Category Archives: Human Interests

My Sock Drawer

My mother suffered the first signs of my initial problem with life. I can still remember the look of exasperation on her face when she surveyed the pile of socks and clothes her six-year-old son scattered over his bed. My problem, you see, began with my sock drawer, and metastasized from there. In fact, it encompassed a large part of my early years.

Like any first-generation Italian, my mother was matriarchal in the sense of being protective, nurturing, and almost smothering in her love. Caring for and worrying about me was her obsession. I was always well fed, clothed, cleaned, and “turned-out.” She even folded my freshly washed clothes and stacked them neatly in my drawers. But I rebelled. I wanted to impose my own order. And my sock drawer best illustrated the problem. My preferred stacking order demanded a rearrangement: separate stacks for patterned and solid colors; then a further distributive organization by color. In fact, putting things in order carried over into many areas of my childhood, including the furniture in my room, my pets, and the food on my plate. Apparently, I was taking my mother’s well-ordered household to a whole new level—a well ordered sock drawer became indicative of the well-ordered life I sought and presumed.

A well-ordered child, however, must pass through many crucibles of change. In elementary school, I encountered bullies and the chaotic competitiveness of team sports. For me, fitting into a juvenile social structure was like forcing a square peg in a round hole, somewhat awkwardly shaving the edges off my predisposition for orderliness, As I grew older, girls were especially adept at scrambling my emotional equilibrium. They did not follow my self-conceived precepts for order in relationships. I was learning that I could not impose my concept of order on others and that relationships require change in myself. How does one grow up without opening oneself to others, without connecting?

My increasingly less well-ordered childhood faced new challenges in secondary school and college. My studies were serious, well-intentioned, and disproportionately religious in nature. Perhaps the first shock came from classes in scriptural exegesis from Greek and Latin texts. I was aghast to discover that translations and transcriptions of these sacred writings were modified to account for various orthodox and heretical belief systems. This discovery was unsettling to my concept of order and trust in a religious belief system. If sacred texts fall prey to organized chicanery, is anything sacred?

As I grew older and wiser, I found solace in philosophy, history, and literature. The diversity of thought and experience presented in these studies was both overwhelming and exhilarating. But the more I delved into the bases for this diversity, I became increasingly aware of the fundamental disagreements we humans harbor over almost everything. For example, what proofs are there for the existence of a god? Is the replacement of theocracy with natural law a stable foundation for government? Is evolution solely explained by natural selection? Is there a human soul apart from the body? The answers to these and many other questions were diverse and often contradictory. They shook the underpinnings of my thoughts and elicited a yet more disturbing question. How can one rely on accepted truth?

Perhaps a bit wiser and much more cynical, I turned to science and began a career in technology. Surely, the scientific method would ground my understanding of reality. Besides, the technology that flowed from science would provide me the opportunity to make a difference in the real world. But then my queries into quantum physics and chaos theory jolted me out of my nascent comfort zone. Just as Newton’s concept of gravitational attraction between bodies gave way to Einstein’s gravitational field, quanta and fractals opened the door to many unanswered questions—perhaps even as bedeviling as the existence of God and His role in creation. Remember how “I AM that I AM” begged the question of the nature of God and existence itself. Well, the question of whether an electron/proton is a particle or a quantum of pure energy is just as unsettling and mysterious. Modern physics suddenly became metaphysics, questioning the very nature of being itself. Consequently, how can we say we really know what we know?

But knowledge is power, right? In fact, for us humans, it can become a mental aphrodisiac. It enables us to construct a world in our minds. And that mental construct can become the relative order we not only perceive but even project onto the external world. With assumed certainty, we name and classify the elements of that world. They and their relationships to each other become the fabric of our self-perceived truth. Some of those elements, however, bedevil our understanding so we identify them as mysteries. Science tries to unravel these mysteries by unmasking how they came to be. The unsolved mysteries become the impetus for analysis, theory, and experiment. If belief in the scientific method is absolute, then all mysteries will be resolved in time. But that faith cannot justify with absolute certainty everything science unravels and makes more explicit. Within the near future, our scientific understanding of time, space, and the nature of reality will likely evolve, perhaps akin to the revolution bequeathed us by the theories of relativity and quantum physics. Major scientific discoveries often serve as steppingstones to future discoveries. We should believe in and support scientific progress. But why would we accept every scientific fact as a definitive end state in our knowledge or as the final explanation of our world’s deeper mysteries?

Religious faith addresses life’s mysteries differently, sometimes even calling them sacred. Making something “sacred” is one way of categorizing a mystery and is essential to the creation of myths and the various forms of ritualistic sacrifice found in every religion. The Latin root of the word “sacrifice” literally means “to make sacred”—specifically, sacer, “holy” or “sacred” and facere, “to make.” (Oddly, sacer can also mean “curse,” which embraces a different type of religion or cult.) Regardless of the religion, the sacred usually refers to a mystery we can never truly comprehend, though myths give them meaning. Myths are stories that transcend formal logic. They account for the order we wistfully imagine through our miniscule eyelet into a vast universe. As such, they can verify whatever we perceive as stable and true in that universe and become that special reservoir of knowledge generally termed a belief system. But they still represent the incomprehensible. And, of course, the ultimate mystery many of our mythic stories identify as God or gods. The word “god” is not a sign representative of something in our universe, but a symbol, as Carl Jung defined it, of the wholly transcendent.

But that ultimate mystery is not beyond our reach. It is just beyond our understanding. The Hebrew “Yahweh” (“I AM that I AM”) was not a word the early Jews could speak. Its syntax is in the first person, i.e., the God person. So, Yahweh told Moses (Ex. 3:15) to tell his people that “he is has sent you.” The word for “he is,” comes from the Hebrew root haya which literally means “to be.” The ultimate mystery, then, is existence or simply being itself! That which is beyond our understanding but underlies all that is and all that we know is the most commonplace and intimate experience of our daily lives, our very existence. It is the primal element that both forms our individual lives and connects us to all we encounter. As such, it defines the very boundaries of order. Outside those boundaries, we have no guarantee of control. Nevertheless, it promises unlimited knowledge, unwavering truth, and a sacred enchantment within the scope of our individual lives. Even though we can become consciously oblivious to its constant presence, we can never deny that we feel its presence. Our individual existence is all there is, until it isn’t. The meaning of life is no more than being conscious of the feeling or experience of living within the context of our personal existence. That experience must become the touchstone of our lives. For the moment in which we become fully aware and participate in existence is when we touch Divinity within ourselves. As William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite.”

Today, I still maintain a well-ordered living space. Old habits are as comfortable as a well-worn sweater. But my sock drawer is not as well organized as that six-year old’s drawer once was. It no longer defines me. My life is not so closed; my relationships, not so anxious or judgmental; my thoughts, not so definitive or arrogant; my religion, not so orthodox. The experience of living is all. I am now like a flea riding high and fully exposed on the back of an elephant. At any moment, I may be brushed, blown, or washed away. But, by God, what a fantastic ride!

The World We Live In

Egocentrism is a term generally used as a pejorative. But, every human is born into a world that exists only within the self. A baby reaches out to touch a parent’s face and discovers another. His/her existence for the next several years involves many such discoveries. At some point, normally before pre-school, the outside world that seems to revolve around the infant reveals the most intimate and important experience of all: he/she is not only separate, but a subject or conscious agent in this world. Unfortunately, this revelation does not prepare that infant to deal with this outside world. For the next several years, the child will explore his/her ability to interact, to change, to build or destroy the things in this world. More significantly, he/she will learn to connect and communicate with parents, other children, and adults, mostly patterning behavior learned from the home environment. As the child grows into adolescence and adulthood, knowledge of both the physical and social world expands. But, at every point in human development, perception of the outside world is relative. In fact, that perception gradually becomes an ever-expanding network that exists only in the individual, not in the world that exists outside of the veil of his/her perception. It is only when we discover our personal isolation that we begin to understand our limitations and the only path to maturity.

Egocentrism is the albatross that warns us of the storm on the horizon. It tells us that we are not safe at sea, unless we attempt to steer free of the storm. Development of an ego, in psychological terms, is an escape from the id. But it can be its own prison. In fact, we can never escape our personal perspective, but we can expand it to include other perspectives. This expansion is the pivotal experience of surviving in a world that exists with or without any one of us. It is keyed by a personal decision to be open to what the world and others can teach us. But that openness is not a matter of rote learning or of acquiring control over people and things in the service of personal status and ego. Egocentrism may be a birthright, but it need not be a life sentence.

My wife is an elementary school teacher. When I relate to her my blog topics, she often sees them in the context of her children. What she recognizes is my humble attempt to describe a petulant resistance to facts and verifiable evidence—in effect, an inability to deal with the world outside of one’s personal, limited perspective. For example, the first step in conflict resolution is the attempt to understand an opposing perspective. A child who misbehaves in the classroom often has an unresolved grievance. Discovering the nature of that grievance is usually the first step in correcting the misbehavior. On a world stage, consider Vladimir Putin’s grievance with the West. Is his reaction to NATO’s ever closer deployment at Russia’s border different in kind from John Kennedy’s reaction to Soviet missiles in Cuba? The tactical nuclear weapons presently deployed in Eastern Europe are comparable to the destructive power of their less sophisticated predecessors positioned in Cuba fifty-five years ago. Granted it may not be possible to dissuade Putin, but the first step in de-escalating this current adversarial contest is an attempt to demilitarize both sides of the Eastern European border. Major breakthroughs in world diplomacy have almost always resulted from a recognition of another’s perspective. Certainly, the American led Iran Nuclear Deal is an example. For those few of us who read the agreement, the long list of appendix items reveals to what extent both parties went to recognize each other’s concerns and needs.

Closer to home, another example of egocentrism is what I will term “political validation.” The Republicans have fallen into the trap of validating their previous political promise of repealing Obamacare without considering whether it is the right thing to do. Yesterday, our President called a meeting of Senate Republicans to encourage them to repeal Obamacare now and develop its replacement over the next two years. He promised as much to his electorate. Apparently, he wants to validate an ill-conceived political promise. Meanwhile, many who voted for him reportedly (if you believe the polls) say they still support him. Considering that many of them will lose their healthcare, they unhappily demonstrate how political validation of their vote can take precedence over what is right – even at their personal detriment. It is usually considered heroic to put one’s personal welfare at risk for a cause greater than oneself. In this instance, it seems personal risk serves only personal pride. Such is the price of political validation. It’s like the child who refuses to recognize that recalcitrant behavior earns expulsion from the class. That child would rather be punished than change behavior.

My personal world is as limited and egocentric as anybody’s. But whatever I have learned and whatever maturity I have gained derive solely from my reflections on the borders of my own perception. At those borders rest the barriers to connection with others and the outside world. Every time I crossed one of my barriers, I learned something—both about another perspective and about myself. It is that connection that builds relationships, begins to overlay differences with empathy, and creates communities. It also allows us to share a common understanding of the world. Without these relationships and common understanding, we would find ourselves isolated and insecure. Our only solace might be a feeble attempt to project our personal perspective on everything and everyone. In effect, we would either expect others to share our childlike fantasy or, if circumstances permitted, compel them to accept it. Who amongst us would choose to live so?

I choose to live in the real world. And I wish the same for you, my readers.

“. . . and they two shall be one flesh.”

All religions tell stories that help us make sense of life and experience it more fully. Many of these stories seem to cross faith boundaries and reflect universal themes. Certain scholars study the thematic correlations in these stories and can identify the common myths found in nearly all religions. Psychologists of a certain persuasion have also noted how these shared themes correspond to the central architypes that inhabit our subconscious and often surface in our waking lives. Today I was thinking about the relevance of one of these religious stories to our modern era. Nearly everybody is aware of the Old Testament* Genesis story, even if they have never read it. In Chapter 1, verse 27, “And God made man, according to the image of God he made him. Male and female, he made them.” In Chapter 2, verse22, “And God formed the rib which he took from Adam into a woman and brought her to Adam.” What these passages tell us is that both men and women were created in the image of God and, as Adam quickly recognizes, Eve “now is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh (Ch.2, v.23).” But why, in the next verse do we find this conclusion, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cling to his wife, and they two shall be one flesh (Ch.2, v.24)?” The last part of this verse resonates with me because it helps me understand one of the central issues of our time.

Allow me to state the obvious: every human being is born of woman. Not only do we all have mothers, but they are by nature the foundation of the family. We men, of course, have an important role as fathers, but we do not carry little human beings in our bodies or nurse them at the breast. Moreover, through all human history, women have nurtured the family unit as the bedrock of society. And men, of course, have helped build and protect that foundation for both family and society. Obviously, both men and women are genetically and actively integral to human families. But the nurturing role of mothers initially defines and informs the role of parents. That nurturing requires compassion, self-sacrifice, and tireless safeguarding of familial relationships. It is difficult for anyone of us to develop the empathy required to build relationships outside of the family without the experience of a loving and supportive family structure and, more specifically, without a loving mother. Most parents intuitively recognize their mutual interdependence in raising their children. Their own relationship to each other is the model their children will have in uniting the male-female attributes of their own psyche and, as parents, in raising their own family. And families, as many have stated, are the foundation of communities and of the larger societal structures derived from them. It is easy to see this connection between family and society when travelling to other countries. Germans, for example, are raised in culturally different settings than the French—as would be the case across most national borders. Despite these cultural differences, there is something about family life that does not change. The major operating principle in every normal family is the influence of the male-female archetypes, their interrelationship, and union. Why is that union so important?

If you will bear with me, I am going to stretch the story of Paradise into a less common reading. Perhaps the “fall” occurred because Adam and Eve had not yet consummated their relationship. As innocents walking naked in the Garden of Eve, they were ill-equipped to deal with evil and therefore easily duped by the serpent into tasting the forbidden fruit. Afterwards, they became aware of their nakedness and of their potential to disobey God or commit an evil deed. Knowledge of their sexual differences is the precursor for God’s admonition that the “two shall be one flesh.” But beyond their physical union, men and women need each other. To put the matter more bluntly, it has always been our ability to screw things up that requires us to conjoin the male and female principles. We simply function better as a unit. That potential union is not only inferred in gender differences, but it is also latent in varying degrees within every individual psyche. Each of us are male-female, though one or the other architype is usually dominant. But Genesis reminds us why it is necessary that the “two shall be one flesh.”

My thesis here is not new. Somewhere in one of Joseph Campbell’s many books I remember reading how primitive communities were built around these male and female archetypes. The men were tribal warrior-protectors while the women were family nurturer-preservers. Both were needed to create and protect the community. Although we cannot know the daily interworking of these primitive societies, their rituals tell us something about the balance they strived to maintain between the male and female roles. When a young woman came of age for child bearing, the women convened to celebrate the occurrence. Since the men had no natural “coming of age” phenomenon, they invented initiation ceremonies to graduate boys into manhood and their hunter-warrior-protector role in the community. Like the girls’ transition into womanhood, the boys experienced no little anxiety and even some blood loss during these rites of passage rituals. But these ceremonies served to preserve the sexual balance of power in the tribe and in its communal relations. Even my cursory reading of the native American nations revealed the same dedication to this balance and to the communities served by it. When the Indian nations warred against each other, however, victory often accompanied the destruction of this balance. The vanquished men were humiliated (scalped) and killed, while their women were humiliated (raped) and most often stolen. These Indians apparently believed that they must destroy the power of men, but exploit and control for personal use the power of women. Much of our human history of war and conquest reflects the same belief. Even today we can witness how women may be exploited and, in effect, subjugated to male dominance.

We can identify vestiges of these primitive times in syndicated sex slavery rings or campus rapes or victims of domestic battery and in the heinous attacks and subjection of women by groups like Boko Haram, Al Shabab, and Daesh. In our most “enlightened” or liberated societies, women are often perceived in secondary or supportive roles, where their actual contributions are suppressed or not recognized. Certainly, it is true that women occupy a more prominent role in our American society than in the past. There are women CEOs and elected officials at every level of government. But America has not yet fully restored gender balance. More eloquent and informed voices than my own have spoken to this subject. Given the limitations of this blog, let me just summarize a few relevant examples: women still receive less money for the same job as their male counterparts; women are a majority of our population but represent much less than half of our elected representatives (e.g., 20 of our 100 U. S. Senators are women); women remain disproportionately absent in our written history; and they occupy a largely stereotyped presence in our media where we emphasize their sexuality and appearance over their other feminine attributes or competence. But whatever your feelings about the suppression of women, the real problem is with the suppression of the female archetype in men. Men who love women learn to identify with their own femininity in terms of their empathy for others and their role in building communal relations. Those men do not feel superior to women; nor do they want to suppress them.

The strongman or bully, by contrast, is really the incomplete man, insecure in his ability to relate by any means other than by authority or his power over others. We have seen this male ego throughout history and in our own time. They are either dictators and power mongers or wannabe strongmen. Too often they may also be our fathers, brothers, uncles, or friends. They may rail against other men who appear weak or gay for displaying emotion or empathy. They likely relate to women as sex objects and treat their wives as accouterments to their success or power. Since we no longer have a “rite of passage” for men, perhaps the only way to restore the male-female balance is through reflection and an honest reevaluation of our social relations. The word “restoration” carries a special significance here.

Over a thousand years ago, humankind experienced a restoration. When the Moors were driven out of Europe, they left behind a trove of art, literature, science and mathematics that they had assimilated from Greek civilization. The restoration of this legacy to Europe spurred the West’s emergence from the millennium of the so-called Dark Ages. It gave birth to the Renaissance and, subsequently, the Age of Enlightenment. I believe we are in the process of another restoration, one that may be five millennia in the making. The restoration now upon us is that of the female archetype, the myth of the Goddess, our earth mother. For nearly four millennia before recorded history, it was the Goddess that inspired men and women to nurture their families, to honor the fertility of the earth, and to respect women and nature as the native source of energy and all life. The advent of the male dominated nomadic tribes into Europe, beginning in 3500 B.C., gradually eradicated the Goddess culture with the brutal suppression and genocide of its tribal adherents. Since that culture left no written history, scholars have endeavored to reconstruct it from the artifacts and sculpted sacred objects left behind. ** We now have a clearer understanding of our unwritten pre-history and of that part of our nature we have too often ignored. It is likely that the story of the fall in Genesis is a written reminder of an oral tradition from that earlier period of the Goddess. Embedded in that myth is a lesson about human nature. That “they two shall be one flesh” is a simple statement of fact: we are, each one of us, meant to be male-female. We cannot survive without this union. We need both the warrior and the mother to protect and nurture our kind. We simply cannot create a peaceful and compassionate world order without first restoring this male-female union in each of us.

In retrospect, I want to say something about the so-called “battle of the sexes.” Not so many years ago, the media billed a tennis match between an aging male tennis player and a female tennis star—that is, Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King—as the epitome of this battle. Women, it was believed at the time, were challenging male supremacy. And, from an extreme male perspective, they needed to be shown their place. More recently, we witnessed an election between a grandmother who had a well-documented career in public service and a man who boasted of his business acumen, wealth, and personal superiority. Much was made of each other’s competency and trustworthiness. Donald Trump claimed Hillary Clinton was “crooked” and weak, using her feminine wiles to hide personal misconduct and physical frailty. In response, Hillary Clinton characterized Donald Trump as emotionally unstable, a bully, and a misogynist. Of course, their contest had many points of contention. But underlying their campaigns was the undeniable issue of a woman’s fitness to hold the highest office in the land. Could she hold her own on the political stage and in the world diplomatic arena? Although she won the popular vote, she lost most of the States. Their campaigns, among its many points of contention, was an anachronistic reprisal of the “battle of the sexes.”

Since the election, President Trump has been very busy with his efforts to “dismantle the administrative state” and to fire opponents whom he designates as parties of a conspiratorial “deep state.” In the context of this blog, how should we weigh the male-female balance in the successes he claims for his initiatives? Does removal of America from the Paris climate accord display respect for mother earth? Does eliminating pollution provisions from his predecessor’s clean power initiative show any regard for the clean air and water needs of his constituents? Does the elimination of healthcare coverage for (in favor of payable access to) newborn or well-baby care, maternity, birth control, home medical care, drug or opioid addiction, nursery home care, and mental health services show empathy for women, children or the aged? Do not these healthcare changes reestablish the practice of gender bias in premium costs? Do his proposed budget cuts in food stamps, children’s lunches, public schools, medical research, the endowment for the arts, and science show any concern for those who benefit from these government programs? I think his brief time in office is a very bleak example of the male archetype in ascendancy. But his administration is regressive in the extreme and out of tune with the restoration of the female archetype currently underway.

We humans admire strength. We have fought—even killed—to gain power over others or control the world’s resources. But why, at this point in our history, should we not care for the preservation of all life on our planet, including our own posterity? Many of us think that amassing a fortune demonstrates strength of character. But why should we not be willing to share with the less fortunate? Some of us seek fame and status to gain influence and power over others. But why should we not maintain empathy for those who have neither? Being strong and being compassionate are not antithetical attributes, but complementary to our nature. If we support societal norms that denigrate or suppress women, we risk subordinating the female attributes in ourselves. We deny our true nature. And we misinterpret the lesson of Adam and Eve. They and we—male and female—are one flesh. Women need to assert their power. And men need to learn the language of the goddess. Failure to do so remains as one of the central issues of our time.

*These Old Testament quotes are taken from the original English translation of the Greek Septuagint bible by Sir Lancelot C. L. Brenton in 1851. Why did I use this source? It was the first English translation of the 72 Jewish scholars’ original work as commissioned by Alexander the Great. His intent was to preserve the Hebrew bible which was originally written in Aramaic. In other words, this translation is closer to the source than any subsequent renderings.
**Foremost amongst these scholars was Marija Gimbutas. As Joseph Campbell wrote in the foreword of her book, “The Language of the Goddess,” her “message here is of an actual age of harmony and peace in accord with the creative energies of nature which for a spell of some four thousand prehistoric years anteceded the five thousand of what James Joyce has termed the ‘nightmare’.”

Alive in Time

Riding the wave to shore
Without thought of the beach ahead
Is like falling out of the sky
While the ground is rushing at me
And I stand fixed and alone
In the hectic flux of it all

The curve of gravity
Bends my reality
And elicits the fantasy
That my riding and falling is real
In a multifaceted world
Where only my body resides

But in the zone
I hover above
A body trapped
And in the flow
While enraptured by light
So incandescent

That lost in this light
The moment stops
While all is seen
At the speed of light
As wondrous illusion

My light burns forth
And others respond
In harmony
Each connected
To life, to all
And to each other

Now I can see beyond the light
And the slippery slide of gravity
Into what is not before or after
But always there at the core of life
And witnessed only in a moment of awareness

I am now
A free point
In the continuum
Of time in the grasp
Of eternity and
Of unwarranted love

AJD 4/16/17

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


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.

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?

**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.**

“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.