Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

Tyranny Prevention

May 24, 2017 1 comment
Keynote: Timothy Snyder

Keynote: Timothy Snyder. CC BY-SA 2.0

Yale University’s Levin Professor of History Timothy Snyder has written a manifesto for democracy titled On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017). This little volume (128 pages, 6” x 4.5”) packs a wallop. Although he never names anyone as his focal tyrant wannabe, the reader knows that this book is a call for individual action to prevent the inevitable consequence of inaction in the face of power grabbing.

As one action that I will take in response to his words, I have summarized his 20 admonitions for those of you who do not relish reading. That said, I strongly urge you 1) to read this little book, and 2) to find your own way of preventing tyranny. Together, we can.

The bolded introductory statements are Professor Snyder’s wording. The defining examples are my wording, including a couple of his examples.

  1. Do not obey in advance. “Anticipatory obedience” occurs when eager followers desirous of pleasing the leader initiate acts they imagine the leader would encourage, as in the SS killings in 1938 Germany before being commanded to do so.
  2. Defend institutions. Advocate for organizations that are important to you: EPA, NEA…
  3. Beware the one-party state. Fight for the integrity of the electoral process—stand up against efforts to gerrymander districts. Hurrah for yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling against two gerrymandered districts in my home state of North Carolina!
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Czechs wanting nothing to do with Communism posted signs such as “Workers of the world, unite!” thinking authorities would leave them alone, assuming they were of a Communist leaning. Didn’t work. Remove or otherwise eliminate signs or symbols of hate or intolerance.
  5. Remember professional ethnics. Professional associations can make stronger statements than can individuals—while it may be difficult for one lawyer or one doctor to resist a malevolent force, they may appeal to their colleagues to provide ethical force in large numbers. In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, one woman couldn’t stop war, but when all women threatened their men with abstinence, war was rethought!
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries. In a democracy, only the acknowledged governments (local, state, federal) have the right to police.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you must carry a firearm, maintain the personal authority to say “No!” to its use as a tool of unjust oppression.
  8. Stand out. Without Winston Churchill’s emergence, England may well have languished. He stood out, and up, to Hitler. Similarly, Gandhi, MLK Jr., and Sally Yates have stood out/up/alone.
  9. Be kind to our language. Tyrants repeat misused words until followers reify them. Resist by keeping your public language fresh and accurate. “The American people” is not the same thing as “my fan base.” Read great novels for ideas on how to speak truth to power.
  10. Believe in truth. No declamation without verification. Insist on knowing sources. Demand verifiable evidence. Check with the fact checkers. Protect the fact checkers. E. O. Wilson in Consilience posits that it is not politics and religion that divides us, but rather cultures that do not respect evidence.


    Mother with her Dead Son. Kathe Kollwitz. 1993. Berlin. (A memorial to the victims of tyranny.) CC BY 2.0.

  11. Investigate. Develop a nose for sniffing out fake news. Turn a deaf ear to blatant misstatements (“My program is the best possible that could ever be conceived.”) and correct them when and where possible. Before passing along a suspect, outlandish tidbit that stretches reason, check it out on Inform yourself—don’t shy away from reading a longer article when you suspect it has helpful information. Be one of the (hopefully increasing) well-informed electorate. Don’t just follow sources that confirm your biases. Conservatives must watch channels other than Fox News, and Liberals must watch other channels than MSNBC. I intentionally follow Al Jazeera on my iPhone. And the BBC. Look beyond your backyard/border.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk. It is easy to look friends in the eye and chat them up. It typically takes more effort to look strangers in the eye—particular those different from us—and make friendly small talk. Catching the eye of a potentially downtrodden person—or even someone who is visually different than you—and chatting briefly with them will make their day (better) and leave them less fearful.
  13. Practice corporeal politics. Get your bod and brain out into the world and make friends and connections beyond your private circle. On the other hand…
  14. Establish a private life. Protect your privacy and that of others by securing your computer and supporting organizations that advocate for human rights.
  15. Contribute to good causes. Support two or more organizations that advocate for a civil society—dollars add up, so don’t hold back because you could only make a small contribution! Think of autopay of a dollar a month to your good cause(s) as an inoculation against tyranny. When a million others join you, we have budgeted for tyranny prevention.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries. Keep your passport active, maintain relations around the world, and establish new ones. In the worst case, you may need a new home.
  17. Listen for dangerous words. Tyrants are extremists who are under the illusion that they are mainstream—that everyone values their agenda, and they use alarming words to cajole the masses into huddling into their fold: “so-and-so is a liar, so don’t listen to them—listen only to me,” “these are extreme times, so embrace my extreme methods,” “terrorists threaten our democracy, so bear with me as I suspend your liberty to stamp them out,” “emergency conditions require extraordinary responses powers,” “such-and-such is a total failure, so you must embrace my replacement for it,” “circumstances require that we make exceptions to the law,” or “Deutschland über alles.” Prefer “America and Germany and all their co-inhabitants of Mother Earth and the Cosmos.”
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. Founding father James Madison identified emergencies as the primary hotbed for tyrants—authoritarians emerge to manage terrorism and exact the price of personal freedoms in return. Their mantra: “I’ll keep you safe if you do all that I say.”
  19. Be a patriot. Pay your taxes. Support our military. Vote. Volunteer. Support our news organizations. Decry bad leaders at home and around the world. Support the values that our country espouses—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
  20. Be as courageous as you can. Be prepared to be demeaned, to be fired, to be imprisoned, or even to die, by insisting on the rule of law and the separation of powers.

Loving is Living

November 30, 2016 Leave a comment

The sleepy Davidson College campus awoke with a start.

It was graduation day in the Spring of 1960. I, a lowly freshman, sat quietly with fellow singers in the Male Chorus. We awaited our next turn to entertain with song. With the audience of faculty, parents, and fellow graduating seniors expecting him to dribble on for 15 minutes, graduating senior and poet-scholar W. Dabney Stuart had given an address that was not a speech but a dare. Here’s what he said, as I recall:

Many people have lived. Many people have died. One of these was Jesus of Nazareth. He said, “Love one another.” I have nothing of significance to add.

friendshipAnd then he returned to his seat. Some thought it an insult to tradition, a sign of disrespect from a rebellious hippy. I thought it the most powerful lecture/sermon/dare I had experienced. Often I have quoted Dabney, now a professor emeritus of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. At the risk of oversimplifying, Dabney had cut to the chase. He got to the point. Southern haiku, as it were. No meat, fat, gristle, or cosmetics–all bone. Life at its essence.

Sharing a value for poetry, I have subscribed to Poem-a-Day for many years. This program of the Academy of American Poets emails one contemporary poem every weekday to subscribers (for free, at,) and one classic poem on Saturday and Sunday.

To my surprise and delight, last Sunday I received Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Eros” (1847). I do not know if this gem was the inspiration for Dabney 56 years ago. It does not matter. What matters is that Dabney’s dare to live lovingly was nothing new:

The sense of the world is short,—
Long and various the report,—
To love and be beloved;
Men and gods have not outlearned it;
And, how oft soe’er they’ve turned it,
’Tis not to be improved.

I am amused to think that scholar-poet Stuart might have taken a professor’s assignment to paraphrase a poem and used “Eros” as his original. In either case, whether we say there is “nothing of significance to add” or “’tis not to be improved,” both Stuart and Emerson have struck the proper tone for any major religious or humanist holiday.

How Do Religion and Politics Mix?

February 24, 2016 1 comment

An Imam, a Rabbi, and a Ronin were sitting on the bimah. Their host asked each to comment on this question: What is the line between religion and politics?

In a country that officially embraces the separation of church and state, the audience of mostly Jews and Christians at Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina, were eager to hear their views. This was the kickoff session of a six-part series on religion and politics. You judge whether the answers by the Muslim, Jew, and Buddhist had more, or less, in common.

KABUL, 24 June 2015 Ð AfghanÕs future leaders Ð the young men and women of one of KabulÕs college.

Afghan’s future leaders–the young men and women of one of Kabul’s colleges. June 24, 2015; UNAMA/Fardin Waezi.    CC BY-NC 2.0

The Imam strummed a welcome chord when he pronounced that he who says he should have power is not who should be in power. Only those whom others say should be in power should rule. In the current crush of egos courting voters in the 2016 U. S. presidential elections, the Imam’s words are discordant with the rush of “Me, me, me” on screen, stage, and town halls. The Imam would ask: But whom do the people say should serve? Elizabeth Warren? Michael Bloomberg? Nikki Haley? Jesse Jackson? Rupert Murdoch? Joe Biden? Jon Stewart? Mitt Romney? Alec Baldwin? The Imam seemed to suggest that we need a nomination process based on the masses’ identification of who should lead, and then ask the nominees to campaign appropriately. This reminds me of Shakespeare’s “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” (Twelfth Night, II,v) The Imam would seem to urge the latter—that the people should press their desired leaders into service—no more teaching, lawyering, or banking for you: time to lead your country. The role of religion in politics, then, would be to assist the people in identifying right leaders and encouraging them to serve.

The Rabbi took a different approach, addressing not so much who should serve, but how religion should behave towards those who do serve. “Speak truth to power,” she urged. That is the role of religion. Hold leaders accountable, and do not let them obfuscate fact with fiction. Where the people have great need, and their leaders discount those needs, religionists should hold the leaders to their tacit contract: Keep your eyes on what the people need and do not lose your focus. Do not let ego, fame, power, or the desire to be reelected distract you from compassion for the poor and ill-treated and the need of the electorate to be educated and safe.

The Ronin eschewed the issue of who should serve and how they might be identified, but he did expand on the Rabbi’s plea to speak truth to power. However, the Buddhist leader urged a different style for speaking the truth: It was not so much about calling out a leader’s lies, deceptions, and mistakes, but rather holding a mirror to them so that leaders might discover, and own up to, their distractions from what is right. How? Said the Ronin: It is better that I ask more questions than that I give more answers. Thus, the task of religion is to have dialog, Socrates-like, with our political leaders, such that the people may see their leaders’ ability to withstand the scrutiny of thoughtful interaction, or even interrogation.

To me, the three religious leaders focused not on the dividing line between religion and politics, but on the responsibility of religionists towards politicians. Get the right people to serve, guide them through thoughtful questions, and call them to task when gentle dialog is not enough.

A Modest Proposal

December 23, 2015 1 comment

In 1729, Jonathan Swift brought attention to the plight of Ireland’s starving poor by ironically suggesting the children be fattened and served up to the rich.

My modest proposal today employs no irony. Rather, I address a serious issue by suggesting a small, effortless, non-resource-consuming, incremental change.

The serious issue: Carbon emissions. The suggestion: Cut your engines when idling unless at a stop light or in stop-and-go traffic.

It was Friday, December 2, 2011. Jane and I were standing alongside the bellman just outside the main entrance to Tokyo’s Shinjuku Hilton. We were waiting for our host and Japanese partner, Nori Furuya, to fetch us and be off for our day of meetings. An immense, airport-bound bus with rear-view windows the size of parking lots pulled up. Then something happened I had never before witnessed, nor ever expected: The driver cut Shinto gatehis engines. Silence. No fumes. We were struck by his apparent courtesy.

Later, riding Tokyo’s maze to Nori’s office, I shared this epiphany with our host and asked if it were commonplace. He said, “Oh, yes. It is core to the Shinto world view. We hold great respect for the earth. To leave one’s fossil-fueled engine idling unnecessarily and spewing fumes onto Mother Earth is like relieving your bladder on your mother’s living room carpet. It is disrespectful.”

Ever since that time, I have cut my engines when stopped and not in traffic. When I swing around to the portico of our office building at 5 o’clock this afternoon to pick up Jane, if she is not standing there, I will come to a stop and cut my engine. Last week, waiting for her to return from Providence, R.I., and parked in the cell phone lot at Charlotte’s airport, I read from my iPad with the engine off. I uncomfortably noticed that over half the other cars in the cell phone lot were parked and idling, unnecessarily contaminating Mother Earth. I felt an urge to circulate and knock on windows, suggesting they show respect and cut their engines. It was a mild evening—no need for air conditioning of any kind. This morning, wondering what I would blog about this week, I parked in the rear of our office building and made my way to work. I passed a car that was idling, its driver primping in the mirror in preparation for her encounter with society, her tailpipe pumping trash while she applied her mask. Again, I wanted to knock on her window and request she attend to her tailpipe emissions. And, again, I resisted being the Mother Earth emissionspolice.

But, I had my blog topic! Please join me in this sign of respect and cut your engines when not in traffic and stopped. Give Mother Earth this gift for the holidays, and for her lifetime, which is in danger of foreshortening lest we do our part.

For my Big Five friends:

  • If you’re feeling more N+, do it because your conscience tells you to.
  • If you’re feeling more N-, do it because logic entails it.
  • If you’re feeling more E+, do it because you want to set a good example.
  • If you’re feeling more E-, do it because you love the quiet and pure air.
  • If you’re feeling more O+, do it because you are intrigued by the idea and the broad global impact.
  • If you’re feeling more O-, do it because you want to preserve what has been entrusted to you.
  • If you’re feeling more A+, do it because I told you to.
  • If you’re feeling more A-, do it because you want to be better at reducing your carbon footprint than the rest of us.
  • If you’re feeling more C+, do it because it will move us towards a more perfect universe.
  • If you’re feeling more C-, do it spontaneously.

But howsoever you are feeling, do it. Cut your engine. And have a rejuvenative holiday!

Playing Sports? It’ll Cost Ya an Arm and a Brain

October 21, 2015 Leave a comment

In 2009 I posted a warning blog about (mostly football) concussions. Since that time many changes have occurred. But theconcussion problem lingers—partly because it appears we have misunderstood the root cause.

In a brief update on concussions in Time (October 26, 2015, pp.23-24), Sean Gregory points to the accumulation of lesser hits to the head, rather than the single, bone-jarring hits that are obvious, as the major culprit that has led to the dismaying discovery that 87 of the 91 brains of dead NFLers exhibit CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).

If it is the cumulative effect of lesser hits, Gregory concludes, then why not put a ceiling on the number of lesser hits a player suffers, such that they enter concussion protocol when they’ve reached that number? We do that for baseball—in Little League, an eight-year-old cannot pitch more than 50 in a day and must rest for two days, and an 18-year-old cannot pitch more than 105 and must rest for four days. The only difference in Little League and the majors is that the limit is required for the youngsters—games can be forfeited if the rules are violated.

Surely the protection of brains is as important as the protection of arms! The technology is available (cf. Shockbox) to count the number of hits to the head and to record the g-force (gravitational force is a measure of acceleration) for each hit. That technology needs to be installed in the helmet of every footballer regardless of age, and the rules need to be agreed on. And enforced. Gregory recommends as a beginning point that high school footballers be limited to 90 blows exceeding 20 g’s in one week, then they must rest for a period to be determined.

It costs an arm and a brain to pitch and hit without limit. That’s too great a price to pay.

Taking Care of the Goose

October 7, 2015 Leave a comment

This morning my nephew, Bob McGahey, emailed to alert me of two blogposts he thought I’d take an interest in. They concerned the role of religion and the state of the planet. Bob is a devout Quaker and an eco-educator. In responding to his posts, I found my topic for this week’s blog of my own! Here goes.

For me, the unquenchable human spirit is my beacon. I am renewed daily by my own inexplicable and irreducible 500-year To Do List–what is it about me (and others) that never lacks lust for life? Yesterday’s story (Charlotte Observer) of trumpeter John Parker, who auditioned for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra his senior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who at 23 is among the youngest principal players in the history of the symphony, and who will play the Shostakovich Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra this weekend, was rejuvenating. Meanwhile, Carolina Panther quarterback Cam Newton’s rejection of all animal protein but fish–just for the discipline of it, he says, no other reason–is token of the human spirit nudging itself Platonically towards some ineffable ideal. Ineffable but real in its compelling drawing power. These driven souls are not all leaders–some are creators, builders, parents, athletes, inventors, writers. They are not like me, but they are my kin.

It seems to me that the universal idea of a higher power is a form of that inner drive towards an ideal, or a set of ideals. Some need to give this engagement in life a name. I am comfortable leaving it unnamed.

But whether we name the drive towards the true, beautiful, and good or whether we accept it for what it is, we must know that preventive maintenance is necessary for goose and golden eggour machines (earth, self) to keep burning. Aesop’s peasant greedily cut open his ever-golden-egg-laying-goose only to discover normal innards and not a cache of more gold. Rather than try to exhaust our earth of gold (oil, rainforests) and to push our bodies towards excellence (world records, fortune), we must have the good sense to take care of the earth’s production capability through respecting the purity of her air, water, soil, and denizens, as well as our body’s performance capability through respecting her evolved needs of sleep, nutrition, love, kindness, and exercise.

Dag Hammarskjold once suggested that world peace might ensue from everyone committing to develop one high quality relationship. Perhaps the same could be said for our bodies—commit to at least one healthy bodily practice (such as adequate sleep or regular aerobic exercise), and our earth–that our planetary home might be conserved by everyone committing to one significant way to decrease their carbon footprint. Ten years ago, Jane and I eliminated our second car in that spirit. My carbon footprint is now at 15,674, as calculated here:

What’s yours? What can we do as a next step to protect Mother Earth? When we were in Tokyo recently, we remarked that we were impressed by the practice of bus drivers turning off their engines while parked at the entry to our hotel. Our host commented that Shinto practitioners treat the earth as their home, and that unnecessary running of motors is regarded as something like urinating on one’s living room carpet. That was a powerful image. Now, at the end of the day when I get the car to pick up Jane in the portico of our building, off with the motor and down with the windows as I await her smile to join me!

Enjoy your golden eggs, but take really good care of that goose!

carbon footprint

Summertime—and Time for a Relationship Checkup

August 5, 2015 1 comment

“Ever since happiness found your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.”

–Hafiz of Persia

Whether at a beach, mountain, or lake, a vacation stroll with your significant other is a fine time to check the health of your relationships. Memorize these three precepts and use them as an aid in making any necessary mid-relationship corrections. They are based on the “equilibrium model of relationship maintenance” developed by Sandra Murray and her team at the University of Buffalo, State University of New York, and reported on recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Think of these three rules, or maxims, as Hafiz chasing you towards a greater sense of well-being.

  • The rule of mutual non-aggression. Two of Dr. Murray’s relationship rules are based on familiar ideas. This non-aggression rule dates back to the Confucian concept of jen, and it is known today by many as the Losada ratio. I call it the PEE:NEE ratio—the ratio of positive emotional events to negative emotional events. LosadaAs a rough guideline—knowing that individual situations differ—initiate five positive emotional events for every negative. A pat on the back, an “atta boy/girl,” an appreciative smile, a thank-you very much, and an “I’m proud of you for this accomplishment,” for every angry outburst or discounting remark. See more at page 213 in my book on Happiness. It is also similar to the human relations exercise called IALAC, for “I am loveable and capable.” That exercise begins with a name tag, a bit of which is torn off for every negative emotional event that makes the wearer feel a bit less loveable and capable. It offers immediate, if negative, feedback to one’s partner.
  • The rule of mutual dependence. Another familiar construct, the mutual dependence rule is similar to John Thibaut and Harold Kelley’s 1978 description of interdependence in their Interpersonal Relations: A Theory of Interdependence. Every relationship entails more enjoyable tasks and less enjoyable responsibilities, even self vs otheronerous ones. Yet, what is onerous to one member may be a joy to another—you may find weeding the garden soothing while your partner may find it distasteful. According to interdependence theory, both partners feel that neither has a greater share of distasteful tasks, nor a greater portion of blissful tasks. One way to establish balance is to make a list of all tasks that the relationship must perform, whether pleasant or unpleasant: grocery shopping, meal planning, cooking, washing dishes, doing laundry, running errands, writing letters to family, paying bills, reading to kids, bathing kids, and the list goes on. A different list would be written for work partners.
  • The rule of goal support. While not an earth-shakingly new suggestion, this rule seems to me something ofgoal puzzle added value that Dr. Murray has brought to relationship management. Simple but powerful, it assumes that each partner has goals. These goals could be simple and short term, like getting errands done before 4 p.m. on Saturday in order to get in a set of tennis before dark, or more complex and long term, like completing a college degree or writing a book. Goal support means being aware of your partner’s goals and not doing anything that would interfere with progress towards those goals, including making light of their goals.

 So, as you two walk a path, consider these three questions:

  1. Positivity: How are we doing on our balance of positive emotional events to negative ones? What do we each need to do more of or less of in order for the balance to be in good shape?
  2. Chores: How are we doing on our balance of more pleasing versus less pleasing chores? Is one of us getting off light? Is one of us getting more of the drudgery?
  3. Goals: How are we doing on supporting each other’s goals? Are there any goals that you feel I don’t respect, or that I in some way make it more difficult for you to make progress on and achieve?

The purpose: To maintain equilibrium in the relationship.