It’s Time to Clear the Rubble

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On September 11, 2019 the citizens of the United States once again remembered the events of 9/11. Somehow overcast weather in my city matched the solemn feelings that most of us have on this day each year as we recall where we were and what we saw with vivid clarity. It was an unbelievable, unexplainable moment when it became clear beyond a doubt that so much of who we are and what we believe was vulnerable and under attack.

I usually write and post a blog about this event more appropriately on its actual anniversary, but this year I found myself struggling for words to describe the evolution of my thoughts over the ensuing eighteen years since that day. Instead I simply read the touching feelings of others and felt that visceral punch in the gut that hit me almost two decades ago when we were still a somewhat naive citizenry. On that day we grieved together both for those who had so suddenly and tragically died and for the death of our innocence.

In the aftermath of the tragedy we stood together as a nation in our resolve to show the world that we would not be defeated by evil. We thought that we had the strength to overcome the forces that hoped to divide us, and at the time it seemed as though we would remain united and strong. At first it was our collective grief that kept us together, but over time it was our fear that began to tear us apart. We had different ideas about how to proceed forward and our debates became more and more brutal and personal until our discussions were no longer dialog but instead vicious arguments. Our united front crumbled as surely as the twin towers had done leaving us in a chronic state of war with one another. Instead of building our nation stronger than ever we became our own worst enemies.

In the eighteen years since 9/11 we have taken our political discussions to new lows. It’s been awhile since we showed respect for the offices of our government. There were those who hated George W. Bush and demeaned him in cartoonish ways. There were those who hated Barack Obama and demeaned him in racist ways. Now there are those who hate Donald Trump and demean him to the point of attempting to drive him from office. Our Congress is paralyzed by the infighting and unwillingness to compromise in a bipartisan way that is good for the country. It is now fashionable to destroy those who think differently by ravaging their character and their beliefs. In other words, whether we realize it or not, those men who so viciously attacked our nation on September 11, 2001, have accomplished more than just killing three thousand souls and bringing down two buildings. They have punched a hole into the very heart of democracy, and we have played into the their hands with our unrestrained anger which we now focuses inward rather than at the true source.

We began by restricting freedoms for safety’s sake and then we began pointing fingers here in our own country as though knowing who to blame for the tragedy might somehow make us feel better. Our debates ran the gamut from invoking punishing retribution to demonstrating kindness to our enemies. We were in new territory, not really knowing what to do. So many mistakes were made just as throughout all of history. We were so anxious to resolve our troubles that we let our impatience get the best of us. We were being ruled more by emotions than logic. Our feelings overtook us and led us to lose our focus. Every little thing was steeped in hyperbole that eventually evolved into propaganda.

We felt very lost and confused and when we turned to the media for understanding they only fanned the flames of our divisions. Soundbites became our arguments and dissolved into petty catch phrases that offered no real solutions. The media had a field day with our worries and our feuding, making hay from our fears and driving us further and further apart.

On the morning of the eighteenth anniversary of 9/11 the headlines in most of the major news outlets were not about remembering that horrific event but about clashes with the White House and innuendo about members of Congress and the Supreme Court. Stories of 9/11 were in small print, hidden among headlines about celebrities and sports. This alone told me much about where we find ourselves eighteen years after perhaps the most horrific moment in our country’s history.

It is long past time for all of us to regain our wits and demonstrate the true strength of this country that is found in good people everywhere. We are not the stereotype that some would have us believe we are. Ours is a flawed history just as that of every other country in the world, but it is a story based on an idea of freedom and dignity that we are still attempting to perfect. We must choose to be the people that we want to be rather than a fearful mob focused on degrading the very foundations of our country. We need to insist on a return to logic and calm in our national debates and understand that sometimes we only progress by accepting compromises. We each must be willing to address the needs of a changing world and do so with dignity.

There is great truth in the adage that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” It is time that we work together and without rancor. Eighteen years have done great damage to our republic. While we were arguing the rubble in New York City was cleared and magnificent structures were erected in its place. We need to begin the process of doing the same for the government of our country otherwise those terrorists will have won. We can’t allow that if for no other reason than to be certain that those who died did not do so in vain. It’s time to clear the rubble.

Free to Pursue the Truth

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The truth is found when men are free to pursue it.” —-Franklin Roosevelt

So we have a football player objecting to all sorts of American flags and many conservatives objecting to him. We have baristas at Starbucks asking law enforcement officials to leave because they are triggering other patrons. This person bothers that person and before long we are removing books from libraries, taking down crosses and monuments, refusing to shop or eat in certain places. How about just calming down and allowing each individual the right to his/her own thoughts, occupations, and choices? As long as nobody is being hurt why do so many of us come unglued? The thought patrol is making it feel dangerous to express ourselves publicly, because even the most benign ideas have the potential of being misunderstood, misinterpreted, and considered offensive. The mere choice of a wrong word may unintentionally cause pandemonium.

The quote that I chose to use at the beginning of this post might be construed to be sexist because it applies the word “men” to all humans. The idea of freedom to pursue the truth in today’s world often involves narrowing the parameters of what and who a person may choose to study. Unlike the days of my youth when I was encouraged to consider multiple points of view including before drawing conclusions, these days it has become risky to admit to actively searching out the merit of diverse ideas. Now there is a kind of closed mindedness requiring each of us to choose a particular side and then eschew all others. It flies in the face of all that I was taught to view as the pathway to wisdom.

I’ve learned over the years that there is rarely perfection in any person, organization, nation. As humans we make mistakes. Judging anyone or any group or any idea with a snapshot of only one moment is a ludicrous act. Instead we have to consider the totality to truly understand the nature, the character of all human pursuits. Each of us grows and evolves and changes over time as do even organizations. It matters less what someone did or said as an adolescent than how that individual eventually chose to live. Few of us would pass muster if the only yardstick for determining our morality were to view a few random moments from our youth. So t0o it often is with people who have spent decades in the public view. Our question should always be how they have changed to become better versions of themselves, not how they once were. The same is true of our country.

What I have always loved the most about being a citizen of the United States is my right to express myself without fear of being incarcerated or ruined. I have always understood that I had to follow certain guidelines with regard to my job because when I spoke, even in the private sector, I was still representing my employer. Nonetheless I always felt comfortable in supporting causes that I believed to be important. Mostly nobody really cared one way or another if I differed with them. Of late, however, it suddenly feels very different. People seem compelled to argue with me and tell me that they are disappointed whenever my views differ from theirs. Complete strangers come unglued by the mere mention of certain hot topics, even when I point out that I am attempting to hear the voices of as many different philosophies as possible before drawing conclusions.

It has become fair game to be close minded. Even in our universities where free thinking was once the norm, we shut down alternative discussions in the name of making everyone feel unsafe. Our debates are no longer ways to display differing ideas, but rather showcases for solidarity. Nobody wants to stray from the party line lest they be derided for abandoning the mutual cause. The result is a kind of stagnation of thought that is preventing solutions to very real problems and causing fear among those who genuinely wish to carry on lively discourse to find the truth.

I become wary whenever I hear the same phrases being mindlessly repeated again and again. I know that I am in the midst of propaganda rather than receiving facts. I have to explore different sources on my own, hoping that there will be people who have been willing to speak rationally about various topics even as they worry that their words may land them in a world of trouble.

We still have liberty in our country, but it does not feel as comfortable as it once did. The thought police are everywhere making it feel a dangerous game to engage in meaningful dialogue. As a nation we are far too busy pontificating rather than asking questions and then really listening to the answers. Sloganeering has become the fashion and in the process it is eroding the very freedoms that the grand experiment begun by the founders of this nation had hoped to achieve. So far we have yet to completely cross the line into tyranny, but our freedoms are threatened from both the far right and the far left. It’s time we demonstrate the courage to protect our precious liberties by letting those who would constrain our thoughts know that we are not so easily intimidated or bribed into submission. We are thinking people who want facts and information, not politicized propaganda.

Our process for selecting leaders has become as silly as a high school popularity contest or a beauty pageant. We don’t need clever soundbites, or demonstrations of insulting behavior. We need concrete ideas that are likely to actually become solutions to looming problems. We also need leaders who will accept our many differences and then use well thought out judgement to work for all the people, not just a small slice of supporters. It’s time for each of us to once again feel free to pursue the truth.

Policing Our Information

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Long ago I was a daily subscriber to The Houston Post, a newspaper that ceased to exist after a time. It’s competitor, The Houston Chronicle, had never had great appeal to me, but in the aftermath of the Post’s failure I began to have the Chronicle delivered to my house each day. When I moved to a new home about thirteen years ago I was so busy with work and other responsibilities that I decided to only sign up for weekend delivery. Even then I hardly had the time to stop to read all of the Sunday sections. The paper often lined the bottom of my trash can without ever having been adequately digested. With the advent of online news sources I was more likely to sit with my laptop on my knees while I sipped on my morning tea and munched on my breakfast. I eventually decided to stop the delivery of a newspaper to my home and instead subscribe to national sources offering coverage on my computer.

A couple of Sundays ago when I visited with my in-laws I noticed a copy of the Sunday Houston Chronicle lying on their kitchen counter. I was horrified to see how much it had shrunk in size. It looked more like something that might be distributed on college campuses by the journalism students than the local news source of the fourth largest city in the United States. I suppose that it has come to this dire end because of people like me who abandoned the paper when it became more of a vehicle for want ads and inserts from merchants than a purveyor of good quality information. In fact, such appears to be the fate of many newspapers around the country.

It makes me sad to watch the demise of good old fashioned reporting in local papers because there was a time when I wanted nothing more than to be a journalist. I dreamed of gathering information on the happenings around my city and then writing stories about them. I imagined one day garnering the respect of a byline with my name on it. The thought of being a newspaper reporter sounded exciting and important to me. Never did I imagine that news outlets would find themselves struggling to stay afloat, even in places with large populations. I did not conceive of a revolution in electronic reporting that would displace almost all but the most notable newspapers with online information delivered to computers in nanoseconds.

Not even when I got my first home computer was I able to foresee the future as it unfolded. Things changed so quickly that I hardly noticed what was happening. In the nineteen nineties when I was earning an advanced degree my professors urged me to learn about email and the Internet. Both methods were still clunky and not so easy to use, but I proudly complied and thought of myself as being modern and adventurous. By the turn of the century things were progressing online at warp speed and inventive minds were finding more and more ways to simplify the process of garnering information so quickly and easily that even small children learned how to use the worldwide web. It was a brave new world that was exciting and intoxicating, and it was being used more and more often in ways that most of us never thought possible.

Suddenly we were instantly linked to people all around the world with only a few keystrokes. Those old fashioned news sources made of paper that invariably contained old information by the time they were delivered seemed outdated and inconvenient and even overpriced given that they were so late in providing us details about the world’s happenings. I suppose that only those who contrived ways to stay relevant have remained robust, and even they must worry that the day may come when the marvelous invention of the printing press will seem as insignificant as a horse drawn plow or a buggy, the kind of things relegated to museums.

When Facebook came along it was initially the domain of college students, a way to get to know and communicate with more people than ordinary means allowed. By sharing photos and messages it was supposed to bring people together, and for a time that’s mostly what it did. Eventually adults long past their younger years entered the fray, and users began to realize the power of the comments on those walls. Facebook became a vehicle for presenting points of view, and setting up discussions. It was almost inevitable that it would also be a way of sharing news stories and political opinions. Editorializing and propaganda and stories whose veracity was questionable found their way onto people’s feeds without even asking. With information flooding in from hundreds of unnamed sources it became more and more necessary to fact check virtually everything that appeared on the Facebook walls. It also lead to abuses by information gathering sources that then used their data to target certain users with political propaganda.

By now everyone has heard the accusations of attempts by the Russians to influence the 2016 presidential election by using Facebook and other outlets to spread false information. Mark Zuckerberg has defended his organization by noting that his original intent was to do good by bringing people together, and to that end he did not want to become a judge and jury for who and what should appear in the newsfeeds of his billions of users. Nonetheless he has been criticized for not being more vigilant in monitoring the information that subscribers send and see on their walls.

I’m rather libertarian when it comes to any form of censoring. I find the idea of having someone determining what I may see on my Facebook page to be far more frightening than knowing that some of what is there is false and misleading. I would prefer taking the time to fact check on my own than to be limited by some kind of algorithmic board that scans the offerings and comments. While I understand that there is some exceedingly contemptible and frightening information being passed along as truth, I stand by the idea that it is up to each of us individually to decide what we choose to accept as fact versus fiction. In fact, I think that even if Facebook were to totally change it’s standards tomorrow by only allowing greetings and photos of family and puppies there would still be places where shenanigans rule.

Teachers have told me for my entire lifetime to beware of propaganda which may be found even in old fashioned newspapers and on television and in the speeches of our politicians. We’ve had the rainmakers and traveling medicine peddlers forever. Those who bang on drums and attempt to fool us into believing fake ideas have been around since the beginning of time, and one way or another we humans have had to be careful not to fall for their snake oil routines. It’s in our own best interests to always and without exception be wary. If something sounds too incredible to be true, it’s possible that it actually is a tactic to mislead us. There are so many ways to unfold the veracity of ideas, and we have to learn how to use them before following our emotions rather than our reason. We must always be willing to determine fact rather than opinion, truth rather than lies. We shouldn’t require Facebook to be our police and more than we asked that of our old newspapers. That’s why we have the ability to think. Let’s put that talent to use rather than asking a stranger to do it for us.

A Quiet Revolution

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Sometimes it’s good to get away from the never ending information stream that surrounds us on a daily basis. Even with a concerted effort it can be almost impossible to drown out the the noise that has become so much a part of life in the world today. We are literally exposed to an overload of news and opinions that swirl so closely together that it becomes difficult to differentiate between the two. Fact becomes opinion and opinion becomes fact. We find ourselves growing cynical in an upside down universe where believing is sometimes fueled by misinformation and propaganda posing as truth. We feel overwhelmed, and attempt to cope by purposely creating a “time out” for ourselves, a brief moment in which the sound and the fury is silenced so that we may sort out our thoughts and renew our spirits.

Thus it was a couple of weeks ago when I traveled to a an enchanting campground in Arkansas just outside of Hot Springs. The view from my trailer was gorgeous and tranquil, so much so that I suspect that my blood pressure went down several notches. An added bonus was that I had no cell phone coverage or Internet. I was essentially ignorant of the happenings in the world outside of my little cocoon, save for the brief moments each morning when I visited the ranger station to check on family and friends. At first it was uncomfortable and even a bit frightening to be so cut off from the barrage of information,  but I soon found myself feeling a sense of well being and independence. I did not miss all of the furor and rancor and editorializing that sometimes feels so unavoidable. I relaxed, communed with nature, and even allowed myself to enjoy a few foods that I had cut out of my daily regimen. I slept like a bear hibernating in a cave, and felt an inner peace with myself and the world.

Then came the news of the senseless shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. It raddled my new found feeling of security, and thoughts of what had happened rolled around in the back of my head even while I tried to maintain the lovely distance from anger and hate that I had been enjoying. I wanted to speak of what had happened, but I remained mute lest the emotions of joy and tranquility that I had would be replaced by sorrow and anxiety. I pushed my feelings down as far as I possibly could and did my best to retain the sense of well being that my little retreat from reality had been providing me. I found myself wanting to wander off in the forest that encircled our campground in the hopes of finding refuge in some Thoreau like cabin in the woods where I might live my life immune from ugliness. Of course, I understood that such a world is in truth an impossible dream. A voice in my head was calling me back to a place where reality lurks, a place where people struggle and suffer and find little ways to keep a hold on happiness and optimism even when cynicism appears to be the best armor.

I came home and threw myself into performing mundane tasks that required me to avoid the television, the radio, the Internet. Still I was unable to escape the dreadful feeling of how much more divided our nation has become, and how our differences are causing so much unnecessary anguish. There are lost souls among us whose diseased brains taunt them to do despicable things. There are purely evil people whose putrid hate compels them to hurt innocent people who have nothing to do with the imagined slights that make them rage. We have an epidemic of incivility and fury that is making those of us who are stable to feel somehow uncertain, and those who are sociopaths to feel entitled to violent retribution. It is unsettling and frightening when even the people who are supposed to be our unbiased reporters and those designated to be our leaders only know how to respond by arguing and accusing one another of outrageous sins. Little wonder that we are witness to a level of murderous aggression unlike anything that I have witnessed in all of my years on this earth.

I want so badly to find a level of wisdom to impart that will literally change the course of our present history. I have hoped and prayed that there will be a tipping point after which we bind our wounds and join hands in a united effort to insure that the precious lives of good people will not be cut short when they find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our children should not have to practice lockdowns in their schools. Churches and synagogues and temples should not have to form emergency committees whose job is to take action if a shooter interrupts a worship service. We should not have to carry clear purses to big events lest to insure that no weapons will be used to destroy others. There is really no excuse for our willingness to  accept that occurrences of violence are now simply part of the way things are. We should not feel compelled to arm ourselves in places that should bring us joy.

How can we expect the unhinged among us to remain calm and without rancor when we are fighting with one another at every turn? Why are some of our politicians inciting unrest, suggesting that being tough and angry is the only way to solve our problems? We are pushing and shoving one another with words and actions. We are engaged in a kind of national anger fest that sees no end. For now there are flareups of murder here and there, but if we do not find some way to seek our common good I have come more and more to fear that we will find ourselves engaged in a real civil war, not just one of words. I now find myself praying continuously that there will be a revolution of good people to bind the wounds of our country and bring us together to quell the sickness that festers in dark places.

I grieve for the souls who were killed in Pittsburgh, good people who were only trying to honor their God. I grieve for anyone who has been a victim of the kind of unspeakable tragedies that occur far too often. I challenge all people of loving hearts, and I believe they are many, to convince our leaders that we will no longer just sit back and tolerate the hate. I want to see a swell of support for kindness, in the style of the peaceful and measured protests that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr once led. We need to join hands with all people of the world regardless of religion, political affiliation, sexuality to demonstrate our intent to being civility and kindness to the forefront. We must work together to fix the real problems that we face, and let those who would thwart our efforts know that we are no longer interested in fighting and bickering. We must much honor those whose lives have been lost by becoming better than the evil. We must forego the hysteria, and bring order to our world. Love must prevail.

Better Angels

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I’m not one to advocate fighting, especially among family and friends. A colleague once told me that I would probably be able to find something good about anyone, including Charles Manson. I suppose that I am the way I am because I so value life, and believe that each of us has the potential for great good. Nonetheless we are also imperfect, and I try to remind myself that I do not have all of the answers and neither does anyone else. Our humanity leads us in many different directions, and often it is only in retrospect that we are able to determine whether or not we have always chosen the best pathways for living. Each of us is so complex as is the world in which we live as well as the long history of mankind. I feel that we must be far kinder and less judgmental that we often are. Somehow of late we have become a very divided nation with each side virtue shaming the other. The rancor that I see is toxic, and even more troubling is that all too often anyone who attempts to bridge the ever growing gaps is viewed as lacking in values.

Mark Twain once said something to the effect that the two most important moments in a person’s life are when he/she is born and when he/she discovers why. I love the idea that each of us has a purpose, and firmly believe that it often takes us a very long time to know what that may be. In my own case I suspect that my suffering has lead me to be far more understanding and compassionate than I might otherwise have been. Losing my father taught me how fragile life truly is. My mother’s mental illness showed me that each of us has a kind of brokenness, some more severe than others. I learned to embrace people just as they are, not as I wish them to be. I have been humbled by the realization of my own imperfections. I have embraced the power of listening to each person’s story and learning from what I have heard. History speaks to the truth that humankind has struggled for centuries to survive and to understand the world’s many mysteries. That epoch journey has been wrought with both failures and glorious successes. I suspect that if we were to analyze every single person who has ever lived we would find it to be true that even the most gloriously amazing individual still had a share of doubts and mistaken beliefs. It is who we are, and something that we seem to forget from time to time.

So here we in 2018 fighting like Cain and Abel all across the world, hurling invective at one another to the point of insisting that anyone who doesn’t agree with our opinions is no longer a friend. We are defensive and angry and unwilling to stop our ranting long enough to realize that as a nation we have become our own worst enemies. It seems as though the warnings that my seventh grade teacher proposed over five decades ago have come to pass, for she was prescient in urged us to be wary of the power of propaganda. She taught us how to watch for it, and insisted that it was all around us, even when it was not apparent. It was a shocking revelation, but one that I have never forgotten. I see its impact now more than ever before, and realize that we are being manipulated into turning on people that we once may have loved simply because their ideas do not conform with ours. It is a truly sad state of affairs and it has caused me to grieve and to feel a sense of desperation as I attempt to draw people that I know back together. The din of the rancor has become oppressive and I have worries about where it will eventually end that might never otherwise have occurred to me.

In the midst of the darkness I have discovered a small ray of hope. I have heard about a group called Better Angels, an organized effort to bring disparate forces together in a spirit of understanding. The idea behind the movement is to sponsor what are known as red and blue conversations between groups of Republicans and Democrats. Participants agree to discuss issues in a highly structured environment that focuses on listening. The gatherings are weighted equally with people from both sides of the political spectrum, and kept somewhat small so as to allow each person time to speak. Using a number of formal structures there is an agreed upon topic and the emphasis is on simply hearing each point of view. Only one person speaks while everyone silently considers what is being said. It is not a debate, but rather an opportunity to learn from one another. Nobody is allowed to speak out of turn or launch into heated arguments. It is a controlled and quiet attempt to find understanding, areas of common ground and possible solutions. Those who have participated have generally reported feeling enlightened and far more open to considering new ways of thinking. The system is so powerful that many teachers and university professors use it in their classrooms to invoke more critical thinking and less emotional argument.

I have personally participated in similar groups in past years. They were not affiliated with Better Angels but they were constructed in a similar manner. Generally there were a very small number of people in the groups and there was no effort to keep them balanced, but there was a very structured set of questions and rules for speaking about them within a limited amount of time. Usually one person served as a mediator who insured that everyone followed the rules. Such situations almost uniformly resulted in more listening than talking, serving to quiet the mind and open possibilities that had not previously been considered. They worked to build a sense of team and family even among very different individuals.

I believe that we have been approaching our shared problems in the wrong manner. We only hear what we wish to hear in an atmosphere of shouting and accusations. We align ourselves with like minded people and unfairly judge those with whom we disagree. We behave as though we have it all figured out when the truth is that every problem is filled with complexities that require consideration of many different ideas. In truth it is only when we quiet our own souls and begin to listen to everyone that we will ever find ways to agree on solutions. My guess is that much like our ancestors we will have to make compromises that may not perfectly suit us, but which will settle our differences just enough to make progress. The better angels that live inside our souls need to overcome the demons that are leading us astray.