Whither America?

Like the collapsing coast of California seen recently on TV news, the ground beneath some of our most important institutions is crumbling, and the danger has never been greater than in this election year.

The institution of politics itself is in grave peril. Our favored candidates used to be experienced professional politicians (think Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt or Richard Nixon). They held junior positions in the executive or legislative branches and climbed the ranks, ensuring that they were capable of the actual work of governing. Today, however, regular participation in the political system is seen as corrupting.  Eight years ago, Obama’s relative lack of experience in government was seen as a weakness. Today, such a lack is seen as strength. Quick flip? Perhaps the institution of politics is today considered so untrustworthy that political inexperience is paraded by many as a mark of integrity and independence.

Furthermore, the institutionalized pathways for affecting change have been bypassed with dangerous results. Until recently, Americans who were anxious, dissatisfied, or upset with the status quo would write letters, protest, and lobby for concrete, specific changes. While their working within the system may not have always achieved the desired result, it often did result in constructive compromise. Compare Robert La Follette’s gang of progressives to the contemporary Freedom Caucus. The former worked within the system and enacted significant change. The latter has tried to hold the system itself hostage to attempt to push through their radical agenda with limited success. Though no one can get everything they want, the current system is aimed at achieving the compromises that allow people to feel that their voices are being heard, even if the effect is not always dramatic.

Compounding the danger is the fact that our political parties are caught in a moment of dramatic change. Though they have never been perfect, the political parties have always been vital to healthy governance. However, the power structures that have held up these vital centers of the parties are being torn down by external foes and political infighting.

The Republican Party is in particular danger. The party is being pulled in at least two different directions. The Tea Partiers, whose real mission sometimes seems to be bringing down the federal government, have been joined by (or revealed to be) far-right ideologues, whose jingoism and xenophobia threaten to define the presidential race. At the same time, more moderate establishment Republicans want to fight for leaner government but recognize the vital work that government does and will compromise to keep that work going. Adding to this conflict religious voters, some of whom have become alienated by the increasingly inflammatory rhetoric flowing from the right wing of the party, leads to a political system that lacks any vital center of gravity. The result is a splintering institution, a process defined not by sensible compromise, but by rhetoric, gridlock, and frustration.

Meanwhile, the danger to our political system is dramatically increased by the eroding trust in our media. Gone are the days when our news came from trusted, vetted sources like Walter Cronkite. Gone are the days of news as information. Now the Internet allows almost anyone to pose as a journalist, pumping baloney into what should be serious public discourse. Meanwhile, news has become entertainment, which has caused some journalists to poison their own wells by exaggerating the truth and engaging in fear-mongering.

As a result, we have people willing to overthrow the status quo without any serious, concrete plan to replace it. A sizable segment of our population is now so opposed to more of the same traditional politics that they find themselves drawn to  inexperienced, volatile, anti-intellectual candidates, whose presidency would be at its very best a risky roll of the dice.

What exactly must be done to shore up the ground beneath our vital institutions that make up our political system is not yet clear. But until there is a wider understanding and appreciation of the impending institutional breakdowns, the subject is unlikely to be studied, understood, and addressed.

We cannot simply take for granted that these institutions will save us from our worst selves. Rather, we have to save them!

When the nightly news shows them collapsed into a mess at the bottom of a collapsed cliff, God help us ALL!

We are perilously close to that reality!

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A Sublime State of Mind

First you have to find it!

Where is it? It is everywhere or anywhere. Depending on your digestion, health, and focus at any given moment, it could be 2,500 feet underground in a copper mine. Or 2,500 above ground held up by a hot air balloon. It could be on a Greyhound bus. Or a park on a snowy day.

Most likely, however, you will be in someplace, when, somewhat unexpectedly, a wave of pleasure may sweep over you.

It is the feeling of losing your breath, then the relief of regaining it. In the relief of that moment you will feel like you have survived one of your 9 lives.

But that is not the only way to discover the sublime.

You may be sitting on a veranda in Hawaii looking west, a whiskey and soda in your hand, watching the orange ball of the sun slip slowly below the horizon. You may sense then that nothing could be more beautiful, particularly because you know it will rise and set again tomorrow.

You may be in the Swiss Alps at about 6 thousand feet watching the sun rise in a bright blue sky above amazing mountains created by nature and time. That may give rise to a sense of hope that sunrise always brings with it a promise of new, fun, and interesting things for the day ahead.

Now that you may have some idea where to find YOUR personal sense of the sublime, and you may be wondering how to catch such feelings in your fist and hang on and extend the warm, wonderful, ephemeral sensations.

The first thing to do is note where and when those feelings became real for you. The second thing is to try to remember what those moments felt like and to recapture your state of mind.

Did you feel freedom, relief, lightheadedness, amusement, sadness, or simple happiness?

Whatever those thoughts—which of course will be different for all people—are, if you can store them like a sense of smell, you can sometimes recreate sublime for yourself on demand.

If the sublime was the same for everybody, it would be far less attractive and seductive. It is personal to and for you, so probably it is best to keep it as a treasured secret.

First you have to define and find it; then you have to store it. And, finally you have something you can treasure forever as your very own and reconfirm your uniqueness as a person of the universe!

My secret, which I will share despite my advice not to, is the Waldhotel Fletschorn in Saas Fee, Switzerland. There is no place that competes with its views, food, and comfort. Try it.

It is my definition of the sublime and I am writing this there now. Come here and you will never stop thanking me, even if your pocket book is a bit lighter.

A Sense of Time

Have you ever wondered what the French kings were thinking when they began building castles and chateaus, which could not possibly be completed within a lifetime? What were the Chinese rulers thinking when they began their Great Wall? What motivated Peter the Great to begin the process of modernizing Russia?

Perhaps some thought that they could extend their lives in a fashion. Maybe others believed that it was their duty to leave behind a better, stronger world. Possibly, many were so focused on their dreams and goals that they could ignore the inescapable limits of a human lifetime. Of course, it was most likely some combination of these things, different for each person, whenever or wherever they began their massive undertakings.

But today, such projects seem so much more difficult to even begin.

The internet appears to have trapped us in an inescapable NOW. The sheer volume of information—breaking news, status updates, and the constant parade of selfies—have made it difficult to pay any attention to tomorrow. The Internet makes instant gratification possible in a way that it never has been for previous generations. If you want to listen to a song, watch a movie, or read a book, the Internet can deliver you that experience in seconds. If you want a physical object, well, you can order that online and have it by the end of the day—if you’re willing to shell out a little more cash for shipping!

Our inability to look beyond the NOW has made solving difficult problems even more daunting. For example, some foresighted leaders have tried to convince people everywhere that if we do not address climate change in a far-reaching, ambitious way, then the planet may be rendered unlivable within the century, but it seems impossible to get people’s minds off of the present hardships they face and onto the future catastrophes they have sown. And, unfortunately, it is that sort of forward-thinking that we so desperately need.

It is time that we put aside our desire for instant gratification, and turn instead to our equivalent of the French chateaus, Italian cathedrals, and Chinese fortresses. It is time to extricate ourselves from the NOW and focus on projects which will take generations, even if they leave nothing physical behind. It is time to put down the selfie-stick and look at the people around us, to think about future generations and what sort of world we would like to leave behind.

In The Green Room

What follows is a genuine, 100% factual account of a definitely-existing, absolutely-not-invented Fox intern’s time in the Green Room before last night’s Republican Debate.

Her name has been withheld to prevent fact-checking.

As the gaggle of remaining Republican candidates waited tensely for the beginning of the debate in just a few minutes, Ted Cruz broke the silence.

“I hate these things. If they weren’t so serious, they’d be comical. It is good that we can get a bit of privacy beforehand.”

Rubio snickered. “You’re in for quite a night, Ted. I hope you brought your birth certificate!”

“Did you bring your little booties too, Marco-baby?”

“Cool it boys” said Trump. Slouched in his chair, the real estate mogul looked totally relaxed.

“Shut up, toupee,” said Cruz, “this is your fault, and you know it.”

“Hey Teddy.” Trump’s words oozed from his lips. “You know it’s not personal. I’m just trying to screw up the whole electoral system. Just saying what pops into my head. Just looking for a new way to drain pockets. I figured that you of all people would appreciate that.”

A noisy growl arose from the direction of John Kasich, but it wasn’t clear what bothered him.

“Guys, I was just thinking” Jeb began.

Christie slammed down his meatball sub in fury. “No one cares what you think anymore, Jeb.”

“Now, now Chris,” Trump said, “let Jeb talk. His family earned him the right.”

“Thank you Donald.” Jeb stood up and straightened his suit-jacket. “I think we should lend Rand a coat. He looked really chilly standing outside, hoping to come in. I really got to like the guy.”

“Why would we do that?” Cruz asked. “He doesn’t have to picket the debate. He’s FREE to do whatever he wants!” Cruz paused here for laughs, but when none were forthcoming, he plowed forward without the slightest change in facial expression. “And, we have to keep up palavering!”

Trump rolled his eyes. Or rather, they seemed to take a slow meander around the sockets under their own power.

Rubio thought for a moment. “I do sort of feel sorry for Rand. He always tries so hard to say what he means. But no one understands him. Still, he seems like a nice guy, particularly now that he is gone.” Rubio shook his head sadly.

“He got what he deserved,” Cruz began. “He keeps talking about small government as if he really wants it. Unbelievable. Who the hell do you think owns him? How would he keep the lights on? Who does he think is going to build roads? Ben will you please stop pacing.”

Ben Carson stopped his apparent attempt to wear a shallow trench in the floor of the room.

“That’s easy for you to say, Mr. Texas. I don’t think anyone even remembers who I am anymore. It’s those idiot advisors I have. Always telling me to just be nice, be relaxed, be vague. They do not care that I have more good ideas than I know what to do with.  They just want me to talk as if the issues do not matter.  Don’t they?”

“I know exactly how you feel,” said Jeb. “At first my advisors told me to be nice, then they told me to be mean. Did you see that Colbert bit about how I should replace my exclamation point with a semi-colon?”

Chris Christie snickered into his sandwich. Trump sat up just enough to shoot the Governor a glare.

“Anyway, I feel like Colbert was right that I should change something but he picked the wrong punctuation. Should have been a question mark.  I really feel like my campaign has become about me alone. But, I don’t even know who I am anymore at this point, so who should I be?”

A lot of quiet head-nodding ensued. Grumbling issued once again from the direction of John Kasich.

“I miss Carly, too,” Trump replied. “She was so easy to predict. She said a lot of smart things that I never understood. See what that got her!”

Cruz raised an eyebrow. “Then why’d you go after her so hard?”

“Gotta look out for my old pal, Hillary. You know Bill Clinton is my old buddy. I can’t refuse him a favor; he’s just way too tough to please”

At this point, I cleared my throat indicating that it was time to go on stage.

Carson stopped pacing and straightened up, Trump raised himself into verticality, and Christie’s sandwich abruptly vanished.

“Gentlemen,” I said.

Rubio looked up from his reflection in his shoe tips’ Jeb seemed to shake himself into a new character, and Kasich stopped doing whatever it is he is always doing with his arms.

Cruz continued to glower at Trump, but I had been told to expect that from him.

“It’s time,” and I led them out of the green room and onto the stage, where the real charade started up once again.

What’s On Your Mind?

Over the holidays, I was stranded by my wife in a Starbucks inside a large grocery store in Jackson, Wyoming. I ran out of reading material and had to scramble for some diversion. A stream of normal people flowed by—some perhaps toying with the idea of a coffee—and I got to wondering what was going on behind their faces.

I started with a middle-aged woman, interrupting her quiet contemplation of a cappuccino.

“What’s on your mind?” I asked

She gave me a strange look.

“The temperature.”

At that moment it was about −8 °F, warmer than the previous two days. (The average that week was −7 °F.)

I didn’t believe she was just sitting there thinking about the weather, so I asked another question.

“Besides the weather, what bothers you most today?”

“What’s the matter with you,” she said. “Why do you care?”

I said that I was a disguised pollster, and explained that my company wanted to know what people in various parts of the country really think about.

She thought for a moment and then replied. “What would you think if I said it was none of your business?”

“That’s fine,” I said, “you are not the only person in the store for me to talk to.”

“Well in that case I will tell you,” she said. “The whole damn world is fucked up! I don’t know what to do other than to put my head in the sand the way camels do when waiting for a sandstorm to stop.”

“Well, if everybody did that,” I replied, “what chance is there that, whatever the problems are, they will ever get addressed, much less solved?”

“People like me are powerless to have any effect,” she said. “It is a waste of my time and adds to my aggravation.” She thought a moment before continuing.

“I told a telephone pollster that I liked Trump when I have no intention of voting for him. I hoped that saying something like that would send a message for change.”

I considered her response carefully.

“Are you aware that you may be contributing to the possibility that something you don’t want will come to pass?”

“I’ll take my chances!”

That seemed like the end of our conversation.

My next target was a young man with a baby.

“What’s on your mind?”

“I came for cereal,” he told me, “but I am thinking about that babe there.” He pointed to a nearby semi-nude poster. “I wonder what she would be like in my bed!”

I guess that is what I get for asking strangers stupid questions!

But, if the people out there all over the country are as turned off as this little story suggests, we may be in for real trouble.

HUMAN CONNECTIVITY

Early human communication was likely nothing but signals and grunts, but over the next 200,000 years, the human brain grew and true language developed, or vice versa.

Eventually, we developed written language, then the printing press, newspaper, and telegraph. Soon after, the telephone, radio, and television became our primary modes of communication.

In the past 50 years, human connectedness has increased at a rate far exceeding everything that has ever come before. Today, the Internet connects normal humans with literally billions of other people at any given moment!

Of course, that would not be happening if those people did not want or enjoy that contact. But what need does this constant contact fill? Is there any reason for people to have thousands of “friends” whom they will never meet face-to-face?

Obviously, some very good things can result from so much contact. People can easily manage a lot of details in their daily lives. It is easier to stay up to date on everything from sports scores to financial markets and the latest mass shootings and Trumpisms.

But at the same time, it is clear that human evolution has been unable to keep pace with today’s technology. In reality, very few people can truly handle more than a few dozen friends at most. Therefore, the other thousands of so-called friends are at best an illusion and at worst a distortion of normal human social processes.

For thousands of years humans have been learning to read expressions, body language, and tone as crucial inputs in communication. Without these, something important is lost: humor, trust, love.

At times, modern technology that enables constant contact seems like a narcotic. Walking down the street, you see everyone absorbed in their phones, unaware of   the world clattering on around them. But that contact isn’t real, just as the high from a drug is not real happiness.

There are more problems associated with this constant contact.  it appears that few people know more than a handful of neighbors by name, which makes it far more difficult to come together to solve community problems.

Years ago, a Harvard professor named Robert Putnam wanted to know why different regions of Italy had very different records of social/political success. Eventually, he discovered that the only variable that correlated with those differences was the number of CHORAL SOCIETIES in those regions. More singing, more success. What on earth could singing have to do with good governance?

All sorts of people like to sing—plumbers, secretaries, lawyers, town council members, moms, truck drivers, and so on—and AFTER they sing, they drink wine and discuss their common local problems, which often leads to creative, collaborative solutions to those problems that would likely otherwise have remained unresolved.

The irony and perversity of today’s rapid increase in human connectedness is that one might naturally infer that more connections should lead to more helpful togetherness, when the reverse actually seems to be the case. For example, today’s political anxiety and anger surely reflects, at least in part, confusion among people who are distracted by so many varied and conflicting sources of misinformation.

The only realistic conclusion to draw from this situation is that quantity of connectedness is vastly different from quality of connection.

Perhaps in time human evolution will catch up with our technology and enable us to manage such extensive connectivity—one way or the other– but in the meanwhile, we have to be careful not to become too infatuated with our new tech toys until we understand what effect they are having on our basic and real human relationships.

For the record, I am about to be 85 and I am more than aware that my views on these topics are largely dismissed by most young people.

To all young people of today I say: “If you want to be really cool, invent new ways for humans to process, understand, and deal with the tsunami of connectivity and information that is drowning mankind! And please hurry and do it before us oldies get too old. We want to be able to compliment you on being so clever! However, if you can also invent a way to speak to us in the worlds beyond, you need not hurry so fast!”