On Children

familly

The recent welcome news that I am to become an aunt for the seventh time has brought these poignant verses to my mind…

On Children

 
 

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Kahlil Gibran

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How, in 1919, could he have known? “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats

Horizon

   The Second Coming

 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

 

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

William Butler Yeats       1919

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Ten Social Media Tips for the New Year

Quill_Pen

I hope 2016 has debuted on a positive note for you!

Over the holidays, I found the relatively quiescent social media world so restful and refreshing that I decided to seek continued peace by changing my online habits.

How best to optimize one’s social media time?  This is necessarily a personal calculation, but I would like to offer ten guidelines that I plan to follow in the New Year.

Output

Posting or tweeting in haste can land one in a quagmire of vitriol, escape from which can cost both time and emotional energy.

  • Do not tweet or post while angry.  If you feel compelled to respond to a provocative missive, jot your thoughts down in a text file and save them (or write them in an email to yourself only).  Wait an hour, and then reread your words before posting anything.

Exception: if a journalist gets his or her facts wrong, send a correction, but keep the message clear of emotion.

 

  • If you feel compelled to argue with someone, pause and ask yourself what in your own life you need or want to work on.  Redirect your energy toward improving yourself instead of firing off a response.

 

  • Similarly, before you criticize a public figure who has no power over your life (such as an athlete or an actor), redirect your energy toward your own goals.

Note that this reasoning applies to misdemeanor irritating habits and other small offenses.  An athlete who violates the rules of his or her sport, breaks the law, or grossly misbehaves merits reasonable public criticism.

 

  • If you disagree with a political post written by an “ordinary citizen” who is neither a journalist nor a member of the political class, keep in mind:(a) the author of the post with which you disagree has only one vote;(b) the author probably wants what’s best for his or her nation and the world but operates with a set of premises different from your own; and(c) the author is not your enemy.

It does no good to send an incendiary message to a relatively powerless citizen who happens to disagree with you about politics.

Exception: journalists and politicians have vast reach and influence.  Go ahead and correct them if they get their facts wrong.

 

  • If you find yourself in an online conversation that turns negative — for example, a cycle of “it’s so terrible that…” — either exit the conversation, or change its tone by saying something positive.

Life is too precious to spend time wallowing in the negative.

 

Input

While it is always tempting and natural online to add new connections, network growth can trigger an explosion of one’s news feed.  Not every post is a good use of time, and what is useful on one day might be a thief of time on a busier day.

Although for reasons of delicacy you may not want to Unfollow an online acquaintance, it is your right — and indeed your responsibility — to manage the volume and content of your news feed or timeline.

  • Don’t be afraid to use the Mute feature on Facebook or Twitter.  You are not obliged to read everything posted by your connections.  If one of your Friends generates an overwhelming volume of posts, or if a Friend posts messages whose tone or content is offensive to you, use Mute either for just a few days or for the indefinite future.

 

  • Similarly, “Turn off Retweets” on Twitter can reduce clutter from acquaintances who might forward too freely for your tastes.

 

  • For the occasional hothead, uninvited guest, or unpleasant personality whose posts or other activity you don’t wish to see, the Block feature is a blessing.

 

  • To quickly check highlights of your Twitter timeline when you are pressed for time (e.g., on a holiday, a travel day, or a busy workday), create a private List that includes only your “must see” feeds.

 

  • Sometimes the best way to cut down on social media time is to shut it off completely.

 

Very best wishes for health, happiness, and success in 2016!

More soon.

 

Quotes for Today

Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time; for that’s the stuff life is made of. — Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1746

Lost time is never found again. — Benjamin Franklin

 

Beware the Self-Anointed Saint!

Self-styled_Saint

Beware the self-anointed saint, be he a global icon (such as Dr. Albert Schweitzer or Dr. Tom Dooley) acclaimed and venerated for his charitable works or a relatively unknown local figure who “lives to serve others.”

Whenever I hear of accolades heaped upon a so-called exemplar of “public service,” what I always want to know is this: how does he treat his family and the people close to him?

Although a public figure’s private behavior is usually obscured from public view, it is the private acts that define the person’s character.

Some of history’s most prominent public benefactors – Theodore Roosevelt leaps to mind – have been driven by personal demons to make grandiose compensatory public gestures at the expense of those to whom they owe primary responsibility.  The brilliant German novelist Hermann Hesse (1877 – 1962) illuminated this phenomenon in his Treatise on the Steppenwolf, a groundbreaking essay in which he asserted that some men with genius-level intelligence feel socially isolated and compelled or obliged, as “natural superiors,” to work for the improvement of society.

If a person generally regarded as a walking saint is unkind to his wife or neglects his children, his public “good deeds,” such as they may be, not only pale into insignificance but also, by contrast with his private failings, become grotesque parodies of true goodness.

One notable recent example of the self-anointed saint was an American physician who, having already donated his right kidney, sought publically to donate his left.

So far as I know, his family’s understandable outrage ultimately prevented him from sacrificing their well-being as well as his life.  (Reductio ad absurdum.)

As I mentioned in my recent essay ‘“Paying it Forward” is a Logical Impossibility,’ contemporary Western culture assigns charity toward strangers greater importance than it accords the proper treatment of one’s own family.  One can see this in the relatively new community-service requirements high school students must satisfy in order to qualify for honor societies.  Such requirements penalize good students who have family obligations – whether for the care of relatives or for contributions to work in a family farm or business – and explicitly reward students who neglect their families in favor of strangers.

I think it would be better to give young people a timeless, empowering, and socially constructive message: take care of yourself and your family first.

Charity begins at home.

 

Quotes for Today

“But how shall we expect charity towards others, when we are uncharitable to ourselves?” – Sir Thomas Browne, 1642

“No matter how fast you run, you can never run away from yourself!” – Aldo Vanucci (Peter Sellers) in After the Fox

 

 

This is the fourth in a series of posts on seasonal philosophical themes.  My first post in the series was ‘Giving “Giving Back” Back to the Propagandists of Newspeak.’  The second was “Paying it Forward” is a Logical Impossibility.‘ The third was “Reflections on Apology, Forgiveness, and Clarity of Thought.”

Reflections on Apology, Forgiveness, and Clarity of Thought

TROTPS The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt

Raise your hand if you will join with family to celebrate a holiday sometime this month.

If only all such gatherings could be harmonious!

In consideration of the fact that even in this season of hope and light old and new grievances are likely to touch the lives of many of us, I would like to say a few words about two phenomena whose manifestations in popular culture have become unmoored in recent decades from their classical meanings: apology and forgiveness.

 

Apology

Since I cannot claim to be an expert in either etymology or semantics, I would like to base my definition of “apology” upon common sense.

I think an apology ought to be a genuine and heartfelt statement of remorse for a specific action expressed directly by the individual offending party to the injured party.

The following are not apologies.

“I’m sorry if you were offended.”

This is not a statement of remorse for one’s behavior.  It is at best a statement of regret about the injured party’s sensitivity.

“I’m sorry if you were hurt by anything I did.” 

This is too general to be an expression of genuine remorse for a specific bad act.

Also, an apology ought to begin with “I’m sorry that…” – which is an acknowledgement of wrongdoing – rather than, “I’m sorry if…” – which is a dodge.

“I’m sorry that you see things that way.”

This is at best a backhanded swipe at the injured party’s point of view.

“I’m sorry for that bad thing that somebody else did.”

Person A cannot apologize for the actions of Person B, because Person A is not responsible for Person B’s decisions.

Such a perversion of apology, the likes of which politicians are known to indulge in from time to time, is a meretricious act of self-aggrandizement and hubris.

Person A can express regret – along the lines of, “It’s too bad that Person B did that bad thing.”  One can legitimately apologize, though, for only those acts for which one is personally responsible.

“We’re sorry for this bad stuff that the group of us did.”

I do not believe in collective responsibility or collective guilt.  Each individual – even each individual in a large body of wrongdoers such as Nazi Germany – bears responsibility for only his or her own acts (or failures to act).

 

Ideally, an apology is conducted person to person – face to face, by phone, or via written word – in a form such as this.

“I am sorry that I did X.  It was wrong, and I regret having done it.”

An expression of contrition cannot undo the wrong, but it is a necessary step toward remediation.

 

Forgiveness

What is forgiveness?  I see it as the clearing of a debt.

To me, “I forgive you,” means, “I release you from any obligation to make further restitution to me for your wrongdoing, and I commit the memory of that wrongdoing to the archives of history, where after sufficient time has passed it will probably be forgotten.”

Note my use of the phrase, “further restitution.”  It makes no sense to me to forgive someone who has never expressed remorse for wrongdoing and never attempted to make amends.

As I see it, forgiveness requires that the offender acknowledge wrongdoing, express contrition, and make restitution.  Only after completion of these three steps is forgiveness healthy, or even practically possible.

“Wait!” you might say, “What if an apology isn’t forthcoming?  What if apology and restitution are impossible?  Do you contend that in such a case the injured party should nurture his or her grievances in perpetuity, effectively prolonging and exacerbating the injury, rather than issuing forgiveness unbidden?”

Definitely not.

I would never suggest that an injured party do anything to compound his or her injury.

I am very much in favor of letting go of grievances – i.e., refusing to allocate to grievances space in one’s psyche.

But one cannot forgive someone who has not acknowledged wrongdoing or asked to be forgiven.  To do so would indeed compound one’s suffering, because of the implicit lie.

Contemporary Western culture tends to pervert the concept of apology and to pressure the aggrieved individual to “forgive” in the absence of legitimate apology and restitution.  It seems to me that recent semantic changes serve to deprive individuals of personal responsibility and autonomy.

Life is so much easier – and much more fun – when things make sense.

 

Quote for Today

A vocabulary of truth and simplicity will be of service throughout your life. – Winston Churchill

 

This is the third in a series of posts on seasonal philosophical themes.  My first post in the series was ‘Giving “Giving Back” Back to the Propagandists of Newspeak.’  The second was, ‘“Paying it Forward” is a Logical Impossibility.

 

 

YES or NO: How Would Robert the Bruce Vote?

 

 

RtB Robert the Bruce

Today the United Nations comprises 193 countries.

Might that number rise to 194?  A national vote on September 18th will answer that question.  The 194th country, if its voters say YES, will be Scotland.

A proud, autonomous kingdom for at least 800 years despite numerous English attempts at military conquest, Scotland was de facto subsumed into a personal union with England when its king, James VI, moved in 1603 from Edinburgh to London to become King James I of England.  In 1707, through the Treaty of Union, Scotland was formally incorporated into the Kingdom of Great Britain.

(For an in-depth review of Scotland’s long and fascinating history, I strongly recommend Neil Oliver’s outstanding BBC series “A History of Scotland.”)

Throughout its history, Scotland has maintained a separate legal system.  Since 1999, it has had its own Parliament, whose mandate is limited.

This September 18th, a Referendum for Independence will determine whether Scotland separates itself from the United Kingdom to become a sovereign nation.

This historic plebiscite has received scant coverage in the United States.  Most of what I hear about the referendum comes from social media, where discussions are lively.

On Twitter, the YES side comes across as passionate at the grassroots level.  I hear that YES uses volunteers instead of paid staff and canvasses undecided voters face to face every day.  The NO side, which seems to be driven by money and staff from England, uses paid canvassers in lieu of volunteers and employs telephone rather than in-person contacts.

The YES campaign presents voters with a positive and idealistic vision of a once-more independent Scotland.  The NO side uses scare tactics, emphasizing potential costs of separation, and (I gather) fails to offer a positive message about the benefits to Scotland of continued union.

The YESes I hear from on social media say that YES has energy and enthusiasm but not yet the poll numbers on its side.  I hear that many NOs do not use rational arguments to defend their positions but seem rather to adhere to their beliefs out of fear or inertia.

The official YES website is hereThe official NO site is here.  In-depth discussions of YES arguments are available here.

As an outsider, I am neither qualified to vote nor sufficiently well informed to judge the YES and NO positions on their merits.

But as a native of the U.S. – one former British colony that successfully overthrew the yoke of Westminster rule – I find the prospect of Scottish independence inspiring.

The U.S. was founded on the idea that citizens should be governed by elected representatives and that most government should be local rather than centralized in a national capital.  In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence:

“[T]he States can best govern our home concerns and the general government our foreign ones. I wish, therefore…never to see all offices transferred to Washington, where, further withdrawn from the eyes of the people, they may more secretly be bought and sold at market.” (letter to Judge William Johnson — 1823)

James Madison, a primary author of the U.S. Constitution, added:

“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.” (Federalist No. 45)

In the U.S. Founders’ vision, the federal government is responsible for only the duties that individual states cannot carry out for themselves – treaties, wars and defense, tariffs, management of a national currency.  All other governmental functions are to be left to state and local jurisdiction.  The reason for this is simple: governments closer to the people – at the town, county, and state levels – are nearer to the citizens’ immediate concerns, more transparent, and more easily held to account by voters.

Unfortunately, in the last 100 years and especially in the last 50 years, the U.S. government has vastly overreached its original scope; but the principle of local governance remains sound and sensible.

As part of the United Kingdom, Scotland inevitably sacrifices autonomy (and control over its precious North Sea oil reserves) to a governing class in far-away Westminster.  Scotland receives in exchange military protection, intangibles associated with membership in the U.K., and certain economic benefits.

If the Union’s net benefits to Scotland do not outweigh the costs of its lost autonomy, then perhaps Scotland owes itself independence.

In the words of one Scottish expatriate: (forwarded by Michael Stewart)

Scotland_Ex-Pat_Letter

Quote for Today

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” – The Declaration of Independence

Never Smile at a Crocodile: On the Perils of Appeasement

crocodileo

This past March, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry voiced befuddlement at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive behavior.  “You just don’t in the 21st century…[invade] another country,” he declared on a Sunday talk show.

I am at a loss to explain Secretary Kerry’s strong conviction.  Human nature did not change with the advent of the new millennium.

There will always be freeloaders wanting something for nothing, troublemakers sowing chaos, tyrants grabbing power, and bad actors taking things that don’t belong to them, such as other people’s property, freedom, and lives.

An adult endowed with a conscience understands that anti-social behaviors are wrong and tries to avoid them, but in order to stop a sociopath (who lacks any internal check), one must levy consequences so painful as to render the costs of bad behavior greater than the putative benefits.  Like a headstrong two-year-old, a sociopath responds positively only to actions and not to words.

Is Putin a sociopath?  He is known to have engaged in theft, murder, and extortion to achieve his goals both domestic and international.  Yet, in the face of hard evidence to the contrary, Secretary Kerry behaves as though he believes that Putin can be reasoned with.

Weakness invites aggression.  One sees the truth of this statement every day in the realms of parenting, sports, and international affairs — as well as in the animal kingdom.  If one is unwilling or unable to meet affronts with costly consequences (i.e., if one is “weak”), aggressors will prevail.

Since 2008, Western leaders have opted to respond to Putin with strongly-worded statements, “targeted economic sanctions,” and diplomacy.

Meanwhile, Putin has:

  • Successfully pressured the U.S. to cancel missile defense plans in Poland and the Czech Republic.
  • Deployed Russian troops to occupy the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
  • Thwarted the U.N.’s attempts to stop Iran’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.
  • Supported Bashar al-Assad’s regime even as it murdered tens of thousands of Syrian citizens.
  • Over many years, tested medium-range cruise missiles explicitly banned by a 1987 treaty.
  • Directly and indirectly sponsored a Civil War in a sovereign country, Ukraine.
  • Taken the Crimea from Ukraine, after sponsoring an “election” to decide Crimea’s fate.
  • Supplied Ukrainian separatists with powerful surface-to-air missiles. Made it possible for the separatists to shoot MH17 out of the sky at the loss of 298 passengers and crew (along with several dogs and dozens of exotic parrots and other birds who were riding in the cargo hold).
  • Expressed no remorse for the shooting down of MH17.
  • Blamed the shoot-down on the Ukrainian government.
  • Supported separatist warriors as they interfered with the MH17 crash site and denied international crash investigators’ access.
  • Fired artillery from Russian territory into the Ukraine, which is an act of war.

Have the “consequences” imposed by Western leaders worked to deter Putin?  Clearly not.  Putin has acted with impunity, and many thousands of innocents have lost their lives.

Bullies like Putin do not exist in a vacuum.  Weak adversaries enable power-hungry megalomaniacs to flourish, but strong adversaries can keep them in check.

In October of 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev saw the young, handsome, and affable John F. Kennedy and apparently mistook youth for fecklessness.  Sensing a chance to plant Soviet strength only 90 miles from the U.S. coast, he started constructing nuclear missile launch sites in Cuba.  Kennedy took a strong stand, and although the ensuing Crisis is considered the Cold War’s most dangerous moment, Krushchev backed down without the firing of a shot.

During the 1970s, when Jimmy Carter was President, bad actors around the world challenged U.S. and Western interests numerous times, in part because they saw weakness (i.e., unwillingness to recognize aggression for what it is and to impose tough consequences) in the White House.

In Iran in 1979, Islamist revolutionaries took 52 Americans hostage at the U.S. embassy and held them for 444 days.  The U.S. reaction?  Strong words of condemnation and an ill-conceived rescue attempt that resulted in catastrophic failure.

At roughly the same time, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.  President Carter responded by leading a Western boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympic Games.  This might have caused some economic pain to the Soviet Union.  It definitely devastated hundreds of Western bloc athletes who had geared their young lives toward the 1980 Summer Olympics.  The boycott had no observable effect on the Afghan invasion.

It was out of this late-1970s chaos that Ronald Reagan emerged as a leader.

Reagan was born into modest circumstances, with an alcoholic father, in Illinois.  After graduating from Eureka College and working for a time in radio, he moved to Hollywood, where he enjoyed decades of work as a successful actor in B movies.

Reagan began his adult life as a Democrat but became disillusioned by the effects of his era’s confiscatory tax rates (i.e., the fact that actors were punished by the IRS for making too many movies in a year).  In 1962 he became a Republican, because he agreed with the party’s emphasis on personal and fiscal responsibility.  (He explained his philosophy in a 1964 Convention speech entitled “A Time for Choosing.”)

Reagan ran for the Republican nomination for President in 1976 and lost, in part because – then as now – the Republican Establishment loathed fiscal conservatives.  In 1980, in spite of Establishment opposition, Reagan won first the nomination and then the general election.  His optimism and common-sense principles appealed to a wide swath of working-class voters who had previously voted Democratic.

As President, Reagan continued to rankle the U.S. political Establishment by taking tough foreign policy stands.  Reagan’s approach to the Cold War –  “We win. They lose.” – contrasted sharply with previous decades’ policies of Soviet appeasement.  By referring to the Soviet Union as “the Evil Empire” and by famously exhorting, “Mr. Gorbachav, [to] tear down this [Berlin] Wall,” Reagan gave his squeamish advisors conniption fits.

In recent years, declassified documents have revealed that one particular incident early in Reagan’s presidency served notice internationally that Reagan was not to be trifled with.

On August 3, 1981, U.S. air traffic controllers went on strike in direct violation of federal law.  Reagan declared the controllers’ strike to be a “peril to national safety” and ordered them back to work.  Of the roughly 13,000 striking controllers, only 1,300 obeyed Reagan’s directive.  Reagan then warned the strikers that if they did not return to work within 48 hours they would lose their jobs.  Apparently most of the controllers believed that the President would back down, but they were wrong.  On August 5, 1981, Reagan fired 11,345 air traffic controllers and banned them for life from federal service positions.

Domestically, this was a huge news story.  What we didn’t know at the time was that internationally both allies and adversaries took note.  Declassified documents now reveal that on the night of the firings, foreign embassies’ radio chatter – which spies use to communicate with their masters, and of which the U.S. intelligence community was aware at the time – went through the roof.  To nation after nation around the world, spooks sent the message, “This guy fired his air traffic controllers, for crying out loud.  He means business.  We will not be able to push him around.”

This is not to say that the 1980s were a peaceful utopia.  The Soviets even shot down a passenger airliner in 1983, to which incident NATO responded by deploying cruise missiles to a location only minutes of flying time from Moscow.

We can safely say, though, that every bad actor during Reagan’s presidency had to reckon with Reagan’s demonstrated toughness and account for the high cost of Reagan’s likely response to any aggressive act.

Today, on the eve of the thirty-third anniversary of Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers, how different would our world be if the current U.S. President had the courage to take such a strong and principled stand against illegal aggression.

The passengers of MH17 are sadly unavailable for comment.

 

Quote for Today

 An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.
– Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965)