One year ago we were five days away from embarking on our Gambian Adventure. (Yes, I'm all too aware that I still have most of that trip to write about.) If our trip were this year instead, we would have had to cancel it.
The longtime leader lost a Dec. 1 election to opposition coalition candidate Adama Barrow. Jammeh initially conceded, but later called for a new vote. The United Nations, the United States, the European Union and others have united in criticizing him.
Jammeh's party filed a petition to the country's Supreme Court against the election, and a key court ruling is expected Jan. 10.
What might follow the court ruling is anybody's guess. Civil war could erupt. Most Gambians are happy with the regime change, but not all. The Gambia's neighbors have not ruled out military intervention if necessary, and even diplomatic and/or economic sanctions could devastate the Gambia's shaky economy.
The uncertainty has already disrupted the educations of those who are the country's best hope for progress, and it could get much worse.
In recognition of the solidifying crisis, the United States on Saturday advised American citizens not to travel to Gambia "because of the potential for civil unrest and violence in the near future."
The U.S. State Department also ordered relatives of diplomats and embassy staff to leave Gambia and warned all its citizens to depart now, saying those who choose to stay should "prepare for the possible deterioration of security."
Per these recommendations, the Gambia's Most Awesome Math Professor is away on what she hopes will be a short visit out of the country. But of course her home, her job, her beloved students, and our new Gambian friends are left behind.
Please pray that the transition will be smooth and the disruption short-lived. If all goes well, the new president should take office on January 19, and the Gambia will embark on a new, democratic path of reform. It will be a difficult road—the Gambia is desperately poor and lacking in resources—but a hopeful one.
Into the Atomic Age: A Plan of Action for Canada Now edited by Sholto Watt (Montreal Standard Publishing Company, 1946)
This, the fourth of my father's collection of early post-Hiroshima books (see here, here, and here), is as fascinating as the others, although the fascination has less to do with atomic energy and atomic bombs than with the immediate post-war culture.
The Greatest Generation was, in a word, terrified. For the scientists who developed the Bomb itself, the politicians attempting to address the consequences of its very existence, and those whose business was social and political commentary, these were "what hath Man wrought?" times, just over a century after Samuel F. B. Morse's famous telegraph transmission.
In 1946, The Standard, a Canadian national weekly newspaper, published a series of essays on the subject of atomic energy. The contributors were diverse, from military men to scientists to politicians to prominent men from a variety of fields, whether or not they bore any relation to atomic energy. (Contract bridge, anyone? Ely Culbertson was one of them.)
In the early years of my adulthood, I remember hearing people express great fear that we were headed towards a "one world government." They were suspicious of the United Nations, and viewed every international agreement through the lens of how it might affect our national sovereignty. I confess I gave them little respect, because I saw not a shred of evidence that anyone was interested in forming a unified world government.
But I was young. Even if I did grow up with "duck and cover" drills in elementary school, and spent time pondering the feasibility of building a fallout shelter in our backyard, I was blissfully ignorant of the politics of it all. Almost to a man, the writers of these essays were convinced that the only alternative to nuclear annihiliation was for all nations to give up their sovereign rights to an international government—either entirely, or "only" in the right to maintain armed forces and to wage war. The United Nations was brand-new in those days, and much hope was expressed that it would become the entity that would rule the world.
Fear makes people do crazy things, and put up with crazy things done by their leaders. It wouldn't surprise me if more freedoms have been lost through fear than through outright conquest. Fortunately for us, the one-world-government crazy idea never made it off the ground, though we've certainly lost plenty of freedom through fear—the Patriot Act and the bailout of companies "too big to fail," for example.
Be that as it may, here's a sampling of what people were thinking 70 years ago in response to what they perceived as the world's biggest threat. Text in bold is my own emphasis.
The picture of the next war thus becomes one of surprise, of sudden and unannounced aggression, of an “anonymous war,” in which the aggressor leaves no traces, mobilizes no armies, proclaims no hostilities.” A city might explode one night, another the next. In one night, a flight of rockets might demolish 20 cities and kill 40 million.
“This is the one-minute war of the future,” the scientists state. “This is the war that will be hanging over the heads of the nations of the world when all have possessed themselves of atomic explosive and sit in fear and trembling, wondering when their neighbor—or a country on the opposite side of the globe—may press the fateful key. … This picture is not projected a century or even half a century into the future; it is a possibility five years from now, a certainty in 15.”
To every man and woman it may be said with certainty that to secure a world authority is now part of the business of personal survival.
The more deeply one ponders the problems with which our world is confronted in the light … of the implications of the development of atomic energy, the harder it is to see a solution in anything short of some surrender of national sovereignty.
We are afraid that the understanding and sympathy that binds us together may not be as strong as the conflicts of national interest and the dark hates that threaten to separate us. Atomic energy in itself does not endanger us. It is the possible use of atomic energy by persons and nations motivated by hate that causes our fear.
The establishment of this world government must not have to wait until the same conditions of freedom are to be found in all three of the great powers. While it is true that in the Soviet Union the minority rules, I do not consider that internal conditions there are of themselves a threat to world peace. (Albert Einstein)
That one is evidence, as if any more were needed, that intellectual brilliance and practical sense do not necessarily reside together.
The scientists give us five short years in which to save ourselves and the world…. Five years in which we must build out of the present infant United Nations organization a world government capable of outlawing wars and the causes of wars. Five years in a world in which, from the dawn of Christianity from which our own democracy stemmed, it took nearly 2,000 years for our democracy to develop. Five years in which to project ourselves 1,000 years in maturity, in understanding, in social development.
But not to worry. The public schools can fix the problem.
I am optimistic enough to think that, with success in the intermediate and short-term period, we have a margin of twenty years in which to work. The long-term programme, the twenty-year programme, is the establishment of world government under principles of law, justice and human freedom. Such a world government cannot be imposed by force. It cannot be successfully negotiated by the statesmen of the nations of the earth. The plain fact is that world government requires as its foundation a moral and psychological sense of world community, and that foundation does not exist. To impose or to negotiate world government under existing conditions of prejudice and hate would do nothing more than set the stage for world civil war. The minds and hearts of men are not yet prepared for a world of law, justice and mercy.
We in North America are not prepared. Too many men despise women. Too many women despise their servants. Too many white men despise black men. Too many Christians despise Jews. This lack of sympathy and respect extends not only across group lines, but also within the groups themselves.
I feel that with twenty years to spare, the moral and psychological foundation for world peace can be laid. The hope is not that hundreds of years of history, tradition and custom will automatically and suddenly change their direction. The hope lies in the fact that it takes only a period of about a dozen years to implant a basic culture in the minds of a man—the period of childhood between the age of two and the age of 14.
The following may sound absurd now, but I know for a fact that Kodak built a special bomb-proof facility in Rochester, New York so that they could continue to manufacture paper in the event of nuclear war.
Drastic changes in defence measures would be called for, including the abandonment of all large cities, the decentralization of communications and the placing of all important factories far underground.
Not everyone was all gloom-and-doom. Some were downright science fiction in their ambitions.
The world-shaking discovery of atomic power, the greatest since the discovery of fire, can have only one of two end-results: either the unparalleled shattering of our civilization through atomic blasts, or an unparalleled era of peaceful science and mass happiness.
We have now within our grasp the means for creating an abundant life for all peoples of the world. Even before the development of atomic energy this was true, but now that we have tapped this tremendous new source of power, perhaps within half a century all nations can be raised to the same economic level occupied by the most advanced nations today.
There has never before been a discovery equal to that of atomic energy. The greatest discoveries of the past have advanced the material aids to humanity but a few years, but the forward move in the development of atomic energy must be measured in centuries. It can open the door to an age of plenty without revolution or war. It can make equality of opportunity a reality in our day. It can give the backward areas a chance to reach equality with others.
Some were downright nuts.
Why go slowly shepherding great liners through the locks on either side of the Culebra Cut when you could readily use atomic energy to blast a sea-level canal from ocean to ocean? (You would, of course, have to arrange for the temporary evacuation of all the population of the canal zone, but that, in these days of mass transfers of population, is perhaps not impossible.)
How many people realize that we could alter the entire climate of the North Temperate zones by exploding a few dozen or at most a few hundred atomic bombs at an appropriate height above the polar regions?
As a result of the immense heat produced, the floating polar ice-sheet would be melted; and it would not be re-formed. It is a relic from the last Ice Age, and survives today because most of the heat of the sun is reflected from its surface.
If it were once melted, most of the sun’s heat during the polar summer would be absorbed by the water and raise the temperature of the Arctic Ocean. Ice would form again each winter, but it would not cover nearly so large an extent as now, and would be thick enough to be melted in the succeeding summer.
As a result, the climate of Scandinavia would become more like that of Southern England, and the climate of Southern England would become much like that of Portugal.
As usual with all grandiose projects, there are snags.
Thus with the northward movement of the warm temperate and cool temperate zones, the arid zone would move too; and the countries which had the prospect of being turned into the Sahara of the future might reasonably object!
Perhaps it would be best to begin in a small way, by melting a small chunk of the ice-sheet with the aim, say, of slightly ameliorating the climate of Nova Scotia and Labrador, and seeing what happened elsewhere, before attempting anything further.
And we think we have climate change problems now.
Some writers had a better grasp of political realities than others.
We should do well to take stock from time to time of our original purpose in establishing the UNO [United Nations]. What was that purpose? The commonest reply perhaps would be, “To preserve peace.” For many years statesmen have been in the habit of saying, “The greatest interest of our country is Peace.” They have said that usually with complete sincerity and in bad confusion of thought.
For it is not true.
Any nation which suffered invasion would fight if it could. That is to say, it would sacrifice peace for the purpose of defending its national independence. Which means that we do not put peace first; we put defence first: the right to existence, national survival. And no international organization can succeed if it ignores this truth that defence, security, the right to life, must in the purpose of men come before mere peace. We could have had peace by submission to Hitler and Hirohito; we refused it on those terms.
But that brings us to the question: “What is defence? What rights of nations must an international organization defend if its purpose is to be fulfilled? Russia declares that its rights of defence must include “friendly” governments in the whole of Eastern Europe. What precisely does “Friendly” mean? More than once Russia has described Switzerland as “unfriendly and semi-Fascist.” On one occasion Russia refused participation in an international conference on aviation because Switzerland was included. If each nation is to claim in the name of defence conformity with its own special views to the extent which Russia seems to claim that conformity, a workable international organization for collective security is going to be extremely difficult to establish.
Despite the book's small size, there's a lot more to Into the Atomic Age, from following a spelunker deep into a cave in search of a place to set up an underground factory, to the convincing argument that there is no effective way for international inspections to prevent a country that has nuclear energy from also being able to make nuclear bombs. I wish those who negotiated our treaty with Iran had read this book.
Why do people hate the rich?
Perhaps it's simple jealousy, especially since we tend to define as "rich" anyone who has more money than we do ourselves. Differences in wealth and power have been around forever and likely always will be. Jealousy and resentment have plagued us at least as long.
The hatred seems particularly virulent these days, however, especially among those who are themselves wealthy beyond the dreams of most of the world, both now and throughout history. It has bubbled up recently in the idea that being rich somehow disqualifies many of the people whom Donald Trump has chosen for his Cabinet.
I hate conspicuous consumption, and I despise waste even more. Most of all, I grieve that the lifestyles of the rich and famous, fueled by unwise use of money, consumes their souls like an aggressive cancer. But as Scottish author George MacDonald—himself often desperately poor—takes pains to make clear, the love of money destroys the souls of those who have too little just as surely as it destroys those who have too much.
But through the years I've come to respect most rich people and see their importance to all of us.
Rich people get things done.
We all know spoiled "rich kids" of any age who have inherited their wealth and done nothing to earn it, nothing to increase it, and nothing good with it. But by and large, people become wealthy because they make things happen. They work very hard, too—but hard work alone is insufficient. The same character traits that enable some people to get rich often also enable them to accomplish great things. Sure, there's some luck involved, but it takes something else to make that luck work in your favor—a something else most of us do not have. (One of my favorite quotes, which I learned thanks to my friend the Occasional CEO, is J. Paul Getty's secret to success: 1. Get up early. 2. Work hard. 3. Strike oil.)
The neighborhood we live in would probably be considered lower middle class. There are people of all classes in the huge—over 900 homes—subdivision, but on average I'd say lower middle class covers it. Our kids go to the same high school as kids from some very wealthy neighborhoods, and there's certainly some resentment over their cars and fancy clothes. But when it comes to doing things for the school, the wealthier parents—at least those wealthier than us—lead the pack. And when a planning decision at the school board level threatened to split up our school, it was people from the rich neighborhoods who saved ours along with their own, because they had the experience, the knowledge, and most of all were willing to put in the time and effort, to propose and fight for an acceptable alternative plan. The rest of us cared, but the wealthy made it happen, not because they were rich, but because they knew what to do and worked till the job was done. Frankly, I'd consider that an asset in any Cabinet position.
Our recent trip to New York City, with its museums, big and small, public and private, also showed me the advantage of having rich folks around. Where would high culture be without the wealthy? Not only do they support art, music, and theater by commissioning works, but they collect, preserve, and protect works of art—art that the rest of society may not fully appreciate for a century or so.
Not to mention the fact that rich people create jobs for the rest of us. Even those fancy cars, ridiculously large yachts, and over-the-top opulent houses provide work for a whole bunch of people. Most important of all is that the people who have the qualities that enable them to become rich are the ones who create the industries that we depend on. Would I rather see a rise in family-owned industries, small farms, and sole proprietorships, in which more people work for themselves rather than for someone else? Sure. But not everyone can do that, and not everyone wants to. Someone like me can give a poor person a handout, but a rich person can provide a job that will give him self-respect and lift him out of poverty.
We don't have to approve of everything about the way rich people behave to recognize their value to society—and to a government. Would you be happier if John, Robert, or even Ted Kennedy were in one of the Cabinet posts? Take a closer look at some of that family's behavior, and especially how they amassed their fortune.
Are many wealthy people being irresponsible with their money? Certainly. Aren't we all? It's a disease as widely distributed as the common cold, afflicting businesses, institutions, and governments even more than individuals. But that issue is completely irrelevant to someone's fitness for a Cabinet post.
Envy is an ugly trait, and a terrible advisor.
George Friedman has written a clear explanation of why we have the Electoral College. It's worth reading if you're one of those who want to dismantle it—or one of those unsure if it's defensible.
I understand, and agree, that a direct democracy is not necessarily the best political system. Pure democracy, after all, is another word for the tyranny of the majority—or worse, if the choice is not binary. I also agree with the assertion that at least some form of free market is necessary to make a democracy fair, because without economic freedom all other freedoms go out the window. What puzzles me is Switzerland.
In the European Union, equality and unanimity between members is critical, but the United States chose a much more sophisticated system, combining a deep democratic process, with mediating layers to limit or block public passions.
The United States is a vast nation with highly differentiated interests. From the beginning, the founders were forced to face the fact that holding the nation together required concern for the interests of all states, and not only for those densely settled. A pure democracy would consider the nation’s interests as a whole. The founders were aware that the nation was not a whole, although all regions were needed.
The United States is a geopolitical invention. The 13 original colonies were very different from each other. As the nation expanded westward, even more exotic states became part of the union. Constantly alienating smaller states through indifference could undermine the national interest. The Senate and the electoral college both stop that from happening, or at least limit it. Any state can matter in any election.
You might charge that this is undemocratic. It is. It was intended to be. The founders did not create a direct democracy for a good reason. It would have prevented the United States from emerging as a stable union. They created a republican form of government based on representation and a federal system based on sovereign states. Because of that, a candidate who ignores or insults the “flyover” states is likely to be writing memoirs instead of governing.
I get it. It makes a lot of sense. But Switzerland, though much, much smaller (about half the size of South Carolina), comprises 26 cantons that are at least as diverse as the American states. Think four official national languages and cultures, and that doesn't even count the dozens of different forms of German. Moreover, its individual cantons have much more independence than the states of the U.S.
Yet Switzerland is both a direct democracy and a very stable union. Is it the size that makes the difference? Or something else?
Here's another George Friedman article that asserts, Great leaders did not make history. History made them. He's not talking about revisionist history, but about the impotence of leaders to kick against the goads. It speaks to my contention that a Trump presidency will be neither as bad as his opponents fear, nor as good as his supporters hope. Even with as powerful an Executive as we have in the United States, other factors are much more important than who's in the White House. As Shakespeare put it, There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.
In thinking about the presidency – or political leaders anywhere – it is important to distinguish between ambitions and constraints. ... Beyond constitutional limits on a president, reality imposes others. Lincoln did not want a civil war; Roosevelt wanted to end the depression; Reagan wanted to energize the economy; and when he took office, Bush had no intention of invading Afghanistan nine months later. But it really didn’t matter what they wanted. Other forces were at work shaping and undermining their presidencies. Given their circumstances, some could achieve some of their goals, none could achieve all of them, and few could achieve them in the manner they planned.
Leaders aren’t iconic, they are human beings. The idea that they will rebuild society in a manner that is more just to one group vastly overstates their power. Obama is a case in point. He was expected to end all wars, end the rage against the United States in the Islamic world that led to terrorism, create jobs and so on. He likely believed in many of these things, and he may well have expected to accomplish them as president. ... Leaders inevitably disappoint, because they must claim extraordinary powers.... Their election is followed by great excitement and long periods of growing disappointment.
Roosevelt and Reagan were both regarded by opponents as completely unsuited for office. Reagan was called an ignorant and evil actor, and Roosevelt was a rich dilettante with an empty head. Abraham Lincoln was likened to a monkey and regarded as an ignorant and uncouth lout who would shame the country. And these weren’t Southerners talking. ... None were devils and none were miracle workers.
The whole article is short, and worth reading, whether you're happy, depressed, or merely confused by the current political situation.
I still believe that the American executive branch is too powerful, but Friedman's point is well made. I like his take on President Reagan and the fall of the Soviet Union (emphasis mine):
We like to speak of Reagan defeating the Soviet Union. The truth is that the Soviet Union was collapsing regardless of any outside effort. Reagan did not impede the process and certainly contributed to it. What he intended happened, but it was minimally influenced by anything he did. The Soviet Union fell because of internal failures built into the system.
May we always be found impeding the evil and contributing to the good, with neither elation nor panic over who holds the highest political office.
More surprising than Brexit, more shocking than the election of Donald Trump, is the news from the Gambia: President Yahya Jammeh has not only been voted out, but has conceded the election and appears ready for a peaceful transition of power. The unexpected winner is Adama Barrow, whose name makes me smile because I know that he probably has a twin sister. I've not seen that confirmed, but I know from our visit to the Gambia this year that male/female twins are not uncommon there, and are usually named Adama and Hawa (Adam and Eve).
You can find quite a bit about the election on the Internet, but here's a bit from an Economist article:
Mr. Barrow staged a big political upset in results announced on December 2nd, winning by 45.5% to Mr. Jammeh’s 36.7%. Even more surprisingly—and to his great credit—Mr Jammeh quickly conceded defeat. By the evening, streets that many had feared could be a battleground were full of partying crowds tearing down posters of their outgoing president.
The election was scary for a while, I'm told, because the borders were sealed and communication with the outside world cut off. But afterwards, my friend who lives there, and who was also living in Germany in 1989, described the scene like this:
Everyone is now running around celebrating. It feels a lot like when the Berlin Wall came down, but without the beer.
Everyone is full of hope, but it's a big transition and the Gambia needs all the prayers it can get. Some fear another coup (that's how Mr. Jammeh came to power in the first place), and the country is desperately poor and lacking in natural resources. Mr. Barrow has a difficult road ahead of him. But hope is a great thing.
Gambians vote using a system of marbles and metal drums. There's a video in this BBC report that shows how it works. What I like best is that it was filmed in Brikama, where we spent most of our time, and everything looks and sounds so pleasantly familiar.
What adjectives come to your mind when you think of someone who voted for Donald Trump?
Racist, homophobic, sexist, xenophobic, selfish, idiotic? Probably.
How about compassionate, loving, open-minded, generous? I didn't think so.
Ever since the election I have found myself in the incongruous position of defending the supporters of Donald Trump. Perhaps it's due to my shock at the virulent attacks against them from the mouths and pens of people who have in the past taken pride in their openness, tolerance, and love of diversity. Maybe it's because of my natural tendency to be contrary. My daughter said, "Mom, if you were a salmon, you'd be swimming downstream." I had to think about that a bit.
I'm pretty sure, however, that my change of heart came mostly because I took a good look at the only Trump supporters in my circle of friends. We have friends who are staunch supporters of Bernie Sanders and reluctantly switched to Hillary Clinton when she became the party's nominee; friends who supported Hillary Clinton all along; friends who couldn't stand Donald Trump from the beginning and voted for him only because the alternative was unthinkable; and friends who voted third party or sat this election out because they couldn't bear to cast a vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Out of all my friends, only two openly cheered for Trump.
So I took a good look at them.
- Smart, educated, and well-travelled
- Raised five children, as a multi-racial, multi-ethnic family
- Personally settled and supported over a dozen refugees, and assisted hundreds more
- Took in hundreds of the most difficult-to-place foster children
- War veteran
- Cleaned the homes—often on hands and knees—of elderly people in the community who could no longer do the work themselves
- Support orphans and others in need—financially and in person—on three continents
- Open their home and hearts to countless visitors from all over the world, of diverse cultures and religions
- Are unabashedly and enthusiastically Christian, for whom that is always a reason to be more active, inclusive, and loving—not less
- Have uncompromising moral values which never deter them from loving and helping those who do not share their standards
- Have a joyous enthusiasm for life, in good times and in bad, that spills over into everyone they meet
- Are called Mom and Dad by enough people around the world to populate a small city
These are the only Trump supporters I know well enough to judge, and I don't have a fraction of the cred I'd need to cast a stone their way.
Before we write off as immoral subhumans half the people we share this country with, maybe we should get to know them better.
Fact-checking sensational headlines is more important than ever, and I just discovered how hard that can be.
It started when my daughter posted a link to this petition requesting the government of France to lift its ban on showing this heart-warming video about children with Down Syndrome on French television.
From the petition page:
The State Council in France just affirmed a ruling that bans the video on the grounds that it is “inappropriate.” They argue that allowing people with Down syndrome to smile is “likely to disturb the conscience of women who had lawfully made different personal life choices.”
Essentially, France is telling people with Down syndrome that they do not have a right to show their happiness in the public sphere. This decision is discriminatory, and it violates the rights of individuals with Down syndrome.
That's certainly weird enough to require fact-checking. With the Internet, that should be easy, right?
Snopes made no mention of it whatsoever. Ditto for truthorfiction.com. Google News, however, was replete with articles. The trouble was that most of them were from sources that I knew many of my readers would reject, unread, without a second thought. And then there were the headlines:
France bans video because children with Down syndrome are "inappropriate"
France to ban people with Down syndrome from smiling
French TV Bans Smiling Down Syndrome Children--Might ‘Disturb’ Post-Abortive Women
French court bans TV ad showing happy kids with Down syndrome
Don't they just scream "clickbait" and the kind of story that must be misleading if not actually false? But my daughter had posted the link ... and she almost never does anything like that, certainly not unless she's sure of her sources.
I'm not surprised that the first sources I found were from right-wing publications—plus the Catholic Church, which is often left-wing, but not when it comes to anything that touches abortion. But to find the truth, I felt I needed to consult a source that was, if not neutral, at least biased in the other direction.
Enter the Huffington Post. Not that I trust everything they print, not at all. But I trust their liberal bias, which was exactly what I needed. And here it is, in the words of a mother of three children, two of whom have Down syndrome. Here are some excerpts, but it's worth reading the whole article.
Last week another big step was taken towards the mass persecution of children with Down syndrome. On November 10th, the French ‘State Counsel’ rejected an appeal made by people with Down syndrome, their families and allies to lift the ban on broadcasting the award winning “Dear Future Mom” video on French television. The ban was previously imposed by the French Broadcasting Counsel. Kids who are unjustly described as a ‘risk’ before they are born, are now wrongfully portrayed as a ‘risk’ after birth too.
The video features a number of young people from around the globe telling about their lives. Their stories reflect today’s reality of living with Down syndrome and aims to reassure women who have received a prenatal diagnosis. Their message of hope takes away the fears and questions these women may have, often based on outdated stereotypes.
[O]ur kids, whom studies from the USA and the Netherlands have proven to be much happier than the cranky, sulky bunch who go through life without Down syndrome, are banned from public television because their happy faces make post-abortion women feel uncomfortable. Women must continue to believe in the myth that society and medical professionals portray; that Down syndrome is a life of suffering, a burden to their family and society.
What’s next? Will kids with Down syndrome be banned from school? Will they be segregated from society and placed in institutions like in the old days, because their presence upsets post-abortion parents? See this ban is akin to putting people with Down syndrome away because their presence ‘confronts’ society with the reality of their systematic eradication. Eradication not to ‘prevent suffering’, but because authorities have decided that their differences place a burden on our lives and society. ... Let’s show them the truth that families with Down syndrome have an enormous good quality of life. Let’s show a future of hope, unconditional love and yes, a lot of smiles and happiness.
While Lejeune Foundation takes the matter to the European Court for Human Rights the French press has remained quiet about it. A petition has started to ask the French government to intervene. Please sign, support and share happiness!
I am not much of a petition-signer, and I generally believe that what is shown on French television is none of my business. But I think I'm going to sign this one, because I believe this policy has crossed a line. Will they ban smiling "typical" children from TV because they might disturb anyone who has aborted a healthy child? If not, that is certainly discrimination based solely on handicapped status.
My heart grieves for anyone who has suffered the loss of a child, and I have known those times when the sight of happy children was painful. When our first grandchild died two days after his birth, just before the Christmas season, all those songs about a newborn baby boy were more than a little hard to take. But our own particular griefs are no excuse for taking away another's happiness, and if aborting Down syndrome babies is likely to cause such trauma and regret with regard to what might have been, maybe we should take another look at how we approach that decision.
But that's another issue. Regardless of one's position on when in the gestation process a life becomes fully human and deserving of our compassion and protection, regarding a handicapped person as subhuman puts us on the same level as the eugenicists of a hundred years ago, or the worst of the Nazis. I don't think France really wants to go there.
Any of my readers who know more about this story—particularly those of you who live or have lived in France—please chime in with what it looks like from the French point of view. I know there's almost always another side to a story.
It has been a hard week. It is hard not to fall into depression at the concentrated and violent hatred I have seen expressed. It's worse to see the deep divisions among my friends.
However, it has all been through the media, especially social media. What I have personally seen has been amazing in the other direction. In person, people are so much more polite than on social media!
For example, we just spent several days in New York City. New York is like Paris, apparently. Both have a reputation for being rude and unfriendly. But when we went to Paris a few years ago, we found that in 99.9% of our encounters people were friendly, patient, and helpful.
So it was with New York. We stayed in three hotels, and visited several different parts of the city. We saw strangers helping strangers, people reaching out to one another. We saw smiles, and heard friendly greetings everywhere. We overheard politically-charged, random conversations that were measured, reasonable, and willing to give others the benefit of the doubt. "Please," "thank you," and other forms of polite social interaction abounded, and—in marked contrast to social media—profanity and angry words were almost nil.
There is much more good out there than we think, and it's not limited to our own social circles and to those who agree with us.
Below I have quoted 99% of a post I wrote eight years ago, following the election of Barack Obama. It was part of a series; all I've changed is the introduction and the one sentence that makes no sense outside of that context. When I reread it on the day after Election Day, I was struck by how applicable it still is, for ALL sides. (Note: not both sides. One of our greatest mistakes is thinking there is a single dividing line and each of us falls on one side or the other.) Change the names of the players as you will, the sense remains the same.
Note: This was written specifically for a Christian audience. Anyone else is more than welcome to come along for the ride, but be prepared for a lot of quotations from a source of which you do not recognize the authority. You may still find value in the meaning.
How We Can Sing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
First of all, we pick ourselves up with as much dignity as we have remaining and give respect and support to our new leaders. "Fear God, honor the king" (I Peter 2:17) applies in a democracy, too. Humor has an important place in discourse, but mean-spirited mockery does not. I'm extremely uncomfortable with the abuse heaped on George W. Bush, just as I was when it was Bill Clinton on the receiving end, and I will accord Barack Obama the respect due the President of the United States, as well as that due a human being created in the image of God.
We pray for Barack Obama, and for all "who bear the authority of government." If the Apostle Paul could write, per I Timothy 2:1-2, "I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made....for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness," while living under the Roman Emperor Nero, we can do the same living under an elected president who is not likely to include among his alternative energy polices the burning of living, human torches.
We attempt to live our lives in the best, most honest, most noble, and most loving way possible. Back to I Peter again (2:15-16): "[I]t is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God." The Republicans would do well to remember that scandal and wrong-doing among office holders has done more than anything else to bring them down. Granted, it's not fair that the Democrats mostly get a pass for their equal or greater sins—although it's actually a compliment that better behavior is expected of Republicans—but the reality is that Republicans were hurt badly first by misbehavior and even more by not visiting swift and sure justice upon the miscreants. To live purely and act rightly, with justice and love and in quiet confidence, will win more hearts than the most reasoned argument.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-18, 21)
Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe. (Philippians 2:14-15)
[L]et your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16).
We attend to the wisdom of the serpent as well as the harmlessness of the dove. Now is not the time to retreat from the political process, but to be all the more involved that we might be alert to dangers that threaten what we hold dear, and to how we might best meet those threats. History has proven that when we are caught unaware we react hastily, badly, and often ineffectively.
We don't flee to the hills, or to another country (as many threatened after losing the 2000 and 2004 elections), or withdraw from the system in sulky silence. It's not time, yet, for "those who are in Judea to flee to the mountains." If we feel like exiles in our own land, it is time to remember what God said to his people at the time of another exile: "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper" (Jeremiah 29:5-7). We continue to live our lives wisely and without fear. The administration may have changed, but the basic rules of life have not. There's still the Big Ten—don't steal, don't murder, don't mess with someone else's spouse, and all the rest—and the sound-bite version provided by Jesus: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, [and] love your neighbor as yourself."
Many of us are accustomed to feeling alienated from the general American culture; it may even be easier—or at least clearer—when there's no pretense that "our guys" are in charge. Whether it's financial responsibility, ethical behavior, or wise decision-making, in a democracy the citizens get no better from their government than the majority lives out in their lives. True progress, then, requires that we balance a deliberate counter-cultural structuring of our own lives, families, and communities with a creative engagement of the larger culture. That is how we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land.
A friend of a friend of a friend on Facebook posted an interesting and perceptive analysis of the election based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It's a public post, so you should be able to see it here. It may be somewhat simplistic for explaining a complex phenomenon, but I believe he has hit upon an important truth, the same truth that Christian missionaries found when they tried to address spiritual issues before basic material needs.
I've made my own, definitely simplistic, summary of the idea into a graphic.
- I'll be blunt: The term "President Trump" sticks in my throat. I wouldn't have been any happier if Hillary Clinton had won, but at least "President Clinton" has a familiar ring to it.
- Porter sure was wrong when he said Trump would be "The Biggest Loser" because he wouldn't win a single electoral vote. But he was also right: Trump is the biggest loser because he won. The Presidency ages people like nothing else, and he doesn't have very far to go.
- I truly believe the one person most surprised by the outcome of this election is Donald Trump himself. I believe he began the process just to see how far he could go, and never dreamed this would actually happen. In that, if nothing else, the whole country agrees with him.
- I have disliked Donald Trump ever since I once made the mistake of watching 15 minutes of The Apprentice. I longed that the Republicans, somewhere, anywhere along the way, would stand up and tell him, "You're FIRED!" But he is our President-elect, and as such deserves honor and respect. As a human being, he deserves courtesy, and he certainly needs our prayers. I strove, and I hope I mostly succeeded, in granting this to President Obama, and to President Bush before him, even though both of them disturbed me greatly. I intend to do the same for President Trump. If we cannot be civil to one another, it won't be Trump who brings America down.
- I've heard several people announce, bitterly, "He's NOT MY president!" Everyone needs grace in difficult moments, so I'm not holding that against them. But it does sound a bit like a teenager shouting in an argument, "You're not my mother!" A frustrated person has the right to feel that way, but it doesn't change the facts. Mr. Trump IS scheduled to be our president in a few months. True, it's possible to leave and renounce your citizenship, but be forewarned: that process is expensive.
- I predict the next four years will be neither as bad as some people think, nor as good as some people hope. I would have said the same thing if Hillary Clinton had won the election. Much depends on the people he surrounds himself with, and more importantly, on the American people—all of us.
- I've said over and over again that Donald Trump is the Democratic Party's best friend. It doesn't seem that way now, but I'm not taking back my words. The Republic Party is in disarray. The next four years could pave the way for a strong Democratic victory in 2020. Or not. We don't know. But in any case, Donald Trump is in the same position Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were in their times: being able to take actions and make compromises that would not be acceptable to "his side" if they were proposed by the "other side." (If a Democrat had tried to normalize relations with China, do you think the Republicans would have stood for it?)
- Here's another prediction: Some Trump supporters are in for a rude awakening on some of the issues where they think he is in their corner. I don't trust any politician when it comes to political promises; the track record of them all is too abysmal. Besides, political realities are about give and take, gaining less than you hope for, hoping to lose less than you fear. Barack Obama was not the messiah many people thought he was, and Donald Trump is going to disappoint his followers as well.
- He also may surprise his opponents. As Obama was eight years ago, he stands in a position to be able to surround himself with good people, knowledgeable people who will not be afraid to work with him and challenge him as needed. To recognize and acknowledge that he does not have a "mandate from the American People," but that half the country is bitterly disappointed today. Donald Trump won only because a goodly number of people were so opposed to Hillary Clinton that they either opted out of the two-party system altogether, or voted for him only with great reluctance. That is not a mandate. It is a plea for grace, reconciliation, and healing. Sadly, I believe President Obama failed to recognize this eight years ago. We have another chance. Please, Mr. Trump, don't blow it.
- Donald Trump may not be a lawyer, he may not have experience in government, but anyone who says he has no experience with politics doesn't understand what it means to run a business.
- I read somewhere, weeks ago, that Trump had much more minority support than anyone knew, but it would only become known under the secrecy of the ballot box. That may be true. Florida was expected to go for Clinton because of the Hispanic vote, but while Hispanic voters are credited with Marco Rubio's win, they did not deliver for Clinton.
- One thing this election revealed is that the Democratic Party has once again shifted its population base. I'm old enough to remember when to be from the South was to be a Democrat. Under today's mapping system, the southern states would have been colored solid blue. Within my lifetime that changed radically, to where Democratic appeal is in the West, the Northeast, and big cities almost everywhere. More recently, I remember when the Democrats considered themselves the party of the working class, of the little guy against the rich businessmen. I suspect that many still think they are, which is why they lost this election. Working class people came out in droves yesterday to make it clear that their party has left them.
- For every major election, people joke about dead people voting. It may be debatable whether or how much that happens these days, though it certainly has happened in the past that votes have been cast in the name of those who have died. What I will say is that Early Voting has made it almost certainly a reality in ways that don't have to involve corruption. With an electorate of our size, the odds are almost certain that people have died between the time they cast an early vote and Election Day itself.
- I didn't see it coming, but next year we will enter the dreaded House-Senate-Executive one-party control situation. I'm less afraid of that than I thought I would be, because the Republicans are so far from united with each other, much less with Trump. I have no doubt that the Democrats will be able to find Republicans willing to cross party lines as needed, which actually give me more hope for bipartisan cooperation overall.
- On Election Night, Google popped up a notification on my phone suggesting I follow the election results. That turned out to be great: the results were well presented and easy to follow, and best of all, there was no commentary.
- I went to bed as usual, on the grounds that depriving myself of sleep was not going to have any effect on the election results. But Porter was following the process with NBC, so the TV was on when I got up at 2 a.m. to use the bathroom. I didn't get back to sleep till four. It was at that point that the commentators were coming to grips with the idea that Hillary Clinton might lose, and that was too interesting to miss. I was surprised and impressed by the discussion. With the exception of one of them, who showed genuine fear and went off on an apocalyptic rant, the commentators exhibited humility, respect, and for the most part a willingness, despite their obvious concerns, to give a possible Trump presidency, and the half of America who elected him, a chance. We were wrong. We didn't see this coming. We messed up. Maybe we're too wrapped up in our own, isolated world. They didn't call anyone names, and they seemed genuinely interested in understanding the real issues. I found that genuinely encouraging.
- Trump's speech, too, was encouraging. Knowing how bombastic he can be, I was nervous. But he did well, and so did Clinton, in both her concession speech and the one she gave to her supporters the next day. This is professional behavior. This is civilized behavior. If this civility, after so much of the opposite on both sides, can spread to the rest of us, there's hope for America.
- Finally—and I consider this to be the most important of my ramblings in this post—parents, please reconsider how you share your political feelings with your children. I'm not talking about teenagers, who are not far away from voting age. But by involving your young children in your politics, you are putting burdens on them that they are not ready to handle. I've heard post-election stories of children sobbing uncontrollably when they heard the results, and stories of children wearing Trump hats to school and teasing their classmates cruelly with their gloating. This is what happens when normal childhood behavior meets adult problems. We can, we must do better than that for our children. We do not need to let them see our own anger, griefs, prejudices, and fears. It is enough—it is essential—to teach them to be caring and compassionate, strong and brave, knowledgeable and wise.
Post-Finally, here's a shameless plug. I don't gain anything other than the good will of the author for saying this, but King Ron of the Triceratops, by S. S. Paulson, is a brand-new book that's a story about dinosaurs for children, a cautionary tale for grownups, and a good way to begin discussions about politics and other realities, independent of any particular political leanings. If you think it's about your party—or the other guy's—read the disclaimer. Read the disclaimer anyway. It's funny.
- Someday I suppose I'll give in and sign up for an absentee ballot, just in case I happen to be out of town on Election Day. But "the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November" is right there in the Constitution, and I much prefer to vote on Election Day itself. I took advantage of Early Voting the first year it was available, and it felt so wrong I've never done it since. Besides, I like the camaraderie of voting at our local polling place. I can walk there. I see neighbors there. It makes me feel part of a community.
- You'll never know who I'm voting for tomorrow. You may guess all you want, but you are as likely to be wrong as right. I've been a Democrat all my voting life, but was always just as likely to vote for some other party. I've voted for people from parties you've never heard of—and parties I don't remember. (Hmm. Isn't it a bad sign if you don't remember the party after it's over?) I don't understand voting for a party at all; I belong to one so I can vote in the primary. In any case, I'm a huge believer in the secret ballot. It helps keep the powerful from threatening the weak, and friends from disowning each other on Facebook. Besides, at the moment even I don't know how I'm going to vote.
- Right now I'm almost wishing I'd voted absentee. Back then I felt freer. I was certain the election would be a romp for Clinton. I agreed with Porter, who insisted that Trump would be the Biggest Loser since McGovern. Thus I thought we had the luxury of voting our consciences—making a statement, telling both parties that we're not going to dance to their music if they keep coming up with tunes that make a toddler crashing pans together sound like Mozart. But now it appears that our votes might actually count, which means we have to be more responsible. The trouble is, that which appears to be the responsible decision changes daily, even hourly.
- To my shame, I realized that what I'd rather do is vote selfishly. That is, I want to be able to say, It's not my fault; I didn't vote for him/her.
- Here's a fun little quiz to see how the various candidates align with what's important to you. I'm not sure I believe it entirely, but it is much more nuanced than most such surveys.
- Porter came up with an interesting thought experiment: Suppose there were only four candidates: Clinton, Trump, Johnson, and Stein. Suppose further that the only vote that counts is yours. Whomever you pick will be the next President of the United States. For whom would you vote?
- Much to our surprise, we both picked Jill Stein, with whom each of us disagrees on almost every issue—on the grounds that she would be in a position to do the least harm. Not that her ideas aren't dangerous, but she'd be less likely to be able to implement them. Does that mean I'm voting for her? Your guess is as good as mine.
- I think what scares me most about Clinton is not so much her ideas, but that she's likely to be able to put them into action. If I knew for certain that after this election the Republicans would have control of both the House and the Senate, I'd probably vote for her. Likewise, if I knew both houses would be Democratic, I'd probably vote for Trump. Unlike many of my friends, I do not mourn when the "obstructionists" make the president work hard to implement his ideas; I believe that's their job. When all the branches of the government agree too easily, mistakes are more likely to be made. One thing going for Trump is that so many people—especially politicians—hate him that even a Republican-controlled Congress would tend to rein him in.
- This election is déjà vu all over again, only on a much larger scale. In the 2010 gubernatorial race, Florida voters had to choose between (1) a female, career politician with whom many of us had serious problems (and, I kid you not, who cheated during a debate), and (2) a brash, male, businessman who was a surprise candidate, spent vast quantities of his own money in his campaign, was involved in a business scandal, and was pretty much universally disliked by the political establishment. That was another election in which I made up my mind at the last moment.
- Which is worse, a loose cannon randomly shooting at friend and enemy, which might even explode and sink the ship, or a powerful cannon aimed unerringly at the city in which our children and grandchildren live?
- For the first time, I'm tempted to do a write-in vote. I've thought of writing in my true choice: Noneofthe Above. More seriously, I've thought of Ben Carson, who at least shows strength of character, integrity, and the ability to think well in highly stressful situations. But that feels like an abdication of my responsibility, since it is barely more significant that not voting at all.
- Speaking of Ben Carson: When he was running, where were all the people who told me I was racist if I didn't support Barack Obama?
- I feel as if we're caught in some twisted variation of the Prisoner's Dilemma, in which following the optimal strategy leads to sub-optimal results.
- Fortunately, there is very little correlation between a person's moral rectitude and his ability to do a good job as president. That makes no sense to me, but in my own voting life I've seen good people (Carter, Bush #2) do a terrible job as president, and questionable folk (Reagan, Clinton) do a commendable job. For this reason, I don't worry all that much about the outcome of tomorrow's election. I'm much more concerned about the increasing divisions in our society, stoked by the mainstream media, social media, and self-interested fearmongers everywhere. But that's another post.
- Most of all, as a Christian, I know that bad times will come, and good times will come, and neither our responsibilities nor God's care are dependent on the results of tomorrow's election.
- My most consistent prayer, with regard to our political situation, has been that we will get our leaders according to what we need, rather than according to what we deserve.
- Whatever happens tomorrow, how we treat our neighbors will always be much more important than who wins the election.
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (Random House, 2012)
After reading this book, I have the uneasy feeling that it is sometimes oversimplified and doesn't tell the whole story. It is, however, heavily documented—when I read the last sentence of the text my Kindle told me I was merely 75% through the book—and anyone who wants to take the trouble to dig further can do so. More importantly, anyone who wants to test out Duhigg's theories of the power of our habits can easily experiment in the laboratory of his own life.
There's a lot in The Power of Habit that will be familiar to the circle of my readers who are working hard on personal change and challenge. We already know the importance of habit and routines, of baby steps and small wins. But Duhigg's numerous examples and summaries of scientific research are valuable and inspiring.
Our habits aren't just part of our lives—they are what make the rest of our lives possible. Habits are the infrastructure that takes care of the basics and frees our brains for higher work. As habits become part of our brain's structure, they make the difference between sounding out c-a-t and enjoying a novel, between learning to drive and toolin' down the highway.
So habits are good. Well, good habits are good. But the brain doesn't distinguish between good and bad habits. (I'm not sure that's true. Why else would a good habit take weeks to establish but a bad habit seems to stick after a few days?)
Good or bad, habit formation has a basic structure:
This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.... Over time, this loop—cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward—becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually ... a habit is born.
And it never really goes away. It's always there, in the brain. That's good, because it means that after falling out of a good routine we can get back in less time than it took to establish it. But it also means that the bad habits we thought we had conquered are lurking there, ready to ensnare us again if we aren't wary.
Habits aren’t destiny. ... [H]abits can be ignored, changed, or replaced. But the reason the discovery of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.
The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You Can’t Extinguish a Bad Habit, You Can Only Change It.
How is this accomplished? By following the cue, which triggers the bad habit, with a different routine, but the same reward. It's a little more complicated than that, or the book would be a lot shorter. One important factor is identifying what is truly rewarding the action. Do I eat a doughnut every morning because I'm hungry, or because I crave sugar, or because it provides an excuse for socializing with my coworkers? Only when you know what the reward provides can you determine an appropriate good routine to replace the one you want to eliminate.
[H]abits are so powerful [because] they create neurological cravings.
[C]ountless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward—craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment—will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.
More good news lies in the concept of keystone habits. It turns out that very often changing one habit, conquering one problem leads in a domino effect to victories in other areas.
The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.
Keystone habits offer what is known within academic literature as “small wins.” They help other habits to flourish by creating new structures, and they establish cultures where change becomes contagious. ... A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves.
Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers.
Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives, until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.
Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget. It’s not that a family meal or a tidy bed causes better grades or less frivolous spending. But somehow those initial shifts start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold.
“If you want to do something that requires willpower—like going for a run after work—you have to conserve your willpower muscle during the day,” Muraven told me. “If you use it up too early on tedious tasks like writing emails or filling out complicated and boring expense forms, all the strength will be gone by the time you get home.”
For almost all our married life, we have kept track of every penny earned and spent. It's the best way we know of to learn where our spending habits are on track and when they're veering off into trouble. I've always been surprised at how few people do that—even people who have far more cause to be concerned about money matters than we do. I mention it because that exercise turns out to be one of the ones researchers have used for building "willpower muscles."
Participants were asked to keep detailed logs of everything they bought, which was annoying at first, but eventually people worked up the self-discipline to jot down every purchase.
As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives—in the gym, or a money management program—that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything.
An important concept in strengthening willpower is recognizing inflection points—situations in which one is most vulnerable to temptation—and creating a plan to deal with them. Then rehearsing the desired response to the point where the temptation cue triggers the healthy action.
This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.
A better response to apparent failure (backsliding, falling off the wagon, slipping out of one's organizational routine yet again) is also critical:
Studies suggest that this process of experimentation—and failure—is critical in long-term habit change. Smokers often quit and then start smoking again as many as seven times before giving up cigarettes for good. It’s tempting to see those relapses as failures, but what’s really occurring are experiments.
If you choose pressure-release moments ahead of time—if, in other words, you plan for failure, and then plan for recovery—you’re more likely to snap back faster.
There is much, much more to The Power of Habit than personal change. That is only Part One. Parts Two and Three are about the habits of organizations and societies. That I'm skipping lightly over them in this review does not mean they are uninteresting or unimportant. If you want to know more about the news story that broke a while back, in which Target knew, from her buying patterns alone, that a teenage girl was pregnant (including her approximate due date) before her family did—this is the place.
And it was here that I finally learned the sad, sad story of Febreze. Proctor and Gamble serendipitously discovered a chemical that could actually eliminate odors, removing the cigarette smell from clothing, and pet odor from carpets, instead of simply masking them.
P&G, sensing an opportunity, launched a top-secret project to turn HPBCD into a viable product. They spent millions perfecting the formula, finally producing a colorless, odorless liquid that could wipe out almost any foul odor. The science behind the spray was so advanced that NASA would eventually use it to clean the interiors of shuttles after they returned from space. The best part was that it was cheap to manufacture, didn’t leave stains, and could make any stinky couch, old jacket, or stained car interior smell, well, scentless.
But it didn't sell, because people don't notice the stinks closest to home. The product was almost trashed, until P&G gave it a strong scent.
[A]fter the new ads aired and the redesigned bottles were given away, they found that some housewives in the test market had started expecting—craving—the Febreze scent. ... “If I don’t smell something nice at the end, it doesn’t really seem clean now."
“We were looking at it all wrong. No one craves scentlessness. On the other hand, lots of people crave a nice smell after they’ve spent thirty minutes cleaning.”
And that's why the one bottle of Febreze I bought, many years ago, sat unused after the first spray. I had bought an odor eliminator, or so I had thought, and had ended up with an odor-creater. Yuck. I do crave scentlessness: in my cleansers, in my paper products, in my greeting cards, in anything that's not supposed to have a smell. In my garden I love odors: roses, gardenias, orange blossoms. In my kitchen I love odors: baking bread, bubbling stew, cookies fresh from the oven. But not in my clothing, linens, and carpets!
On a more serious note, consider this response from a major gambling establishment, accused of unethical behavior in the case of a compuslive gambler:
Like most large companies in the service industry, we pay attention to our customers’ purchasing decisions as a way of monitoring customer satisfaction and evaluating the effectiveness of our marketing campaigns. Like most companies, we look for ways to attract customers, and we make efforts to maintain them as loyal customers. And like most companies, when our customers change their established patterns, we try to understand why, and encourage them to return. That’s no different than a hotel chain, an airline, or a dry cleaner. That’s what good customer service is about.…
“But what was really interesting [in an MRI study of gamblers] were the near misses. To pathological gamblers, near misses looked like wins. Their brains reacted almost the same way. But to a nonpathological gambler, a near miss was like a loss. People without a gambling problem were better at recognizing that a near miss means you still lose.”
Gamblers who keep betting after near wins are what make casinos, racetracks, and state lotteries so profitable. “Adding a near miss to a lottery is like pouring jet fuel on a fire,” said a state lottery consultant who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. “You want to know why sales have exploded? Every other scratch-off ticket is designed to make you feel like you almost won.”
In the late 1990s, one of the largest slot machine manufacturers hired a former video game executive to help them design new slots. That executive’s insight was to program machines to deliver more near wins. Now, almost every slot contains numerous twists—such as free spins and sounds that erupt when icons almost align—as well as small payouts that make players feel like they are winning when, in truth, they are putting in more money than they are getting back. “No other form of gambling manipulates the human mind as beautifully as these machines,” an addictive-disorder researcher at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine told a New York Times reporter in 2004.
If you think all that's scary, try this:
[W]ise executives seek out moments of crisis—or create the perception of crisis—and cultivate the sense that something must change, until everyone is finally ready to overhaul the patterns they live with each day.
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel told a conference of chief executives in the wake of the 2008 global financial meltdown, soon after he was appointed as President Obama’s chief of staff. “This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.” Soon afterward, the Obama administration convinced a once-reluctant Congress to pass the president’s $787 billion stimulus plan. Congress also passed Obama’s health care reform law, reworked consumer protection laws, and approved dozens of other statutes, from expanding children’s health insurance to giving women new opportunities to sue over wage discrimination. It was one of the biggest policy overhauls since the Great Society and the New Deal, and it happened because, in the aftermath of a financial catastrophe, lawmakers saw opportunity.
Once you realize what's happening, you see it everywhere. From the Great Depression and the New Deal, to the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the Patriot Act, to school shootings and the campaign against gun ownership, people are frightened and vulnerable in times of crisis. That's when we are most prone to demagoguery, and our leaders most likely to make serious mistakes.
The author actually presents this vulnerability to change in crisis as something positive, a chance for hide-bound corporations to make much-needed changes. To me, it brings new light to the tendency of politicians, activists, and the media to pour incessant hype on every negative event.
I have no degree in economics or finance, and certainly don't have the answers to our complex employment problems. But here are some observations that I think raise important questions.
- In Switzerland, wages are high and even so-called menial jobs are respected. HOWEVER, there is a high level of automation. The Swiss shake their heads in bemusement that we would pay someone to collect highway tolls or parking lot fees. They can't afford to pay good wages for low-skilled jobs.
- In Switzerland, college tuition is low and heavily subsidized. HOWEVER, only a small percentage of the population attends college. The educational system also includes an excellent vocational program in cooperation with the business community.
- It makes no sense to push for imitation of another country's system ("We should make college free and guarantee everyone a living wage!") without considering what makes the good thing possible ("Are we willing to completely restructure our educational system, drastically restrict who can attend college, and eliminate low-skill jobs? If not, how can we, in practice, make it work?").
- I'm a firm believer in the philosophy that education is valuable in and of itself, irrespective of the economic value it can confer. But how can we in good conscience encourage young people to take on boatloads of debt to acquire college degrees for which there are few or no jobs that will enable them to pay off that debt?
- Unemployment is very high in The Gambia. Since long before the current refugee crisis, young Gambian men have been taking the "back door" into Europe, entering illegally and hoping to establish themselves, undetected, because they see no hope at home. The Gambia doesn't need more direct aid nearly so much as it needs an economy and a culture that support entrepreneurship, ambition, and job-creation.
- Low-skill, low-wage jobs in the United States, like working at McDonald's, used to be a way for teenagers to get some work experience and earn a little pocket-money. Apparently, they are now increasingly being held by people who are trying to make a living and perhaps even support a family. No wonder they want more money! But how did we get into this situation—where responsible adults are taking unskilled, part-time, teen-age jobs—and how do we get out of it? Certainly not by flooding the workforce with more unskilled labor, which brings me to...
- I'm frequently told that we need a large supply of foreign workers to take on jobs "that Americans don't want to do." My immediate reaction is that if Americans don't want to do the jobs, then the wages are too low. Raise the pay, and Americans will find the jobs more attractive. But as long as there continues to be a good supply of people eager to take the low-salaried jobs, the pay will stay at unattractive levels.
- I'm also told that paying a decent wage to workers, instead of relying on what amounts to a slave-labor force, will drive food prices sky-high, with, say, tomatoes costing $40/pound. First of all, I'm pretty sure that's nonsense: As mentioned above, the Swiss all enjoy good wages, and yes, the cost of living is high, but nothing like that scale. And second, isn't it better to pay more for our goods than to enjoy a discount based on slave labor? The American South tried the "our economy will fall apart without slaves" argument before the Civil War, and look how well it worked out for them.
- One reason it is so difficult for the Gambian economy to grow is that there is no culture of saving or investment. If you have money that you don't need immediately, right now, in this moment, you are expected to give it to members of your family. Even distant relatives, from the truly needy to the plainly indolent, have a claim on you. There is little appreciation of the value of accumulating money for the purpose of acquiring the equipment or supplies needed to start a business, or for getting a better price by purchasing in bulk, or of pouring money back into a business to help it grow. If you have money now, you spend it now, or someone else will spend it for you.
- I worry that this "spend it all now" attitude has infected America, from the poorest welfare recipient to the largest corporations. The poor man who refuses to sacrifice today for the sake of his children and his future cheats himself and his family, but the corporate managers and stockholders who prize short-term gain over long-term stability and growth have the power to cheat millions of families—and maybe destroy a nation. And those in between cheat on both ends, by depriving their own families and by not investing wisely in economic growth.
As promised: no answers. But questions worth considering.