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On Materialism

It is what it is. If the shoe fits, wear it. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. A rose by any other name….

Our language is peppered with such phrases that urge authenticity. Perhaps Shakespeare said it most eloquently (Hamlet, I,3, 564-566) with

This above all--to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

On the one hand, political correctness would have us find the least offensive words to describe one another—pleasantly plump, not fat. On the other hand, and particularly today in an era of alternative facts and fake news, critical thinking demands that we describe the world as accurately as possible, in order that we might make the most effective decisions.

shoes of markos

Imelda Marcos Shoe Museum. Manila, The Philippines.

So, I have a problem with one of our assessments—the WorkPlace Values Profile™ (for a free tryout, ask at info@centacs.com) . This profile measures the relative importance of 16 values for an individual—things like Power, Beauty, and Relationships. My problem—one of tact vs. truth—is with Materialism, one of our 16 values. Many people just don’t like being associated with that word, in spite of answering relevant questions in support of materialism:

 

  • Having possessions that are the envy of others
  • Having really nice things around me
  • Being able to shop at the finer stores or other venues
  • Maximizing the amount of luxury in my life
  • Being seen in settings that are fashionable

When someone’s answers endorse these items, they get a high score on Materialism. Too many clients have told me that they squirmed when they saw their high score, saying “I’m not really that materialistic!” In processing their results, we review how they answered each question, yet they wouldn’t change their answers. “Compared to others,” I then say, “you are more materialistic than the norm.” That is what these statements define—materialism is an emphasis on having nice things, shopping at finer venues, maximizing luxury, being fashionable, having possessions. While they may also have high scores on values such as Relationships, Helping, or Intellect, it is as though many people feel like the materialistic label overshadows their other values, that being seen as materialistic negates other values. You can’t be true to two, they feel. You can’t value Intellect and be Materialistic. The appellation of materialistic seems to taint its bedfellows—guilt by association.

Just as “Something there is that doesn’t like a wall” (Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”), there something that many people don’t like when they are described as “materialistic.” Materialism is both a philosophical and an everyday term. In philosophy, a materialist asserts that nothing exists beside the observable, physical world. As an everyday word, a materialistic person typically describes someone who values things, especially nice things. A materialistic person in the everyday sense could also exhibit other values, such as Relationships, Spirituality, and Intellect, that might appear to be the opposite of Materialism. The often-thought opposites of Spiritualism and Materialism were conjoined in the Rev. Jim Bakker’s dictum that “God doesn’t like junk.” Monks are examples of non-materialistic spiritualists. Bakker was a materialistic spiritualist, with his gold-plated bathroom faucets.

I should say that I do see Materialism as neither a good nor a bad value. Like any other value, it can be used for good or ill. Some materialists set standards that are motivating to others, while other materialists exhibit a greed that crushes motivation. Some of my best friends are materialistic! I had a colleague once who chided me upon hearing that I was headed for Europe one summer. “I wish I had that kind of money.” “You do,” I quipped, “but you spent it on a Cadillac. I drive a VW beetle! And, I go to Europe on the difference in price.” Desire for Status drove his Materialism to have things that made others envious. My desire for intellectual stimulation took the same money and applied to travel and books.

I have searched thesauri for synonyms that would be more neutral/less offensive—worldliness, acquisitiveness, object-orientation, possessiveness, physicalism, greediness. None quite worked. One that I did like—materiality—has a fixed meaning in auditing—small discrepancies are immaterial, while large ones are material, or show materiality. I think “materiality” is the best of the words I’ve considered—the most neutral. “Materiality” suggests that something is way out of line—an egregious mistake, intentional or otherwise. Should I not be concerned about this special meaning of a word that otherwise is the most objective way of saying “Materialism”?

What do you think? Should I/we keep using “materialism” and shrug at complaints, saying, “Hey, a rose is a rose is a rose….” Or should we replace it with “materiality”? Or something else?

Tyranny Prevention

May 24, 2017 1 comment
Keynote: Timothy Snyder

Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.
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.

    tyranny.jpg

    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 snopes.com. 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.

Silence! I’m Composing…

March 15, 2017 2 comments

The story is told of the Beethoven fan who had exhausted the usual pursuits of musical enthusiasts—he had all the recordings, publications, pictures, anecdotes, and so forth. At his wit’s end to spend his zealous energy further, he arrived one midnight with spade in hand at Ludwig van’s grave in Vienna. He dug to the casket. Gently prying its lid, beams of light filled the excavation. Peering in, he observed the master rubbing on a manuscript with a large eraser. Beethoven, looking up, implored, “Silence and away, please, I’m decomposing.”

Well, the story/joke is perhaps marred by Beethoven’s deafness—why would he ask for silence? Which takes me to the larger question: Do all composers require silence in order to transfer their musical ideas to staff paper? Do distractions kill their train of thought? I had not asked this question until I recently read a biography of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (Ainola: The Home of Jean and Aino Sibelius, The Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki, 2015). I was struck by the lengths to which “Sibba” went to insure silence and absence of distractions while composing. So much silence, in fact, that he even eschewed the use of a piano—normally required by composers as they pen their notes. He went from brain to paper directly. Children had to play silent games downstairs. Maintenance workers could make no noise in the course of their work. Often, when total silence was difficult, he would stay up all night with a pot of coffee and sleep til lunch. The children could not even practice their piano or other instruments while papa was penning.

Grieg's Cabin

Edward Grieg’s Cabin, Bergen, Norway. Provided by Bob Ivey

As a personality psychologist, I regard the power of concentration as what we call an “individual difference variable”—some individuals find it easier to concentrate—they get into a kind of trance and blank out the immediate environment, noises and all. Others have more difficulty concentrating, and the television, playful children, hammering carpenters, and passing motorists drive them to distraction as they lose whatever train of thought they may have contemplated. In other words, concentration varies according to the normal curve along a continuum, from those who find it easier to those who find it more difficult to concentrate, and many who are in-between, where it sort of depends on the circumstances.

I asked myself: Do all composers of music require total absence of distraction in a manner similar to Sibelius? Or do some composers pen away in total oblivion with respect to local distractions?  Put another way, is total silence a work attribute requirement for all composers, or do composers vary on their need for distraction-free environments? I haven’t known very many composers in my 75 years, so I turned to two friends who have—Bob Ivey, retired organist, bell-ringer, and conductor, and Andrew Pester, doctoral student in music history at Duke University, whose dissertation focuses on three 20th century French composers.

Bob first replied that

…the only details I know of the type you are requesting pertain to Edvard Grieg.  We have been to his home (Troldhaugen) twice in Bergen, but actually all I know is that he has a separate composing building with many windows (the size of a tool shed or a small play house for a child) that is separate from his home.  It is in a beautiful location on the side of the hill, overlooking the water. [see photo above]

Bob forwarded my question to his musician friend and Curtis Institute graduate Richard Cummins of Roanoke, Virginia. Richard responded:

I guess the most famous composers I ever knew were Samuel Barber and Roy Harris and Jean Langlais. We had a 50th birthday party for Sam when I was at Curtis and I had several nice chats with him. He took something out of his hip pocket which looked worn and tattered. Turns out it was a pocket score of Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. Sam told me he carried it with him whenever he was traveling by train or plane and constantly studied it, always gleaning something new and revealing from it. I don’t know about Sam’s requirements for actually composing but would think a reasonable quiet place would be welcome— however some composers prefer to have a piano handy to try any ideas which may appear in their minds.

Roy Harris was a truck driver in Oklahoma before he became a serious classical composer. I am guessing he also liked quiet when thinking and experimenting with notes, etc. When I knew Roy the longest he was at Inter American University in Puerto Rico. They had a new and wonderful recording studio/concert hall there and Roy and his wife would pawn the many kids they had produced off on his composition students while he and his wife, Johanna (a wonderful pianist), would work until the wee hours of the morning in the studio and then sack out until time for morning classes. However, listening to other composers’ music in real time or by recording can also prompt ideas. It’s a very personal thing and I don’t think there is any one vessel any creative person can use to approach actual composing.

I do know that Sibelius, late in the afternoon, would walk down the hill from his home to the local pub and imbibe until he could no longer make it up the hill to home, whereupon Mrs. S. and the two daughters would take an actual wheelbarrow down to collect the great man, and the three would push him home! [Sibelius’ drinking problem was legendary. With such an active mind, he likely drank to fill the void when not composing, much as the fictional Sherlock Holmes used cocaine for stimulation when not on a case—a way to slow down their racing minds. –PJH]

I also knew Jean Langlais who, as you know was blind. I remember playing themes for him on the piano and he would, in turn, play them over on the piano several times and then put a piece of paper in between a small metal grid and, with an instrument, punch holes through the grid into the paper, which captured the phrase or fragment for him.

St. John’s [in Roanoke] choir is doing my Dag Hammarskjöld piece on 2 April at the 10am service and I am conducting. I nearly always worked at the piano because I like to immediately hear the sound of any ideas I get. Some, like Mahler, would compose in a small cottage with no instrument. And then there was Beethoven–ultimately he had to write only what he could hear in his head and, my gosh, what he could hear!

Andrew added:

It’s an interesting question. To be fair, of all the information that I’ve shoved into my mind, I cannot say that I know much of this as a composer’s need for absolute silence. In fact, I know much more of composers who have been productive through extraneous noise and disruptions rather than silence. I know of other requirements: Beethoven liked to compose at the piano; Rachmaninoff preferred a certain brand of piano—Blüthner–as did Stravinsky. But absolute silence seems elusive. I imagine that this would be the most conducive environment for composition, but I don’t know of those who demanded it. I know that composers frequently sought out certain conditions [italics mine], but (somewhat strangely) I don’t know of silence being a frequent or common requirement.

Conclusion: “Sought out certain conditions”—to me, that is the key. Composers’ need for a particular ambience varies with the individual according to their personality traits, the nature of their compositional task, and the habits they’ve learned over a lifetime. In truth, all creative people tend to have their own way of setting the stage for composition:

  • William Faulkner took a jug of rye whiskey up to the hayloft of his barn to get in the mood.
  • Samuel Johnson and W. H. Auden drank tea.
  • Dame Edith Sitwell lay in a casket.
  • Friedrich von Schiller placed rotten apples in his desk drawer.
  • Hart Crane listened to Latin music.
  • Edgar Allan Poe perched his cat on his shoulder.
  • Rudyard Kipling had a fetish for the blackest of India inks.
  • (More at Topic 25.8 in my The Owner’s Manual for the Brain, 4th, William Morrow)

Et moi? I burn a big, fat, red, Christmas candle to transport me into my writing frame of mind. To each his own! There is no one right, mandatory, way to be. Silence is nice, but not the only device.

I’m Just a Churl Who Can’t Say “No”

Well, not really a churl. Or a girl, for that matter.

At the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, we employ the Five-Factor Model to describe individual differences in personality traits. One of the traits is Accommodation, which reports how an individual typically behaves around power. Broadly described, Challengers are those low in Accommodation—as a rule they have no trouble saying “No”—i.e., standing up for themselves. Negotiators are those in the midrange—saying no is more situational, and they are as likely to negotiate to get what they need as they are to say no when their limits have been reached. People high in Accommodation are Adapters, and these are they who tend to have trouble saying no—saying no to social pressures, saying no to requests for help, or saying no in moral dilemmas when something untoward is requested of them.

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Letters on Road, Dan Brady.      CC BY 2.0

 

As a researcher and educator, I am always looking for ways to help people understand how their traits work for or against their interests. One of my favorite resources is “poem-a-day,” a free digital poetry service of the Academy of American Poets (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem-day). I’ve subscribed to this service for several years—I get one poem on weekdays composed by contemporary poets, and one poem on weekend days composed by past poets. Today’s offering is from Poet Dana Levin, who is Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis: “Instructions for Stopping.” It is an ode in support of saying no:

Instructions for Stopping

By Dana Levin

Say Stop.
Keep your lips pressed together
after you say the p:
(soon they’ll try
and pry
your breath out—)
Whisper it
three times in a row:
Stop Stop Stop
In a hospital bed
                           like a curled up fish, someone’s
gulping at air—
How should you apply
your breath?
 —
List all of the people
you would like
to stop.
Who offers love,
who terror—
Write Stop.
Put a period at the end.
 Decide if it’s a kiss
or a bullet.
Copyright © 2017 Dana Levin. Used with permission of the author.

 

One way to evaluate the quality of literature is to look for evidence that the writer’s characters reflect the various dimensions of the Five-Factor Model. Characters who can’t be pegged as to their traits are what I would describe as flat characters. Characters whose personality traits are apparent I would describe as round characters—more fully developed characters.  In this brief gem, Ms. Levin captures the essence of the internal struggle between the two poles of the Accommodation continuum—Whether to draw the line (“bullet”) or to bend the line (“kiss”)—that is the question. Well drawn, professor!

Adrift, But Not Sinking

December 16, 2016 Leave a comment

Retirement stunned my psychiatrist friend.

rowboat-adrift-jeff-marks

Rowboat Adrift, Jeff Marks, 2010. CC BY 2.0

Accustomed to being a provider, teacher, administrator, and therapist, he was suddenly adrift. It was as though the sails, oars, and motor that had energized his boat had disappeared. He didn’t know what to do with himself. “Who am I?” he asked daily, hoping for an answer. “What is my purpose?” “How do I fit in?”

I have heard his earnest lament during lunches over the past several years. At last I have caught the universal implications of Mark’s three questions. They are like a proof from my high school geometry days: Given (Who am I?), To Prove (What is my purpose?), and Proof (How do I fit in?) Similarly, they are like construction plans: raw materials (Who am I?), plans (What is my purpose?), and nailing it all together (How do I fit in?).

These three questions form a catechism for personal change. Not just retirement leaves people adrift. Divorce, moving one’s household, caring for a disabled family member, changing cities or countries, changing jobs, marriage, having a baby(ies)… After every such change, I suggest we would benefit from asking ourselves early on how the answers to these three questions are different. Here is a guide to addressing the three issues in the catechism for change, for finding new energy and direction for your boat—adrift after a major change.

  1. Who am I now? Fortunately, even under major, cataclysmic change, the answer to this question doesn’t change appreciably. We are our personality traits—sociable or solitary, casual or perfectionistic, skeptical or trusting. They are strongly based on genetics and are resistant to change. We are our mental abilities—verbal skill, visual/spatial skill, auditory acuity, kinesthetic prowess, strong (or weak) memory, critical thinking, creativity—and they don’t change. We are our values—spirituality, power, relationships, and they are not changed easily. We are our physical characteristics—allergies, hand-eye coordination, motion sickness proneness, and they seldom change. We are our memories—from growing up, from college days, from former jobs, from military service, from our travels and vacations, and those memories don’t change—we just add to them. So the answer to Mark’s first question is the easiest: Who am I? I am essentially who I’ve always been. Whether my change is retirement, divorce, or moving to Canada, I maintain my traits, abilities, values, physical characteristics, and memories. Change cannot take those away from me. But the answer to the next two questions can change immensely.
  2. What is my purpose now? This soul-searching question is about one’s goals, and goals can change dramatically when one’s life undergoes major change. In divorce, the former goal of building a quality relationship changes to building a strong sense of self, and then to perhaps finding a new partner. In retirement, the former goal of providing for my family changes to something else, perhaps something self-indulgent (I want to write a novel!) or socially beneficial (like volunteering at a school, hospital, or homeless shelter). We set new goals to express our changing purpose following major change. Goals for health, learning, spirituality, family. Stephen Covey called such goal-setting “sharpening the saw.”
  3. How do I fit in? This is the question about execution: What do I do with myself? It is about roles. Based on who I am and what my new purpose is, what roles do I need to play in order to be true to myself and to accomplish my goals? Teacher, grandparent, volunteer, scientist, friend, mechanic, tinkerer, chef, storyteller, housecleaner, musician, artist, writer, comedian, scholar, discussion group leader, soldier, politician, social activist, hobbyist, gardener, counselor, lover, organizer, consultant, manager, researcher, athlete, entertainer. Some of my roles will continue regardless of how my life changes (musician, chef, scholar), while other roles can come to a dramatic end with some kinds of change (spouse, at death of a partner; manager, at retirement; gardener, at a move to the inner city), and roles can be thrust upon us as the result of change (parent, upon the birth of a child; soldier, upon an act of war; health activist, upon suffering one’s first heart attack).

This is the time of year that many people take time to be introspective. That is the spirit of the New Year’s Resolution. That is the spirit of the Jewish high holy days, when they figuratively open the book of life on Rosh Hashanah, reflect on questions such as Mark’s catechism, and then close the book of life on Yom Kippur. For me, that time is between Christmas and New Year’s—a time of self-evaluation and personal accounting. What if we committed to beginning a journal in which we revisit Mark’s catechism both once a year and after a major change? That would certainly make for an interesting autobiography. I think I will begin a new file on my computer after finishing this draft, and I will enter an unending, recurring appointment in my Outlook calendar for December 26-31 of every year to update my answers to Mark’s three soul-searching questions.

Oh, one more thing. Mark has answered his questions and is comfortable in his new skin. Who he is hasn’t changed—outgoing intellect with a passion for people. His overarching purpose remains the same: to make the world a better place, with some attendant subgoals that are new. What has changed is how he fits in. His roles as gardener, musician, husband, parent, grandparent, and scholar have continued in retirement, but he has added volunteer, homeowner advocate, mentor to young’uns like me, and great grandparent.

When Mark read this draft, he shared some of his earlier answers to these questions. When he was a child, older brother was (in his judgment) smarter; younger sister, more beautiful. So Mark evolved his goal into being the responsible one of the family—he calls it being “Goody Two-shoes.” He would get up at dawn and work in the garden while his siblings slept in. In high school, his purpose was to “be a good student.” Goals and roles both can change upon experiencing a major life change. He recalled with a smile his niece’s glee at learning she had a new baby sister: “I’m not the baby anymore!” Indeed.

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 www.poets.org,) 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.

Politics is a Team Sport

November 7, 2016 Leave a comment

All politicians have weaknesses, but having a strong team compensates for them.

German-born political scientist Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980), advisor to U. S. presidents and professor at the University of Chicago and City University of New York, is known for his theory of political realism. Something he wrote back in the 1970s offers insight into the 2016 U. S. presidential election.

Dr. Morgenthau observed that, throughout history, politicians’ weaknesses went mostly unknown until the mid-20th century. What changed this pattern was the birth and flourishing of modern journalism. With rapid travel, instant communication, and virtually omniscient research capability, journalists informed their public about every detail relating to political candidates of most interest. Unrelenting and effective investigations found all the warts, all the blemishes, all the skeletons.

team-members-aggregating-their-mental-models-jurgen-appelo

Team members aggregating their mental models. Jurgen Appelo. CC BY 2.0

 

In Morgenthau’s eye, this mushrooming of investigative journalism changed the basis for selecting politicians. Don’t select the best individual, he urged. Select the best team. If you focus on the individuals, you will see that both have blemishes. If you focus on the team that each would likely assemble after elected, the blemishes take a seat on the bench as the starters take the field.

Indeed. Whose team would you prefer to lead our country?

Abe Lincoln had blemishes, and he was aware of them. Professor Morgenthau quoted honest Abe as saying that

I do the very best I know how, the very best I can, and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.