Whither Tribalism


Since the beginning of human time, we have experienced tribalism. And, we have been living with something of an assumption that we never go back and repeat former ways of managing our selves.

That does make common sense – shouldn’t a global community aim for a broader sense of both the self and the collective?

Now, though, we seem to be receding, reverting to social strife built around differences. Why is that happening?

Humans are naturally social creatures. Our “home base,” of course, is still families, immediate and extended. Next comes geography, with loyalties to villages and towns.

From there we evolved into states and nation states.

Not surprisingly, as the pieces grew larger, the connective tissues among them weakened.

Perhaps that is why we seem to have inadvertently moved back into an earlier state of tribalism?

Moving from families to villages to tribes to states was a loose process of organizing people into manageable groups for the purpose of allocating resources and responsibilities alike fairly and properly.

This has not, of course, always been a fair or proper process, with women, children, immigrants and people of color long forced into “tribes” not of their own making or benefit.

We have spent much of the last 150 years seeking (or not) the right balance. Some of the misallocations could be addressed on a one-off basis – the women’s’ suffrage and civil rights movements have at least shorn the roughest edges off the American version of tribalism.

Some, though, are more systemic. Efforts to tackle them often spur a resurgent tribalism among the groups who see resource allocation and rights as a zero-sum game in which gains by one group require losses by another.

One challenge is that tribal imperatives can be significantly different from State imperatives, creating a situation in which a tribe is fighting its own members.

And that is largely where we stand today. Riven by politics, economics, crime and, yes, systemic racism, the American tribe is at risk of reverting to a more primitive condition.

Perhaps the only just solution is to treat tribes as personal entities, rather than economic or political ones, within which everyone has the same basic guarantees of a livable income, health care, education, and safety – regardless of what tribe you claim as your own. Yes, the fifty States have the last word on how to tax and spend, but the federal government can withhold its own support if it does not like what and how the States do what they do.

If we could find a way to deal with that, we might get back on track?


The End of the World

Where, When, and Why?

For an unscientific guy I have an insatiable curiosity for knowing more about the universe. 

The magazine Astronomy is an amazing source for my imagination. It almost seems to me to have been written just for me. Perhaps there are more folks out there with similar fascinations than I had imagined? 

In all events—thanks, Astronomy! 

The TWO biggest questions are —how did it begin and how will it end? The answers are, of course, unknown, but theories abound. My own personal favorite is that there was no “beginning” and there will be no “end” — at least in the ways we’re accustomed to thinking about those words. 

Instead, the universe is speculated to consist of an endless cycle of self-renewal. A “big bang” to kick things off, followed, eons later, by a “big crunch” that wipes the slate clean – a cosmic “reset” button, as it were. WHEN might that happen?  When it is least expected – if we are even still around to see it. So, beware on ‘the best day in years!’ 

Why do we make such a big deal about beginnings and endings? The time in between so much longer and more important!  

Why do things ever have to end? To make way for what needs and wants to follow!  

If people and galaxies alike could go on forever, the people would destroy themselves through resource overconsumption or environmental degradation. Galaxies and the solar system they contain, meanwhile, would drift ever further from one another until each became a lonely island, unable to see or even imagine anything else “out there.” 

Humankind has pursued progress to the point of potential self-extinction. Our own end is easily predicted given our current course. Perhaps we, too, are in an endless cycle, destined to keep starting over until we get it right! How thoughtful people can be!!!! 

When we try…? 

The Best Downtown Neighborhood

In a Major Urban Setting.

I have had the opportunity and privilege of living in several of the world’s greatest cities and visiting many others. I have found that I, and many others, take it for granted to the point that we often forget what is soooo great about these places. 

Urban living keeps all of us living in THE MIX. The mix is a mélange of people from many places with many languages, cultures, habits and likes and dislikes. The pleasant result is an endless variety of restaurants, exhibits, and friends. 

Within the mélange, there are bound to be people we will like, some we may dislike, and a few we may despise. 

The buildings are various and often splendid, but still compact enough to make strolls through a neighborhood breathtaking. 

Best of all, our forebearers liked trees and flowers and we all still enjoy the abundance of greens, colors and shade with front, side and back gardens. 

 For all its benefits though, urban living imposes hardships – roads and traffic being prominent among them. 

Today two cars, moving in opposite directions, can barely navigate crowded two-way streets without touching. And one inexperienced driver can wreak havoc in seconds. 

Most urban streets were designed and laid out when cars were narrower and did not have two side view mirrors. (A Honda Civic was 59.3 inches wide in 1973; by 2008, it’s width had increased to 70.3 inches – ballooning, like many Americans themselves, by nearly 20% over the years.)   

We cannot be more than a few years away from having to have ALL one-way streets. Such solutions are the sort of civic rigidity that bleeds the life out of cities, imposing a frustrating series of right turns to overcome the negligence of drivers and the still growing popularity of behemoth, gas-guzzling SUVs. 

While side-view mirrors undoubtedly increase safety, the overall growth in vehicles is a simple matter of consumer tastes. Since that is not likely to change, perhaps it is time to eliminate side view mirrors entirely and replace them with on-board cameras and sensors that can provide information about nearby vehicles without the bulk of physical mirrors that many people fail to set properly.  

Absent a dramatic change, the charm and beauty of Georgetown (where I live) is about to slide into history! 

Please, somebody, DO SOMETHING! SOON!! 

Policing the Police

Rethinking “Qualified Immunity” 

The police in our daily lives are given power and privileges to protect us and themselves at the same time. None of those privileges is more problematic than “qualified immunity” — the idea that police officers cannot, in many cases, be held civilly liable for their official acts.  

Presidents and other elected officials enjoy similar protections from their own excesses, which is why whether Trump is guilty of inciting a resurrection on January 6 hinges largely on whether his speech in advance of the storming of the Capitol is considered an “official” event. 

In recent years, our police have made far too many serious mistakes in performing their duties, particularly when dealing with people of color.  

The deaths of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Tamir Rice and many, many others each sparked headlines and protests but, before the excruciating death of Mr. Floyd, brought little in the way of justice. The difficulty of assessing in-the-moment decisions, a culture of silence within police forces, and, yes, systemic racism all combined to ensure virtual immunity for even the most egregious acts.   

One of the key elements in assessing those situations is what the relevant facts have been and whether the police overstepped their authority. 

Because both their power and actions are not in the realm of normal behavior the police do run a continuous risk of overstepping their roles and therefore the laws governing their behavior include a qualified immunity from prosecution for going too far, except in cases where an officer violates “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights.”  

That is a gray area the size of Alaska and Texas! Thus, the key question today is what qualified immunity truly entails and means. 

“Immunity” is what it says – if a mistake is made and proven, immunity can protect the police officer from civil liability from a victim and/or their family. 

“Qualified” adds the murky limits of the 1967 Supreme Court decision establishing the doctrine to the mix.  

How, when and by whom is that judgment made? If the qualification is too liberal the police can literally get away with murder. If it is too strict, police officers’ hands might be tied to the detriment of their personal as well as public safety.  

Real life – particularly in situations blending guns and conflict — happens quickly, and no thoughtful person can think it easy to make life-or-death decisions in the blink of an eye. 

As the Congress discusses ways to address the array of problems these questions pose, a central focus is what to do about qualified immunity.  

Some want it eliminated – an option both unlikely and problematic. But strengthening or narrowing the standard is also challenging. If there is clear, concise, readily understandable language that could do the job, we would already know it and I am not aware of one. 

Perhaps a solution lies elsewhere. Instead of a “qualified immunity” based on the explicated “rights” of victims of police violence, there could be established a system of “exceptional immunity” based on whether a police officer’s actions after the fact were consistent with and in proportion to the facts of the situation. 

Such judgement might come from a state board of impartial reviewers representing police, community groups, and retired judges. Such a body could develop clear “use of force” standards, require de-escalation in situations related more to an individual’s mental health than a non-violent crime, and otherwise provide reasoned guidance.  

This does resemble qualified immunity in some ways, BUT it would also allow many more civil actions against unjustified acts of violence by the police, while still preserving their protection for actions reasonably undertaken in the moment. 

Exceptional immunity (or any other such “carve out”) will not solve the problem of police violence against communities of color – THAT will require strengthening the criminal laws for excessive use of force. But it will bring us one step closer to justice.  

Isn’t that everyone’s wish and intention?! 

Making Your Home Work

And Pining for a Simpler Time…

When we moved into our four-story town house in Georgetown in 1960, we installed a then state-of-the-art communications system to enable telephone and intercom throughout the house.  

It worked beautifully for years. Then the world changed.  

Ma Bell broke itself up into smaller businesses that would themselves largely vanish.  Fax machines came (and then went). The Internet gave us email. Cell phones – blending the Internet and telephony in a single, handheld device! — was the death knell for plain old telephone service delivered over copper lines.  

Through it all, our own setup changed largely through the acquisition of additional equipment – a router replaced our dial-up modem somewhere along the way, but the telephonic underpinnings remained the same. 

Until the world forced us further into the 21st Century! Horrors! 

We decided to replace our now completely obsolete internal communications system with a totally simple, basic phone system with one wrinkle: an add-on display that uses voice recognition to write out what the person on the other end is saying, in close to real time, a real aid to people experiencing hearing issues!  MY WIFE for instance. Despite its technological underpinnings, all we needed was an electrical outlet and a simple old-fashioned phone jack! 

And there begins a saga of immense proportions. 

The existing jacks, which served us for so many years, do not work for this purpose – as if the house KNOWS we are not plugging in a rotary phone and is determined to stop us! We had three – yes, 3— “experts,” with some 50+ years of cumulative experience, each spending two hours at our house before giving up! 

As I write this, I am waiting for the fourth expert – who they swear really is the expert! (It turns out she WAS!!) 

An explanation of the trouble is hard to come by. I am told all the pieces are there, but the technicians are somehow not able to reassemble them to make a simple phone jack deliver a common dial tone. 

We seem to be at a place technologically where simplicity has been overwhelmed by accumulated complexity.  

Individually, we sweat and strain to accomplish things that should be simple. My quest for a dial tone involved four service “windows” — eight hours at which I HAD to be available, and during which the technician could appear at any time – or in one case, not at all. That is not even counting the struggle to GET a service call – automated systems insisted on diagnosing and troubleshooting devices that were working fine and wouldn’t let me request a service call until I undertook this pointless exercise!  

They seem to be in a world of their own and if the problem they are faced with does not fit comfortably into what they know and have experienced, it is as if they were on the moon for the first time ALONE! 

None in the series of technicians who visited our house turned in reports or debriefed their successors.  Each new visitor replicated their predecessors’ steps, to the same frustrating end. 

Until, with our fourth service call, we were visited by a woman willing to look beyond the blinders placed on her by her employer. She spent much of the day here, determined to solve the problem. And, in the end, she was successful! I am pleased to report that after dozens of hours of labor (mine and theirs), untold travel miles, and likely thousands of dollars of costs incurred (not by me!), I finally again have … a telephone jack with a dial tone. 

Perhaps the monopoly powers of the businesses that inherited Ma Bell’s legacy are so rich that the time and money wasted on problems like this does not come to the attention of the managers who should be concerned with SOLVING customer problems and saving their business needless expense (in that order!). 

The dial tone, it turns out, puts you into the system. And when you are in the system, you are in heaven, with everything it has in store for you.  

I have had a peek, and I recommend it! WOW. 

Basic Changes In Human Behavior

That sneak up without announcement!

In my early youth, my Dad worked six full days a week at the New York Stock Exchange — entailing a three-hour round-trip commute. Not long after, the Exchange made Saturday a half day and told the people who had long commutes to not bother!

Then lo and behold, barely a year later working on Saturday died altogether on Wall Street, followed quickly by the rest of the nation, and the five-day work week became the norm it has remained.

Fast forward three-quarters of a century. The Covid virus descended on the world early in 2020 and lots of things got scrambled up. Zoom became a proper noun, and virtual EVERYTHING became the new norm.  

Changes of all sorts were in the air, with no one certain whether they would prove fleeting or permanent.  Projecting into a post-Covid world has become vitally important for governments, business, and community organizations alike.

That kind of strategic forward planning, though, is very tough. It is VERY easy to be VERY wrong.

That said, I believe the era of the four-day workweek is about to be upon us.  Although the reasons are different, it is likely to look a lot like the shift to a five-day workweek in my youth.

The result then was an increase in productivity and profitability, as well as more leisure time.

Now as we slither into a four-day workweek similar changes will sneak into our lives.

Today, it has become painfully clear just how much time has been wasted – in cars and trains to and from distant offices; in endless meetings that serve no apparent purpose; in productivity lost to social media and online shopping, or the pesky intrusions of co-workers.

If the basic pay levels remain the same, even as the workweek shrinks, several things must follow:

  • Productivity will have to rise to meet previous levels of demand. That should be easy, particularly for workers who will remain (mostly) remote. Employers have already seen gains as employees informally “split the difference” of commuting hours saved.
  • And, spending on entertainment and recreation will also likely rise from even pre-pandemic norms – except perhaps cruise ships.

So, as we look for what to watch for spurts of growth, we already may have a few helpful hints to work with!

Amorphous New Rules

And Anxious ‘Enforcers’

A recent and dramatic increase in awareness of sexual harassment and assault (#MeToo) has happily reduced much inappropriate conduct in the modern workplace. It has also created a new world of anxieties about the rules necessary to avoid giving offense.

A recent business meeting evidently went awry at the introduction of a prominent news story in the Washington Post about a woman impregnated (knowingly) with her OB/GYN’s sperm (unknowingly). The concern was that someone in the room might have been so offended that they might bring action against the hosts of the conversation, which could be costly, distracting and counterproductive.

The first obvious point to be made clear is that the rules surrounding such exchanges are woefully unclear — a circumstance that, left unaddressed, may ultimately overwhelm both sides of the issues.  

Short of an official rulebook (impossible!) or at least MUCH clearer guidelines, the terms of free, open and productive conversation inevitably will be left in limbo, to the detriment of all.

 I wrote of this challenge last in May of 2020 and see little evidence of progress since then. There are few well educated people today who disagree with the basic premises and goals of the #MeToo movement.  At the same time there are too many people –both pro and con –today who have not yet plumbed the depth of confusion surrounding this subject. The result has been unnecessary and unwarranted confusion on all sides.

The time to clarify this murky situation is long past!