change to American government. But, at some point, he needs to stop being the purveyor of sham facts to support his cause. Presidents need to win over the public with sound policies and honest communication. In the same interview where he argued eloquently about inhibiting corporate flight, job dislocation, and regulatory obstacles, he also stated that he won the greatest landslide victory in history. Actually, his margin of victory in the Electoral College ranks forty sixth amongst the fifty eight presidential elections. And he lost the popular vote by the largest margin of any candidate who won in the Electoral College. (There were only two other instances.) At some point, he needs to deal with facts if he expects to gain credibility with a majority of the electorate and not just with his supporters who believe in him without regard for the truthfulness or substance of his message (reference “Politics and the Illogic of the Heart”).

The press is already going crazy with their nitpicking about his non-attendance at daily intelligence briefings, about the absence of press conferences, about Mr. Trump’s excluding of the press from his dining out plans, about the imagined significance of everybody seen in front of the elevators at Trump Tower, and so on. Imagine the press reaction to his more substantive actions or policies as President. Although Mr. Trump has been allegedly quoted as saying “all press is good press,” I do not believe the manner in which he manipulated the press during the campaign will work to his benefit as President. There is a higher bar of truthfulness for the Presidency. He needs both to be informed and to inform at least as professionally as his predecessors in office.

If a tsunami is approaching, we all need to move to higher ground. Much of what we have grown to recognize in the modern landscape may be swept away. But each of us can survive, in fact, become better versions of ourselves. What I mean is better illustrated by what I have witnessed in my life. Many years ago, I found myself in the middle of a fierce war. Even to this day, there has never been a war where more live action fire fights were recorded. Missed in this recorded history, however, is the number of civilians caught in the crossfire: refugees moving from village to village, carrying their wounded, sick, and aging with them. They moved as a community, each caring for the other. The courage, the compassion, and the resilience I saw in many Vietnamese faces are etched in my mind forever. Even to this day, when I happen to meet a Vietnamese from that time, I ask for his or her story. Usually, I tear up and end our conversation with a hug. But that hug is not so much spawned by compassion, but by gratitude.

Politics can improve or destroy lives. Diplomacy can secure peace or devolve into wars. But only people of character can inspire others. Over time, that inspiration will eventually lead to better institutions of government, to improved relations between countries, and someday to a world community that protects this planet and its inhabitants.

Most often the reason Americans fall prey to anxieties and fears is the absence of any real threats to our security or wellbeing. We fear we may not be up to the test. It is only when truly put in danger or challenged, that we have the opportunity to test our worth. After Pearl Harbor, men volunteered for service and women replaced them in the factories while still caring for their children. African Americans walked into an angry mob at Selma and withstood the anticipated onslaught. When we have the courage to join with others and face our challenges and fears, we make the resulting engagement meaningful and discover our own strength. We may be facing difficult times ahead or not. The future is not yet determined. But if it marks the end of an era, then it will be up to each of us to define a new era.

I believe in America, and I believe in you, my fellow Americans. You care for your family and friends; you not only do well at work, but do good as well; and whatever you create, you make available to all. You should feel grateful for what you have and for what you can contribute. Whatever may be in store for America and the world, it will not change your worth or the meaning of your life. For only you can do that.

Standing Rock and Knowledge in the Information Age

A few years ago I walked into my local bakery and engaged the baker in our usual discussion, talking about her daily offering of baked goods and their ingredients. Often this dialogue would range over other topics, like the news of the day. Since I knew she was Native American, I referred to the Obama Administration’s recent settlements of decades old law suits—one for 1 billion dollars involving 41 tribes (4/11/2012) and the other for 3.4 billion dollars addressing US trust violations that affected over half a million Native Americans (11/27/2012). My intent in introducing this subject was to gain more perspective, specifically from a Native American. She did not disappoint. Quickly she pointed out that these monetary settlements cannot undue the moral, cultural, and personal harms inveighed against Indian tribes. Her father, as it happens, was a chief who had actually met then Senator Obama. She was a teenager at the time. She volunteered that the President was a “good person” who meant well, but likely did not understand the core problem, along with the rest of America.

Various legislation actions (such as the Indian Reorganization Act, the Indian Self-Determination Act, and the Indian Child Welfare Act) affirm the status of Indian nations as “domestic dependent nations” under Federal trusteeship. And the financial settlements just referenced only reinforce the status of tribal populations as dependents and devalue them further by equating the indignities they have suffered with monetary remuneration. What Americans fail to understand—including Congress and our Presidents—is that the tribes are not seeking the same citizenship rights of freed African slaves, but the freedom of self-determination as independent nations.

The courts have often ruled in favor of Indian treaty rights. But previous Administrations had refused for decades to settle their civil lawsuits. And Congress had ignored their many grievances for an even longer period, apparently assuming that they should be satisfied with legislation from the 1940’s that acknowledged their right to hold their cultural property and to determine guardianship of their children. But actual reconciliation with these Native Americans requires much more. They demand that their land and its natural resources be restored to them, as well as their right to self-government within its boundaries. There is no better example of their persistence in this demand than the Lakota’s refusal to accept the Supreme Court decision in 1980 to award the Sioux tribes 122 million dollars in exchange for their lands. That award has been held in a trust fund and is now worth about 1 billion dollars. The tribal chiefs continue to refuse any financial settlement in lieu of restoration of their lands. They fought a war, spilled their blood, and signed a treaty with the United States of America to protect their birthright to these lands. Monetary compensation is not any kind of appeasement to them. It is just a further humiliation.

My local baker knew her facts. Of course, they are readily available on the internet. But she could also embellish her knowledge with personal experience, having a tribal chief as a father and having met Barack Obama as a young girl. Like a giddy reporter about to uncover “breaking news,” I asked her how these two men got along. She laughed, “They got along fine, like they understood each other.” Then she added, “Maybe it’s because neither were born American.” Her response jolted me. It was totally unexpected. Naturally, I questioned her meaning. She explained that Obama was a Muslim and was born in Kenya. I tried to correct her understanding. But she insisted that she had found many sources on the internet that corroborated the fact of his birth and his religion. Besides, she explained, various TV news personalities were constantly reporting on the failure of the President to prove otherwise.

What is my purpose in sharing this story with you, my patient readers? Well, it illustrates how much we can learn from each other AND how polluted can be our information sources in the age of fake or insubstantial news. There is no question that my baker friend was sharing what she knew. The question remains, however, how she came to know what she knew. And that question goes to the heart of what we mean by “knowledge.”

In general, we know something as a result of our experience or of critical inquiry. When Descartes said, cognito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), he justified knowledge of his very existence upon his experience of thinking. Of course, our experience is more inclusive than our thinking: I know the keyboard I am using to write this blog, because I feel it under my fingertips. I also know the speed with which the moon circles the earth because it is mathematically calculable—or so I have been told. We trust our senses every day of our lives. But we never know enough to trust the logic or mathematical precision behind everything we are told. Living in the information age means that we are exposed to many “facts,” “theories,” and “evidence” that we can never really know in the sense of personally experiencing or critically justifying. Instead, we must trust our sources of information . . . or not. This trust is a matter of belief. My baker friend, for example, had firsthand experience of being born on an Indian Reservation and of living in a place to which she was organically connected and from which she was being systematically disowned. But what she knew about the President’s birthplace was based upon her trust or belief in the validity of information available on the internet, inadvertently affirmed by TV personalities, and even touted by such supposedly “creditable sources” as elected politicians.

At this moment, protestors are digging in for the winter at Standing Rock, North Dakota, to stop the last connecting link of a 1,172 mile long pipeline that will deliver half a million gallons of oil per day to Illinois. The point of contention is where this pipeline will cross the Missouri River. At risk is the water supply not only for the Indian Reservation but for many Americans living downstream of that river. Originally, the land transgressed by this pipeline was apportioned to the native Sioux tribes in the Treaty of 1851. But in 1867, another treaty was signed to cede “navigable rights” to the Federal government, to include “roads, railroads, telegraph lines, mail stations, and other public improvements” (italics are mine). The latter could not have foreseen oil pipelines that can provide a unique environmental hazard and, in this case, a health risks to individuals. Since these lands our held in trust by the Federal government, the Obama administration sought to delay construction of the pipeline until these hazards and risks could be reviewed and alternative options identified.** But in September the courts intervened and ruled in favor of the pipeline construction plans. President Obama, who many tribal leaders claim has done more for Indian rights than all previous Presidents combined, has asked for calm, demanding that peaceful protestors not be forcibly removed. Unfortunately, his requests have not been met. Both hired security forces and local constabulary have prodded protestors with attack dogs, rubber bullets, batons, and high powered water hoses. Many arrests have been made. And women—both Native Americans and other Americans—have even undergone strip searches while held in custody.

My question is simple: what do Americans actually know about the crux of this problem: this standoff between a pipeline corporation and Indian tribes; this confrontation between the Federal Administration and the Judicial Branch of government; and this obvious conflict between Treaty jurisdiction and morality. The only time the press has covered this standoff at Standing Rock is when pictures of demonstrators being beaten, bitten, hosed down, or shot are made available. And, of course, the press was quick to interview a movie star who was arrested in the melee. What the press failed to report was a joint statement issued immediately after the court decision by the Federal departments of Justice, Army and the Interior. That statement reads as follows:

This case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects. Therefore, this fall, we will invite tribes to formal, government-to-government consultations on two questions: (1) within the existing statutory framework, what should the federal government do to better ensure meaningful tribal input into infrastructure-related reviews and decisions and the protection of tribal lands, resources, and treaty rights; and (2) should new legislation be proposed to Congress to alter that statutory framework and promote those goals.

The second point is most relevant. If you believe, as I do, that Federal trusteeship of Indian “dependent nations” is a treaty obligation that implies an ongoing review and determination of any necessary adjustments, then you must also recognize that obligation implies an underlying moral imperative. In other words, we Americans must demand a legislative response to any nationwide reform proposed by these government-to-government consultations.

Our legislators do respond to public pressure. And the public can be aroused at times to take action—to vote or contact a legislator for instance. We just witnessed 62 or so million Americans elect a new President they hoped would change the way Washington worked. The problem with public action in a democracy is whether it is motivated by passionate and informed positions, or merely by passion. An angry mob can overthrow a government. But an informed citizenry can demand legislative and administrative policies that serve their general welfare and effect real democratic change that suits the time. The key to this proposition is the quality of information provided to Americans. How can we know what to do or support if we only have questionable sources of information? How can we attain some level of certainty in what we think we know?

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**This blog was written last night. Minutes ago, a news bulletin reports that the Army Corps of Engineers has denied the easement the pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, required to cross the Missouri River. The Corps has honored the President’s request to find an alternative route for this pipeline. This will be the second rerouting. The first was incurred at the request of citizens living in Bismarck. That request was honored without challenge. This rerouting around an Indian Reservation will likely be challenged. It may represent the last shot across the bow by our sitting President. He is about to be replaced in a little over a month by a man who reportedly owns stock in this pipeline company> (Whether he does or not own stock in Energy Transfer Partners has not been substantiated. Energy Transfer Partners is actually a consortium also comprised of Sunoco and Phillips.) The President Elect has already stated he favors building this pipeline. There may yet be more chapters in the telling of this story.**
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“Knowledge” is a very broad concept that includes what we have learned, the learning process, and the creditability of what we have learned or believe we know. Given the enormity of the knowledge landscape, how can we have certainty about what we know? My baker’s experience has a personal psychological verification of its truth. And I learned something from her experience because I believed in its authenticity. That President Obama was born somewhere, on the other hand, is certain for it logically follows the self-evident truth that no human exists who was not born. Whether the President was born in Kenya or Hawaii, however, can only be derived from creditable evidence. Even trusted sources can allege “facts” without verifiable evidence. But even when verifiable evidence is provided—such as short and long form birth certificates, relevant newspaper clippings, or the testimony of public officials—some may choose not to belief the evidence or at least question the certainty of that evidence. In addition, much of what we think we know may in time be proven wrong, even though our knowledge is based upon personal experience, belief, or trusted sources. Certainty can seem allusive.

An artificial intelligence can use mathematical logic to answer specific question with certainty. It mirrors human intelligence in this way. It also can deliver highly probable, though not certain, results by canvasing a very large volume of data. In this manner, it not only mirrors, but actually exceeds human intelligence. You see, our database is much smaller and takes a lifetime to develop. As we age, we continuously store our experiences in memory, expand the extent of our knowledge, and mature our understanding of its content. When I was 21 years old, I was really sure of almost everything. Gradually, as I grew in experience, I realized how little I actually knew with any degree of certainty. We all benefit from sharing our differing perspectives. Other than logic and mathematics, no degree of certainty is achieved without a lifelong accumulation of our stored perceptions, of the creditable testimony of others, and of the induced results achieved by the power of our reasoning. Whatever certainty we may attain, then, is dependent upon a learning process that never ends.

We in America are at a turning point in our acquisition of knowledge. The process of learning, as I just described, requires more of us in this age of information. Each of us need to be dedicated to self-reflection, to disciplined evaluation of information sources, and to critical thinking that weighs all aspects of differing opinions. Obviously, we need to be served by honest and in-depth reporting and by elected officials dedicated to justice and freedom for all within our borders. What is happening at Standing Rock is just one example of how far we have strayed from these needs and, as a result, from the promise of our democracy. America is not easy. No nation has ever successfully broken down the barriers of tribal, ethnic, and religious inflexibility. But only by tearing down those barriers will our common humanity emerge. The promise of America cannot be realized unless we constantly strive to learn from each other, insist on fair and honest reporting, and demand responsive government that reflects both our needs and our moral integrity. Otherwise, problems like Standing Rock will continue to undermine our values and the effectiveness of our institutions. Consider where our nation would be today if we had chosen to learn from the Indian nations how to respect the land and become coequal custodians of the American continent. Problems like Standing Rock, or Devil’s Lake, or Black Hills would never have surfaced.

The way in which we communicate and receive information should reflect our desperate need to learn from each other and grow in understanding. Information used to gain influence, power, or financial benefit is propaganda. It serves no useful purpose in helping Americans understand issues like Standing Rock or further the ideals of a democratic and pluralist society. Only when our communication bridges the gap between perspectives, will it bring racial, ethnic, religious, and culturally diverse groups together.

And that coming together is still the unrealized promise of America.

The Fallen Leaves

A stem that barely shows in the spring
By summer becomes a fully formed leaf
That dances to the gusts of early fall
Until breaking free it escapes with the wind.

Then it cavorts like a brazen butterfly
Until tumbling onto the cold dry ground
Where it breaks apart to nourish the trees
That will grow new leaves for the coming of spring.

The old man totters on his cane
While pondering his life and tightening his scarf
He steps unsure, as he crushes underfoot
The last spring’s plenty into next spring’s hope.

Reminding himself that “winter’s approaching
And I’ll need to stay warm to see the spring,”
He has only his cane and scarf to bring
His final flight to a graceful ending.

The footprints he makes in fallen leaves
Will not remain but be swept away
Along with his past and spoken words
Except for what he wrote in truth.

There are roots that feed on truth – he knew –
His life had shown what might come forth
For whatever lies underfoot will sprout and renew
For all awaken to light and warmth.

10/17/2016, AJD

A Senior’s Reflection

Caught in the cycle of a slowly dying tide

This senior gazes into the moving patchwork of ripples

Noting their sudden demise against a hardened shore

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Except where marshes absorb these little depleted waves

For there they dissipate and settle into pools

To reflect a soft blue sky contrasted by dazzling white clouds

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My mind is caught in this tidal dying transformation

Tracing its ripples that come to rest in quiet pools

Falling into reflection and into eternity

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Where not I but only my thoughts can safely reside.

AJD 10/4/16

What the Presidential Debates May Reveal

As the years pass, I am increasingly aware of my ignorance. I seem fated each day to confront an ever growing mass of all that has escaped my knowledge. Much to my chagrin, many in politics appear to have avoided my fate. They protest that they know almost everything and that everybody agrees with them. For example, they are convinced that whatever they say is true whether supported by facts or not. They also facilely declare that “most Americans” agree with them regardless of whether the polls support their claim or not. Further they may even excoriate any who disagree with them as dupes or, worse, liars. Whatever they claim must be true for no other reason than the fact that they said so. Their minds are either so superior that they can create certainty at will . . . or perhaps so inferior that they are self-deceived. Befuddled by my personal ignorance in these matters, I turned to somebody more astute, a philosopher from the 5th century BC.

Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue “Phaedrus,” states the case. “Now to him who has a mind diseased anything is agreeable which is not opposed to him, but that which is equal or superior is hateful to him . . . “

In context, this quote refers to a selfish or narcissistic lover. But it really applies to anyone who values his/her opinion above all else and who finds intolerable those who disagree with him, most especially if they show better judgment. Since none of us can claim total immunity to our baser instincts, it tasks our humility to admit ever having had such a diseased mind. But it is more than likely that most of us, at some point in our lives, believed beyond a shadow of a doubt in the superiority of our opinions or beliefs. Many political arguments derive their inexorable correctness from this sense of superiority. The danger in this form of political correctness is that it dooms one to live without apology in a state of mental purgatory: imprisoned in ego’s tower, engaged only with sycophants or those in agreement, and insulated from the wisdom of others not so agreed. And if impugned or corrected in this state of mind, a person’s likely response would be reactive and perhaps filled with vitriol and even hate. Anybody so doomed cannot accept any reality other than the one dreamt by a self-serving and closed mind. To quote Socrates, “. . . not to be able to distinguish the dream from the reality cannot in truth be otherwise than disgraceful to him, even though he have (sic) the applause of the whole world.”

Of course, it is difficult to accept criticism; and being “talked down to” is humiliating. Any one of us would resent being addressed in this manner. In the political forum, opponents will necessarily contest each other’s arguments and accusations. So we should anticipate some friction in their political debates. But when they become exceedingly demeaning to each other, the voter must assess whether their arguments might come from a “mind diseased.” I think Socrates helps us make that assessment. Most would generally agree that disease incapacitates an organ or function of the human body. Socrates’ reference to a diseased mind, then, is a statement of incapacity. We might call this incapacity “shortsightedness” or “uninformed.” But Socrates is specifically addressing a prejudicial mindset that may indeed present these characteristics but is born of a much deeper character flaw: a self-willed arrogance and an uncontrollable urge to seek retribution against any who may be seen in opposition. This emotionally driven mindset is the very definition of hubris.

Now disagreements between candidates for office are not only common but beneficial to a democracy. But when candidates become so disagreeable that their discourse is actually hateful, something other than honest debate is occurring. Their campaign is more than a contest of ideas, but of will, specifically, the spiteful arrogance that claims power as its right. And that is the height of hubris. In a few days, Americans will tune into the Presidential Debates. We need to listen to the opposing views, dissect the supporting arguments, and assess the character of the candidates. I do not believe it will be that difficult to distinguish the differences in their ideas. But the emotional content of their respective performance may reveal something about their character that could easily be missed. Specifically, you may see an underlying motive born of hubris. In that instance, just remember Socrates’ warning of a mind diseased.

The Case for Optimism

Standing before a crosswalk at an intersection, what determines whether you proceed? Suppose there is a car signaling to make a right turn into your path. Another car is signaling to make a left turn from the opposite direction. Both drivers show their intent to cross your path. And, further, two cars are stopped, facing each other on the same road you intend to cross. Who has the right of way? And what do you do? Perhaps you have always felt privileged. You might assume you have the right of way even if one or more cars have entered the intersection. So you walk assuredly into the crosswalk forcing the drivers to brake. Or perhaps you trust your previous experience and training. You might proceed as you normally would at a crosswalk, perhaps maintaining eye contact with the drivers and assuring they grant you right of way. Or perhaps you could care less. You might just proceed oblivious to the drivers and their willingness to grant you the right of way. Your mind might be elsewhere, as if you were not alive in that moment. Whatever you choose to do, at a crosswalk or in life, you always act from a personal perspective. But who is responsible for the choice made and why?

A fatalist would say that you have no choice in the matter. Your course in life was preset before you were born. Further, you are not only programmed at birth by your genetic inheritance, but also by the circumstances of your life, by socially prescribed behavioral norms, by the necessity of natural laws, and perhaps even by divine providence. This predetermination explains why some people are born into rich families where they garner fame, wealth, and every possible pleasurable experience, while others seem doomed to live wretchedly in war torn conclaves, in ghettoes, or in segregated communities where all hope and opportunity are absent. The less fortunate do not deserve their fate; it just is what it is. The elite, in like manner, have what they have as a birthright, not as something earned. As a result, the privileged have no reason to pity the less fortunate, for “those people” are just not “one of us.” But, being so blessed can make a person feel superior and justified. Righteousness is the only morality left for those fortunate few who believe their success was predetermined. They may feel gratitude, but likely no compunction for the less fortunate. The unfortunates may become resigned to their plight, but likely with some measure of envy or resentment. If you are a fatalist, you face any crossroad in life either with supreme confidence or extreme dread. Whether you walk safely through a crosswalk or suffer injury, your course was set before you ever took a step forward. No one is responsible for whatever happens in that crosswalk—or in life.

Determinists, unlike fatalists, do believe in choice. If you are a determinist, your choices are caused by the conditions of your birth and your genetic inheritance, as well as your interactions with everything and everybody throughout your life. The decisions made and the habits formed in the course of your life are all factors that determined your future choices. In other words, there is a cause and effect explanation for every choice you have ever made. Whether you wait at the crosswalk or step confidently forward, your choice will be based upon your previous experience in like circumstances, your knowledge of the right of way provisions of the motor vehicle code, and your familiarity with drivers’ proclivities at intersections. Oddly, if you were consistent in your determinist beliefs, you would not be able to hold responsible a driver who ran you over in the crosswalk. Instead, you would be forced to recognize that the driver was merely adhering to a personal causal network different than your own. Morality in this instance is nobody’s responsibility for everybody does what is determined by the circumstances of their individual lives. No one is responsible for whatever happens in that crosswalk—or in life.

Besides fatalism and causal determinism, there is another related perspective that is less prevalent, but even more dark. For want of a better term, it might be called nihilism. A nihilist gives no credence to any explanation for what happens in the world. For the nihilist neither providence nor a causal chain offers a rationale for what happens. The actual course of events simulates gas molecules in a closed system colliding and crashing until they reach an end state of utter chaos. Or, as Shakespeare’s Macbeth proclaims, “life’s but a walking shadow . . . a poor player . . . upon a stage . . . a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” In the nihilist’s view, it makes no difference if a person steps in front of a car or dons a suicide vest to prove that life itself has no meaning. Life is not lived, but endured. Its context is meaningless, unpredictable, and amoral. Simply, it is just random nonsense. Nobody is responsible for anything—ever.

Fatalists, determinists and nihilists all believe humans incapable of creating their own future. Our choices are predetermined, are caused by the circumstances of our birth and individual lives, or are meaningless in a world controlled by chance and condemned to entropy. These are the ultimate protagonists for pessimism. They explain the present and the future in terms of the past. They fail to recognize the human organism is by definition a counterpoint to entropy. Further, humans create systems and organizations that build new futures. They simply are unable to make a case for optimism because they lack an understanding of its key ingredient: free will. Now you might fairly argue that everybody has likely experienced pessimism at some point in their lives without being a determinist. And you would be right. But in those moments of despair, anxiety, or depression, we show the same disregard for free will. The case for optimism is the same as the case for hope: both depend upon the courage to both develop and act on our goals, our dreams, and our future wellbeing. We are always free to create a better life for ourselves, for our families, and for our communities. If we abandon hope, we lose purpose. In this way, we fall into a future determined for us, forego the precious ability to act freely and creatively, and absent our power of personal responsibility. We then are only responsible for our irresponsibility.

For those who see the world as so many gas molecules, chaotically colliding and bouncing off each other into new trajectories, their analysis of cause and effect seems to make a case for determinism. But they fail to account for purpose. Chaos theory does explain how things react to each other, but it only demonstrates how patterns persist in nature and the law of inertia works in a closed system. There is a broader perspective that explains why we consistently theorize the underlying laws in nature. Humans have a propensity to discover the “why”—to unearth the meaning that explains why things happen the way they do. Our theories evolve as we uncover new evidence that helps us explain the world around us. But the one constant in the development of scientific theory is the human imagination and our endless curiosity to find meaning and a way to explain the world and our place in it. In other words, there is a constancy of purpose. And purpose or goal setting is a function of free will. Neither science nor any human endeavor can advance without our curiosity, purposeful action, and the persistence of our free will.

Sometimes our very empiricism leads us down a path where we lose the significance of the unique wholeness of our mind body connection by mistaking the mind with the gelatinous organ of the brain. Our thinking then is just a reflection of neural patterns captured like the shutter flashes of a camera. Memory is the database we search for the patterns that may direct us through the mirage we see before us. Our sense of direction and purpose is no more than the stored images of the world we have already encountered. Our free will then is just our reaction to the firing of neurons in the brain; and the emotional content of our “decisions” are just the interaction of our gut to the brain’s neural messaging. Or perhaps the reverse is true: our gut spawns a reaction in our brain; and intestinal gas spurs our dreams. In this argument, empirical science can give cover for determinism or for those self-serving folks who prey on other’s weakness. The world of manipulation through advertising, branding, political slogans, and demagoguery is a byproduct of deterministic calculations based upon real science. But we are capable of being more than consumers, believers in “group think,” or the blind followers of bombastic leaders. These are the forces that want to take away our freedom to satisfy another’s self-importance or craven self-interest. Revolutions have been fought over personal freedom. But its importance far exceeds day-to-day choices like crossing a street.

Free will embraces free choice and more. Our choices can extend beyond predetermined options. We are capable of inventing our options or setting goals that will open the future to perhaps better options. We can solve problems before they are even present to us, that is, future problems not yet experienced but foreseen—like climate change. The ability to create something new in the world does not follow a strict causal chain, although there may still be preconditions. For example, Einstein may not have proposed his theory of special relativity without the work of previous physicists whose experiments uncovered the surprising result that the speed of light did not change. Rembrandt would not have painted the Mona Lisa without Lisa del Giocondo, his model. I would not have written a poem about my daughter, if I did not have a daughter. Theories, paintings and poems do not arise inevitably any more than from chance. They are human creations. They are not “options” presented for us to select according to presuppositions conditioned by our past. Instead they are products of imagination and free will. We have the ability to create options and freely choose amongst them. We can define our future. Many among us have chosen what may seem illogical, anti-establishment, socially unacceptable, personally embarrassing, scientifically unsupported, or, in other words, wholly undetermined. These choices are solely the products of free will. Ask yourself: if it were otherwise, how would our civilizations evolve.

Now suppose you are standing in front of a voting booth, instead of a crosswalk. Let’s make the candidates on the ballot hypothetical representations of a fatalist and a determinist. Do you vote for the candidate who makes you feel superior to the less able or to those of another race or religion? Or do you vote for the candidate who promises lots of stuff—tax breaks, good paying jobs, free tuition, and so on—in exchange for your vote? One candidate makes you feel righteous and vindicated in your abhorrence for those unlike yourself. The other seems to offer much in return for your vote. The choice is either joining the cult of the fatalist or yielding to the deterministic manipulation of the panderer. Fortunately, not all political candidates make promises without proposing policies to fulfill them. These candidates do not fall into one of these hypothetical categories. But those that can be so categorized justify cynicism within the electorate. And that cynicism can become even more intensified if it yields to apathy or the belief that election results merely reflect the chaos in our electorate. But neither the fatalist nor the determinist show much regard for our humanity because they are convinced that they can either command your support or subdue you into apathy. In their mind, you are weak and will bequeath your responsibility for the future to them. In a previous blog I argued for a self-determined future (reference, “We Become the Future We Seek”). If you do not agree, then to whom or to what do you assign responsibility for the future? And what case can then be made for optimism?

Nineteen days after the armistice was signed, on September 2, 71 years ago, the Japanese surrendered, officially marking the end of World War II. Since then, we have not seen the end of bloodshed and violence. But many countries have come together to prevent another debacle of the magnitude of that war in which somewhere between 50 and 80 million people died. Perhaps it is time to remember how the hopelessness of a world depression and the privations of the previous war’s aftermath gave birth to the Third Reich and how Jews were massacred, Korean and Chinese women were enslaved, and American Japanese were herded into internment camps. The leaders of the Axis powers were, respectively, imperialist, nationalist and fascist—all three advocating their version of nativism. They believed their authority was fated, their cause righteous, and their victims deserving of their plight by birth. The world these men created was almost unfathomably vicious and dark. Somehow men and women chose to defeat these nativists and their proclamation of supremacy over others and of their self-righteous brutalization of those they deemed unfit or less human. Since their time, the world has chosen a better path forward. This is not the time to stumble. Try to remember the joy of V Day and the hope that day instilled in our parents and grandparents. They have passed the baton of responsibility for our future to us. We need to carry it forward for our sake and for our posterity. It alone makes the case for optimism. For there really is no other alternative.