Joy ~ The True Happiness

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“Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.”             
Proverbs 3:13-18

When I read the above passage, my understanding of what God is telling us is that there is wisdom, lasting joy, for those of us who are able find contentment in life, self-confidence and peace. To me the passage means that this state of mind is preferable to the transitory feelings of happiness which may come and last for moments or for days. Happiness, psychologists tell us, is the emotion we feel from obtaining new material things, winning a race, for obtaining a goal. But the happy feeling never lasts. The new car smell doesn’t last. So, on to the next challenge, the next… desire. The accumulation of happy feelings over time, however, can boost our base level emotion. But the ups and downs in life tend to cancel each other out. So how do we find lasting joy?

Our Sunday school lesson this week was on this subject, the difference between joy and happiness and the relationship between the two. There was, as usual in our class, much discussion; people had different opinions, and that is as it should be. But joy, in a Biblical sense, I believe, is not an emotion. It is not based on something positive happening in life. It is rather an attitude of the heart or of the spirit. To have it, I believe, one must be connected with God, or to other people in our lives, or with nature, or by appreciating the arts, or by growing passionate about the things we do, our jobs, our hobbies. It requires an acceptance of life as it is in the present. To me, joy is the “true” happiness.

During our lesson, I interrupted our teacher, perhaps too soon in the lesson, to opine that happiness is to joy as the weather is to climate. I don’t think that anyone in the class quite understood that. But let me here try to explain what I meant. The weather in any particular place on the earth changes constantly. Climates in different places are more permanent; they are the cumulative or aggregates of the weather conditions and they are the driving determinates of weather conditions. In a tropical climate, the weather is less changeable. It is quite warm and humid most of the time. In an arctic climate, the weather is cold and quite dry most of the time. In a temperate climate, seasons are more pronounced. Here in Texas which has a temperate, subtropical climate, the weather changes from day to day, often from hour to hour. Yesterday, the 24th of January 2017, the temperature mid day in Dallas was near 80 degrees Fahrenheit. By tonight, the temperature will be in the low 40s.

Sometimes life does not treat us well, like a cold snap. We may experience financial devastation, become ill, go through a divorce, develop a chronic illness, become disabled, experience the death of a loved one. We all have to adapt to growing older. These things, these transitions or challenges are all aspects of life, and we all experience them to varying degrees until the day we die. These things can sap our joy. But if we are tethered spiritually, emotionally to something greater, we can persevere with lasting joy. I have known people like this, people who had a glowing countenance, a shining spirit.  My wife’s grandmother was such a person. We called her, Ms. D.

Ms. D. was a retired school teacher, a widow who gave herself to others. She was the calm, quiet presence in a room when others in my wife’s family bickered with one another. Despite crippling Rheumatoid arthritis, she had a perpetual smile on her face and she always had a kind word. She was brilliant — studied mathematics in college but was denied a degree in the discipline because she was a woman. Disappointed but not defeated, she found another, better calling as a teacher. She gave herself to young children, and she loved them. She loved our Lord Jesus too — loved to minister to friends in her Bible class on Sundays and she encouraged her family, including my wife, in the ways of our Lord. Ms D found wisdom. She got understanding. Ms. D knew joy — the “real” happiness.

Some people believe that joy is a conscious commitment to be happy, to have a sense of contentment for the moment despite life’s challenges. Joy, they understand, is an internal, lasting emotional condition. I too believe this, that we can decide to pursue meaningful, rewarding relationships and life pursuits. We can grow in wisdom and nurture joy.

Some people believe that joy is just a synonym for happiness, a word for great happiness. Yes, in certain contexts, the word is used that way. But I believe the word, as used in Scripture, has a different meaning — a more meaningful meaning.

My life changed for the better when my granddaughter brought her daughter, my precious Kaleiyah, into my life. The times I have spent with this very special child, caregiving, teaching and nurturing, have lifted my base level of happiness permanently. I shared this with my Sunday school class and this I know they understood. Although Kaleiyah is no longer with me on a daily basis as she was for a few years during her formative childhood, she will forever be in my heart. She may grow up or move permanently away, but she will always be with me. When I do get to spend time with her, I am happy. When I don’t get to see her for days and sometimes weeks at a time, I am unhappy. Still, she remains a source of lasting joy.

Psychologists tell us that when someone experiences joyfulness, physiological and biochemical alterations occur that encourage a sense of well-being which completely alter the negative views of life. Joy is an attitude or a belief, which soothes even in the most sorrowful of situations. Joy comes from within; it is an internal view.

So, how can we pursue joy? Is it sufficient to constantly seek more and more heightened pleasures? I think not.

Dr. Cheryl A. McDonald, licensed clinical psychologist, noted author, lecturer and director of the Health Psychology Center has some suggestions in the secular vein.

  1. Choosing to Smile (I don’t do this enough) and consciously deciding to have a good day induces endorphins and other uplifting chemicals in the brain. Nothing can dampen your mood when you know the techniques involving how to bring on joy. Everyone can indeed develop inner joy. Using these techniques can bring on temporary happiness, however practice frequently throughout the day and on a daily basis will increase that baseline happiness level and bring about the more consistent feeling of joy.
  2. Meditation and Imagining (I don’t do this enough) that you have received something you wish for will improve happiness which is of short duration. However, it is important to avoid mixing this fantasy with reality. Imagining or wishing you had something is very temporary. With practice, meditation and becoming mindful in the spiritual sense will bring about lasting joy.
  3. Positive Thinking (I don’t do this nearly enough) or making it your goal to think positive often brings happiness to the surface quickly. Adopting a positive attitude can indeed improve the mood and bring on temporary happiness. Regardless of the problem, situation, or circumstance, people do get to choose whether they want to feel happy and joyful, or depressed and sad. The key is to practice this technique and make it a daily goal. Practice recognizing the simple delights in life.
  4. Feeling Grateful (This I do a lot) about what you do have is a deeper emotion and consciously practicing or focusing on what you have in life will increase that baseline level and bring on the lasting feeling of joy. Feeling grateful for your health, employment, family, friends, home, etc., basically makes people feel content.
  5. Notice Immediate Surroundings  (This I doStop and become aware of the positive aspects of your life. Most will find plenty of evidence that happiness is sometimes hidden in many areas, people just have to be aware.  Consistently stopping and noticing the positive pieces of the immediate surroundings will consistently increase awareness and increase that baseline level to feel consistent joy. Stop….Ask yourself, “What is pleasurable about this moment”?
  6. Become Active and Support (This is what I endeavor to do most) a cause that you really believe is worthy. Or become active on a smaller scale by practicing random acts of kindness. Helping others increases the endorphin like chemicals in the brain.  Becoming active in a cause helps people feel in control or empowered, especially when facing a difficult life challenge.
  7. And I would add, seek to further a relationship with your “higher” power.

A person’s genetic baseline level of happiness, according to Dr. McDonald, is fixed on the personality style in which they were born. So, on a certain level, some of us have to struggle more to be anything but a sourpuss. But this baseline level of happiness, she contends, can increase over time. People can receive the internal feeling consistent with joy by practicing certain behaviors and techniques. So do strive to feel the consistency of joy, and, of course have a little happiness in your life today! Life can be worth the living.

Please feel free to post a comment on this.

Published in: on January 25, 2017 at 11:24 am  Leave a Comment  

The Christmas Morning Fort

We have been using Max Lucado’s study guide, “Because of Bethlehem,” for Advent in Sunday school this year. It’s been a great guide to help us prepare our hearts and minds for the big day soon to come. Christmas is just two weeks away.

This morning’s lesson, based on Session Three of Lucado’s video series, was: “God Guides the Wise.” It was about the three wise men who followed the Star of Bethlehem to find and worship the newborn King of the Jews. Mostly, it was about how they deservedly earned their moniker, and how true wisdom is not so much about practical matters, but more about living a good and kind life with deeds done in humility. It was powerful! The discussion questions, and some of what others in our class shared, were moving. But most moving to me were the memories that welled up within me, memories of past Christmas experiences.

One discussion question about holiday travel brought back vivid memories. The memories were about times when I had behaved poorly on Christmas mornings, not with humility at all. The question was based on a passage in Matthew, Chapter 12:2. It reads, “And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they (the wise men) departed to their own country by another way.” The message in this passage clearly suggests that God imparts wisdom to those of us who are open to receive it.

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In my memory, I was reliving how I felt many Christmas mornings years ago while driving the miles between our home in Lawton, Oklahoma to the home of my wife’s parents in Weatherford, Texas. The trip took us about two hours, one way, and our two boys, long since grown, barely had time these mornings to open their gifts before we had to be on the road. It was a family expectation that we would spend Christmas Day with my wife’s parents. I was resentful, and I’m sure that I must have complained to my wife about it, in the process making her Christmases less enjoyable too. Shame on me.

One Christmas, perhaps because of my attitude about these Christmas morning road trips, my wife’s parents agreed to come to our place. On arrival, their attitude was much more joyful than mine had been when we traveled to their place. My wife’s dad was especially joyful – excited actually. He had brought with him a special Christmas gift for his grandsons: a prefabricated play fort.

Towed behind his van was a trailer with the fort’s component parts: lumber, nails, shingles, bags of concrete mix, four very long telephone poles, and tools for the construction. His design, quite ingenious actually, was for an enclosed room with a floor, a gabled roof and shuttered windows, all perched about a dozen feet off the ground on a tower of telephone poles. The design incorporated a rope ladder suspended from an opening in the floor of the elevated room. The fort, as he had envisioned it, would be constructed in one corner of our backyard.  I would be his construction helper… only I had not been given advance warning about his plan for us to labor together Christmas Day. Surprise! Did I mention that it was freezing cold that Christmas morning? No, I didn’t.

Attitude? Yeah, I had one. But when I saw how excited my boys were and how they loved their grandfather — Popo they called him — for his loving gift, well, I sat down with dad and listened to his plan over a cup of coffee. The more I listened, the more I got over my attitude and resolved to spend a memorable Christmas, and a few days thereafter, working side-by-side with him.

Tom was his name, I always called him this, or Popo, never dad. But, not having had a dad of my own while growing up, he became my surrogate dad. He’s gone now… been gone for several years. But the more I think about him, the more he becomes my true dad.

Holes for the telephone poles were dug with a posthole digger that dad had brought with him on the trailer from Weatherford, and a “sharpshooter” shovel that I just happened to have. I would dig awhile, then dad would spell me. The frozen ground made for hard work, but we dug together till noon. Then we took a long break for lunch prepared by the ladies. We finished the day with the poles set in concrete, perfectly aligned and angled to mount the tower’s room. Dad had it all planned. I imagine that he had spent countless hours with his design, calculating just how to ensure that all the parts for the fort would line up just right.

I was glad for the warmth of our fireplace that evening after we had quit for the day.

It would take us several more days before the whole project was finished. In that time, we grew closer, dad sharing his passions for politics and Dallas Cowboy football. He shared more than this with me too. He shared his wisdom — wisdom born not of facts or reason, but wisdom born of love.

God, I miss that man…

Published in: on December 11, 2016 at 3:40 pm  Comments (3)  

Why Hurting People Hurt People

“When a man has a gift in speaking the truth, aggression is no longer his security blanket for approval. He, on the contrary, spends most of his energy trying to tone it down because his very nature is already offensive enough.”  ~ Criss Jami

The senior pastor of our church regularly writes and publishes a missive for church members, sending it out by email. I, rather sporadically, write and publish to this weblog. While neither of us is likely to be awarded Pulitzer prizes for these efforts, the writing and sharing is good for our souls. It might even, from time to time, inspire others to reflect on matters of interest and concern. My pastor’s last effort did that for me. He wrote about the spiritual aspects of hurt people hurting other people, which struck close to home for me.

We probably all know people who respond to hurt in their lives by hurting back, and not necessarily hurting back those who, either directly or indirectly, hurt them. Actually, most of us do this ourselves – unintentionally, perhaps. But still, we do it. We hurt innocents, those closest to us, family members and friends. But why? That was the takeaway question for me from my pastor’s last missive. I decided to try to find out — to do some research.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the Mills Brothers’ classic song, “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” might enjoy hearing it once again.

My research confirmed for me that emotionally damaged people do tend to inflict their hurt and pain on others. Like animals that have been mistreated, we become aggressive, mean and difficult to deal with. But unlike other animals, people aren’t so likely to be openly aggressive to everyone. For defensive reasons, we tend to hide our pain from the world at large and reflect or transfer our hurt feelings onto those with whom we are closest, those with whom we feel safe. Safe people are like punching bags that can’t or won’t just walk away from us.

Decade’s worth of research on this has been distilled into a paper, “Everyday Aggression Takes Many Forms,” by Dr. Deborah South Richardson. It was published in the journal, Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Getting even, it seems, is an innate emotional need in human beings. Doing so may justify our self-worth and fortify our self-esteem. Perhaps it’s self-gratification, I don’t know. Dr. Richardson’s paper doesn’t say. It is known, however, that a large percentage of those who have been sexually abused become themselves the abusers of others. It could be that they are, in a way, getting even. Those who suffered under an alcoholic parent often become the cause of suffering in their own future families. It’s difficult for me to believe, however, that they, in anyway, do this intentionally. In truth though, the people we know and love the most are the same people we’re most awful to in word and deed. “The people who are likely to cause us harm of any sort are likely going to be people we know,” wrote Dr. Richardson in her review. “It’s not the strangers we need to fear.”

Dr. Richardson and other researchers like her have focused on defining aggression based on someone’s intent, and not on whether an aggressive action actually ends up hurting someone. “Whether or not you actually caused harm isn’t the critical issue,” she wrote. “It’s that you intended to. If I aim my gun and shoot at you but miss, my intention was still aggressive.”

What else is known about aggression, based on what has been studied on the topic? A few of the other main findings from Richardson’s review are listed below:

The basic types of aggression are direct and non-direct aggression. Direct aggression involves yelling, hitting, confrontations and hurtful actions and words. Men are more likely than women to use this kind of aggression, including sexual aggression. Non-direct aggression is hurting without a confrontation. There are two types of non-direct aggression: indirect, which is hurting someone through something or someone else, and passive, which is hurting someone by not doing something.

Examples of indirect aggression include gossip, spreading rumors or destroying someone’s favorite possession. Men and women both use indirect aggression equally, and they both use it more than direct aggression. People are also more likely to use indirect aggression if they’re connected to their friends in dense networks — in other words, when friends all know each other, they can (perhaps unwittingly) carry out hurtful deeds on behalf of others more easily. Passive aggression can include things like ignoring phone calls, giving someone the silent treatment or showing up late to an event.

We tend to remember others’ aggressive behaviors and dismiss or forget about our own. We rationalize that our own aggressiveness is necessary — justified because we have to compete to get ahead or to have things our way. When we reciprocate, aggression for aggression, it’s because we need, or feel that we need, to be compensated for the hurt once inflicted upon us.

What had been a devoted, loving relationship between my mother and me became something else soon after she married the father of my two younger brothers. Perhaps because he, my mother’s new husband, considered me to be a threat in some way, he was emotionally abusive to me. His attitude and mean, drunken behavior drove me away. He hurt me, but there was collateral hurt as well, my leaving hurt my mother and it hurt my darling little sisters too, two tender young hearts for whom I had been Bubba, a caregiver and a playmate. I was just sixteen at the time. They were preschoolers. I visited my mother and siblings only on occasion thereafter, living estranged from them with my grandparents until my first marriage. My mother blamed me for this situation which, in some ways, mirrored her own troubled youth. She considered me to be rebellious and she became aggressive toward me, but non-directively. I could cite examples of how, but that would be unnecessary here – maybe even hurtful to my siblings for whom, rightfully so, our mother was a saint.

According to Dr. Richardson, aggression is often confused with assertiveness. Assertiveness, according to her, is about expressing our needs or concerns while aggression involves the intent to actually hurt someone. I cannot entirely agree with her on this — assertiveness often morphs into aggression. Intentional or unintentional, when someone causes another pain and becomes aware that he or she was responsible, that’s aggression. This is especially true when there is no acknowledgement or expression of regret and a request for forgiveness. It makes no difference either whether the pain inflicted was physical or emotional. Even if the giver of pain is mentally or emotionally irresponsible, the act is still an aggressive one.

Please feel free to post a comment, whether you agree with what I’ve written or not. I would very much enjoy dialoguing about this.

Published in: on October 29, 2016 at 1:46 pm  Comments (1)  

Choosing to Live a Second-Line Life

My mother and I went to see a movie in 1959, Imitation of Life. I got my first glimpse into what it means to be living a Second-Line life in this movie. Although I didn’t understand it then, I did feel it.

I was more than just a little depressed over a frustrating, painful, recurring family situation. I was unable to sleep much because of this and got up early; the sun would be hours before creeping over the horizon. I made myself some coffee and sat down to think things through. After a bit, I decided that the situation was beyond my control. I remembered that this rollercoaster situation had resolved itself, at least to a degree, several times before. I concluded that it would probably do so again. I reasoned that it would do me no good, would in fact do me harm, to worry about it. So I decided to take my mind off of it. To do this, I started “Second-Line” living. I started celebrating some of the best times of my life.

secondline“The tradition of the Second Line originated in New Orleans, dating back to the early 1800’s when slaves and free people of color created what are known as ‘jazz funerals.’ In these funerals, the ‘first line’ is made up of the family, walking slowly and mournfully to the cemetery. But when the burial is over, the ‘second line’, composed of a jazz band and friends, begin marching through the streets, joyfully dancing and celebrating the life of the deceased, and helping release his or her soul” (from Citizens of Hope, Clayton Oliphant & Mary Brooke Casad, Abingdon Press, 2016, pgs. 87-88).

I had had enough of mourning what could not be undone, what I alone could not fix. I prayed about it, then I buried it. I picked up my iPad and started making a list — counting my blessings.

The concept of Second-Line Living has a scriptural basis in the Gospel of John, Chapter 11, wherein Jesus raises his friend, Lazarus, from the dead: 38 Again feeling very upset, Jesus came to the tomb. It was a cave with a large stone covering the entrance. 39 Jesus said, “Move the stone away.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “But, Lord, it has been four days since he died. There will be a bad smell.” 40 Then Jesus said to her, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they moved the stone away from the entrance. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you heard me. 42 I know that you always hear me, but I said these things because of the people here around me. I want them to believe that you sent me.” 43 After Jesus said this, he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with pieces of cloth, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take the cloth off of him and let him go.”

The cloth in this story which bound Lazarus symbolizes that which burdens us, hinders us from living free, preventing us from seeing the beautiful things in our lives and doing good and beautiful things in compliance with God’s commandments, most particularly, loving our neighbors as ourselves.

These are a few, but only a few, of the highlights in my life so far. The list I made on my iPad went on and on and on. I’m not bragging, but I truly have lived a blessed life. The few highlights that I’m choosing to share here serve to illustrate how I focused on the positive to get beyond the pain that I was feeling. They are in order as they occurred to me for purposes of this listing (not necessarily in order of best to less than best, nor are they in chronological order):

  • My second-marriage wedding day (my first marriage wasn’t so wonderful)
  • Opening night of our high school operetta, South Pacific, with me in one of the leading roles, Emile DeBecque
  • Holding my first grandchild who was just days old
  • Being cheered by my OCS (Officer Candidate School) battery candidate contemporaries after winning an inter-battery PT competition in the horizontal ladders event
  • Completing my helicopter tactical instrument check ride in the Army’s Rotary Wing Flight School with a flawless performance
  • The sunset celebration of my mother’s life on a beach in California with my wife, my siblings, their spouses and children
  • Being present in the delivery room to observe the birth of my second son
  • Skiing in the Austrian Alps with my family
  • Being asked to serve and serving for two years as Lay Leader for a local congregation of the United Methodist Church
  • As mission pilot-in-command in a CH-34 helicopter, performing an emergency landing necessitated by an engine failure and avoiding any damage to the aircraft or injury to my passengers
  • Teaching my first class in a public high school after becoming a certified teacher of Social Studies subjects
  • Receiving many compliments after delivering the eulogy at my mother-in-law’s funeral
  • Being asked to officiate the exchange of vows ceremony in Bali, Indonesia (after the official/civil marriage in Singapore) for my second son and daughter-in-law who is now best friend

People of faith, by means of their faith in Christ Jesus, can enter into a new life. The fact of physical death no longer has control over them. The Apostle Paul puts it this way, O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting” (1 Corinthians 15:15)?  The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, the victory over sin, and over all that burdens us in this life, is available through our Lord, Jesus the Christ. Jesus, in the story of raising Lazarus from the dead, is making a promise to us about how we can live our lives, not just how they will end.

All of us, to varying degrees, are limited by fear. We fear embarrassment. We fear abandonment. We fear failure. We fear death. This is what Jesus is addressing. This is from what Jesus wants us to be free. Like the First and Second lines of jazz funerals, we can grieve the loss of loved ones, grieve the consequences of failure and disappointment, grieve our limitations, but we need not allow this loss to forever hinder our lives. Life goes on with us, whether we willingly or unwillingly participate.

My mother and I went to see a movie in 1959, “Imitation of Life.” I got my first glimpse into what it means to be living a Second-Line life in this movie. Although I didn’t understand it then, I did feel it.

Launa Turner plays the part of a beautiful woman in this movie, one who was born half white and half black. Although her black half was not at all physically apparent, it was a burden to her. The reality of it, her attempts to hide from it, fear that she might be found out, was a burden, one that hindered her both socially and professionally. Worse, she allowed this fear to alienate her from her birth mother. She could neither receive her mother’s love nor express the love she felt. Her life was not free. But the movie had a tear-jerker ending. The mother gets her last wish, a lavish funeral complete with a beautiful, horse-drawn hearse and a Second-Line Jazz band. Just before the funeral procession sets off, the daughter pushes through the crowd of mourners to throw herself upon her mother’s casket, begging forgiveness. Casting off her burden of denial, she is now free to live a fuller, richer life.

Fear has been described as False Evidence Appearing Real. The false evidence is our mistaken belief that nothing can improve after a tragedy. At these times it is easy to forget that God is present and that God’s favorite thing to do is transformation – change for the better. Tragedies, like the shootings in Orlando this year, the Newtown shootings in 2012 and others,  are events which need to be grieved. They speak to how fragile life really is. But this is First-Line thinking. Second-Line thinking reminds us that these things do not need to define us or limit us. We can, and should, respond by doing all that we can to prevent such senseless deaths in the future. But, politically frustrating as our attempts are to prevent or limit future such things from happening, faith in Christ and an understanding of God’s loving presence offers us hope.

Grace and Peace

Published in: on October 16, 2016 at 1:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

America, Are We Not Still Great?

quote-a-nation-s-greatness-is-measured

National pride is a good thing. We all want to feel proud of our country. Donald Trump knows this, so his campaign for president is appealing to this desire. He has based his campaign on the idea that our country isn’t great anymore, that eight years of Obama in the White House and Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State are the reasons why. He promises, that he, and only he, can restore us to greatness again. His campaign motto is, Make America Great Again. Hillary Clinton’s campaign is countering this message with the idea that we are still a great nation but acknowledges that we do have problems. Her campaign promises that, by working together, we can address these problems — make progress toward a brighter future for all. Her campaign motto is, We Are Stronger Together.

In truth, most of us, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens and Independents alike, have awakened to the realization that we really aren’t as great a nation as we once thought we were. Only the reasons that we aren’t are not the same reasons that many die-hard Trump supporters believe. We don’t fall short of true greatness because our military is weak or our economy is not strong and expanding. It’s not because we are compassionate and tolerate millions of undocumented immigrants to remain and do work in our country that most of our citizens won’t do. It’s not because we allow LGBTQ persons equal protection and liberties under law. Neither do we fall short of true greatness because we have expanded access to health care for twenty-plus millions of our citizens. It’s certainly not true because we have an African American president. It is true, however, that we aren’t the greatest nation by many empirical measures.

According to the World Economic Forum‘s Global Competitiveness Report (2012-2013), the U.S. ranks as #1 on only 4 out of the 117 different factors that are rated, and each of these 4 factors reflects merely the sheer size, the hugeness, of the U.S. economy. These four factors might thus collectively be identified as the Hugeness components: “GDP,” “GDP as a Share of World GDP,” “Available Airline Seat Kilometers,” and “Domestic Market Size Index.” Other than Hugeness, the results for the U.S. are not at all outstanding. They are metrics of mediocracy.

Health Care shows the U.S. ranking as #34 on “Life Expectancy,” and as #41 on “Infant Mortality.” (And, of course, unlike the “Infant Mortality” rankings from UNICEF, this ranking is among 144 countries. Thus: some underdeveloped countries actually have higher life-expectancy than does the U.S.)

Education in the U.S. is also apparently mediocre. On “Quality of Primary Education,” we are #38. On “Primary Education Enrollment Rate,” we are #58. On “Quality of the Educational System,” we are #28. On “Quality of Math and Science Education,” we are #47. On “Quality of Scientific Research Institutions,” we are #6. On “PCT [Patent Cooperation Treaty] Patent Applications [per-capita],” we are #12. On “Firm-Level Technology Absorption” (which is an indicator of business-acceptance of inventions), we are #14.

Trust is likewise only moderately high in the U.S. We rank #10 on “Willingness to Delegate Authority,” #42 on “Cooperation in Labor-Employer Relations,” and #18 in “Degree of Customer Orientation” of firms.

Corruption seems to be a rather pervasive problem in the U.S. On “Diversion of Public Funds [due to corruption],” the U.S. ranks #34. On “Irregular Payments and Bribes” (which is perhaps an even better measure of lack of corruption) we are #42. On “Public Trust in Politicians,” we are #54. On “Judicial Independence,” we are #38. On “Favoritism in Decisions of Government Officials” (otherwise known as governmental “cronyism”), we are #59. On “Organized Crime,” we are #87. On “Ethical Behavior of Firms,” we are #29. On “Reliability of Police Services,” we are #30. On “Transparency of Governmental Policy Making,” we are #56. On “Efficiency of Legal Framework in Challenging Regulations,” we are #37. On “Efficiency of Legal Framework in Settling Disputes,” we are #35. On “Burden of Government Regulation,” we are #76. On “Wastefulness of Government Spending,” we are also #76. On “Property Rights” protection (the basic law-and-order measure), we are #42.

We fall short of true greatness, in my opinion, because: (1) we allow the greed of a few rich and powerful families to control our government; (2) we emphasize the acquisition of wealth over the equitable sharing of proceeds with those who labor; (3) we fail to prioritize for the funding of education, programs to alleviate suffering, and programs to lift struggling families out of poverty; (4) we protect industries that poison and pollute our environment, even subsidize their business practices, rather than promote sustainable technologies and practices; (5) we believe that “for-profit” solutions are superior to public solutions for healthcare, education, and incarceration; (6) we protect free-speech at the expense of truth. And we have allowed our basic freedoms under the Constitution to make us less well informed, less safe, less equal, less democratic, and more divided.

To improve on the measures cited above, we truly do need to come together. No one and neither major political party can alone fix what’s wrong. We don’t all have to think alike. That would be asking way too much. But we can at least stop politicizing every issue. We can at least stop with the exceptional, elitist and “hell-no” obstructionist attitudes and work to find common ground. No one, and no political party, is right all the time.

Please feel free to comment on this. I would enjoy discussing it with you, especially if you disagree with any of it.

Published in: on October 12, 2016 at 10:03 am  Comments (2)  

Dealing with Prejudice

“We must become bigger than we have been: more courageous, greater in spirit, larger in outlook. We must become members of a new race, overcoming petty prejudice, owing our ultimate allegiance not to nations but to our fellow men within the human community.”    ~ Haile Selassie

As a teacher of Geography (the study of man and his environ- ments), I endeavored early-on with each new class to teach my high school students the difference between race, national origin, and ethnicity. It was an easy lesson to teach, but it was not an easy lesson to learn for many of my students. They were prejudiced, as are we all, acculturated by regional, local and familiar traditions, beliefs and practices. And prejudices are difficult to overcome; they must be unlearned.

Why Prejudice

Beliefs, quite often, are based less on facts and more on feelings — feelings that we acquire early from family members’ attitudes, teachings, and from our own personal experiences. No one is born prejudiced. We are taught to be prejudiced. If, when we are young, we are told that we should not trust others who look and behave differently, all it takes is one negative experience with someone of a different race or ethnicity to cement that admonition psycho- logically. And, if that first encounter is with someone who was told the same thing, the encounter will surely be negative. All creatures, humans included, are suspicious by nature. “It’s eat or be eaten,” a defensive/survival mechanism.

Defining Race

So, what is race? There are different opinions. But to deal with the issue of racial prejudice, I believe we need to have a common understanding of what it is. Most of my students here in Texas, thought that to be Mexican was to be racially distinctive. It’s not. Mexican is a nationality or a national origin. When I was growing up soon after the end of WWII, anyone with almond shaped eyes, black hair and a distinctive tint to darker skin was a Jap until they proved otherwise. And to us, Japs (persons of Japanese national and or ethnic origin) were a separate race from us. To this day, in Singapore, which is a very diverse nation/city-state ethnically, people of different national origins and ethnicities, Chinese, Malay, Indian, are considered to be different races — this according to my daughter-in-law who is Singaporean and still lives there with my son and new granddaughter. She is not unlike most people I know in that she is very sensitive about the subject of race. However, she is very much not a racist. We have that in common.

According to LiveScience, “Race is associated with biology, whereas ethnicity is associated with culture. In biology, races are genetically distinct populations within the same species; they typically have relatively minor morphological and genetic differences. Although all humans belong to the same species (Homo sapiens), and even to the same sub-species (Homo sapiens sapiens), there are small genetic variations across the globe that engender diverse physical appearances, such as variations in skin color.”

For more on this and how this might have come into being, I would recommend the book, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, in his 1775 treatise, The Natural Varieties of Mankind, proposed five major races: the Caucasoid race (including the Abyssinians, later designated as Ethiopid Mediterraneans), the Mongoloid race, the Ethiopian race (later termed Negroid), the American Indian race, and the Malayan race, but he did not propose any hierarchy among the races. He also noted in his treatise the graded transition in appearances from one group to adjacent groups and suggested that, “One variety of mankind does so sensibly pass into the other, that you cannot mark out the limits between them.”

Why Blumenbach was Wrong

The morphological differences between what we think of as races is not largely evident in our DNA. For example, according to LiveScience, recent genetic studies show that skin color may drastically change in just a few generations as a result of environmental influences. This substantiates my belief in environmental determinism, although the belief has been associated in the past with institutionalized racism and eugenics. There is even a popular evolutionary theory that early humans living in the northern climes of Europe grew progressively lighter-skinned over time. This is because, or so the theory goes, that lighter skin favored the absorption of greater amounts of vitamin D, this vitamin being necessary for the development/growth of stronger bones. Interestingly, the DNA of two humans chosen at random generally varies by less than 0.1 percent. This is less genetic variation than other types of hominids (such as chimpanzees and orangutans). So, it is my belief that we are all members of the same race, the human race.

It is truly unfortunate that we humans discriminate based on less than 0.1 percent on what differentiates us biologically, but we do. We have so much more in common than we have different. But this difference is what we can see, and human judgment is readily made based on sight, our dominant sense — our defensive instinct. You look different, therefore you are a threat.

The Reeducation Process

Racial and ethnic prejudice are forms of bigotry. Overcoming it in societies is not an easy thing to do — in fact, it has yet to be achieved anywhere to my knowledge. It may never be overcome because it resides within the individual heart. The U.S. and Singapore have made great strides in the past socially engineering to this end. But in both countries, bigotry remains a problem. People have to really want to live in harmony with others. Many do not and some never will.

In the U.S., the desegregation of the military by President Truman in 1948 and that of public schools in 1954 with the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. The Board of Education decision were huge steps in the right direction. Then came the Civil Rights Act in 1960 followed by President Johnson’ Affirmative Action Executive Order in 1965 . But a recent Government Accounting Office (GAO) study indicates that many school districts in the U.S. are every bit as much segregated as they were before 1960. School of Choice, which is most popular in Southern, more conservative states, legally redirects state tax dollars from integrated public schools to charter schools where families with the means to transport their children to and from school can have them attend classes wherein the students all look pretty much alike. This is an end-around to school desegregation.

Affirmative Action initiatives now, bowing to blow-backs claiming reverse discrimination against white America, have pretty much run their course. Discrimination against minorities, to include women, Muslims and LGBTQ persons, despite laws and executive orders at the national level are re-surging.

In my opinion, only in the federal government in the U.S., in particular, the military services where desegregation and the abolishment of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell pay dividends to maintaining order and increasing force effectiveness, is true progress against discrimination being made. In the federal government, rules can be enforced.

On the surface, Singapore seems like a perfectly egalitarian state where residents of all ages, religious creeds, and races peacefully coexist. I know, I have been there and have experienced the welcoming attitude of all three of its major ethnic groups. I have experienced too how ex-patriots from the U.S., Australia and other nations are welcomed and can integrate readily. This does not mean, however, that discrimination in Singapore doesn’t exist. It does, but Singaporeans cannot openly discriminate, this according to my daughter-in-law. Discrimination exists, it’s just not openly visible. But Singaporeans of all races/ethnicities (call it what you like) have equitable access to education and job opportunities. The country operates as a meritocracy where talent and determination is prized above race and connections. As a result, the country has a vigorous and very strong economy. It ranks as one of the world’s wealthiest nations on a per capita basis, and there is a very low crime rate.

Unlike in the U.S., were civil liberties permit open displays of bigotry (as Donald Trump’s current presidential campaign attests), Singapore’s government is quite different. Its restrictive legislature and strict laws such as the Sedition Act have all but silenced debates on matters of race, ethnicity, and religion. This makes it very difficult to accurately assess discrimination issues there. But, on the positive side, thanks to Singapore’s limited space and a growing population, it’s government has long since employed a public housing program which forces integration. People have to get along with each other. About 85% of Singaporeans today live in public housing estates . These estates, managed by the government, have an enforced ethnic quota. Maximum proportions are set for the residents from various ethnic groups in these blocks of apartments. This helps to “prevent the formation of racial enclaves and promotes ethnic integration,” this according to the government’s website. Sales of a new or resale apartment are not approved to a buyer from a particular ethnic group if it would lead to that group’s limit being exceeded.

Regardless of what we in the West, the U.S. in particular, might think about Singapore’s forced integration program, it has leveled the playing field for its diverse citizenry. People do not have the freedom to discriminate, not openly anyway.

So, comparing the state of efforts to combat discrimination in these two very different countries, what can we learn?

  1. Societies/organizations are stronger and more productive when citizens put aside their racial, ethnic, homophobic (what have you) prejudices.
  2. People will not willingly forsake the prejudicial feelings they have, the feelings and attitudes that they have developed from early childhood on.
  3. No matter what initiatives societies’ leaderships employ to ensure equity among its’ citizens, progress requires long-term commitment and resolve to counter socially-conservative measures to prevent change.
  4. Learning to be bigoted or not to be bigoted in whatever way must begin at an early age. Parents wanting their children to grow up without prejudicial attitudes against people of other races/ethnicities, beliefs or life-styles must take proactive measures.

If we, as a people – the whole of humanity which inhabits this earth, regardless of nationality, faith or ethnic group, are ever to know lasting peace and equity in prosperity, we must come together. We must persevere to combat the forces of evil within us so that the next generation might not just live better — but be better.

 Please feel free to comment/express your opinions regarding this post. I would enjoy reading and responding to them in open dialogue.
Published in: on September 13, 2016 at 11:23 am  Comments (1)  

Reading the Bible Literately Rather than Literally

“So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and man. Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”  Proverbs 3:4-6

Spoiler Alert: If your Christian faith depends on believing literally every book, chapter and verse of the Bible, you probably shouldn’t read this. Doing so might make you uncomfortable. It might even make you mad at me, and I don’t want to make anyone mad at me. However, if you don’t believe the world is just 6000 years old and that dinosaurs once coexisted with mankind, you are welcome — read on.

If you are reading this, you probably understand that the two words, literal and literate, while related, have very different meanings. If you don’t know this, by the time you finish this story, you should.

We have a beautiful and smart great granddaughter who is a second grader this year. She often spends afternoons, evenings and sometimes whole days and nights with us. We consider ourselves blessed to have her so often. When she is with us, we always ask her about school. We often help her with her homework and, even more often, we read with her. I’m amazed at how well she can read already, due in part, I think, because she loves to read and because she wants to please us. She has read all of the children’s books, over and over again, that we have here for her. So, now, she’s reading to us from a children’s book of Bible stories. So far she’s read the Creation Story and the Story of Noah and the Ark. After each she asked me, “Opa, is this really true?” Both times I told her that some people believe these stories are ‘literally’ true. Some people believe that they are not true at all. And some people, like me, I told her, believe that they are stories that are not literately true, but stories which tell greater truths from within. She’s still struggling to understand what I mean by this. But then, she’s only seven years old – excuse me – seven and three-quarters.

I suggested a reading session while dinner was being prepared the last time she spent the night with us. She said, “Okay, Opa. But this time I want to read from a ‘real’ Bible.”

“A ‘real’ Bible? Oh, you mean one like your Oma and I read from. Okay,” I said, and I picked up an old, small, ‘red letter’ Bible from the book section of our three-section wall unit. The books in it include a set of Funk and Wagnall encyclopedias that have not been disturbed since we discovered Google on our computers, our cell phones and iPads.

“That was my grandmother’s personal Bible,” we heard my wife say. She had been watching and listening to us from the kitchen. “Please be careful with it.”

“We will, Oma,” we said, almost in union.

I sat with my granddaughter on my lap in my recliner chair and carefully unzipped the precious little Bible. Looking for nothing in particular, I opened it to a book in the Old Testament section, I Samuel, and started reading out loud.

“Gee, those are strange sounding names, Opa.”

“Yes, honey. Most of these names are hard to pronounce, and we would have to read quite a bit from this book of the Bible before any of it would make much sense. Samuel, the author of this book, is telling us about God’s establishment of a political system in ancient Israel, one headed by a human king. The first king’s name was Saul.

Let’s turn to something more familiar, something from the New Testament. This is the part of the Bible that tells us about Jesus and his ministry.”

“I know that, Opa.”

To that, I could not help but crack a smile; Obviously, I thought, my granddaughter’s Sunday school teachers are doing a good job. I turned to the Gospel of Matthew, figuring that we could find something easier here, one of the Gospels, to read and to understand. Right off my granddaughter noticed the red letter text.

“Why are some of the words red, Opa, and some are not?”

“The publisher of this particular Bible decided to help us see what the original author claimed to be the actual words of Jesus, honey.”

“So, this Matthew guy actually heard Jesus say these words?”

“That’s what we believe, honey. Matthew was one of the original disciples, one of Jesus’ apostles.” And, with that, my granddaughter started reading before I could select an appropriate chapter and verse. She started reading from Chapter 5, verse 29: “And if thy right eye offends thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”

Oh, oh, I thought.

“And if thy right hand offends thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee…”

“Opa, does this mean I have to cut off my hand to go to heaven?”

“No, honey, I don’t believe that’s what Jesus was really saying, [if in fact He actually said these exact words. Some people might believe that whatever member of the body sins must be sacrificed. But people who know the Bible best tell us that Jesus was speaking metaphorically to stress how important it is that we not sin. Surely Jesus knew that sin originates from within, not by the body member used in the commission]. He was telling his disciples that they should obey God with all their hearts, souls and minds. He was saying that we can’t just love some neighbors and not others.”

I did not actually say the words in the previous paragraph that are offset by brackets. Had my granddaughter been a bit older, I might have. Likewise, we did not share the following dialogue which is offset by brackets.

[“What does metaphorically mean, Opa?”

“A metaphor is a figure of speech or a way of speaking in which a term or a phrase is used which it is not literally true. We sometimes use metaphors to suggest a resemblance. Like I might say, ‘I love you to the moon and back.’ The phrase, ‘to the moon and back,’ helps me express how I love you a whole lot. Speaking metaphorically means using metaphors.

A parable is a metaphorical story from within which a truth is revealed. The story doesn’t have to be literally true, and sometimes it’s even more effective if it isn’t.  Jesus, we know, used a lot of parables to reveal truths about the nature of God and the Kingdom of Heaven.”]

We did share the following dialogue…

“I’m glad I won’t have to cut my hand of to go to heaven, Opa. But, y’know, we have one neighbor that I really don’t like very much.”

“That’s okay, honey. It’s hard to like some people. God knows that. But loving people isn’t a matter of how we feel about them. Loving people is all about how we treat them.”

Again, had my granddaughter been older, we might have shared the following in dialogue. But we did not. With the following, I am editorializing to express my opinion, my belief about the Bible, how it came into being, and how we should interpret it.

[“Why do you say, ‘if in fact He actually said these words, Opa?’”

“We believe that Matthew, the tax collector, one of Jesus’ apostles, was the author of this book, but we have no way of proving this. It could have been some other Matthew who wrote it or someone wanting us to think the real Matthew wrote it so that we might more readily believe what is written. And, even if the original Matthew did write it, he would have written it sometime after Jesus spoke about this to his disciples. He could have remembered it perfectly, verbatim, or he could have used his own words. Without primary sources of evidence, it’s impossible for us to know. There is also the fact that, so far as we know, the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in the Greek language. It was then translated to Latin before being translated to English and other modern languages. Matthew, like Jesus, spoke a different language, one called Aramaic. Did the Apostle Matthew study and learn Greek? For what purpose? Or did he know the language all along? We do not know. But, if he did not already know it, how long did it take him to learn? How dim in his memory might have the exact words of Jesus been before he wrote them down?

It is possible, and I choose to believe this, that the book we now call The Gospel According to Matthew was actually written or revised from the real Matthew’s writings in 325 AD during the First Nicean Council. This council was called by the emperor Constantine I of Rome. According to historical accounts, Constantine was an unbaptized catechumen, or neophyte, but he presided over the opening session of the council and took part in the discussions. As emperor, he called for the council of Christian Bishops to solve a problem which was created in the Eastern Church by Arianism, a belief that Christ is not divine but a created being. Constantine, in my opinion, wanted a reconciled Christian faith to help unify his empire.

So, the story of this book of the Bible, The Gospel According to Matthew, and the whole Bible for that matter, is something of a mystery, a controversy among Christians like me. Christians like me endeavor to reconcile what we know to be true owing to science (knowledge and reason) with what we choose to believe from scripture and tradition. We accept that passages and whole chapters of the Bible incorporate pagan beliefs, myths and parables such as the creation story, Noah and the great flood, God’s tormenting of Job, Jonah being swallowed whole by a fish and surviving. But, we can still believe the truth contained within these stories, can we not? Yes, we can. Do I personally believe that Matthew and the rest of the Bible is the Inspired Word of God? Yes, but metaphorically speaking.

I am a United Methodist and we United Methodists have the Wesleyan quadrilateral to guide our understanding, our beliefs about God. We have Scripture, Tradition, Knowledge and Reason. Scripture, we believe, is primary. But United Methodists are not required to believe that the Bible is inerrant. I am one who doesn’t.

Basic literacy is one’s ability to read words and understand them literally. Functional literacy is being able to use one’s ability to read, understand the words in context and apply this understanding usefully in daily and professional life. This is a skill which people possess in varying degrees. There is also a kind of functional literacy called “rational” literacy. This is literacy that allows learning, growing in our understanding of the world and all of God’s creation. To learn, we must have an open mind, one that is open to unlearning. It’s the kind of literacy that scientists must have.”]

Now, for you my reader, I will tell you the truth. This exchange with my great granddaughter really happened. But it happened Friday afternoon. I am writing this three days later, on Monday morning. I don’t really remember the exact words that my granddaughter and I exchanged. I have exaggerated some and expanded our dialogue some too. I have done so to make this a better story, one that communicates a message. But I have endeavored to be truthful where I have done these things. Yes, I have editorialized to communicate my beliefs about the Bible. My story is not word-for-word, literally true. My belief is that the Bible is not word-for-word, literally true either. The Bible is not a science book. Neither is it a collection of its many authors’ affidavits. It is a truth book rather than a true book. There is a difference.

So, what should we make of the introductory passage from Proverbs…”Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight?” Does this mean that we should take everything we read in the Bible literally? Should we do whatever any preacher, prophet or king tells us to do? Cut off our own hand? No, I don’t believe so. When we lean on our own understandings we are using our abilities to see, hear, taste, touch, and reason. God gave us these abilities, so why shouldn’t we use them? Well, our own senses sometimes fail us. Our reasoning sometimes leads to wrong conclusions; we are fallible.

Those words, “lean not on your own understanding,” were written several thousand years ago, we believe by King Solomon, reputedly, the wisest man who ever lived. Why would he write them? Well, kings in those days had a habit of telling other people what to do, and sometimes punishing them, even killing them if they disobeyed. Most people couldn’t even read in those times, but they could hear what others read to them — a decree from the King. By telling people not to think, he made himself God’s chosen leader and supreme decision maker.  Brilliant — if not so wise for all times!

What then are we in this day and age to do with this? I say, an appropriate interpretation of that passage, which surely was inspired by God, might be: do not lean “only” on your own understanding. Leaning implies putting all or a significant amount of your weight on something which, if moved, might cause you to fall. So, if something confuses you — doesn’t make sense to you, ask others what they think, friends, pastors, other Bible scholars, linguists, philosophers – and not just people in your own like-thinking circle of acquaintances. Just know that all will not agree. Google it. And after all of this, take it to God directly. Pray about it. Acknowledge Him, trust Him, and He will make your paths straight. He will give you clarity. About that, I believe Solomon was right.

Please feel free to post a comment in response to this story. I would enjoy discussing it.

Published in: on September 5, 2016 at 12:26 pm  Comments (1)  

Life Is Like a River

Life is an adventure. It’s like we are each in a canoe afloat on a swiftly moving river. The river is uniquely our own, one that no one else has ever navigated before.

river

We can paddle like hell sometimes, but our canoe is still going to go downstream, pretty much where it wants to go. Occasionally the river forks and, if we are prepared for it, we can choose to go right or left. Sometimes there are clues to help us choose which fork to take — advice from someone more experienced at navigating their own river perhaps. Sometimes we can see far enough ahead to know which way is more challenging. Maybe we welcome the challenge. Maybe we don’t. The more challenging way, we might suspect, will be the most rewarding way. No risk – no reward. Instinctively we know that.

There are stretches of river where the current is more calm. This is where we have time to make the best decisions — this is where we have time to plan ahead, to rest and prepare ourselves for the next rapid. We can put-in on either shore. We can pick a wide, grassy place or a more narrow, rocky spot. We can also choose to press on till dark. But, sooner or latter, we all have to rest. Come morning, or maybe a day or two later, we all have to get back in our respective canoes and continue downstream. Life is like that. It doesn’t stop.

Pray that there is no 100 foot waterfall ahead. But we can never know.

Please feel free to post a comment.

Published in: on August 15, 2016 at 9:19 am  Leave a Comment  

Transgender Discrimination ~ Understanding The Bathroom Wars

It’s a distraction from real problems, honey — problems like poverty, injustice, public safety. Some in government don’t want to talk about these things because realistic ideas to make them better conflict with their ideologies and other agendas.

Sometime ago I promised my preciously little great grand- daughter that she could ask me anything and that, to the best of my ability, I would always answer her honestly — but appropriately. Honesty has not proved to be a challenge for me. Coming up with age appropriate answers sometimes have been, however; she is, afterall, only seven. Take for example the time she asked me from where babies come out of their mommies’ bellies. Fortunately, she had already figured this out for herself and answered it in the phrasing of her question to me. She was just seeking confirmation. Whew!

Recently, after I had been back from our month-long trip to Asia only a day or two, my little darling was dropped off by her mother for Opa-provided daycare. I was still kicked-back in my recliner after having just finished my morning walk with Benji, my dog. My little darling crawled up in the chair with me for some morning snuggle time. What a joy. Then, after a few minutes of quiet time, her attention was drawn to a huge stack of magazines on our coffee table. Funny that we still call it a coffee table since we never drink coffee in the front room where it rests. The table is just for walking around — where we stack magazines and yet-to-be-read mail after separating that which might matter from all the junk that shows up daily. My little darling slipped down from my lap and stood looking at something on the coffee table for a few moments. On top of one of the stacks of magazines, my stack of ‘The Week’ magazines, was a recent edition featuring an illustration showing the back of a little girl’s head, her hair in pigtails. The little girl’s image was facing two restroom doors, one with the ubiquitous male symbol and one with the equally ubiquitous female symbol. The symbols are both ubiquitous because they appear everywhere and always side-by-side or across a hall from one another in public places. The symbols were shown throwing rocks at each other. Above the magazine’s cover illustration was the title of a highlighted article found within, “Bathroom Wars”.

“Opa, what does bathroom wars mean?”

Oh, my God – now how do I explain this?

“Come here, honey,” I said. “Sit on my lap, I’ll try to explain.

God makes girls and God makes boys. But sometimes boys don’t feel right about being boys; they want to be girls. Sometimes girls feel this way too; they don’t feel right in girl bodies and want to be boys. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. People have different opinions about why this happens. Some say it’s just a mix-up; the natural feelings these persons have just aren’t correct for the bodies they were born with – that it’s not a choice they can make. Others say that it’s a perverted or bad choice that these persons make.”

“Really?!?!”

“Yes, honey. Really.”

“But what does this have to do with bathrooms?”

“Well, everybody needs to use the bathroom from time to time. And those who have or once had boy bodies but now look and act like girls need to go too.”

“Well, I don’t see what difference it makes, Opa.”

“I don’t either, honey,” I said. “But some people really think it does. Some people are making a big fuss about it.”

“Well, Opa. I’ll promise you one thing: I’ll always want to be a girl.”

With that, my little darling’s curiosity was satisfied – the issue was settled. But I can easily image that, had she been a bit more inquisitive, a bit more adult, our dialogue might have continued as follows…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Why, Opa? Are boys and girls only now feeling confused?

“No, honey,” I said. “I’m pretty sure that there have always been persons who haven’t felt right in the bodies with which they were born. But our society is just now learning to accept these persons as natural children of God. Sadly, some people will never be able to. They think that they can force these persons to behave the way they think they should behave by forcing them to dress appropriate for the bodies they were born with and to use correspondingly appropriate bathrooms. They are justifying laws restricting non-gender appropriate bathroom use by claiming that these persons are a threat to children. But I think this is just scare tactic politics.”

“Why, Opa?”

“It’s a distraction from real problems, honey — problems like poverty, injustice, public safety. Some in government don’t want to talk about these things because realistic ideas to make them better conflict with their ideologies and other agendas.”

“Doesn’t God love these persons who aren’t happy with their bodies?”

“Yes, honey, God loves all His children.”

“Then why did he create them to be so confused? And if God didn’t create them to be confused, aren’t they sinning?”

“Good question, honey. But there’s a Bible passage that might help us to understand. It’s in the Gospel according to John, Chapter 9, verses 2 and 3… ‘His disciples asked him, Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus. ‘This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

“I’m still confused, Opa. What does being born blind have to do with this?”

“I don’t blame you, honey. This is a very difficult issue to understand. Someday you will have your own understanding. Mine is like this: All babies are born different, some pretty like you, some not quite so pretty. Some are born with deformities, like being blind, or without arms or legs. But this does not make them bad persons. Persons born with a disconnect between their physical selves and their sexual identity aren’t bad people either – not as I understand the passage in the Book of John that I just shared. To me, ‘the works of God,’ some translations read, ‘workings of God should be manifested,’ refers to how we are to relate to people who are born different from ourselves. God works through us. He, I think, challenges us to show grace, to love others despite how they are different from us.”

After thinking this over awhile, my little darling said, “Well, I love everybody, Opa. But some are more special to me.”

“I know, honey. Some people are more special to me too!”

Please feel free to comment on this post. Use it, if you wish, but please let others know from where you got it.

Published in: on June 26, 2016 at 3:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Worm Poop and God’s Green Earth

”It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as these lowly organised creatures. Without the work of this humble creature, who knows nothing of the benefits he confers upon mankind, agriculture, as we know it, would be very difficult, if not wholly impossible.”

CHARLES DARWIN, 1881

worm poopOur townhouse backs a golf course. A long par-five is our backyard, and I so enjoy not having to mow it. Giving the golfers a wide-berth, I often use the cart path for morning and evening walks around ours and two adjoining fairways. Circling back to our place, the distance is just over a mile. I walk our dog, Benji, on the golf course too, as do a few other pet owners in our neighborhood, the Enclave at Thorntree. With a poop bag at the ready, I am one of the more responsible pet owners, I am proud to say. I keep our dog on a leash too, except when we play fetch. He’s really good at playing fetch. He knows that a tasty treat is waiting for him each time he returns the tennis ball, so not even an occasional squirrel crossing the fairway to run up a tree distracts him from the game.

 I picked up our little great granddaughter after school the other day and I brought her to our place. My wife, her Oma, was helping her finish her “What-I-Want-to-Be-When-I-Grow-Up” project, so she had work to do after school. But she wasn’t anxious to get started right away.

“Opa, can we play awhile?” she asked after I had parked the car in our garage.

“Yes, honey,” I answered. “What would you like to play?

“Let’s go dig,” she said, not waiting for my answer and grabbing the long-handled plastic play shovel we brought back from fun on the beach at Galveston last summer. While I checked to make sure that there were no golf carts on the fairway, she made a beeline for the closest sand trap behind our house.

She removed her shoes and socks before stepping into the sand. She loves the feel of sand between her toes and she longs to return to the beach.

I cautioned her about digging too deep and getting dirt mixed in with the sand. She was careful not to do so while she made several piles of sand. I supervised while keeping an eye out for any golf carts pulling up adjacent to one of the fairway’s tee boxes. The particular sand trap we were in was a good 350 yards downrange from even the ladies’ tee, so I knew that we’d be safe and have plenty of time to rake smooth the sand piles and fill the holes before any golfers could come into range to threaten us with a hit.

After 10 minutes or so, I handed my little darling a rake, signaling to her that it was time for us to leave. She dutifully raked and smoothed the sand while I picked up her shoes and socks for the walk back to the house.

“Opa,” she asked, “what are these little piles of dirt?”

“Those are worm castings, honey.”

“Worm castings?”

“Yes, honey,” I said. “ Worm poop.

“EEEYOOOOO!” she screamed. “Worm poop!?” After this, she was extremely careful where she chose to step as we walked back to the house.

“Why do they poop, Opa?” she asked.

Recognizing the opportunity for a teaching moment, I said, “All God’s creatures have to poop, honey, and we are oh so very fortunate that worms poop the way they do. Without earthworms, we would not have the fertile soil that we need to grow this pretty grass.”

“Or carrots, or celery, or broccoli either, right Opa?” Pretty perceptive my little girl, wouldn’t you say?

“That’s right, honey. Worm poop is the best natural fertilizer there is. And long before people figured out how to make artificial fertilizers, farmers had been spreading manure on their fields from farm animals like pigs and cows. Some farmers still do. But worms take care of the spreading part all by themselves. In addition, they bore holes through the soil so that air can get in and they do much of their pooping down low where the roots of plants can make best use of the nutrients in their poop?”

“Nutrients?”

“Yes, honey, nutrients. Nutrients are chemicals like phosphorous and nitrogen which are in dead animals and plant matter. These nutrients are easier for living plants to use after these dead things, organic things, have been digested and excreted by earthworms.”

“Excreted?” my granddaughter asked.

“Excreted means being passed out of the body — like when animals go to the bathroom, like Benji does when we walk him out here to do his business. Scientists who know about these kinds of things tell us that nitrogen availability in earthworm poop is five times greater than in soil that has not been first digested by earthworms.”

For those who might want to know more about this process, about how earthworms help to make soil fertile and other ways that they contribute to surface ecosystems, go to http://sciencelearn.org.nz/Science-Stories/Earthworms/Earthworms-role-in-the-ecosystem.

“Opa, you’re the smartest man in the whole world,” my little granddaughter said.

I am so grateful today that geography was my major in college and that I took interesting classes like the geography of soils. Because of that, and my years of teaching geography to freshmen high school students, I had a ready answer to my little darling’s question. And, because of that, she thinks that I’m the smartest man in the whole world.

Life is good.

Thank you, God, for earthworms, and for curious little girls.

Please feel free to leave a comment to this post.

Published in: on April 17, 2016 at 2:59 pm  Comments (1)  

Do We Have Free-will or Don’t We?

“An unexamined faith is not worth having, for fundamentalism and uncritical certitude entail the rejection of one of the great human gifts: that of free-will, of the liberty to make up our own minds based on evidence and tradition and reason.”

 ~  Jon Meacham

fish

It’s not like this question hasn’t been hotly debated for hundreds of years, nor is it for a lack of material on the Internet about this. But, you see, I’m a Methodist, so I believe, consistent with the Wesleyan tradition of Arminianism, that we do have free-will – at least, I’m supposed to believe that we do.

We had an interesting discussion at prayer breakfast about this recently. It was interesting mostly because the discussion didn’t last very long. My prayer breakfast friends were obviously uncomfortable with the subject. Nevertheless, the debate about this is interesting to me, so I have endeavored to study it.

It was one of my Christian friends who brought up the subject – he shared that the Bible study group he attends weekly has been discussing the question of whether angelic beings have free-will. So, naturally, the great challenger of orthodoxy here asked whether any of us truly do have free-will. I pointed out how different, fresh out of the womb, each of us is, how science is discovering more and more every day about how our brains work, how none of our differing intellectual capacities, biases and predilections are purely the product of nurture. Twin studies have confirmed this. Oh some of our differences are the result of nurture, sure: those of us born and raised in Mormon families and not inclined to thinking critically are most likely to grow up believing Mormon doctrine, or professing to believe it; those of us born and raised in Protestant or Roman Catholic families are most likely to remain faithful to our origins and upbringings too. Either this or we shun religion altogether. And the greatest determinant of political preference is said to be that of one’s parents, especially the preference of the dominant parent. One of my prayer group friends substantiated this by saying that, had he been born in a Muslim country, to a Muslim household, he would be a good Muslim today. Few, like myself, have made the leap from one faith to another and it is my belief that most who leave their faith tradition of heritage abandon religious affiliations altogether.

My wife, who was there at the prayer breakfast, quipped, “You’re not becoming a Presbyterian are you?”

How often do we hear the faithful say things like, “Let go and let God,” “Nothing happens outside of God’s will,” and “God’s will be done.” Yet we believe that He has given us free-will, that we have the freedom to usurp His will, at least temporarily. In Leslie Weatherhead’s book “The Will of God,” he writes of three different kinds of God’s will:  God’s intentional will, God’s circumstantial will, and God inevitable will.  So, according to Weatherhead, both our free agency and God’s will have limits. Not even God can have things more than one way at a time. Interesting…

Aside from Bible passages that argue for free-will (there are as many or more that argue for predestination), what is there from the secular world that can help us understand? Well, there are the physical sciences of evolution, genetics and physiology. These all support the argument that our choices are influenced, if not wholly determined, by factors beyond our control — determinism. Then, there are the psychological sciences.

Humanistic psychologists say that we have free-will. They base this on the assumption that not all behavior is determined. Personal agency is the term that they use for the exercise of free-will. This refers to the choices that we make in life and the paths that we choose to go down. For humanistic psychologists such as Maslow (1943) and Rogers (1951), freedom is not only possible, it is necessary if we are to become fully functional human beings. Both see self-actualization as a unique human need and form of motivation setting us apart from all other species.

Cognitive psychologists also believe in the importance of free-will. They have adopted a soft determinism view, however. Whereas humanists are most interested in our choices (how each of us sees the road to self actualization), cognitive psychologists focus on the choice of means. In other words, for them it is the rational processing of information which goes into the making of a decision that is most important.

Then there are the neo-Freudian psychologists, one of the most influential of which has been Erich Fromm (1941). In his “Fear of Freedom” he argued that all of us have the potential to control our own lives, but that many of us are too afraid to do so. As a result, we give up our freedom and allow our lives to be governed by circumstances, other people, religious beliefs, political ideology or “irrational” feelings. However, this determinism, he wrote, is not inevitable.  In the very choices that we have to do good or evil, he saw the essence of human freedom.

So, what are we to make of all this? Is it possible that we can have it both ways – that there is room in one’s personal philosophy for both free-will and determinism? I think so, yes.

Each of us is like a fish in a pond, I think. We are free to swim about and to make the best of our circumstances; we can choose to take the baited hook or not, to eat just worms and bugs or to expand our diets to include yummy tadpoles when they are in season. But we are bound by our own relevant realities. There are other fish in their own ponds and these ponds may overlap ours. Some do, but they are not the same. Our ponds are self-limiting until we exercise the option to explore, experiment and grow. This is called education. We can interact with other fish, form schools for mutual support. Or not. We can find a mate of our own kind and procreate. Or not. But our options are always bound/limited by our relevant realities. Some of these realities are physical, some physiological, some emotional, some imaginary.

For me, conscious and rational assessment of the environment (external conditions), our own abilities and possible negative consequences, is the best way to achieve goals. If we fail in our attempts, we can at least learn from our mistakes. But feelings have an important role to play too. Feelings are innate messages from the brain, spontaneous internal reactions to external stimuli that warn us of danger, sometimes inspire us, and sometimes encourage us to risk. But mental illnesses, disabilities as well as special abilities, and propensities toward certain behaviors all undermine free-will. For example, individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) lose control of their thoughts and actions. People who suffer from depression and borderline personality disorder lose control over their emotions. Then too, it is commonly believed that children born to parents who struggle with addictions are more likely themselves to become addicts when they grow up. And addicts are notorious for making poor choices. There is a genetic component to this.

Yes, we have free-will — but only within the bounds of our relevant realities, some of which are in God’s domain. And that is why we pray. Some realities, the faithful believe, only He has the power to change.

Please feel free to post a comment, whether you agree with my conclusions or not.

 

Published in: on April 9, 2016 at 10:48 am  Comments (1)  

Respect ~ Who Deserves It?

Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relationship between means and ends; above all, it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status… It has grown… as an invidious distinction between classes…

Marshal Sahlins ~ Stone Age Economics

The short answer to the title question, I think, is that everyone deserves respect. But not everyone deserves it equally, however it might be measured. Respect is a specious word. I can respect a rattlesnake and show deference to it but not wish to emulate its behavior. On the other hand, I can and should respect those who are senior to me, whether in age or in position. I should respect them, not because they are a danger to me or even because they may hold some authority over me, but because they have endured what I have yet to endure — succeeded where I have not yet gone or where I have been less successful.  I can learn from them.

Respect

The Bible has much to say about respect. Passages addressing respect are replete in both Old and New testaments. Most will immediately recall Exodus 20:12, one of the Ten Commandments and not the least of them. It reads: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” But one of my favorite passages is found in Romans 12: 9 – 11: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, and serve the Lord.”

Whether you are a believer or not, I think that most of us can agree that there is great wisdom to be found in the Bible. We don’t have to literally believe everything in it to think so.

My daughter-in-law, bless her heart, thinks that I am overly sensitive about respect, that I am too quick to feel disrespected by younger people, especially by my sons and grandkids, and even my wife. My daughter-in-law is probably right; for, as a twenty-two year Army veteran, retired as a senior commissioned officer and retired also and most recently from a ten year high school teaching career, I have had stand firm in the expectation of respect from my subordinates and my students. I could not have functioned well in these vocations otherwise. But I am fully retired now and I know that it is not disrespectful for people to disagree. I believe that every person deserves respect, young and old, rich and otherwise, those with much talent and those with little, those with power and authority and those who have none. I know that I can learn something new from everyone, even from those with whom I disagree on matters irreconcilably. But when disagreement/ argument devolves into angry words, the disrespect between parties can quickly become mutual.

Should we respect the rich? Yes, not because they are wealthy, but because they are people just like us – children of God. They may have acquired their wealth through inheritance or just good fortune like the winning of a lottery. They may have benefited from corrupt political or business relationships. But wealth is also generated through entrepreneurial activity. Such “self-made” people are greatly admired in the U.S. Yet, there is a conspicuous problem with most accumulated wealth; it always involves exploitation on some level. We remember Andrew Carnegie as a great philanthropist, but he literally worked men to death in his steel mills with long hours, unhealthy conditions, and low wages. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Carnegie

Are all wealthy individuals like Andrew Carnegie? No, certainly not. Consider the following modern-day wealthy humanitarian examples:  Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Chuck Feeney, George Soros, Richard Branson, Jon Huntsman, Sr. http://www.humanservicesdegree.org/25-most-famous-humanitarians-of-all-time/

Still…

“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.”

Not all wealth is so contaminated, of course not. But this is primarily due, in my opinion, to protective labor laws. Capitalists the world over try to pay their workers as little as possible and are willing to exploit children as has recently been exposed in the U.S. fashion industry and its cost-conscious outsourced manufacturing. In the Northeast from which our nation’s yummy blueberries come, the unscrupulous have exploited children with their small hands to do much of the picking.

Even if the money belonging to the wealthy was accumulated under comparatively clean conditions, it is still money that is effectively stolen from workers rather than earned by business owners. It may seem pointless to belabor the fact that entrepreneurs exploit workers to the best of their ability, citing Adam Smith’s theory that such activity can contribute to the common good by making merchandise cheaper. But I believe that Adam Smith would be appalled by today’s levels of exploitation.

There is a counter economics theory which is that the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few individuals is very bad for the society as a whole. Unequal societies lack social trust and political involvement. They have high crime rates, and low life expectancy. They suffer from high rates of obesity and related disorders. Does this not sound familiar?

“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, and serve the Lord.”

Should we respect those who have great talent? Of course. But not just because they have special gifts in artistic fields such as fiction writing, acting, music, painting, and so forth. Admiring such people’s talents should never be confused with respect. The biographies of many celebrated artists are a catalog of personal failings and neuroses with high rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illnesses. We may treasure their contributions but we should hardly want to emulate their lives. And what about those with special athletic talent?  These persons seem to receive a great deal of respect from large numbers of people. Yet, many sports legends have been exposed as small-minded self-serving cheats. Not content with having better genes than the rest of us, many have chosen to enhance their biological edge using steroids. Many too have been exposed for perpetrating cruel acts on people. Consider people like O.J. Simpson, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and Oscar Pistorius. The list of such narcissistic professional athletes is long indeed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_professional_sportspeople_convicted_of_crimes

My bottom line is that we should respect everyone, not for what they possess, whether material riches or great talents, but for what they do for others. Even if they contribute nothing but opportunities for us to serve. Everyone deserves our respect.  Albert Einstein once wrote, “Everyone should be respected as an individual, but no one idolized.”

We can certainly respect those whom we know and love—our parents, our close friends, intimate partners, children, and selected relatives – those who have made our lives better. Beyond that, we can respect everyone who has helped us along the way, or those who provide a service that makes our lives better:  the substitute teacher who fills-in when the teacher gets sick, the man who collects your trash, the person who works the graveyard shift restocking the shelves at the grocery store, the lady at the daycare center, the fast food worker, the janitor.

Another favorite Bible passage is from Galatians 5:13-14. It reads: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

When looking for someone to respect, maybe we should start at the bottom of the social ladder and work our way up. Those at the top are seldom all that they profess to be. Quite often they are a great deal less.

Please feel free to post a comment in response to this, whether you agree with me or not.

Published in: on March 31, 2016 at 12:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

Democrat vs. Republican ~ Liberal vs. Conservative

This is an update of my original post (Dec 31, 2006) on this same subject.

As a former social studies teacher, I was often asked by my students what the real difference is between Democrats and Republicans. They seemed to sense that parents and other authority figures extol the virtues of one political party, the one to which they subscribe, and vilify the other. Accordingly, I attempted to teach the subject in as balanced a manner as possible.

NastRepublicanElephant

All of what follows, save for my own observations, is readily available elsewhere on the Internet. However, I’ve never been able to find a good, unbiased source that compares and contrasts the two major political parties in the United States today. Accordingly, I have endeavoured to create one. Since my original posting, December 31, 2006, there have been significant changes within the Republican Party. It is owing to these changes that I have been prompted to do this update.

Political parties exist for the singular purpose of installing people to positions of power and influence in government. It is the same all over the world and has always been so. To do this they compete with the opposition for support of the electorate by inciting passion over issues of the time. Whether the issues have to do with the economy, national security, individual liberties, the environment, Constitutional interpretations, or matters of moral and social conscience, parties stake claim to various convictions then pretend, as necessary, that they have always been philosophically faithful to their positions. But this is done more often than not to simply gain support in terms of dollars and votes for their own candidates. Additionally, many people are attracted to particular parties over single wedge-issues like abortion or gun control and discount other party positions. So the association of any party over time with a particular political philosophy is problematic at best. Follow along and see if you don’t agree.

The Democratic Party, claiming a position on the left of the political theory continuum, has been labeled “liberal,” both by supporters and detractors alike. The name is derived from the Latin, liber, which means free. And until the end of the eighteenth century, it simply meant “worthy of a free man”. It is from this sense of the word that we speak of “liberal arts”, “liberal sciences”, “liberal occupations”, etc. Then, beginning in the early part of the nineteenth century, the term came to imply the qualities of intellect and behavior that were considered to be characteristic of those who occupied higher social positions, whether because of wealth, education, or family relationships. Thus, an intellectually independent, broad-minded, magnanimous, frank, open, and genial person was said to be liberal. The suffix, “ism,” added to descriptive words produces nouns that mean a belief, an ideology, or study, as to be immersed in. “Liberalism” then connotes a political system or tendency that is opposed to centralization and absolutism. However, the word liberal is generally used in a derogatory way today by those who subscribe to more conservative philosophies. For them, a liberal is someone who believes in big government and wasteful, giveaway social programs (background/definition).

Most who have political persuasions to the right on the political theory continuum label themselves, “conservative.” According to Webster, being conservative means a tendency to conserve or to hold back. But this understanding of the term does not necessarily apply to all who consider themselves to be Republicans today. Since the end of the Civil War in America, conservatives have tended toward resisting change and preserving established institutions. Thus, a conservative person would be one who would tend to be more moderate or cautious. But it was Republicans, as we all recall, who brought about the end to slavery in America though the Civil War years and the adoption of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments during Reconstruction – this was major social change (background/definition and History of the Republican Party)!

The Republican Party today attracts many different groups, including sportsmen and other gun owners who consider their right to bear arms to be under attack, business corporations (particularly defense, energy, and pharmaceutical industries) and wealthy individuals who benefit from limiting social programs, limiting regulations, and reduced taxes, as well as various fundamental or evangelical Christian groups who are lobbying for social change.

Although some will argue that this is not true, the Tea Party, which has never been a viable political party in it’s own right, and Libertarian politicians who once ran for office under the Libertarian Party banner, have now merged with the main stream Republican Party. This, in my opinion, has pulled the party to the ideological right and away from moderation, thus making it more difficult for lawmakers in the U.S. Congress to reach across-the-aisle accommodation on issues. While this merger has resulted in increased Republican representation in Congress, at the same time, it has made it more difficult for the Republican Party to field competitive candidates for President and Vice-president.

The Republican Party had its roots in opposition to slavery when, in 1854, former members of the Free Soil Party, the Whig Party, the American Party, and some Democrats came together in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would have allowed these territories to enter the Union as slave states. Party founders adopted the name “Republican” to indicate that it was the carrier of “republican” beliefs about civic virtue, and opposition to aristocracy and corruption (History of the Republican Party, Republican Party Today, and Reconstruction Period).

In western democracies the terms, “conservative” and “right-wing” are often used interchangeably, as near-synonyms. This is not always accurate, but it has more than incidental validity. The political opposition is referred to as the political left (although left-wing groups and individuals may have conservative social and/or cultural attitudes, they are not generally accepted, by self-identified conservatives, as being part of the same movement). On economic policy, conservatives and the right generally support the free market and side with business interests over rank-and-file workers and environmentalists. This is less true of conservatives in Europe and in places other than the United States. Attitudes on some moral issues, such as opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia, are often described as being either right-wing or conservative. Liberals, on the other hand, have traditionally drawn much of their support from labor unions, small farmers, civil servants, environmentalists, artisans, academics, philanthropists, immigrants and such – the “huddled masses”. Collectively, liberals pretty much agree today that government should be a force for social change, to improve the lot of the disadvantaged and to protect the individual rights of all Americans, regardless of their race, sex, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Liberals would tend to agree that all should have affordable access to quality education and health care (Right-wing, Left-wing).

The Democratic Party in the United States traces its roots back to the early 1790s, when various factions united in opposition to Alexander Hamilton’s fiscal policies, which included a strong central treasury and new taxes to pay-off the states’ debts. Back then it was called the Anti-Administration Party, its subscribers were called Anti-Federalists. For a time, this movement was added to other minor parties to form the Democratic-Republican Party under Thomas Jefferson. Yes, in some ways, if not in name only, the two major political parties of America were combined. Then, after the War of 1812, the party split over whether to build and maintain a strong military. Those favoring a strong military, especially a modern navy, came to be called the Old-Republicans. Then, during the administration of Andrew Jackson, the Democratic Party was reborn, appealing, as had Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party, to the largely agrarian society of the times and to the common man. At that time, the Old Republicans strongly favored states rights, while Jackson, even though he was a Southerner, put down the Nullification Crisis which threatened to divide the nation – North and South (History of the Democratic Party).

So, the distinction between liberal and conservative political philosophies and the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States, over time tends, to blur. Philosophies and allegiances have switched back and forth over the years. For example, after the Civil War, most whites in the South became Democrats (Southern Democrats), known then unofficially as the “White Man’s Party“. Then, following the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many of these Democrats switched over to support Republican candidates.

And so it goes; political parties come and go. Sometimes the names stay the same, but the philosophies and respective positions on issues change according to the winds of war and fortune. As I tell my students, it is impossible to separate politics from economics. It’s all about power and influence.

For the latest on what U.S. political parties and individual candidates believe, see http://www.ontheissues.org/Quiz/Quiz2010.asp#sec0. At this site you may also test yourself and your beliefs to determine your closest party match.

For more on what I personally believe and how political parties have performed in recent years, see Americans’ Political Persuasions ~ Based More on Myth than Fact?

I invite your comments whether you agree or disagree with the content of this post.

Published in: on April 22, 2015 at 10:17 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Traditional Good of Innovation and the New Frightening Bad

Education required for the use of new technologies has always managed to stay ahead of the pace of innovation and adaptation. With the advent of the digital computer, however, all this is now changing, and it scares the bejesus out of me.

Anthropologists imagine a time in human history when fire had to be “stollen” from nature. Man had yet discovered how to make fire for himself. Accordingly, someone in the tribe or clan was entrusted with the important role of keeping the fire — flame or hot coals. This person held an important, even sacred, role in primitive societies, so it was not something practiced by many. To the extent, however, that this person held a special position beyond ritual, his job was obviated by the technological innovation of fire making — using friction or striking flint to iron so that sparks could ignite suitable tinder. This, like later inventions, the wheel, cutting tools, leveraged throwing weapons, weaving and pottery making, benefited societies at large. All had more as a result. When fire making technology came into practice, only the fire keeper was left without a ‘real’ job.

the-mark-of-the-beast-image

This tendency for innovation to benefit the greater part of societies has, for the most part, continued to this day. Examples of these technological innovations include: interchangeable parts, the steam engine, mass production, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, electrification and the automobile. Greater productivity has tended to create new jobs in greater numbers than those eliminated. This is because greater productivity, in the past, has driven costs down so that both supply and demand increased. This is not the norm today. Higher productivity today, owing to declining competition among suppliers due to mega mergers and the formation of corporate cartels/oligopolies, higher productivity results only in greater profits which are seldom shared with the actual workers.

Education required for the use of new technologies has always managed to stay ahead of the pace of innovation and adaptation. With the advent of the digital computer, however, all this is now changing, and it scares the bejesus out of me.

Innovation has long been thought to be the essence of economic growth. Think about it. Over the past two centuries, the world has reaped great benefit from the advent and incorporation of more and more general-purpose technologies: energy and manufacturing technologies, transportation technologies, medicine and pharmaceutical technologies, communication technologies, information storage and calculation technologies. But what happens when technology advances at a dizzying pace such as it is doing now? Education lags behind, even the ability of many to comprehend the use of new technologies, let alone do the programming and repair necessary, is beyond the average citizen.

When I was young, my grandfather could keep the family car humming along all by himself. He needed no computerized diagnostic equipment. All he need was in his toolbox, wrenches and screwdrivers and such. But, as it is today, I am challenged to even change my car’s oil and oil filter. When my computer or my smart phone goes on the blitz, only a few very highly trained technicians even know what’s wrong. Even they must resort to using other automated equipment and software to correct the problems. I am dead in the water until someone else with another machine and the knowledge to use it fixes my broken machine.

Until recently, this trend has not much concerned anybody, especially not corporate CEOs and government policymakers. The increased productivity has led to more and greater profits for those at the top, and those at the top make the rules. Economists and academics have been talking about this for years, a few have even been worried about it. But now some  forward thinking individuals in business are waking up, taking the longer view. They are concerned about competition and shrinking markets as average citizens’ disposable incomes shrink from declining, good paying work opportunities. Humans’ jobs are being taken over by machines.

Nearly half of the 1,344 CEOs surveyed by PricewaterhouseCoopers late last year identified rapid technological change as a potential threat to their organization’s growth prospects.”

One of the most disconcerting new technologies, in my opinion, is 3D printing. It has the potential to transform the competitive landscape of a wide array of businesses — businesses like manufacturing and construction. 3D printing could revolutionise industries beyond current imagination, provided of course that players within these industries embrace this new technology in an effective way. But will they all be able to do so and to what end? And how many workers in India, China and elsewhere will be displaced? What will this do to demand for goods and services?

These economic trends are not limited to just the United States, or even to the United States and it’s favoured trading partners. These trends are manifest in all but a few more enlightened nations — Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Germany, just to name a few, where corporations are more highly regulated and where fiscal policies benefit people before money interests. When considered in combination with growing and ageing populations, declining/more difficult-to-recover natural resources, and the consequences of global warming, manmade apocalyptic scenarios are easy to imagine.

Until the hungry beast of capitalism is either satiated or sufficiently constrained by enlightened regulation, the greater good, in my opinion, will just have to accept the consequences of greed.

Please feel free to post a comment in response to this. I would enjoy discussing this issue.

Published in: on April 14, 2015 at 9:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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Cynicism in Today’s Political Landscape and the Demise of Democracy

High school and higher-educated citizens in America used to turn-out for congressional (mid-term) and presidential elections in much greater numbers. But participation in the political process has dropped precipitously in recent years.

I am hearing more and more these days, especially from younger adults in America, that it doesn’t matter whether they vote or not, that the system is rigged. How cynical. Even more cynical in my opinion are those saying things like, “Neither political party represents me,” and, “Politicians are all the same; all they care about is getting themselves re-elected.” I have even heard the idea recently expressed that not voting is actually an alternative way of voting — expressing one’s dissatisfaction with the political system’s status quo.

My reaction to all of this is concern, fear actually, about what this means for democracy in America as we older citizens, the Silent Generation and the Baby Boomers, decline in numbers. Combined with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which not only allows but encourages greater influence on state and federal governance by corporations and other special interests, this trend points to the end of government-of-by-and-for-the-people (if ever it truly existed at all) and the ultimate establishment of a plutocracy, worse yet, maybe even a new version of Fascism.

a2-educationalHigh school and higher-educated citizens in America used to turn-out for congressional (mid-term) and presidential elections in much greater numbers. But participation in the political process has dropped precipitously in recent years. Where 80 percent or better used to turn-out for national elections, now the percent has dropped to 50 or less. Compared to the rest of the world’s countries in which people vote, even where voting is not compulsory, Americans are far less likely to be involved in the political process. But why?

Statistically speaking, in any election with twenty or more votes being cast, the chance that any one vote will determine the outcome is extremely low — virtually nil. Studies show too that a single vote in a voting scheme such as the Electoral College in the United States has an even lower chance of determining the outcome. Further, studies using game theory, which takes into account the ability of voters to interact, have also found that the expected turnout for any large election should be zero. So, one might ask instead, why should we even bother?

The factors in deciding whether or not to vote are: P (the probability that an individual’s vote will affect the outcome of an election), B (the perceived benefit that would be received if a person’s favored political party or candidate were to be elected), D (originally stood for democracy or civic duty, but today represents any social or personal gratification an individual gets from voting), and C (the time, effort, and financial cost involved in voting). P times B plus D must be greater than C before a person will vote. (The basic idea behind this formula was developed by Anthony Downs in An Economic Theory of Democracy. published in 1957.)

Obviously P is a non factor. Further, considering the ensuing deadlock in Washington on issues that Americans care about, things like immigration, tax policy, equal rights for women and gays, and gun control, B has lost ground as a factor too. That leaves D, the sense of civic duty or the social and personal gratification that one derives from voting, as the prime factor in countering C, the inertia factor.

One could argue that D, the sense of social and personal gratification that African Americans derived from voting in the last two presidential elections, was the reason that Barrack Obama, the first African American to be nominated for President, handily won the White House for two terms. A large segment of voters was motivated to get off the couch and go stand in long lines to cast their votes as never before. It could be too that Hillary Clinton, because she is a woman and likely to be the first of her gender to be nominated by a major political party for President, will likewise be elected.

I believe that this factor, the social and personal gratification that one derives from voting, is at least in part the motivation for Republican controlled states to pass voting restriction laws and modified/reduced early voting dates and the numbers of polling places in urban areas, thus impacting voters who would most likely favour Democrats. Republican politicians have actually admitted this.

Can one be justified in believing that neither of the major political parties in the United States, the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party, represents them? No, not in my opinion. Believing this is simply a choice which rationalises one’s cynicism. One has only to compare the political platforms of each party, if they are inclined to do so, and assess which one aligns more with one’s beliefs and priorities. That neither party seems to be able to advance change, to move the ball down-court in the current political environment, does not mean that neither party conforms all in in-part with one’s beliefs. There is something for everyone in one party platform or the other.

Does not voting, in and of itself, constitute a vote, protest or otherwise? No, in my opinion, choosing to believe that it does is just more rationalisation for cynicism. Choosing not to vote is not a protest, not in my opinion. It is submission to the rigging of the system that we all abhor — at least those of us who have had nothing to do with the rigging. So, if one lacks the requisite sense of civic duty or the sense of social or personal gratification that comes from participation in the political process, one might more honestly just say, “I don’t care.”

Are all politicians the same? Are all motivated only by getting themselves re-elected? Of course not. But I would agree that too many are motivated primarily by personal interest. It is a human failing.

Given the political landscape in the United States, it is easy for me to understand the cynicism of many citizens, especially those among the gen-Xers and millennials who tend to be more cynical anyway. But can we allow this trend of decreasing voter turn-out to continue and risk the demise of democracy altogether? Yes we can. We can allow special interests, corporations and the wealthy to take total control of our elections. But should we? I say no. Emphatically, I say NO! That is why I think that we should consider the following: restoring the Voting Rights Act in its entirety, which the Supreme Court has recently all but nullified; reversing Citizens United which declares corporations to be citizens too; redefining what and how redistricting can be done by the states, and; amending the Constitution to implement term limits for Congress. We should also make voting universally easy for citizens — all citizens. I would not even oppose some form of compulsory voting, for when liberty and equality are in peril, extreme measures become necessary. The question is, are we at that point yet?

Whether you agree with me on this topic or not, I would very much like hear your opinion. Please feel free to post a comment.

Published in: on April 13, 2015 at 12:03 am  Comments (4)  
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