big ideas, personal, politics

On Demanding Idealism

Many a young and idealistic college student has set out to change the world. They’ll end war, eliminate poverty, save the environment, or bring true justice to every race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, or age.

Many a cynical older person has condemned such idealism as hopeless tomfoolery. You cannot end war, eliminate poverty, save the environment, or bring true justice to every race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, or age.

It’s easy to switch from one of these categories to the other. I know, I’ve been in both before. Blind idealism quickly turns to cynicism when it experiences the first of many inevitable challenges.

And though it’s easy to condemn both the idealistic and the cynical for being too absolute in their understandings of the world, neither of them is wholly wrong. A singe person cannot do any of the things that most young idealists hope to do. But nor is the world so resistant to change that progress isn’t possible.

I’m not intending condemnation in writing this. Instead my goal is to discourage people–especially the young and idealistic kind–from switching so easily to the other side of this false dichotomy when they experience their first setback. To recognize that they are not the only ones hoping for better.

There is a large middle ground between these two extremes, but many idealists dismiss the middle ground. Many communicate this by saying “if you’re not with us you’re against us,” others use more subtle equivalents. But this idea is prone to be false.

I’m convinced that most people would love to see more peace, justice, and equality in the world. But they’d also love to know that they’ve got a healthy family, comfortable finances, and a relatively stress-free life. These quotidian concerns often overcome the concern one has for greater idealistic struggles.

But those in the middle are probably doing the best they can to assure that there is greater equality, justice, and kindness in the world. Maybe all they manage most days is a smile to those they pass or a few cents offered to a beggar. Maybe they can only find the time to volunteer a few times a year. Maybe they can only offer money to charities that undo some of the bad things they have to do on a day-to-day basis.

Could most people manage to do a little more to make the world a better place? I absolutely believe they–and I–could. Does that mean we should be chastised and derided for our failings? I should hope not.

Demanding more than people can give–then condemning them for not giving it–is the fastest way to convince them to dislike you, call you a fool, and give up entirely on your cause of greater peace, justice, and equality.

Though demanding idealism is often the fastest way for progress to occur, it can also be the best way to guarantee a violent and undesired reaction. Idealism can be a great good, but demanding too much support for that idealism–and too fast–is not.

So I have a simple request: a little less demanding, please?

american society, big ideas, ruminations

On Brown Houses, and Paying Attention

As we drove away last Thursday, we were interrupted by my mouth saying, “Hey, that house is brown.” And though this is a good demonstration of the power of my mouth to say things I don’t intend it to, that is not what this is about.

This is about noticing things. In Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, as young John Huff prepares to leave Green Town, he comes upon a suprise. A house with colored window panes. He questions his friend Doug Spaulding about the windows, provoking the following response:

“Darned old windows been there since before we were born. Why?”

“I never saw them before today,” said John. “On the way walking through town I looked up and there they were. Doug, what was I doing all these years I didn’t see them?”

“You had other things to do.”

“Did I?” John turned and looked in a kind of panic at Douglas. “Gosh, Doug, why should those darn windows scare me? I mean, that’s nothing to be scared of, is it? It’s just…” He floundered.”It’s just, if I didn’t see these windows until today, what else did I miss?”

And so it is with my brown house. I’m sure the house had been brown before I noticed it. And I’m nearly certain that I’d seen the house before to. But I’d never noticed it.

The logical follow up to this is, so what? Is life made better by knowing that there is a house in chocolate brown paint down the street? Is it better knowing that that a house has windows with colored panes?

It depends on what you’re after. Will knowing these things make you hundreds of thousands of dollars? Absolutely not. Will it inform your curiousity and encourage your sense of wonder? You bet.

It’s easy to lament America’s focus on money, or fame, or youth. To express disappointment with the way people walk, bike, or drive to work every day and don’t notice all the little things. The stress of earning a living is good reason to not stop and notice the butterfly floating by your window. But I assure you that if you notice it, you’ll feel less stress.

Watching water splash into a puddle. Watching the moon drift among the night’s clouds. Noticing the slight breeze that makes you aware of your skin. These are the simple wonders of life that I–and I know I’m not the only one–too often miss.

big ideas, personal, ruminations

I, like you, do the best I can

That title has been my About Me section on Facebook for some time. I wrote it almost without thought; it sounded nice. But when I reread it I liked it more than I had when I thought of it. I liked it more than I thought I could like anything I’d ever written.

What I liked most about it was the belief behind it. The belief that the world is not underperforming on our expectations, but is instead filled with people trying as hard as they can to do the best they know how.

That’s a key point for me. That the world is filled with people trying as hard as they can to do the best they know how. I struggle with this point a lot.

I, and I doubt I am alone here, find it easy to believe that I am doing my best. Of course I do the best I can, but I often struggle to allow that that fact is probably true of most others as well. That they think they are doing the best they know how.

There are a lot of people in this world that, at least at first glance, seem not to be trying very hard. You know, the kid down the hall at university who mostly just played video games and smoked weed. He was a slacker and you probably had various reasons for disliking him.

But, the more I thought about that kid, the more I realized he probably didn’t know all he could do. Sure, he could do better, but I doubt if anyone ever showed him how. His parents were probably distant and more involved with their futures than his. His teachers probably didn’t make sure he learned much; as long as he wasn’t failing they were happy. His friends were probably much like himself, well off and unaware of their advantages. Unaware of what advantages are.

And certainly he wasn’t doing much to make the world a better place, in whatever way I thought he should. But I find it hard to believe that he was earnestly and intentionally wasting time that he was aware could be spent doing other more useful things.

This little phrase reminds me that not everyone has had the advantages that I have had. That by virtue of the color of my skin, my state and country of residence, my parents, and my environment, I’ve been given a great deal more than most other people have ever gotten. And I’ve not had to work too exceptionally hard to get it.

These are things that may change what I think is the best I can do, but they don’t change the fact that you’re probably doing your best as well.

And even if you can’t actually believe that everyone around you is doing the best they can, there is another reason to use this phrase. It’s aspirational.

It’s useful to believe that others are doing the best they can, and that you can do it too. Maybe you doubt that fact, but wouldn’t it be more productive to assume that they are doing their best and act accordingly? To try to match yourself with your own high expectations, and not wait for the world to prove to you that it’s really good enough for you?

I think it’s more useful to believe the best and fear the worst than to believe the worst and hope for (or is it fear?) the best. It’s more useful for our own mental state to see the best rather than the worst in people. To watch for their success rather than where they falter.

And though I don’t alway succeed in that quest for the best, I’m willing and ready to try.

big ideas, politics, religion

The Problem of Heaven and Earth

This idea arose from something E. O. Wilson, the famous biologist, recently told Bill Moyers. He was essentially giving reasons that people, in this case Christians, use for not concerning themselves with the impact of human activity on the planet and other species. I hope I can lay out the argument with some clarity, separate from the rest of what Wilson was saying.

Few people would, a priori, think that there is any problem with Heaven. After all, if God rewards believers who live good lives with a trip there, it must be a good place. And though views vary about the nature of Heaven, a few facts about it can be fixed: it is eternal, it is better than life on earth, and it’s nature is not influenced by any factors on the planet.

This last point, that Heaven is not affected by life before death, needs some clarification. Certainly events that occur on Earth can have an impact on who is in Heaven, but they cannot change what the “eternal reward” of Heaven will be. That is: if I were to get in a fight, kill a man, or commit theft, that could certainly change my chances of being allowed into Heaven. But, beyond the few set actions that would bar me from entry, there is little in my life that will change the experience that is had after I entered, were I allowed to.

If you live in a giant house or a small house, drive a big car or a small car, cut down trees or plant them, none of this affects the nature of Heaven itself or your (eternal) time there. Whether you’re rich or poor, American or Polynesian, white or black, it doesn’t change you chances of getting into Heaven any more than it affects the likelihood of you sinning.

Because few of your earthly activities change your possibility of entry into Heaven, and because your time here is surely shorter than your time in Heaven, those who believe fervently in Heaven, and think they are going there, have little incentive to worry about Earth or its future.

The fact that there is little incentive for most Christians to worry about the future of the planet and the environment doesn’t stop them from doing so. More and more Christians are realizing the importance of protecting the planet. Richard Cizik, a vice-president at the National Association of Evangelicals has garnered a great deal of attention in the last few years for reorienting the groups mission to include “protecting God’s creation.”

Yet the problem of Heaven no doubt persists. There are still people, be them one or one million, who take little stock of what role their methods of living have here on Earth, worrying only about making it through their time here. Perhaps this is because they are thinking too much of their eternal reward to be much concerned about the present, or perhaps they simply don’t recognize their impact.

Obviously, the problem of conservation isn’t one fought merely against Christians who believe in Heaven, but they are an important factor. Surely atheists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs can also have a negative impact on the planet. But, their problems of conservation will have to wait for another time.

For now, I think anyone unconcerned about the future of the planet needs to take careful stock of why they don’t care, and ask if they really cannot. Further, I think those that are concerned about the future of the planet should think about what impact, positive and negative, they are having in their day-to-day life.

Surely Heaven is not the only reason people are willing to neglect the planet. Some strive to downplay their personal impact for political, economic, or social reasons. But I think religious reasons are an awfully poor reason to not be concerned about the impact of humans’ industrial and geographic expansion. Whether or not you believe in Heaven, it is a poor reason to willingly and carelessly sully the planet for future generations.

big ideas, politics, religion

Random Reincarnation

I’ve often felt that people are too quick to deny that others’ lives in other parts of the country or world affect their own. They find it easy to vote, think, and act in ways that are largely self-serving.

I can’t fault anyone for this, after all, I often do it myself. It’s exceptionally easy to think selfish thoughts. To think that you should have that really nice car or house. To think that the government should do what is best for people like you. That they should make your schools the best, your taxes the lowest, and your roads the smoothest.

But my own selfish thoughts do not stop me from seeing the problems with this way of thinking. This way of thinking can easily lead to a world in which the rich get richer, the haves have more, and they are willing and able to argue that everyone else just hasn’t worked hard enough.


I think that more people need to recognize that though their life may not be as good as they think it should be, it’s hardly as bad as it could be. If you are reading this online, you’re at least able to read English (arguably the most important language in the world) and afford access to the internet. If these two traits strike you as mundane, you’ve only proven the point.

And so I think we need to be aware of the possibility that there was no necessity to the way our lives have turned out. We’ve merely won the “genetic lottery” as the Oracle of Omaha (that’s Warren Buffet) is fond of saying.

If you can find Buffet’s “genetic lottery” argument plausible, it can have a great effect on your worldview. If you could have just as well been born in a refugee camp in Africa or as a displaced Palestinian in Jordan, your willingness to accept the status quo would change immensely. For one, the fact that millions of people die annually from diseases that we have the ability to treat and prevent becomes a great injustice rather than the way the world works.

But some people seem willfully ignorant of this fact, willing to say that there is good reason that they’re a well-off white American. So I came up with a plan.

I will start a religion whose chief doctrine is reincarnation. Not traditional karmic reincarnation though. This would have to be completely random. Sometime after your death in some random place and time, you will be reborn.

That way, all the strangers whose life isn’t as comfortable as your own won’t be abstract people, they’ll be you. Not the present you, but the past and future you.

Will this unnamed religion ever succeed? I should doubt it. After all, I don’t have the charisma or the nerve to sell people on a concept I simply made up. And I doubt that those who I feel most need this religion would willingly convert.

But that won’t stop me from suggesting it. From asking people to at least consider the possibility.

big ideas, linkpost

Bob Thurman on Compassion

Bob Thurman is an American Buddhist. At TED2006, he gave a great introduction to the ideas of interconnectedness and compassion. It’s a really good summary of the concepts; he has fun with them rather than dwelling on their nature and substance.

I found this though of personal value, who gives a great synopsis thusly:

It struck me because I’ve always considered how heartbreaking it is to be compassionate if it means taking on another person’s pain. He explains this paradox of how embracing someone else’s pain actually makes us see ourselves differently. And most remarkably, the way to help those who suffer is by having a good time. You have to listen to him to really make sense of this, but in part the key to compassion is that it is more fun (and by this I think he means rewarding) than focusing on only yourself.

The video is embedded below (removed, it broke the layout). The page for the talk (which has it downloadable as both audio and video) is here.

big ideas, politics, world

Africa, Development, and Bono

man fishingSome headlines scream so loud something so shocking that you can’t ignore them. “Africans to Bono: ‘For God’s Sake Please Stop‘” from The American is just such a headline.

I’ll admit that at first I thought ‘this must be a joke.’ But upon closer examination, it’s a reasonable argument made rather convincingly by it’s purveyors and the article’s author (and blogger), Jennifer Brea.

The essential argument is not that Africans universally undervalue the role of outside aid in jump-starting development. Rather, they argue that what they want is development, not innumerable checks for solving immediate problems.

Aid is not useless, but its not the path toward a rich and sustainable future. If Africa’s only form of foreign “investment” comes from money being dumped into the continent to feed hungry children, prevent malaria, and build modest infrastructure, little true and self-driven development can occur. There is a need to investment in local companies, to develop industries that create jobs and products that can be sold both locally and around the world.

Aid in its current form can disempower both governments and their citizens, making governance easy by allowing it to do nothing, or even allowing it to work against its citizens’ best interest. As Ms. Brea says, the current modality of aid “seems to deny Africans a role as agents of their own transformation. We [outsiders] can save Darfur. We can save Africans from disease. We can even save Africans from themselves. Africa can be saved if we just try hard enough.”
Not only are certain problems endemic to the way in which aid systems currently function, but much of the means to itself are disempowering.

Aid is often pleaded for, rarely by Africans themselves, by portraying the continent as a helpless and wild continent unable to do anything to enrich or help itself. As you can no doubt guess, even if these images of the distended bellies of hungry children covered is flies is based on reality, it undercuts the appearance of progress on the continent.

It is also fundamentally disempowering to a continent and people that are trying hard to find a new and novel way toward their own future.

For closing words, Ms. Brea:

Aid can alleviate immediate misery and that is why we love it. Charity is a profoundly human response to all those images that pull on our heartstrings. But all evidence points to the maddening conclusion that, in the long run, aid not only has no positive effect on economic growth, it may even undermine it.

The only way Africa will develop and create wealth is if it can attract foreign capital and trade its goods on the world market like every other economically successful country does.

But investors are jittery. And considering what we think we know about Africa, who would blame them?

Branding Africa as barbaric and hopeless or glamorous and chic may sell magazines and get us to open our purse strings once in awhile. But neither myth is true or useful.

Here’s a radical idea: if we really want to help, why not ask Africans, not their governments, how they perceive the challenges before them, the dreams they have for the future, and the resources they think they need to realize them?

Instead, we let a well-intentioned Irish rock star, a Jewish-American economist, and their Hollywood cohort become the voice and face of Africa.

And in the process, the story of the other Africa, the Africa that is dynamic, creative, and wants to work as a partner and the leader of its own future, is being drowned out by the clarion cry of the anti-poverty glitteratiand our own appetites for gripping, salacious headlines of war, poverty, and grief.

big ideas, personal, USA

Happy Wednesday!

Holidays should never be recognized by anything but the day of the week on which they fall. This way, we give the day no credence beyond it’s own merit as a day of the week.

We can know that today is supposed to be Independence Day, which of late has come to mean little more than grilling, fireworks and alcohol. But we cannot tell others that we know this fact. We can only tell them that this is a good Wednesday.

They will think we are odd for telling them this. But we will know that some Wednesdays are good. And some Wednesdays are bad. Some Wednesdays are just average. Wednesdays tend to vary in this manner. There is no way to impose order on our Wednesdays.

Sometimes the Wednesdays that others think are truly special turn out not to be. Sometimes Wednesdays that no one else thinks are special really are.

We tell them “Happy Wednesday!” because we know this is true.

They laugh at us because they have forgotten this truth.

big ideas, personal

On Time

If there’s one thing I wish for, it would be a pause button. I wouldn’t have exclusive control. But it would be a pause button that would allow myself, and everyone else in the world, time for some serious contemplation and soul-searching with no remorse over the time we’re not spending on other things. I think I, and probably others as well, need to spend more unfettered time doing things that should be done and not worrying about all the things that we don’t really need to do.

I often feel, and I doubt I am alone on this, that if I take a week, or even a day, to just pause away from everything and try to figure it all out, that I am by my inaction harming my own future, or those of others. That by my contemplative inaction I am somehow failing my own potential.

I have to say that when I am fully alone, I am less acutely aware of this feeling of waste than when I am with others. Others who are by day or night doing things. It doesn’t much matter to me what those things are, but I regret my not doing them. Whether that is a reflection of some facet of myself, the others, or a combination of the two is something I will have to leave for another time.

The real crux of this issue is that there is so much I don’t know that could influence how I would act in the coming day if I only knew it. If I better knew how other people had made a positive impact on the world I would be better able to make one myself. If I better knew how people got the job I want, I could take the steps necessary to get it. Rather, I am stuck in the predicament of feeling like I am dallying if I do the research I think could help the process, and feeling like I’m rushing into the field without adequate preparation if I am acting.

I have to admit that though it is not a feeling that only I have, the solution will not cannot come from outside. For until, and possibly even after, scientists discover a way to make our bodies need less sleep, I can say with nearly complete certainty that we’ll always have this feeling when I feel the need to spend some time just thinking.

The fact is that we can’t stop. The world will not stop cold simply so that we can have the time to learn all it’s facets. Our lives will not stop cold simply because we desire them to. We have no choice but to move forward. Doing what we can along the way to assure that we are doing it the best way we can.

That is reality. Like it or not, there’s no way to change it.

american society, big ideas, politics, USA

What is a criminal?

There are certain things we always take for granted. Things we, at one time or another, decided that we understood well enough and didn’t need to worry about any more. We know what a dog is, we know what democracy is, we know what taxes are. But should we really accept this state? Can we really afford to accept it?

This is the story of something that happened to me about two months ago. I tell this story now, and I beg the related question, because I think it merits some consideration. First because, with a rising prison population, I think we need to seriously consider how we treat “criminals” in this country. Further, much of the rhetoric (from those opposing the compromise) on illegal immigration is that the 12 or 20 million illegal immigrants in this country are criminals. We’ll come back to this in a second.

First, I believe that it is great to have your mind periodically blown. It’s great to have something you’ve never really given a great deal of thought to suddenly make sense in a way it never did before. One of the first times I really remember having my mind blown like this was when I realized why they are called movies. Because “movie,” the precursors to “talkie,” was a simple explanation of what occurred. A movie moved. A talkie both moved and talked. We call them movies today because the talking has become requisite. Blew my mind once.

Most recently, this was done by a teacher of mine. He was talking to a student working for the county’s justice center. She was calling the people she worked with on a regular basis criminals, rather than clients, suggesting that they were different from herself and the other workers.

And he stopped her. He said that she shouldn’t be so willing to accept that dichotomy. The dichotomy of the “criminals” and the “good and law abiding.” Because the fact is that criminals are not people who break the law, “criminals” are people who are caught breaking the law and are prosecuted for it. He went on to ask who in that room had never broken the law.

No one, in a room filled with respectable looking college students, said they hadn’t. Each of us had sped, imbibed alcohol before our 21st birthday, taken other illicit substances, stolen or worse. And yet, to the traditional dichotomy, we were not criminals. Criminals were the people in prison. Criminals were the people that did things that we wouldn’t do. Never mind that over half the US prison population is serving time for drug possession, or a similarly mundane crime.

It struck me that this dichotomy exists only for the comfort of the “average, law-abiding” citizens. But is the average citizen really likely to abide by all laws? Should they really be able to castigate another as a “criminal”? For that person’s whole life?

It seems that we call people criminals so we don’t have to feel like we have an obligation to “criminals” as fellow citizens, as fellow human beings. So that we can just complain that we’re spending all this money “keeping us safe from criminals.” Keeping us safe from ourselves.

The destruction of this false dichotomy gives rise to a number questions. Can we really tolerate our heinously over-crowded prison system? What if the authorities decided that we, too, were criminals–we have probably broken the law at least once? Can we afford not to take steps to better the lives of our “criminals”? And to not help them avoid patterns of behavior that can and do often get them back to prison far too soon?

Can we really hold illegal immigrants in such great contempt? Are they really so different from “good, law abiding” citizens? After all, if all citizens and all (legal) resident aliens truly respected all the laws of our country, we would never ever break them. No one would ever break the speed limit. No one would ever drink before their 21st birthday. Take illicit drugs. Steal from Wal-Mart. Break into a building. Get in a fight. Drive under the influence. Kidnap or murder another. Steal their employees’ pension funds. We could close the police office, the sheriff’s department, the state patrol, and the FBI. But we can’t. The seeming absurdity of the thought emphasizes that fact.

If we citizens and legal immigrants of the United State break some laws, how can we be so angered that others do as well? Some will surely say that speeding or petty theft isn’t as severe as entering the country illegally. But by what measure? Why is what they are doing worse than what you have done? Because you didn’t do it? Because they’re breaking the law and not you?

I believe it was that man Jesus who said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” And I believe those who cling so hard to the “criminal” dichotomy on illegal immigration need to seriously consider the answer to that question. In fact, I believe we all need to consider the answer to this question.

What is a criminal?