Monday, December 19, 2016

Drag Racing the Prius: Government, Business, and the Dangers of Bad Metaphors

I think I'll take my Prius drag racing.

It makes perfect sense, right? After all, a Prius is just like those cars you see tearing down the track at drag races. It has four wheels, each with an inflated rubber tire. It has an engine powered by oil-based fuel. It's got a seat for a driver, with a steering wheel. It's got a transmission system, and a bunch of electrical support stuff. I mean, they're practically the same thing.

Of course, this is crazy. A Prius, despite some superficial similarities, is not a drag racer. Attempting to run mine on a drag strip is likely to fail, and cause a fair amount of damage in the process. A drag racer is built for speed. A Prius (unless you heavily modify it!) is built for gas mileage.

Along similar lines, why do so many people insist on arguing that "government should be run like a business"?

This is a popular metaphor, resurrected recently as a rationale for supporting Donald Trump for President. If the government should be run like a business, who better to run it than a successful businessman who is busy stocking his cabinet with other successful businessmen?

(I will leave aside the question of whether Trump is actually successful or not. For my purposes, whether he's a good businessman or a bad one is irrelevant.)

Businesses and governments do share some things superficially in common. What most people are thinking of when they use this comparison is that both have budgets. Businesses have revenues and expenses, and so do governments. Government at the national level tends to run a fairly serious deficit, which is seen in many conservative quarters as a bad thing. Businesses, or so it is claimed, can't run structural deficits for long or they go out of business. Hence, the argument that governments should be run like businesses.

(It should be noted that lots of other things have budgets, too - churches, households, stray pet shelters, homeowners associations. No one ever says we should run government like a church.)

There are a few other points of similarity - businesses and governments both have rules and authority structures, both are to some degree hierarchical, and both are made up of people who fill particular roles within the larger organization. These are minor matters, a little like saying that a Prius and a drag racer both have spark plugs.

The fact that "business" and "government" both belong to the broader category called "human organization" tells you very little about how to run the latter. The differences between them are far more important than the similarities. And like the comparison between Prius and drag racer, what is most important is the purpose for which each was built.

A business is an organization designed to produce some product or service for the wider world, usually (though not always) at a profit. A business creates what it creates. It is primarily concerned with two groups of people: the owners (who control the business, and in whose interest it presumably operates) and the customers. A business can define its own customer base, to a substantial degree, and doesn't need to concern itself with anybody else in society. Businesses don't even have to be all that concerned about their employees, except as these are necessary to produce the product or service.

Governments look nothing like this. They are not meant to operate at a profit, and those that do are generally regarded as corrupt and illegitimate. Governments do not produce individual goods or services, but provide public goods to a broad group of people known as citizens. Except at the margins, governments have very little ability to define who they serve, and governments that decide to serve only one segment of the population usually find themselves losing legitimacy. Legitimate governments can't pick their "customer base".

We can perhaps lay this confusion at the feet of Calvin Coolidge, who famously said, "the chief business of the American people is business." By this he meant that most individual Americans are chiefly concerned with making a living for themselves. In this, he was at least partially right.

But the chief purpose of the government is not to be a business, but to provide a safe, secure, and fair environment in which everybody can pursue their own individual business. If businesses are like sports teams competing, government is like the referee enforcing the rules of the game.

Ultimately, the purpose of a business is to advance the interests of its owners, usually a small group of people. The purpose of a government is to advance the interests of everybody. A business is partial to itself. A good government is impartial towards all.

In this sense, being a successful businessman makes one little more qualified to run a government than being a successful gymnast, or race car driver, or neurosurgeon. These are all completely different human endeavors requiring different skill sets. They may overlap in some ways (success everywhere requires determined effort and the ability to learn and adapt, for example), but the goals and purposes of each are radically different.

So let's stop talking about how government should be run like a business. I don't want my government run like a business (Verizon customer service, anyone?) I want it run like a government, with the interests of all of its people in mind.

Friday, December 16, 2016

"Faithless Electors" - the Legitimacy Dilemma

There is a lot of talk in Democratic/leftist/anti-Trump circles about the prospects of "faithless electors" turning the tide and keeping Donald Trump out of the White House. It appears to be technically true, as a matter of process, that the members of the Electoral College can in fact vote for whomever they wish, and that their votes (and ONLY their votes) determine who the next President of the United States will be. It is not clear, under the various and sundry state election laws, what the consequence would be of an elector voting for someone other than the candidate to whom the state's election pledged them; however, even if there are such consequences it's not clear that such laws can prevent electors from doing so, or overturn their votes if they do.

A lot of the folks pushing this idea are focused on the outcome. They know what they want: they want somebody (anybody, really) other than Donald Trump to be President. In my view, however, process is far more important than outcome, because outcomes are always temporary - processes tend to stick with us for a very long time.

This is why the Electoral College movement concerns me. A lot of folks have called for the end of the Electoral College entirely, and maybe that's a good idea. But that would take a Constitutional amendment - not at all an easy thing to do - and more importantly, we would have to agree on what process of election would replace it.

At this time in our nation's history, it's not at all clear to me that we have the ability to have that conversation. We are so focused on the outcomes of our own tribes that we have lost the sense that we all live under a common set of rules, and that those shared rules and norms matter. Not long ago, telling the truth mattered for political leaders. Yes, there was always spin and shading. But now we have an elected leader who shows a reckless disregard for the truth. He doesn't care. That's a norm lost, sometime we used to agree on that's gone now.

So if there are enough Faithless Electors to turn the tide and prevent Donald Trump from assuming the Presidency, then what? The rules may be crazy, but they're the only rules we have. If those electors throw the race into the House, does the House just turn around and elect Trump anyway? And if someone else is chosen, will that person be seen as legitimate, either by the rest of the government or by the American people generally?

To be fair, I think the legitimacy argument can be overblown, for two reasons. First, because we've become so tribal and outcome-focused, there's a fair amount of delegitimizing whoever's in the White House anyway. George W Bush and Barack Obama have both faced portions of the population who believed strongly that they were illegitimate occupants of the Oval Office. Both managed to execute the duties of the office anyway. Because Hillary won the popular vote, there are folks who are already inclined to see Trump's victory as illegitimate. That goes with the territory.

Second, we tend to have a bias towards imbuing whatever happens with a measure of legitimacy, largely because the consequences otherwise are potentially large and potentially disastrous. Yes, rules can be imperfect; yes, systems can be weak. The preponderance of evidence is that George W. Bush didn't really win Florida (and therefore, the White House) in 2000, but once we settled the legal issues surrounding recounts we never really looked back. This is true because nobody could really envision any alternatives.

This is both the danger of messing with the Electoral College, and the defense against it. If we upset the apple cart, we risk creating enormous uncertainty. As deadlocked as the government is (mostly in Congress), we could risk further crippling it by throwing the executive branch into chaos, with no clear leadership. And we risk opening a massive can of worms that I don't think we, as a nation, are ready to deal with.

So for those participating in the Faithless Elector movement - be careful what you wish for. There may be worse outcomes, either now or down the road, to a President Trump.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Karate and Life: Know Yourself

Gichin Funakoshi's fourth Precept is this:
First know yourself before attempting to know others.
Unlike the first three, this one doesn't have an obvious connection to the martial arts. What does "knowing yourself" have to do with karate?

People who have studied the martial arts - or any other demanding discipline - seriously for a time know, however, that any discipline in a journey of self-knowledge. In the case of karate, the more I study and practice the more I learn about myself physically, mentally, and emotionally. I learn what I can and can't do, what I am and am not prepared to do, what my strengths and limitations are, and how far I can push the boundaries of all of these things.

The injunction to know yourself before trying to know others starts with the physical. If I don't understand my own body and its movements, someone else's will likely baffle me. That's why people with expertise in any area, from sports to martial arts to music, can watch someone else perform and "see" things that the rest of us can't see.

But this pretty quickly goes beyond the physical. If I haven't made the effort to understand myself, to get "inside" something and try to make it work for me, how can I pass judgment on someone else? And if I haven't really wrestled with myself in a given area, to test my ideas and thoughts and values, how then can I try to do so with someone else?

At its heart, this is a call for humility. It is entirely consistent with the parable about specks and logs (Matthew 7), and any number of other teachings about the need to understand ourselves rather than pass judgment on others.

In this day and age, humility is not much commended as a virtue anymore. We are quick to pass judgment on others, to rain down our wrath and indignation on things we don't understand. Trying to understand, rather than to judge, is seen as weak. For a recent example, check out this story about reactions to a staff member at Ohio State who suggested (via Twitter) that a search for compassion and understanding were appropriate towards the perpetrator of violence.

In today's world, humility takes courage, because it means standing up to the mobs baying for blood. But as CS Lewis reminded us, courage is really the form of every virtue at the point where it is tested. Today we humility is facing terrible and difficult tests. Will you try to know yourself first?

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Rethinking the Morality of Our Economy

As we continue examination of last month's surprising election results and the transition to a new Presidency, there is a lot of writing and thinking about the role of the economy and different people's places in it. Many have pointed out the strong rural-urban divide (see this Brookings Institution piece, for example) and the apparent chasm between well-educated city-dwellers (who voted overwhelmingly for Clinton) and less well-educated rural folks (who largely voted for Trump). At least some of what fueled Trump's victory seems to have been a desire for jobs that once existed but are now gone, along with a perceived decline in living standards.

A lot of our national conversation about jobs and the economy rests less on economics than on a surprisingly deep and unexamined bed of moral assumptions. Consider, for example, this article:
Driverless 18-Wheelers Coming to Ohio
In many ways, this is a familiar story of automation displacing human labor. We have seen the same thing in heavy manufacturing, in coal mining, in the steel industry, in farming. Plants, factories, and farms than a few decades ago employed thousands now employ a few hundred - and are more productive than they used to be. Nearly 20 years ago Paul Kennedy identified robotic automation as one of the major forces that would reshape the world in Preparing for the 21st Century.

Every time we go through another cycle, there is always concern for the workers "left behind". There have generally been two answers to this problem. The first is "benign neglect" - let folks figure it out on their own, often by moving to places where there are more jobs, and/or sinking into poverty and despair. The second has been some variation of job training/education, to "retool" workers so that they are qualified to do jobs that haven't yet been eliminated by automation.

Deep underneath all of this is a root assumption far more moral than economic. If we start asking "why", we get a chain of logic that looks something like this:

Why do workers need to retrain? So they can get new jobs that pay well.
Why do they need jobs that pay well? So they can enjoy a good standard of living.
Why is a job necessary for a good standard of living? Because that's the way we distribute resources in our economy.
Why do we distribute resources according to the use of labor? .....

This is where we hit the moral bedrock - which automation technology may eventually cause us to reexamine. We assume that wealth must be attached to labor because ... well, because wealth distributed any other way would reward laziness. Why give people money they haven't earned? We can't imagine doing it any other way.

This notion that wealth or resources must be earned is fundamentally moral. It is based on a statement of what "should" be. It is entirely possible to distribute resources in other ways and on other bases, as the "basic income" movement argues. Many objections to that argument amount to moral repugnance rather than reasoned debate, which is why I suspect it hasn't gotten very far.

It should be pointed out that, even in our present labor-market-driven system, we are not purists about "earning". Children under the age of 14 or 16 or 18, for example, don't "earn" their keep by producing, yet few people would argue that they should. That was not true 150 years ago; we once had a system in which child labor was not only allowed but expected, and children as young as 5 or 6 were held to the same moral standards of earning as adults. We do not lack for alternative ideas, we just haven't thought about them much.

So why are driverless trucks important? Because the trend lines here are clear, even if their precise measure is difficult. We will continue to find more efficient ways to produce goods and services with less and less labor input. At the same time, our population isn't declining - it's growing, if slowly (speaking here solely of the United States - in some places, like Russia and Japan, it's shrinking). At the very least, we can expect population to level off and remain steady, which in the US means ~320 million or more people.

So what happens when those curves cross - when automation means that there simply aren't enough productive jobs for all of our workforce? Some "products", like art or music, can be produced in more or less infinite quantities, but the current labor market in those areas means that the more musicians or artists there are, the poorer all of them will be as they compete for a finite market.

The economic challenges that have surfaced through the US election are real. Promises to turn back the clock and "bring jobs back" aren't going to solve them - the trend lines aren't going back. Youngstown, Ohio is never again going to have thousands of steelworkers, no matter what kind of deals President Trump thinks he can cut.

Eventually, these curves will meet and we will be forced to rethink our most basic assumptions. We will have to stop defining people's value, in economic terms, on the basis of what they produce economically, because there will not be enough work for everyone to be productive. And that will require a moral shift, so that we cease to put "earning" at the center of our moral universe. That won't be easy, and maybe we won't manage it at all (although the alternatives are far more dystopian). But we need to start thinking about this now.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Karate and Life: Justice

A lot of people - even people who don't study karate or the martial arts - have heard of Funakoshi's first two precepts regarding Respect and No First Strike. The other 18 Precepts are not nearly as well known - but there's a lot here that worth unpacking, and a lot that applies to our whole lives.

Funakoshi's third precept is this:

"Karate is an aid to justice."

I think he meant this as a reminder to his students. To study karate, or any martial art, is to develop power - specifically, to increase your power to physically harm other people. That power should only be put to use in the service of justice - that is, in the service and protection of others. Funakoshi, like all great teachers and masters, feared his teachings being used only to create bullies.

This is certainly true for karate - but it is true much more broadly of any kind of power we wield. All of us have the ability to impact others - to bring good or to cause harm, to build up or to tear down. Some have more than others, but this is only a matter of degree, not of kind. To possess power is an inherent part of being human.

Each of us can speak, and many of us can write, and our words will be heard and digested by others.

Each of us interacts with other people every day - some a few, some many. We can choose to make those interactions positive or negative, affirming or denying.

Each of us makes choices every day with our resources - our time, our money, our attention. Those choices impact us, but they also impact the people around us, for good or ill.

The lesson for us here is that, like Funakoshi's students, we should be mindful of the purposes we use our power for. We may not think of ourselves as "powerful", but each of us has an impact on the world.

Knowing that my choices, my actions, and my words have an impact, will I put those to work for justice or for my own selfish gain? Will I try to build a better world for everyone, or will I look to tear others down for my own gain or my own sense of worth? If I'm not pursuing justice intentionally, I may produce some accidentally - but I wouldn't count on it.

Comic book fans know this as the "Peter Parker Principle" - "With great power comes great responsibility." But part of the pull of comic books, especially those stories like Spider-Man which focus on an Everyman who suddenly acquires powers, is that we see ourselves in the characters. What's compelling about Marvel's new TV series, including Daredevil and Luke Cage, is not the main characters' amazing abilities - it is the struggles they face to use whatever abilities they have to make the world a better place. To pursue justice.

In one episode of Luke Cage, the main character is asked by a bystander who witnesses his power, "You're one of them, aren't you?" His answer? "If you mean one of those people who gives a damn, then yes." He's not interested in the nature of his power, only in how he uses it.

This is a warning that almost all martial arts students receive at one point or another: be careful how you use your power, because you can really hurt someone if you try. That's true of all of us - every day we hold the ability to really hurt others if we try. We can also help others with the power at our disposal. We can, if we choose, seek justice.

So remember today that you are powerful. And remember that your power is meant as an aid to justice.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Karate and Life: No First Strike

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the first of Gichin Funakoshi's 20 Precepts: The Way Begins and Ends With Respect. I believe that Funakoshi's ideas go beyond karate-do, that there is wisdom worth sharing in his list of Precepts. This is the second post in that series; eventually, I hope to write about all 20.

Funakoshi's second Precept is perhaps his most famous:

Karate ni sente nashi.
There is no first strike in karate.

This is often understood in the martial arts world as tactical advice, and has given rise to endless debates about the nature and application of various blocks and strikes. For an excellent review of this debate, see my friend Dan Djurdjevic's blog.

But what about the rest of us? I believe that the meaning here is far more important outside the dojo than inside it. If more of us lived by this precept, the world would be a better place.

The Japanese word "sente" means not simply "strike" or "attack", but "initiative" - in this case, "aggressive initiative". What Funakoshi is referring to here is that moment in any conflict when one party take the first aggressive, escalatory step - the moment when the conflict leaves the path of mutual accommodation and problem-solving and instead becomes a zero-sum struggle in which each side seeks to beat the other into submission.

All conflicts have this "inflection point" somewhere. A disagreement, or a divergence of interests, in and of itself does not generate a conflict. What turns disagreement into war is a decision by one side to try to impose its will on the other - to try to achieve a unilateral solution in which I get what I want and who cares about the other guy.

Sometimes this point comes right at the beginning of a conflict, because one side has already decided to take what they want away from the other. Sometimes, it comes after a period of time in which both sides come to realize that there is a disagreement which neither was aware of before. In all cases, somebody has to make a decision to take that step - to throw the first punch, to launch the first attack, to throw away any hope of negotiating a mutually agreeable solution in favor of grabbing as much as you can get.

Prior to this point, mutual resolution is always possible. There are no conflicts on earth between humans that can't be settled in some fashion. Some of those settlements may require compromise - each side getting less than it fully wants. Some settlements may even require a redefinition of interests, even a redefinition of identity. Such things can and do happen - there are no laws in the cosmos that prevent any of this.

Peace, in the sense of resolving conflicts together, is possible. We just don't do it very well.

Funakoshi's dictum is a plea to all of us - don't be the first one to take a step down that road. Remain open to mutual dialogue as long as possible. Don't throw the first punch. Because once that first punch is thrown, disagreement becomes conflict and peace goes out the window. And everyone will suffer.

Political scientists and economists have known this by a different language. In our fields there is a game called "prisoner's dilemma" (or PD). I'll spare you the details, but in essence the game boils down to a choice between cooperating with the other player or stabbing him in the back. If both cooperate, both sides get something and are better off. If I stab and the other guy doesn't, I get everything and he gets nothing. If we both stab, we're both worse off.

Games like PD are great for modeling certain dynamics, but life isn't like that. We rarely play a game or make a choice once and then walk away. In life, we make these choices all the time, over and over again.

A Princeton scholar, Robert Axelrod, set out to capture this by inventing an artificial computer world in which players ran around and bumped into each other. At each interaction, they would play PD with each other. Each time, players had to choose not knowing what the other side would do (the game is played with simultaneous choices) - but each DID remember what the other player had done before. Players in Axelrod's game built up memories over time of what other players do.

In this virtual world, Axelrod asked a simple question: what strategy wins? That is, from a selfish perspective, what could players do to maximize their own gains in these interactions, assuming that they cared only about themselves and not the welfare of any other players in the game?

The winning strategy, which has spawned a wealth of literature, was what Axelrod called Tit-for-Tat (TFT). The essence of the TFT strategy is simple:

• On the first round of an iterated game, Cooperate.
• On every subsequent round, do whatever the other player did the last round.

Here is Funakoshi's karate ni sente nashi in action. My best strategy is to start by trying to cooperate with the other side. If they cooperate back, then we both keep cooperating with each other, with both of us gaining every round. Only if the other side betrays me first do I resort to similar responses. I never launch the first strike.

Amidst all the debate among academics about TFT, here's the reality: no one has ever come up with a better strategy. In the long run, you and I and everyone else will be better off if we start by assuming that cooperation is possible.

Most of us will never get into a fistfight or a physical altercation. But all of us have interactions every day with people near to us and far away. In every one of those interactions, we have a choice: do I want to seek cooperation, or do I want to lash out? Find common ground or try to "win"? Funakoshi's advice is as simple as it is profound: don't be the first to start a fight. Reach out with an open hand. Sometimes people will return the favor, sometimes not. But we will always be better off if we do.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Suggestion for Bystanders: Equip Yourself

Since the election of Donald Trump a week and a half ago, our national conversation has been abuzz with different reactions. Attention is turning to the obvious question: what next? What impact will this election result have, and is it already having, on our country? And what can I do to steer things in a better direction?

There are lots of things to look at here, but the one that has caught my attention is the rise in incidents of harassment, intimidation, and violence against a range of minorities and vulnerable groups both during and after the election. That rise has been extensively documented, including here and here. Near and dear to my heart, far too many of these are taking place on university campuses.

Earlier this week I wrote an Open Letter to supporters of President-Elect Donald Trump, inviting them to help make America great again by reducing incidents of harassment, intimidation, and assault against racial, ethnic, and other minorities. As of this writing, that piece has been read over 2600 times. I hope that it has an impact in empowering people on all sides of the political spectrum - but especially Republicans and conservatives - to stand up to the ugliness noted above.

At the end of that letter I wrote this:
In the end, there are only two futures for our country. We either all succeed together in building a society free of fear, a society that can prosper and grow and realize its fullest potential. Or we turn on each other in fear and hatred and loathing and tear each other apart. I know which future I want to build. I hope you will join me.
I believe this in the depths of my heart: of all of the sins humanity is capable of, the sin of hatred and violence is the one most likely to destroy us all. It is also the one that should be most easily fixed, because hatred is a choice that can be made or unmade largely at will. There is no "tragedy of the commons" here, where otherwise-reasonable individuals generate bad outcomes. Unprovoked violence (verbal or physical) is simply bad.

As Clinton supporters and others on the political Left have struggled with how to respond to the election, there have been many suggestions and pieces of advice. From wearing safety pins to adopting anti-harassment bystander tactics, these ideas have been extensively circulated and discussed. I've no doubt that people will try many of these, that some will work, and that the discussion will go on.

A friend of mine recently wrote a blog post collecting general principles which such "resistance" efforts can be shaped by. In that collection she included two important reminders:

• We must face the world as it actually is.
• No one is going to save us. It is up to us.

Along these lines, I would like to offer a suggestion to many of my friends and fellow-travelers who, like me, are alarmed by the rise in harassment, intimidation, and violence directed against vulnerable individuals. I make this suggestion because, of all of the ideas I've seen batted around so far, I'm pretty sure no one else has made this one and no one else will.

Put simply, my suggestion is this: If you want to be an active bystander protecting victims of harassment, or if you are concerned about becoming a victim yourself, learn to defend yourself. Equip yourself, in other words, to fight.

This is rare advice, especially in liberal circles. Most folks in the tribe on the left eschew violence in all of its forms. There are good moral reasons for doing so, and I am not one to argue that violence solves problems. I have made my own position clear: I am a self-defense pacifist. I believe in the use of force only when one is under attack, and only with just enough force to successfully escape the attack.

But the need to train is not primarily about fighting. It's about dealing with fear. If you are in a situation in which you need to defend yourself or someone else, you are much less likely to have to actually fight if you are prepared to.

There's been a lot of discussion online about bystander tactics and how sympathetic people can help stand up to harassment and bullying. A lot of this is driven by the fact that most of the time, bystanders remain bystanders. People don't intervene. And the reason for that is fear.

People don't intervene in harassment situations, or especially during a physical attack, because they are worried about becoming a victim themselves. They're worried that the aggressor will turn on them. When someone is screaming angrily at someone else, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that the screaming could turn to violence, and that the screamer might direct his anger and hatred at anyone who gets in the way.

Fear paralyzes. For bystanders, it prevents them from getting involved. For victims, it keeps them from effectively standing up for themselves or repelling the attack - even when the attack is only verbal. In situations of harassment and intimidation driven by hatred, the fear is physical and visceral. The big guy yelling epithets looks scary, in part because the back of our brain is screaming he could hurt me.

The only effective counter to fear is confidence, built on learned and practiced ability. The first time we learn to drive a car, it's really frightening - a mistake could get us seriously hurt, and we've never done it before. Once you've been driving for a while, it's no big deal. The fear goes away. The situation didn't change - you did, through experience and practice.

Dealing with physical threats is no different. If you have no training and no experience, it's scary as heck. With training and practice, it becomes less so. And you will make better decisions.

Bullies and harassers are used to frightened people - they know how to push them around and get what they want, which is generally to assert dominance. They aren't nearly so good at dealing with people who aren't frightened, who are assertive. Many of them will give up, because they don't know how to handle resistance. Some will try to escalate the situation, hoping to reestablish their dominance. If you're prepared to deal with that escalation, you can usually prevail there as well.

None of this is to say that you have to actually physically attack an abuser. Most harassment is verbal, with only the threat of violence behind it. You may not engage the harasser at all - see the video linked above for strategies that are victim-centric rather than aggressor-centric. You will be more confident and capable in those strategies if you know you can handle a physical escalation by the attacker.

I've written lots previously on this blog about self-defense, its relationship to fear, and ways and means of developing yourself. If I've kept your attention this long, I encourage you to go read those posts. Read my friend Dan Djurdjevic's stuff at The Way of Least Resistance. Find training opportunities near you - workshops, classes, clubs. Treat it like a skill to be developed over time, rather than an inoculation you can check off your list once. Practice, practice, practice.

If we are going to be effective in standing up to the bullies among us who are now emboldened by this past week's events, we have to be prepared. We need a full set of tools in our toolkit, and we need to be confident in our ability to use them. Do you want to be an effective bystander, to stand up for vulnerable people when they come under attack? Then be prepared to fight. Chances are you won't have to - but you'll be glad you're ready.

Monday, November 14, 2016

An Open Letter to Trump Supporters

I am writing this as an open letter to supporters of our President-elect, Donald Trump.

I did not vote for Mr. Trump in this election. But many people did, and by the rules of our electoral system he won fair and square. Come January he will be the President of the United States, an awesome and solemn responsibility. 

I am not writing to mock, or criticize, or to call anyone names. I write because, although we voted for different candidates, we are Americans together. We are neighbors, co-workers, even friends. Some of you I know, and I respect you for the people that you are, made in the image and likeness of God. Despite our rhetoric and sometimes despite ourselves, we are not members of different tribes or different nations. We are all part of one tribe, one nation, one humanity.

This is why I write. Because your success and my success, your future and my future, are bound together - and are also bound up in the success and the future of millions of other fellow Americans on all sides of our political divides. 

In writing, I am taking our President-elect at his word when on election night he said that he wants to be President for all Americans. That "every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential." That we all "want and expect our government to serve the people".

There's been a lot of talk about what drove Tuesday's election result, which I think surprised a lot of people on both sides. Much of that talk boils down to one of two narratives. Each side has its own favorite, but I think there is truth in both. In broad brushstrokes, they look something like this:

One story is about a loss of economic opportunity, about millions of Americans in cities and rural areas across the country (but especially in the Midwest and the "rust belt") who have been left behind. Factories have closed, jobs have left for foreign shores, and the widening gap of economic inequality means that, while the US economy has generated a great deal of wealth since the Great Recession, almost none of it has come to these communities. These are the forgotten, the dispossessed, who feel that "the establishment" (politicians of both parties, the media, Washington DC in general) has abandoned them. Yes, many of these people are white, but not all. In this narrative, it's not about race - it's about elites vs. the common people, about economic opportunity denied. It's about taking control back from "the establishment" so that their communities can be great places to live again.

There is a lot of truth to this story. Sometimes the analyses attached are a little fuzzy - trade isn't as universally bad as it's made out to be, and some of the forces that have driven economic dispossession go back much farther than NAFTA. But it's a compelling explanation, particularly for people who feel abandoned by "experts" and suspicious of professionals. Chronic joblessness and underemployment is real in many communities. The heroin epidemic, grown in the soil of despair, is a disaster. For one variant of this explanation from another "regular guy" who's gotten a lot of attention, see this story on Mike Rowe's reaction to the election.

Folks who see the election through this lens likely don't understand the protests going on across the country. They see opposition to Donald Trump's presidency as "sour grapes", or as the liberal elite whining because they lost. Maybe you feel the same way; maybe you don't.

But this is where I hope you'll keep reading. Because there is another narrative, one that is felt in the hearts of millions of Americans just as strongly as the story above is felt in the hearts of folks who voted for Donald Trump.

If the first story is about economics and class, the second story is about race and gender. It's a story in which Trump's rise has been driven by xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism, and misogyny, where social forces previously driven out to the margins - the KKK, white nationalists, and various groups within the "alt right" umbrella - have been given voice and approval for their agenda. In this story, Trump's popularity is not because of who he has included, but because of who he has excluded - blacks, Hispanics and Latinos, women, immigrants, Muslims, gays, and others. Those people, and others why sympathize with them, are now terrified of what a Trump Presidency will do to their future.

You may want to dismiss this story out of hand. Don't. Millions of Americans are now living in fear. They have very good reason to. Incidents of abuse and assault against minorities have spiked since the election last week

I'm not interested in arguing about which story is "really" true. The reality is that there is plenty of evidence for both. Don't cherry-pick the evidence you like and turn away from the rest. We should face reality - all of reality - together.

Which brings me to the photo at the top of this post. A friend of mind took this photo election night. Sometime that evening, well before the results were known, someone came by his house, stole his Clinton sign, and spray painted his garage door. His nine year old son now goes to bed frightened every night because he's scared bad people are going to come back to his house and hurt them.

My friend lives in a nice suburban neighborhood. He supported Clinton, some of his neighbors supported Trump. And some of those neighbors apparently felt empowered to attack his home. He and his family aren't black, they're not Latino, they're perfectly typical white Americans. People just like you.

Or, if you are a member of a church, there's this:

Now go and look at the graffiti in the story linked a few paragraphs above. Or check out this one. Read some of the descriptions of those incidents. Ask yourself - if I were black, or Arab, or Muslim, or Mexican-American, living in my neighborhood today, how would I feel? Which of these two stories would feel real to me?

This is where you and I can discover whether we really have common ground or not. If your response at this point is to turn away and dismiss the fears of your fellow Americans out of hand, then we have nothing further to talk about. You can stop reading now.

But I don't think that's true of most of you. I think you understand fear, and that you wouldn't want your son going to bed afraid any more than you would want someone else's son or daughter to suffer that fate. I think that you, as President-elect Trump said, want an America that works for everybody.

If that's true, then we need your help. And by "we" I mean "all Americans". Because there are people in our society who agree with the second story, the one about race - and who think they're on the winning side. Who think that blacks, Latinos, Muslims, gays, and many other "outsiders" are inferior. That they're not entitled to the same rights you and I enjoy - the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These people exist across our country. They exist in varying degrees. Not everyone carries a spray can or a knife. Many carry words of scorn, distain, and disgust for their fellow Americans. They carry words of hate.

I need you to help with these people. They don't listen to me and my fellow-travelers. I'm too easily dismissed as a liberal intellectual, part of the oppressive elite in the first story. I didn't support Trump, so why should pay attention to what I have to say?

But you have that in common with them. You and they voted for the same candidate - for different reasons, perhaps, but you both supported him nevertheless. They are far more likely to listen to you when you speak up in support of your fellow Americans - men and women and children who, like you, want nothing more than to live freely in our great country and to better their lives.

Some of these people are your neighbors, even your friends. You don't have to turn on them, hate them, cast them out. Love them like the neighbors and friends they are. And in that love, help to correct them. Help them to see that their words, their ideas, their attitudes are hurting millions of our fellow citizens. That by lashing out at people different from themselves, they are betraying the American dream.

If you find yourself wanting the first story to be true and the second one to be false, I have good news: you can help make that a reality. You, far better than me, can work to turn your neighbors, your friends, your fellow-travelers away from hate and towards respect and hope. Towards a future we can all share. Towards making American great again for all of her people.

I ask that you keep your eyes and ears open for words that carry hate. That you extend a friendly hand to people different from you. That you help your friends and neighbors, when they slip into hatred and venom, to turn away. That you help the people you come into contact with every day, in your life and online, to rediscover the better angels of their nature.

In the end, there are only two futures for our country. We either all succeed together in building a society free of fear, a society that can prosper and grow and realize its fullest potential. Or we turn on each other in fear and hatred and loathing and tear each other apart. I know which future I want to build. I hope you will join me.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Things That Have Not Changed

As I take more time to process last night's surprising election result, I find one thought returning again and again. While it may seem that everything has changed, in fact a number of things - some of the most important things - have not:

• Today I am the same person I was yesterday. I have the same hopes and dreams, the same strengths and weaknesses. One of my chief tasks every day is to be a little bit better than I was yesterday - to be a little kinder, a little more patient, to show a little more love, to be a little bit more like the Christ I profess to follow. That is no different today, and it will be no different tomorrow.

• Today I have a wonderful and loving wife and three amazing children - proof of God's grace in the world, as I have done nothing to deserve any of them and their awesomeness. I still have the same obligations towards them - to love and care for them, to provide for them and their future, and to share our lives together. That is no different today, and it will be no different tomorrow.

• Today I have a job at a university. I have colleagues, superiors, and people across campus and around the community to whom I have obligations to carry out my duties faithfully and to try to advance the mission of the university - a mission of expanding educational access I believe in. I am blessed with a job that is more than merely a means of providing shelter and food - it gives me an opportunity, on its better days, to contribute to an important undertaking that will make things better for our students and the community around us. Despite my frustrations and concerns - this is no different today, and it will be no different tomorrow.

• Today I will meet people - some of whom I have known for a long time and some of whom I may barely have met. I owe those people my respect, my attention, and my best efforts. That is no different today, and it will be no different tomorrow.

• Today I live in a country that is filled with the same people it was filled with yesterday. Elections do not change so much as illuminate. They show us things about ourselves, about what we think, about our hopes and dreams and fears. We will argue for some time about what, exactly, this election showed us, because elections are very poor and cloudy mirrors. But whatever was revealed was already there. We are the same people today, and we will be the same people tomorrow.

I have argued before, in this and other arenas - we place far too much symbolic weight in the singular office of the Presidency. So much of what happens in our lives and in our communities is far, far beyond the concerns or the reach of government in Washington, or our state capitols, or even our local councils and mayors' offices. Yes, government matters, and good governance is important. But so are many other things - thinks like kindness, and respect, and following pathways of service to each other. Much of the time, I think these latter things are more important than the former - they just don't make the headlines.

The coming months will prove a test for my previous, somewhat hyperbolic hypothesis that America is dying. Over time, we will change as a people. The question will be, in what direction? And the answer will be up to us, far more than it will be the result of one man, however powerful.

And so I started my day as I always do, making coffee and cleaning the kitchen, focusing mind and body in exercise, and preparing for the challenges of the day. Whatever happens in the realms beyond my control, I will do what I can at home and in the community to make the world a better place. And that never changes.

We Were Wrong

As I write this, the final tally has not yet been made in the 2016 Presidential race. I don't yet know who the winner will be, but it is looking very likely that come January we will be inaugurating Donald Trump as the next President of the United States.

If that happens - or even if, in the wee hours of the morning, Hillary pulls off a miracle - we have to face the fact that we (the educated, the elite, the professionals) have been wrong about so very much in our politics:

• We were wrong when we said that "the Party decides". Most of the GOP establishment turned on Trump, and he won anyway.

• We were wrong when we said that elites matter. Clearly, nobody is listening to any of the elites, regardless of their party or position.

• We were wrong when we assumed that elections are about Liberal and Conservative ideologies. Trump is no more a conservative than I am a turnip, yet he carried Republicans, and a good many "independents", anyway.

• We were wrong when we said that money controls politics. Clinton out-raised Trump by a 2:1 margin. Ironically, liberals who have been wanting to get the influence of "big money" out of Presidential campaigns just got their wish - whatever else is true, Trump is not especially beholden to Wall Street or the usual Big Money interests.

• We were wrong when we said that character matters. No matter what one thinks of Clinton's character (a subject of much dispute), Trump's is on display. He is mean, vindictive, small-minded, arrogant, and petty. He has practically embodied the seven deadly sins in his life.

• We were wrong when we said that Evangelical Christians would never vote for a twice-divorced, twice-cheated, philandering lecher who runs gambling houses for a living. Apparently, "values voters" was a myth.

• We were wrong when we thought that we could use sophisticated polling techniques to predict electoral outcomes. People point to the Brexit outcome, but that was only a 4-point miss. This was a failure of epic proportions.

• We were wrong when we said that competence and capability matters, that someone utterly ignorant of public affairs could never get elected.

• We were wrong when we said that Republicans could no longer win the White House solely on the backs of whites. Clearly, they can.

• We were wrong when we argued - as I used to teach my US foreign policy classes - that only 20% of the US public is isolationist, that everyone else has accepted internationalism in one form or another. Isolationism appears to be closer to 50%.

• We were wrong when we argued that truth and reality matters. So many people believe things that are so obviously false - that trade is bad for our economy, that global warming is a myth, that complex problems have easy solutions. Richard Feynman was right - nature cannot be fooled. But apparently, a great many Americans can be. For those who hope that the truth will defend itself - maybe the Constructivists were right. Maybe people really DO make their own realities.

When we are wrong, we need to reexamine ourselves. What did we miss? What did we fail to understand? We have a lot of soul-searching to do.

In the meantime: in the morning I will get up early, as I always do. I will take care of my family, exercise, go to work. I will try hard, as I do every day, to be kind to those I work with and for, to love others as God loves, the follow the Good. The universe has not changed because of one election. Love is still love; compassion and mercy are still what they were. God is still God, and we are still who we were yesterday and will be again tomorrow. Circumstances will change, but we are who we are.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Karate and Life: 20 Precepts

Much of what I write - perhaps nearly all of what I write - touches on issues of power, conflict, and peace. Across areas of human endeavor I am endlessly fascinated with how power is created and exercised, how conflict is kindled and resolved, and what paths we should take in seeking to create peace. These ideas weave in and out of my writing, both here on the blog and elsewhere.

Regular readers know that a part of my personal exploration into these issues revolves around learning and practicing traditional Asian martial arts. In this I am both a student and a teacher; I love sharing what I know with others, and I have so much more to learn myself.

Those who spend time in the traditional martial arts world soon encounter one of its central tenets: that karate, or judo, or kung fu, are not merely for fighting in a ring or practicing in a gym. The benefits of the martial arts extend throughout the student's life, and indeed should be actively sought and considered far beyond the simple practice of physical techniques. This is probably why one of my most-read blog posts of all time is titled, The Benefits of Studying the Martial Arts.

Most of what I write isn't new - far deeper thinkers have been developing these ideas for centuries. What I try to do is simply bring them to audiences that might otherwise not be familiar with the practice of Do - "way", in Japanese. Karate-do, Judo, Aiki-do - all have this common root, a call to a broader understanding and self-improvement in service to others.

One of the best synopses of this is Gichin Funakoshi's list of 20 Precepts. Funakoshi, an Okinawan master who brought karate to Japan in the early part of the 20th century, is often credited as "the father of modern karate". He wrote his Precepts as a way to pass his notion of Do along to his students, to remind them that they were engaged in a calling far higher than learning how to defend themselves in a fight.

Starting with this entry I am planning to write a series of blog posts, one for each of the 20 Precepts, with musings and thoughts on how these apply to the world around us outside the dojo (literally, "Place of the Way"). I hope these will be of interest to practitioners and non-practioners alike.

The first Precept is this:

Karate-do begins and ends with respect.

In traditional martial arts, this is summed up in the bow, or rei. Students and instructors alike "bow in" and "bow out" when they enter and leave the training space, and bow to each other at the beginning and end of each exercise. Bowing is a physical means by which we remind ourselves of the culture of respect.

Some people are uncomfortable in traditional dojos because of this formality. Where else in our lives do we have such physical, visceral symbols of respect? In some traditional churches (though fewer all the time), people bow or reverence the altar or the crucifix, but in my experience this practice isn't universal even in churches that do practice it.

The underlying principle, however, is sound - and sorely needed. When we begin and end interactions with a sign of mutual respect, it is much more difficult in between to mistreat each other. If our first thought when starting a new conversation or walking into a meeting is, "I respect the people here as fellow colleagues", our whole demeanor changes. And if things go sideways in that meeting, ending with a similar posture of respect reminds us that we're on the same team, that we're there to solve problems together, that we share much in common.

In our culture today, in 21st century America, we have almost no such signs of respect. And where we do have them, we reserve them almost exclusively for our friends, our family, for those who are inside our boundaries of comfort. "If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?"

The Christian call to love one another as God loves us can be hard, especially today. That verse is followed by an admonition: "But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return". Even if we cannot imagine ourselves going so far, can we at least take the first step of respecting our enemies?

Funakoshi put this Precept first, I suspect, because he understood that without mutual respect (even mutual love), people will use their power to hurt each other. Karate is a form of power, but we exercise power every day in our conversations and interactions with others. When we start and end with a posture of respect, in between we will work to make sure that we don't use our power to harm, but to help. When I respect others, I want to help them. That is a Way worth following.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Signs of Life

This is the season for political signs. Like many neighborhoods across America, ours is festooned with political signs of all kinds. Because I live in a politically diverse area, there are Trump signs and Hillary signs, as well as signs for all sorts of other things - local politicians, judges, ballot issues, even one proclaiming "Giant Meteor 2016: Just End It Already".

The picture above was taken in my neighborhood, just a few blocks from my home. It's plain and ordinary enough. But like the crocus poking up through the spring snow, I see it as a sign of life.

Why? Those who have read this blog before, or who otherwise know me, will know that I am not a supporter of Donald Trump's campaign for the presidency. As such, I would never put a Trump sign in my yard.

The hope I see here is in the other sign - the yellow one that reads "Oakwood Schools: Proven Value". I have one just like it in my front yard. It's a sign in favor of an upcoming ballot measure for a levy to support our school district, which is the pride of this community (and, without much exaggeration, one of the best in the state).

I've heard so many people in the last few weeks say, "I can't imagine how anyone can support Trump" or "I can't imagine how anyone can support Hillary". I would guess that most people identify with at least one of those statements. And in the gulf that we have created around these two candidates, we see the other side as really Other, as alien, even treasonous.

Yet here is a member of my community - someone I do not know - who supports both Trump and our local school levy. I may not be able to understand supporting Trump for President. But I certainly do understand supporting our local schools. This family and I have something in common - something which, were we to talk, we could understand about each other.

That is a very important thing to remember. The people who put Trump signs in their yard are not themselves Donald Trump, any more than those who put Clinton signs in their yard are Hillary Clinton. Our support for Presidential candidates, however heartfelt and passionate it may be, is still just one small piece of who we are.

We are neighbors, these unknown people and I. Our children go to school together, cheer for each other at sporting events, sit side by side in class. We drive the same roads, visit the same shops, frequent the same concerts and ball games and museums. The fact that we support different political candidates does not negate, and should not overshadow, any of that. We have so much in common, so many shared interests.

This is a small example, and for those who know Oakwood and its demography and history, probably a somewhat unfair one. I live in a small community that is political diverse but economically and racially homogeneous. And what about my less-near neighbors in Trotwood? Huber Heights? Centerville?

None of this is to diminish the differences between us. Many of those differences - race, gender, class - are far more consequential and important than which candidate you're voting for. We have real work to do to insure that our differences don't do damage, that we are one diverse community rather than a collection of tribes at war with one another.

But like the crocuses in the snow, this little pairing of signs suggests that maybe there are things we can understand about one another. In therein lies a sign of hope.

Friday, November 4, 2016

America is Dying

I'm not usually given to clickbait titles, but I'll plead guilty on this one. Now I get to explain what I mean by "America" and what I mean by "dying".

What I want to say doesn't dovetail well - or much at all - with most of what we're hearing from the political campaigns and their supporters. Each campaign has an interest in spinning narratives of various kinds of decline, stories that include heroes and villains and moral conclusions. What I want to say isn't related to any of that because I don't think that who wins next week's Presidential election is nearly as important as other things.

That's right: there are things more important than whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton becomes President in 2017.

A lot of rhetoric in political campaigns invokes the "future of our country", but that's almost never what they actually talk about. What they really talk about is the future occupant of the Oval Office, which is not at all the same thing. Presidents are important, yes, but they are not the most important thing.

What is? We are.

By "we", I mean everybody - the entire collection of the American body politic. This includes everybody living within our borders - citizens and non-citizens, "legals" and "illegals", black, white, brown, yellow, male, female, old, young, gay straight, cis, trans. Everybody.

This is what "America" is. Just as "the church" is not a building, it is a collection of people united in the Body of Christ, so a nation is not a set of borders and institutions. The government is not the nation, any more than the narthex or the nave is the church. We are the nation. All of us together.*

A nation, as a collective entity, has a life measurably separate from (but also composed of) the lives of its individual members. Just as a congregation, or a school, or a team, or a business, has a life and a culture and a set of ideas of its own even as individual members come and go, so a nation has a collective life and existence. That life changes over time with the changing of its members, just as our own bodies change over time as cells are created and replaced, as some die off and others are brought in.

The life of a nation, like that of a school or a team or a church, can be healthier or sicker. It may be growing or shrinking, getting better or getting worse. Indeed, given that we live in a dynamic universe things are changing all the time - some for the better, some for the worse, in much the same way that our own physical health is constantly changing.

The idea of a nation "dying" rests on some understanding of the nation as having "health". The health of "America" relies fundamentally on our ability to function cooperatively together in a society. That doesn't mean that we have to always agree - indeed, disagreement is healthy too, because it helps us to identify problems and pushes us to improve. But fundamentally, our health as a nation relies on our ability to work together, to get along, and to contribute to the greater good of the whole even as we are also contributing to our own welfare and those around us.

There has never been a time in American history when our nation was "perfectly healthy". Stories of a past in which everything was "great" are selective readings that ignore the parts of the nation that weren't healthy - the suppression of blacks, the discrimination against Eastern Europeans or Irish, the social subjugation of women, economic discrimination against immigrants, etc. We have always been in a state of less-than-perfect health, but we have mostly also tried to make it better.

So when I say that America as a nation is dying, what I mean fundamentally is that this ability to cooperate together, to see ourselves as engaged in a common endeavor even when we disagree and argue, is rapidly being eroded. I don't have a good barometer of how much we have lost and how much remains, but the trend line is clear. Unchanged, these trends will ultimately kill the nation of "America" and leave us with something very different.

This death is all around us these days. The Presidential campaign is partly a cause, but also partly a symptom. A politics that calls for jailing or assassinating political opponents, that promises to use the supposedly-blind instruments of justice for avowedly partisan political ends, that looks at those on the other side and sees only deplorable, irredeemable people - all of this erodes a very notion that we even have a nation. That we are a nation. E pluribus unum has become E pluribus pluribus.

I want very much for the presidential election to be over, not because I think that its ending - whatever the outcome - will make these problems go away but because the fact of the election itself is getting in the way of the most important work - rebuilding our nation's health. The rebuilding is not primarily economic - things could be better economically, but they could also be (and have been) much worse. Nor is it tied to any particular issue or set of policies. All of these are just individual pieces, and none of them will matter if we don't get the whole put back together.

Our health as a nation is not dependent on government getting policies right. It is dependent on us getting our relationships right.

The really difficult work ahead of us is to remind ourselves that E pluribus unum is a foundational principle, a central value on which we all agree. It is to remind ourselves that there are things on which we all agree, that we are all Americans together and that this togetherness matters. And most importantly, we have to not simply be reminded of these things. We have to live our lives as if they were true.

The task that I am setting for myself, for this week and next week and all the weeks after that, is this: treat everyone I run into as a neighbor. Assume in every interaction that I and the person I am dealing with are part of the same community, that we have far more in common than what divides us, and that the most important thing I can do is engage my fellow Americans with respect, dignity, and love. If enough of us do the same, our nation can be healed - not to perfection, but towards a good, working order.

But if the bile and filth and darkness of this past year overwhelm these efforts, things will get worse for all of us. Problems will multiply, suffering will increase. And we will have only ourselves - not our government, not our politicians, not this or that political party - to blame.

Walt Kelly's wisdom remains true: We have met the enemy, and he is us.

* I recognize that this claim is disputed by some, who see "America" as a nation primarily composed of one ethnic or religious group (usually, Christian Whites). Such people are quick to resort to the rhetoric of "war", because for them they see non-whites as invaders and aliens who really ought to be somewhere else. This is a fundamental disagreement; if you believe that "America" is a nation for one ethnic or religious group in particular, none of the rest of this will make any sense to you.