Born to be mild

It was a very nice restaurant up north in Michigan, kind of upscale but not nosebleed, that had a front wall that could be entirely removed for the warm summer months, providing all the benefits of outdoor eating from almost anywhere inside.  It was a Saturday evening in July, with temperatures hovering in the 70s, a perfect up north atmosphere.  We were enjoying a really nice beef-tenderloin-in-a-pastry thingie, when up from the stoplight a block away there arrived about two dozen or so bikers, riding slowly by, in a parade of their own.

Mind you, these were not Hell’s Angels types for the most part.  There were four or five scruffy desperados, but the rest were a diverse group: millennials with their millennial assortment of facial hair and slick heads, geriatric hippies, dentists with Harley-Davidson logos on the backs of their $500 leather jackets, middle management types bolt upright on their rides.  All had at least one thing in common: they had enough money to spare for high-end motorcycles.

Well, okay, they had two things in common.  They also loved to race their unmuffled engines as they rode slowly by.  Maybe you’ve heard the biker mantra, “loud pipes save lives”?  If it’s true, then enough lives were saved that evening to make Our Lady of Lourdes blush with envy.

Well, three things. This disparate collection of humanity loved nothing better than annoying anyone who thought they were above them, which, from their perspective, was anyone who was annoyed by them.

It worked to perfection. For the duration of the din, all conversation stopped, since it couldn’t be heard anyway.  Around the room, there were a few slow-burning stares, a smattering of giggles,  and some outright smiles, but most did what I did: sigh with resignation and wait the invasion out.

This episode strikes me as the perfect metaphor for current politics.  The bikers represent the loud Trumpist minority, and the rest  of us divided but generally unable or unwilling to stop them, many silently wishing that at least mufflers on motorcycles could become a thing.

If only our political malaise could be so easily cured.

My country, your country

Things are more complicated than they used to be.

It used to be that conservatives would advocate for a return to some idyllic, unfettered free society, unburdened by excessive constraints of what they called a “nanny state.”  Liberals would then argue that there never was such a society, at least not in the US, and what was derided as the nanny state was simply a means of redress for the injustices suffered by less fortunate citizens.

Now, Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party has systematically destroyed any vestiges of conservative ideology among the party faithful in favor of the kind of personality cult we used to cluck at in other places.  There’s no longer even any serious attempt at lip service to these values.  What we get instead is a naked power grab, no holds barred.

Ironically, this finally allows us to resolve the classic debate between liberals and conservatives.  We now have to concede that the Republican party is indeed trying to restore the country to some previous state that the country was actually in.  They want to go back to the 1950s.

For those of you too young to remember that time, let me clarify things.  It was a time when African Americans were still occasionally being lynched with impunity, when police would routinely beat confessions out of the usual suspects whenever it was expedient, when anyone even suspected of communist sympathies was blacklisted from desirable jobs, when the term “domestic violence” didn’t exist and it was considered a man’s prerogative to beat his wife and children, when “no” was seriously thought to mean “yes,” and when it was everybody’s business to enforce conformity.  Women were expected to stay home and cook, and if they were allowed to work at all, it was at a fraction of the salaries of equivalent jobs for men.  LGBTQ? Forget it. It was open season on people like you.

And this wasn’t the worst of our history.  From the infamous Alien and Sedition Act to the Jim Crow laws, we have been a country of, at best, enablers, and at worst, criminals.

Trump’s ideals are no foreign intrusion, friends.  They are a dream of his youth, the good old days in the US.  You can see it through the clenched teeth of his supporters.  At least no one’s pretending any more; what you see is what you get.

Happy Fourth.

My dear young people

It seems we Boomers will most likely be the last generation to live out their lives in a relatively comfortable habitat.

Nothing personal. We did it all for greed and convenience. Mostly convenience; nothing galls us more than having to move when we’ve settled in. Truth to tell, we didn’t even think very much about the consequences, except now, toward the end, when it’s no doubt too late. Even now, we expend far more of our energy shifting the blame to someone else than trying to fix things.

But don’t give us all the credit; we didn’t pull this off on our own. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, if we have destroyed more than others, it was only because we were standing on the shoulders of past generations. Even the earliest farmers, whom we find so idyllic in our post-modern romanticism, advanced by slash-and-burn, with a good dash of never-look-back thrown in at the end. Where humanity is concerned, it seems a kind of fever descends upon us at the first glint of personal advantage. Nothing can stop us. Not empathy, not self-interest, not religion or science. We easily slip in and out of all those noble sentiments we build our castles on.

On second thought, that’s not fair. We do not cast aside our values. We twist them around until they are only recognizable to ourselves, until they not only do not stand in the way of our acquisitiveness, but outright demand it.

You are understandably upset. We’re like the bigger kids who stole your lunch, then ate it right in front of you while your stomach growled. I do see that. But what you don’t understand is that you would have done the same, because you are made of us, you are us, spit and image. In fact, in the coming crisis, you will do the same. It has already begun. Our current president, Donald Trump, is, I grudgingly confess, one of us, but look at those faces at his hate fests; people of all generations are there, yours included. Their faces reflect the whole range of emotions from greed to anger to fear and back again.  They’re like a mighty mirror, too bright to look at for long, too huge to ignore.

In the end, though, it comes down to this. We have made a proper hash of things, as blind as God himself to the consequences.

We are so sorry. But we have to go now. There’s money to be made of the carnage.

In defense of second place

His nickname was Beta, because he wasn’t the best at anything, but he was just under No. 1 in a lot of things ordinary people thought were unrelated.

He was born in 276 BCE in Cyrene in modern-day Libya and led a life of intellectual pursuit and contemplation, culminating in being named chief librarian at the famous Library of Alexandria in Egypt.

Before that, he was a widely read poet and historian.  His list of achievements while at Alexandria was impressive, to say the least.  Among them are:

  • Wrote  a three volume work in which he described in detail all of the known world, and in the process invented geography, which, not surprisingly, was the title of the work.
  • Calculated the circumference of the sun, and its distance from the earth.
  • Did the same for the moon.
  • Not to mention the circumference of the earth while he was at it, which, contrary to what you may hear on Columbus Day, he knew was roughly spherical.
  • Devised a method of finding prime numbers.

There are more achievements, but since we’re talking about second best, it seems inappropriate to continue.

The man whose very nickname was “second place” was Eratosthenes of Cyrene who lived from 276 bce to 195 bce.

By today’s ludicrous number-one-or-nothing standards, he was a miserable failure.

Online social media: Who we would like to think we are

Open Facebook these days, and what you see is a lot of urging to quit Facebook, due to recent revelations about its relationship with the Cambridge Analytical kerfuffle.  Apart from the irony (surely intended) of posting the call to arms on Facebook itself, I think it’s a dubious response to a very real dilemma: how to avoid being manipulated by social media.

A recent New York Times op-ed by Michael J. Socolow gives some sound practical advice on the subject, but his view of the real problem is a near miss:

… Cambridge Analytica is the symptom, not the disease. The larger problem is that unpleasant and frustrating information — no matter how accurate — is actively hidden from you to maximize your social media engagement.

We — humans, that is — have always had difficulty facing unpleasant and frustrating information, especially when it conflicts with our world view; that’s highly unlikely to change.  There are several recent studies that suggest that, in fact, being confronted with rational arguments against your world view can even strengthen your resolve.  It becomes a test of loyalty, not a rational decision.  So, what to do?

Get a room, as they say.  For better or worse, we are often much more flexible in our positions, even ones we hold dear, when no one is watching.  It’s the public gaze that stiffens our backs.  That’s why sensitive negotiations are better conducted in secret until at least a tentative agreement is reached.  It’s also why our outrage at secret government hearings is misplaced, especially in these bellicose times.  Transparency is good, by all means, but after the fact, not during.  I suspect this effect is a genetic response to the social nature of humans as a species; what we sacrifice in accuracy we gain in solidarity.  It’s a trade-off, of course.

The problem facing us now is that in social media, the boundaries between public and private are hazy, if not absent.  It feels private to post something on Facebook.  You are usually alone when you do it, sitting at your computer, in control.  No surprise that it comes as a shock when someone (out of nowhere, you think) strongly disagrees.  In front of that huge list of friends you’ve accumulated.

When you read something on Facebook, on the other hand, it feels public.  As such, it invites comment, even disagreeable comment.

Of course, anything you put online is public, no matter how it feels at the time.  Keeping that in mind is a big step toward curbing emotional responses, and therefore mitigating the natural tendency to accept what supports our existing beliefs, and reject everything else.  Post in public, react in private.

Having said all that, Socolow’s point about the internet’s tendency to ghettoize information is real.  You don’t even have to be on social media as such.

You can do a little experiment.  Find a friend, preferably someone you tend to disagree with a lot, and sit side by side, and google the same words, each on your own computer.  Then compare the results.

Quitting Facebook will make you feel virtuous, but not much else.  Better to stay and apply pressure to change the algorithm.

The Indiana Driving School

I learned my most useful life lessons in the middle of my fifteenth year.

In Indiana, where I grew up, you could get a learner’s permit to drive, with adult supervision, at fifteen and a half. As it happens, I’m a January child, so that benchmark fell in mid-summer. My school didn’t have the funding for a driver’s ed class in summer. Actually, I’m not sure they even had one the rest of the year, but anyway, my father decided I would enroll at the private driving school where he had learned the rules of the road as an adult immigrant: The Indiana Driving School.

The curriculum featured a handful of lectures delivered in a monotone at the facility, which was a one-room walkup near downtown, and a handful of films seemingly made by the same people who made those high school ‘health’ films. The room held about ten or twenty students, and out front, on the street, were two used cars comprising the school’s fleet. We didn’t get to actually sit in those cars for about a week, during which we soaked up valuable driving hints along with the normal rules of the road. It’s these that I find myself returning to time after time as life wisdom.

You will tend to go where your eyes go. The specific application, of course, was in maintaining your lane while driving, but I have found it to be true, at least metaphorically, in general as well.

Get the big picture. Look past the nose on your face to the context. Self-explanatory.

Leave yourself an out. Big one, here, my friends. On rare occasions, I have forgotten this piece of advice, and always regretted it.

After the first week, we got to actually drive a car, three students and an instructor packed into a Nash Rambler.  That was when I learned my biggest life lesson.

I was driving and, I thought, doing very well, thanks, when I cut a left turn at a stop light too close and nipped the front bumper of a car waiting at the intersection.  I freaked.

“What should I do?” I asked the instructor beside me.

“Step on the gas and don’t stop until I tell you,” he said, sinking down into the seat..

Commodiana

Lately, I’ve seen a number of editorial comments comparing Trump to the Roman emperor Nero.  This is an outrage.  Nero was marginally competent as an emperor.

If you want a Roman comparison, try Commodus, who renamed Rome Commodiana to honor his divine self.

Like Trump, he was born filthy rich, the son of the otherwise commendable Marcus Aurelius, who elevated him to the rank of co-emperor at the age of 15.  Then Marcus had the gall to up and die three years later, leaving his son sole emperor of Rome at the age of 18.

It is extremely unfair to say that Commodus was unfit to be emperor because he had the mind of an 18-year old.  He had never really gotten past the 12-year old stage.  That was when he had been named consul of Rome, effectively ending any developmental progress.  Here he is, apparently wearing his birthday cake on his head:

By Lgtrapp – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18496675

Note the uncanny resemblance to Trump’s alleged hair.

One Roman historian, Dio Cassius, tells us that Commodus ruined Rome, turning it from a kingdom of gold to one of “iron and rust.”  He did this by completely ignoring his imperial duties and spending his time glorifying himself, including changing the names of the months to reflect the twelve names he had acquired while emperor.  Fortunately, none of it stuck.

Although ‘Commodiana’ has a certain, er, ring to it.  For future reference, in case America continues it’s death spiral.

In the end, Commodus was strangled in his bath by his favorite wrestling partner.  Now we know why Trump fired Bannon.