Ethical Authority

2,500 years ago, Aristotle had it right. There are several ways to make a point and move opinion. At one end of the list is reason. At the other end is passion. And this has been how it has been all this time.

Reason tries to get at the truth, because truth like justice should be the best of all conclusions. To get there, the reasoner puts together all the available facts, the evidence. He then presents these facts that anyone can see for themselves in an order that shows how one fact leads to the next and finally gets us to the truth of the point. However, this process takes time, even a lot of time. We have to sort through all these details to get to a point which, if it’s true, ought to seem right on its own. This is where passion comes in.

Passion tries to get at our feelings, because as good and fair people, our feelings should tell us what’s right and what’s wrong. To get there, the empassioner tries to determine what our strongest feelings are. He then lines up his point with those feelings. That point then looks like what is right because it feels right. However, this process does not show anything about how good the point is; it simply ties the point to our feelings about things. That conclusion we blindly take on faith, and faith is good for what is beyond human knowledge. Most of what we make decisions on however is not beyond our knowledge. So, there needs to be another way.

We need something between the pointy-heads’ information-overload and the snake oil salesmen’s slick talk. There is something. In the middle of the making-a-point list is the voice of authority. When we go to a friend we trust, we are going to a voice of authority. When we go to a butcher or grocer who sells good products, we are going to a voice of authority. When we go to a licensed doctor or pharmacist, we are going to a voice of authority. In each case, we go to these people in good faith, knowing about their history or their credentials, and we accept what they say as right. However, authority is power, and it can be misused to deceive or mislead us. There needs to be some way to tell if a voice of authority is really trustworthy.

There are two keys to deciding if a source of advice, a provider of services or a seller of products is deserving: having a good track record and showing little or no benefit to himself.

If the authority has a proven track record, he is more trust worthy. If we’ve done business with him before and the outcome has been good, that’s a good track record. If he has the regular legal certificate or license, and puts it out where we can see it, that’s a good track record. If he’s been around a long time and not received bad reports in the past, that’s a good track record.

If the authority shows little or no benefit to himself in our decision, he is more trust worthy. If the authority offers to share the sources of his information, that shows little or no benefit to himself. If the authority offers ideas on both sides of a question, that shows little or no benefit to himself. On the other hand, if the voice of authority asks us to join him, that shows some benefit to himself. If the authority tell us what we should do, that shows more benefit to himself.

If the supposed authority talks a lot about why we should believe him, we should doubt him. If the supposed authority talks a lot about us rather than someone or something that is neither us nor himself, he may be trying to play on our feelings. If the supposed authority buries us in an avalanche of details, he may be trying to hide something under all that manure.

The voice of authority should sound calm and clear. If it is not, it may be pulling the wool over our eyes or firing us up to do what he wants. An ethical authority tries to help us figure out for ourselves what’s best, because an ethical authority trusts that we can.

 

To Be a Goldfinch


The goldfinches gather at the feeders by our kitchen window.

They cling to the metal netting surrounding the nyjer seed,

Pecking and eating, pecking and eating.

They must eat nearly their weight in the diminishing seed

To provide the heat to endure the cold

In the eight windy, sub-zero hours of daylight.

 

They cling and peck and eat and peck and eat and peck and eat.

And they will start all over again at dawn tomorrow

Pecking and eating, pecking and eating.

And they will do so the day after, and the day after,

Until the weather warms and they begin to molt.

And soon come the eggs and the young.

 

Then they can flit and sing into summer’s warmth,

When their melodic songs trill out

And their yellow plumes light up the days.

They cling and peck and eat only sparingly now,

Awaiting the harvest of autumn when they will begin to prepare

To survive another winter of deep cold and bitter winds.

 

They will come around again to where they were before and before and before.

Gathering at the feeders by our kitchen window,

Clinging to the metal netting surrounding the nyjer seed,

Pecking and eating, pecking and eating.

 

And when they fail to find enough,

And they drop to the ground,

To be eaten by cats and rot and time,

They next generation will carry on,

Clinging and pecking and eating,

Day after day, year after year, generation after generation,

Pecking and eating, pecking and eating.

 

January 2017

Trumped? No.

The worse thing has happened, but it’s happened. We feel hurt, depressed, afraid. We have grieved or are still grieving.

When I witnessed my students lose the girls’ basketball quarter finals, I was unhappy too. We grieved, but we all recovered and went back to school. It was a game where both sides played well using similar tactics, and both sides had exactly the same objective: winning the game. Elections are not games. It’s not about win or lose; it’s about what’s next.

The election of Mr. Trump was not a game, and he did not win. He may see a world of winners and losers, but we see a world where all can rise higher. He may believe that the world is all about zero-sums, but we know it’s not. No one has won and no one has lost here, except the gamblers. So what’s next?

Things may get worse, for some very much worse, and those of us who care need to and must help support and shield those we care about, those who are in fear and those who are in danger. Of equal importance is to support and shield those who for whom it has been bad for some time now, and for whom we have failed to be supportive or shielding. Yes, I’m saying that we, whose candidates were not chosen, need to do better about helping those, whose candidate was. I’m not talking about the malefactors and sociopaths who will jump on any excuse to exercise their distorted thinking. I’m talking about people who have been left behind in their work, in their position in the community, in their understanding of what it is to be an American. They didn’t “win” by this election. If any of the campaign promises bear fruit, they may win the jobs and the respect they seek–maybe, but they will certainly be left behind in the frame of the 1950’s white America, because they are more “useful” to some interests in that frame.

Those of us who believe we are of the “enlightenment” of the 21st century, who look for a better life for everyone in America, for a better world, not just for a better job and a better house–we need to help those who feel left out to see that we can have all of these. We could all be winners. This we must believe. It means we’ll have to actually do something.

We have long and loudly complained about the division and the stalemate that it creates. We need to actually do something different, or we will have the same division and the same stalemate. We will remain a nation of winners and losers trading off our roles in a zero-sum mindset, us and them, always at odds, always at war.

Who will be the better persons; who will be the peace makers? Can we not step forward to say, “I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening, but I want to listen now. Let’s talk. Let’s work together to find solutions.” Coming together doesn’t mean leaders must come to my position. It means I must give up my idea of just my position. I must articulate what my interests actually are. Then I must seek out and listen to the interests of people who feel staked to other positions. And together, we must work to find solutions that help us meet as many of our interests as we can, many of which are likely shared already.

The problem with slogans and donations is that they are surrogates for real action. We can do better for everyone together if we act on things together. We must talk with one another, not at one another. We must open our hearts and minds, not close them. We must seek solutions, not oppose them. And it may be hard.

Let’s get to work.

White Right!

There is something I find intolerable: white nationalist, right wing racists. The very idea that anybody is better than anybody else is simply the arrogance of ignorance. But to compound this perspective with the acceptance of violence as an expression of that blatant distortion is frankly bestial. I have long held an intolerance for the intolerant, but the rise of supremacist organizations and threats to more, and sometimes less, recent immigrant people re-plumbs the depths of inhumanity which genuine Americans and indeed all fully human beings deplore.

Whose place is this anyway? The first whites arrived as invaders to a relatively sparsely occupied continent. Later they were joined by other immigrants, and captive or coerced African slaves and Chinese laborers who were brought here, generally against their will and then nearly universally refused repatriation. Simultaneously, the real original occupants were being systematically exterminated through officially sanctioned genocide, or imprisoned onto reservations.

Using the white nationalists’ argument, white, black and yellow people must all pack up and leave the place to the scant few remaining native Americans. But where should we go? Our original homelands are now overcrowded. I suggest other planets, preferably unoccupied by sentient life, lest we wind up booted off those planets too, in three or four hundred years.

Or we could accept that we are all humans living on one planet which we should all be trying to save before we face global self-destruction.

Divided We Fall

The political expedient of offering a free lunch leads government authorities to make commitments they cannot support in the long term without assessments and tax increases–both political suicide. The get hit in their campaign funds and hit at the polls. The American wealthiest and their corporate empires assume a 19th century uber-privilege, owing nothing to the societies that fed their greed and freely buying the politicians to insure that. American voters meanwhile have been convinced that they deserve to have the amenities but not pay for them.

Then, when the bills come in, the authorities, beholden to their wealthy benefactors, look for excuses and scapegoats rather than biting the bullet, correcting tax law, and convincing tax-payers to pay up or give up the things they’ve come to expect. So the result is that they go after two of their own big expenses–the public workers, who make our society civilized, and the neediest, who don’t pay much tax and often don’t vote. Breaking the life-long promise of a pension to public employees, cutting funding to schools, and reducing the public work force, government chews off its own leg to free itself from the trap of its own design. Cutting off the needy is simply barbaric.

America has been effectively marketed a dream that everyone deserves a life that is fun and feels good. Watch almost any TV ad. Americans are discouraged from thinking about how that could be true when we know that life includes effort and pain. Only when enough of us look around and think will we begin to reverse the seemingly inexorable trend toward a country of 350,000,000 individuals, each at the center of her or his own universe, and start to reestablish America as a united society, who share common needs despite individual differences. If “divided we fall” has not been apparent before, certainly watching the human pieces of our civil society fall away over the years should alert us to the future we will leave our children and grandchildren.

Every thoughtful person must stand up, speak out, help out and vote. 

Gates

The world convulses once again.
Stunned, we watch in horror as
Bloated dragons careen across her flesh.
Homelands are swallowed in hatred and despair,
As All,
The mighty and the frail,
Are devoured in vapors and flames.

Wave after wave of bewilderment
Sweeps toward us and over us,
Crushing our complacency into fear.
We see the monster at our door.
Panic runs like acid through our veins, and yet
We must not hide inside our walls.
We must not shut out the terror and the pain.
We must not close our Selves behind our gates.

Shutting ourselves in, to be free of terror and risk,
Is to doom ourselves to the other side of chaos.
Hiding from Grendel has always been an arrogant delusion.
Famine, war, disease and murder are
The rampaging agents of
Vicious persecutions,
Wanton bigotry and
Deranged greed,
And we must sally forth to meet them.

Hiding in our enclaves,
Closing our eyes and ears,
Shutting our lives away
In the illusion of security
Is consigning those lives to
Isolation,
Stagnation,
Desiccation,
Desolation and
The death of the selves we might have been,
Entombed instead in anti-life behind our gates.

Beowulf sought out Grendel and his mother, and slew them.
So we too must come from inside our walls.
We must come out into the light of the world.
We must seek out the monsters and dispatch them.
Then we can join the human festival of the living,
And set aside our lethal fear and crippling timidity.

Our world clamors with exciting diversity.
We must reach out to the teaming dance,
To the brilliant colors, to the ringing songs.
Humanity is a glory, and we must remain part of it.
We must throw open our doors to the vast adventures of living.
We must taste the startling honey and pepper kaleidoscope of life,
Inhale the inebriating fragrance of far ranging gardens, and
Join the choruses of the world’s joyful songs.

We must be our most incredible Selves.
We must throw open the gates and
Be of Our world

July 2106

grendel

Job Satisfaction – a Homily

Much advice is given about ways of reaching satisfaction in life these days. Do we feel good in the morning when we get up? Are we convinced we are eating the right foods? Do we make enough money? All the things that spring from our satisfaction with how we’re doing in the job of living. It makes one wonder how much Cro-Magnon worried about job satisfaction.

A phenomenon of the modern age is our concern with job satisfaction. The equivalent of concern with how the hunt is going for me, or how the berry picking is working out for you. How excited are we to go in to work in the morning or afternoon or evening? How likely are we to want to just get up and leave? What’s in the evaluation this time? Am I doing this in the easiest, fastest way? I hope I did that well enough. It isn’t surprising. You spend a major part of your life engaged in whatever your work is, including time spent thinking about it. And when should you start to think about this? Or more importantly, when do you start to do something about it?

Well, here are some things to think about. Everyone connected with your work has an idea about what that work is and how it should be done, each has his or her own agenda which informs that tangential understanding of what you do or should be doing, and each has her or his own way of exerting influence on you involving your work. And then there’s you; you probably know what your work is and how you think it should be done, you have an agenda, and you have unique, and more or less effective, defenses against the negative influences of others.

Now take a minute and think: Who’s trying to influence your work, what are their agendas, and how are they trying to influence you? Influencers, beside yourself, may be people down the chain, such as customers, students and clients; they may be peers; they may be multiple levels of people up the chain, such as bosses, principals and parents; and they may be funding sources, such as government, stockholders and owners. Funding source agendas of course may be influenced by feedback from the bottom of the chain, such as sales figures, recovery rates and test scores. Yes, this is pretty much a graduate thesis research topic, except no one teaches this in grad school.

In the short run, try this. In the center of a blank piece of paper write what you really want from the work you do in your life. Think long and hard about this. Whatever this goal is, it is what you really should be living by. This is what you’re trying to do with your life. You should be able to say this to anyone who asks without hesitation, and be willing to stand by it. It doesn’t mean you should leave your job if your situation keeps you from achieving this goal, and you shouldn’t stubbornly follow your own lead to the point of getting fired. Cro-Magnons’ goal was to provide for their family and community. Hunting and berry picking weren’t their jobs, they were tasks necessary in completing their real work. If you don’t have the means to carry out your tasks, you won’t be able to complete your life’s work. This comes with the understanding of what makes a life’s goal that matters.

But first, let’s get back to your paper. On the bottom half of the sheet write all the events, conditions, people, etc. that can or do impact or influence against your achieving the goal of your life’s work. On the top half of the paper, write all the events, conditions, people, etc. that can or do impact or influence in favor of your achieving the goal of your life’s work. Some may be the same.

Now a cliché: know your friends, but know your enemy better. The people and things on both the top and bottom of your sheet you must know best of all, and make them your best friends. Ask their help and advice, and take it with an understanding of their agenda. Then leverage that understanding to influence them as a source of support and resource. Use the same Sun Tzu strategies on top, positive, influencers and bottom, negative, influencers. Understanding negative influence agendas and finding ways to at least appear to meet their demands, while continuing to work toward your life’s goal, dilutes and deflects the negative impact. Meanwhile, understanding your positive influence agendas lets you capitalize on cooperative return. Cooperative return occurs when you contribute to a joint effort or project and ultimately enjoy more return than your equivalent effort would have yielded had you worked alone. This calculus applies to goals as well, and helps us understand what makes a goal matter.

Goals that matter are not easy to set and not easy to reach. We know that goals ought to be challenging, but achievable, and rewarding but acceptable. Of these, reward is the most often short changed. Goals that matter are life goals, and they should provide a life-long reward. If the reward goes only to the goal seeker, in the form of money, praise or class standing, it generally is not as rewarding as one might expect, perhaps in part because the pursuit of the goal has now ended and the seeker is a little purposeless. If reward goes to the work of the goal seeker, the sense of reward may be even less satisfying. The work is done, the worker passes off the ball to someone else who runs the goal, and as with a reward for the worker, life goes on with no further life’s goal. A truly rewarding goal is one that is achieved ultimately. It requires continuous pursuit and earns ongoing reward. And that reward is almost always enjoyed by something larger than just the person doing the work. Truly rewarding goals make the home, the community, even the world better places. The life’s worker collects the cooperative return of living out life in a home or community or world made better by her or his having been part of it. This is why one’s life’s goal is so important to get right. It makes life what you do with it, not just what you get from it.

Your job satisfaction, I’m afraid, is going to have to be up to you to determine, because it will depend on what you choose for your real life’s work, not just your job.

The Iconation of Everything

The abuse of the word “iconic” has become absurd. Its overuse indicates either a depth of ignorance on the parts of speakers and writers or a callous corruption of language inflicted on the ignorance of listeners and readers.

An icon is a thing inhabited or imbued with the spirit or meaning of something it represents. As a religious object, it might be inhabited with the saint or god of which it is an image. Thus, to speak to it is to speak to that saint or god directly. In a more mundane life, it may be an image that not only represents an action, but is actually a connection to it. Thus to click on a computer icon actually initiates a process in the computer system, such as starting a program. So an icon is a sort of vehicle or portal showing its purpose in its appearance.

In more recent usage, an icon has come to be a representative of a broader set or greater domain of sense or meaning. Thus Mt. Everest, whether it is the tallest mountain in the world or not, is an icon representing all that is majestic about the Himalayas or about great mountains around the world. Leonardo de Vinci is an icon of the Renaissance man as the ultimate of that ideal. However, all the mountains of the Himalayas or all Renaissance men cannot be icons of what they are. They do not represent anything other than just what they are.

If a thing or person is renowned, it does not make it iconic. If the person or thing does not particularly represent some greater idea, whether a characteristic of a greater set, a spirit of some power, an action of some result, a tradition of some group, or some other greater meaning than the thing itself, it cannot be thought of as iconic.

It is enough that we use Latinate suffixing rules to create trendy lexical redundancies at the expense of enriching our discourse with a powerful vocabulary. It eviscerates a rich language to serve up ground scraps as Salsbury steak. We are turning our prime lexicon into the haute cuisine of a fast food drive thru.

Iconate that Madison Avenue!

Participating in Community

Millions of dollars are regularly delivered to solving social, educational and economic disparities. That’s good, and much good is achieved by it. Research, training, investment get injected into communities and impact many lives. The scale of these projects is essential for what their donors hope will be achieve, but that scale is also a throttle, limiting the depth to which their work can effect change, and a regulator, narrowing the range of impact to a categorical norm.

There is another way that lives are impacted in communities lacking resources to move their members into the full light of American society. When one person enters the world of another and shares her or his “excess of resource,” that entry helps to balance the advantage of those less lucky. Such an act is not a gift, nor is it an investment; it is a sharing that assures mutual improvement. And because the resource being shared is seldom money or goods or materials, it is in far greater abundance among a large segment of society. These resources are such things as time, experience and compassion, resources freely given and yet undiminished. Such resources are in the hands of many people, even among those in communities in need.

In recent years, I have volunteered my time tutoring Latino students in my south Minneapolis neighborhood. This effort has helped several individuals rise substantially in their school experience. Furthermore, my tutoring is personally rewarding. I tutor in the spirit of meeting my responsibility of citizenship, serving the community from which I also benefit. At the same time, I am rewarded with the personal relationship which develops in tutoring. The power of an individual sharing time and knowledge with one or two others in an ongoing and personal relationship is simply astounding. The outcomes benefit all. The student benefits in his or her academic career, the tutor benefits in the rewards of appreciation and purposefulness, and the community is raised that little bit higher.

One-on-one volunteering is highly efficacious. However, by its very nature, it has a relatively small impact on a community as a whole. That means numbers of volunteers are necessary to make real and lasting change. This should not be confused with scale. Think “crowd sourcing” not “corporate sourcing.”

Scale, as we have used it in the tech-age, brings with it a number of wasteful characteristics. Scale brings bureaucratizing and administering. What are not needed and are not productive are more cadre organizers, schedulers, communicators and chiefs. These often financially attractive boss roles exist in plenty already. These administrators are not volunteers and seldom do the work they administer. They collect a percentage of the dollars that you and I are asked to pledge to their organizations–organizations that offer to help those in need. They sell us a clear conscience while shielding us from actually doing anything, coming face to face with unpleasant things, or getting our hands dirty. They allow us to buy off our responsibilities to our community. They are social indulgences. As a result, large scale operations diminish the sense of community and our role in it. Less good is accomplished in the community, more time is spent collecting donations, and donors remain detached from any personal or spiritual reward.

Additionally, scale leads to standardizing and mandating. The power in the volunteering relationships is developed by uniquely individual interactions between the participants. The individualized goals of the sharing mean that success is achieved by a continuous give and take on both sides. No one outside the relationship is deciding what goal should be sought or how it should be reached. There is no single one-size-fits-all goal or standardized procedure for reaching it. Humans come in unique sizes, after all, and have unique goals. And just as their goals are unique, so are their stories. Every person has had her or his own path in life. Pursuing that individual path is every person’s right, assuming that it does not impinge upon the rights of others, and should be supported in whatever unique ways are needed.

The importance of organizational scale cannot be denied, but numbers of individual community members can bring important change as well. If one person in four-hundred in Minneapolis, about 1,000 people, each made time to help one or two people—disadvantaged students, long-term job seekers, struggling shop owners, overwhelmed single parents, and many more who simply do not have access to the resources necessary to pull themselves up into the light—1 person in 400, helping one or two people each—one or two thousand lives could be changed in Minneapolis every year. And if this were the norm across America, millions of lives would be improved through sharing what many of us have more than enough to share, mostly at no material cost to ourselves.

I have time to tutor, and it takes time, but the tutoring is its own reward. And if you think you don’t have enough of anything, think about how much we have that we take for granted. Time? How much non-productive time do you spend in front of a computer? Or in front of a television? Knowledge? How much do you know about starting and running a small business? My wife has met with a few of my former students, many new Americans, to help them get started in their job searches. If you’re a computer user, could you track down places for someone in distress to get help? Research and provide resource lists? Automobile? Could you give rides? Make sure young or old get home safely? Deliver meals? We have so much, there is no reason so many human beings who live within reach have to live in such need.

We can all do more, but even one in four-hundred would mean so much. You can give a few dollars here or there and feel you’ve met some obligation, or you can give a little time, effort or knowledge and know you’ve made a difference.

The Problem with the “Achievement Gap”

Words carry baggage. A gap in a society has a near side and a far side. We put people on one side or the other. “We” are of course on this side and “they” are on the other. So a gap forms groups, absorbing individuals into one group or another. “Gap” and “group” are constructs imposed on reality, not derived from it.

If the separating measure used in creating a gap is achievement, it ignores the fact that achievement occurs on a continuum. So “gap” is a false construct, which not only does not accurately reflect reality, but which must serve some other agenda as well.

When we align the achievement-gapped construct with the long-standing race construct, we simply reinforce the notion of racial difference. In addition to focusing our attention on achievement, one very impersonal aspect of education’s many acculturating functions, it turns our attention away from the broader cultural and institutional aspects of a society that so stubbornly exclude individuals from opportunity and access to full and equitable participation based on superficial characteristics, such as skin color.

The achievement gap is only a glimpse of the vastly larger culture gap from which we suffer, and for which there is no self-elevated committee, council or cause resourceful enough to correct us, it seems. Even the good news is bad: we are not the only ones. Almost every culture on this planet suffers the same twisted, albeit self-serving, perspective on reality. Markers of “group” difference are plentiful—race, religion, ethnicity—all social constructs that have no basis in essential reality.

The problem, as I see it, is that there may be no solution to a “gapped” world. In the absence of the motivation of six billion plus individuals, there may only be resignation or eternal angst. Given how many of the world’s people will read this article, what are the chances?

Meanwhile of course, we can use “achievement gap” as a political tool for funding and policy decisions, the other agenda.