Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Child for Life

Children feel pain.

Broken hearts. A toy not beside the birthday cake. An unjust spanking by a parent who, let’s face it, always loved his siblings more. Those are the ones many of us remember.

I never knew the pain of hunger, though. I was never afraid to walk outside. I never flinched every time I heard anything that sounded like a gunshot. I never stayed home from school because no one had taught me to read and I was embarrassed to admit I could not. I never hid in my room while my father beat my mother. Well, once or twice on that last one, mostly loud shouting, a scratched cheek once (his).

A fetus feels pain too. Some say as early as 20 weeks of gestation. It is because of that, that reflexive recoiling, that Nikki Haley and the legislators in South Carolina have now banned abortions after 20 weeks.

The Supreme Court has said a woman may legally abort her pregnancy at any time before the baby could live on its own outside the womb. They drew the line there for practical reasons. “Viability,” as the standard is called, is as good a test as any for when an unborn child becomes a life worthy of the full protection of society.

There is a respectable case to be made for the proposition that life begins at conception. Or at the time the fertilized egg bonds implants on the uterus that will nurture it until birth. From the standpoint of logic, those are perfectly fine places to draw the line between life and not life. If left alone, a fertilized egg may well implant and grow to viability and then birth.

Pregnancy is often a blessing. Often not. If you have too many kids to take care of already, you may not want another. True, you could have assured that result by abstaining from sex, but we’re talking about human beings, here, not robots. People have sex and get pregnant and regret it. They want to take it back. Roe v Wade lets them, up to a point.

The right to abortion articulated by Roe was found to grow out of an implied constitutional right of privacy. Roe held that the mother’s right of privacy to do as she wanted with her unwanted fetus ended when the fetus, if born at that moment, could survive on its own.

That was an intuitively moral place to draw the line. None of us want to think the law makes it legal for a mother to kill her newly born baby. Roe merely gave that same baby protection in utero back to the time when it could be born alive to be killed. Before that, no viable baby, so no murder.

This is, as we have all seen, has been morally difficult and contentious issue. We cannot countenance murder, so we have put the issue in those terms—the right to life—and have, so far, drawn the line at a place, viability, that fits with that moral dictate.

This has not satisfied everyone. Many want to return to the pre-Roe blanket restriction on abortion. I can understand that. They believe that once the train of life gets started, no one should be putting boulders on the tracks.

The problem is that theirs is an absolutist view. It is morally unrelenting and unforgiving. It ignores—some say cruelly denies—the fact that we are driven hard, often to temporary madness, by our sexual passions. Mistakes happen. A new life is on the way to a woman who doesn't want it.

Maybe she can’t afford it. Maybe she wants to finish her education first. Whatever the reason, she doesn't want it. The Supreme Court has said she may fix her mistake until to do so would be murder. Now comes, courtesy of South Carolina, a rule that she may do so until the fetus would feel the pain of its elimination.

I sympathize with what they are trying to do. No one wants to hurt anything, least of all a baby, or even an almost baby. And when the argument is put that way, it’s hard to have an answer that does not seem callous.

But that is not the right way to look at what is gong on when a decision to abort is made. As we’ve all read in numerous personal accounts, it is a difficult personal choice. It is the same choice as whether to conceive, just made after a slip rather than before. As the pregnancy progresses, the choice gets messier, and more difficult, but it is essentially the same choice. I don’t want this baby.

I was talking to a friend about this, and she made the point that if people care so much about the life of the child, they should do more than just assure it is not aborted. If they insist that the child be carried to term and brought into the world by a mother who does not want it, they should take care of the baby if the mother can’t or won’t. They should make sure it has prenatal care and nutrition. They should make sure it has good food and an emotionally healthy childhood. Pre-school. Good elementary school. Warm clothes. Someone to come home to.

My friend’s observation puts a fine and practical point on the competing considerations inherent in the choice whether to abort. To Nikki Haley and her legislative friends in South Carolina, and to anyone who wants to limit a woman’s right to abortion beyond the Roe guarantees, perhaps we should say this: if you insist that a child be born to a parent who has said she cannot or is not ready to care for it, step up and support the social service programs that help support that child.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Long Way From Cheese Day

Remember Cheese Day? According to Leo McGarry, fictional chief of staff to fictional president Josiah Bartlet on The West Wing, Andrew Jackson opened the White House once a year and welcomed all citizens to come and share a big block of cheese and their ideas about how the government should be run. The closest we’ve come to that in the modern era is Mark Zuckerberg serving fruit and cheese to conservative pundits who think Facebook is too left-leaning.

I was in the White House once, years ago, on a tour. It was easy then. I have visited it often since, snapping photos from an increasing distance. As one tourist, looking across a kind of wide neutral zone toward the White House, said to his companion, “You used to be able to…”

Too many fence jumpers, I suppose. Not to mention terrorists. It’s a shame, though. Physical distance increases the sense of political and moral distance. Jackson had the right idea for how to keep the political dialogue alive and well (one of his few good ones, among many other bad ideas).

I was thinking as I was snapping photos of the West Wing today, under what I imagined to be the increasingly interested gaze (yes, I’m a little paranoid) of the Capitol police and the Secret Service, that in North Korea I would surely be off to fifteen years at hard labor for doing what I was doing. So we’re not that bad.

With a zoom lens, I got one photo of a Marine guard in formal uniform outside the Oval Office. That’s the way I like to think of our security for the President: formal, dressy, not really expected to have to spring into action. Like the palace guard at Buckingham Palace, or the Swiss guard at the Vatican. Colorful.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to expose the President to risk. We don’t want the heartbreak and disillusionment of another Kennedy assignation. We don’t want to see Ronald Reagan thrown on the floor of his car after he was shot. We don’t want any opening for the crazy violent impulses that men like Donald Trump incite. So I guess I’m down with having to use a long zoom lens to get close to the White House.

But it saddens me. Our security comes at a terrible emotional cost. Seeing that those who protect our President are afraid for his life makes us all afraid. Not just for him, but for ourselves as well. If the leader of the free world is not safe, what about the world he leads? What about the rest of us?

Friday, May 13, 2016

How My Sons Will End Revolutions

Meg and I were in Paris when Francois Hollande was elected president of France four years ago. The streets were a joyous celebration of the return to power of the socialists. The French people, like so many of that time, were feeling beaten down by the global recession. Angela Merkel was offering austerity. Hollande offered hope.

We’re going back to Paris soon, and we just got a notice from the US State Department to avoid certain areas where mass demonstrations on behalf of labor are expected. Things could get ugly, the notice warns. There might be tear gas. Hollande is on his way out.

One of my most enduring, and oddly fond, memories of Paris is of demonstrations and tear gas. I’ve been seeing those newsreels off and on for decades. The French Revolution, it seems, is not over.

Nor, perhaps, the American Revolution. We are railing against tyranny again this election season. Only this time, as Walt Kelly’s cartoon character Pogo said on Earth Day in 1971, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Revolutions happen when people get really pissed off. They just need to burn down the castle. Nothing less will do. They are sure there is a better way to arrange society for the common good. And they are mad enough to throw caution to the wind. Anything will be better than this.

What has often followed revolutions has been disappointment. The way communism promises a better life for all, for instance, is by the state controlling the means of production. We see how that worked out in terms of the economic welfare and personal freedom of ordinary citizens in the Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea, China.

Our American Revolution was a little different: it was more, Get off our backs, will you! They did and we went on about our business. We are a land of great opportunity, but we are a far cry from communist or socialist. It’s hard for us to agree on universal anything. Not even television streaming standards, and lord knows, we all want to stream Game of Thrones.

We are having something like a revolution in our politics this year. I don’t know what else to call Donald Trump. He is our Robespierre (same hair, not as smart). Many are pissed off. Heads will roll.

Why are we doing this to ourselves? The two biggest culprits are: too little (undeniably) correct information; and too much misplaced anger.

Economists have been battling for hundreds of years now about the best way to arrange society to maximize production and provide for the wellbeing of as many as possible. The battle continues. You’d think we’d know by now what works—and we are getting better at it—but there is still a great deal of uncertainty. At what point does raising the minimum wage hurt more people than it helps? We don’t know yet. Ten dollars is certainly okay. But fifteen? We won’t know until we try it. 

Our economic policy swings from trickle-down to expanded welfare are the way we learn. No one expected getting tough on crime in the 1990s would lead to bloated prisons and a lost generation of black men. Now we know, and our politicians are ready to storm the Bastille to free the inmates.

The economy is like the climate, they say. So complex, with so many inputs and variables, that it is impossible to predict. But, as with the climate, we are getting better. Our economic models are more sophisticated every year, and they are plugged into more data streams than ever. One of these days we will know, in advance, whether the optimum minimum wage is $12.50 or $17.50. 

This is where my son Christopher comes in. He’s a budding macroeconomist. He and his pals are going to figure this out. He’s never let me down.

Now, even if we know the optimum way to structure the economy, some people are still going to be pissed off. Maybe a man has lost his job. Or a woman’s son has fallen in with a bad crowd. He’s ready to work and, in a just society, he’d have a job, the man thinks. The woman has worked hard to teach her son to be a good boy, and in a just society, she thinks, those bums who led him astray would be in jail. 

There is no utopia. So even when we are doing our empirical best, some will be left out, some will be aggrieved.

A lot of disaffection stems from a feeling of powerlessness. This is a close corollary of feeling we are not heard and understood. But what if others heard? What if they understood?

This is where my son Nick, and his tribe of computer scientists, comes in.

Social media is the tool of the future. And not just for kids and advertisers. It’s a practical way for each of to be a meaningful part of the conversation about our lives. With machine learning, and eventually true artificial intelligence, our smartphones will be able to empathize. They will be like “Her.” But instead of being our romantic partners, they will be something like our personal therapists and life coaches.

“It’s not that bad. These recessions rarely last more than 18 months. You can get unemployment compensation at this address. You have been pre-qualified based on your biometrics. There is a party tonight for out-of-work young adults sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. Open bar. Don’t drink too much, though. Employers come to these things hoping to meet good prospective workers.”

Desperate people need someone to talk to. Why not Her?

Does this sound too big-brotherish for you? Not sure you want your smartphone to know that much about you? 

Fair point.

But think about the kinds of communities that we mythologize as the best of the good old days. Small villages where people knew and supported one another. Everyone knew everyone’s business. That was how the support happened. You could be a recluse, but you didn’t get the support of others if you chose that path.

Technology can make us a village again. (Thank you, Nick.) And deep data access and analysis can keep us informed about each other and how we can best work together. (Thank you, Chris.) All this and indoor plumbing too. And no tear gas. What could be better? The only thing I might add would be fresh croissants.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Apatosaurus Policy

“Some of the Justices appointed by Republicans often don't vote in a way that advances conservative policy.”

Senator Charles Grassley, Republican from Iowa and head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that on the Senate floor not long ago. He was complaining about Chief Justice John Roberts who twice—twice, can you believe it?—saved Obamacare with his activist vote.

Grassley’s remark got me thinking: What, exactly, is conservative policy? (Skipping for the moment the question whether it is ever the proper role of the judicial branch to advance any particular policy, conservative or liberal.)

The dictionary definition of conservative is: holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.

So, what about that? Is that a good governing principle?

Some change is surely bad. Global warming, for instance. Most is unavoidable. Usually the best we can do is manage change. Clean up super-fund contamination sites. Fight crime. Go soft on crime. Fight crime.

Adapt or die, right? Natural selection built that in for us. 

Sometimes hunkering down is necessary for survival. Sometimes talking the long march in search of new habitat is what is needed. The problem with a bias against setting out on the long march is that you’re likely to be left behind to die. Or maybe not, maybe the herd moves as one when the need is overwhelmingly obvious. By the time things get to that point, though, many will die.

That’s the way herds behave. Perhaps we are doomed to do so too. The thing about natural selection is that it takes a while, and there is a lot of carnage along the way as the herd is right-sized for the available habitat. It isn’t pretty. Maybe it’s the inevitable fate of all populations, but it seems that by this point we should be smarter than the instincts that have driven us for millennia. What was the point of developing our big brains if not to use them?

Conservative policy, by definition, protects and preserves the status quo. Maybe that worked in rural hamlets a few hundred years ago, maybe it was even a good thing then, but it doesn’t work now. The dynamic rate of change has become too great to reckon with by not thinking about what is happening. It will overtake us. There will be no habitat to move on to. 

We are at an inflection point in the course of human events. Population growth and climate change leading to drought and flooding will kill millions. There may have been a time when what happened in the wider world wasn’t our problem, but that time is gone. Look at how immigration from the Middle East is shredding the social fabric of Europe. Look at how oligarchs world-wide are leaving millions desperate for sustenance. These are the conditions of revolution. 

We’ve had plenty of revolutions and none have destroyed us, you say. Yes, that’s true. But even the most sanguine isolationist must admit that what happens in the rest of the world is starting to feel increasingly, and uncomfortably, close. How long will it be before the revolutionary peasants up their game with nuclear weapons?

Senator Grassley and his ilk remind me of a herd of lumbering apatosaurus, munching on leaves from ever higher and scarcer trees, unconcerned about the bright flames overhead of the approaching asteroid. Nothing like that has ever happened before. Why should they worry. Move over and let me get to that tasty branch, will you?

Monday, May 9, 2016

An App For That

I’m watching the world from Google Earth. Not from so far away that it looks like a blue marble, but from high enough that I can see that my neighborhood is a bunch of boxes. With cars. The bigger boxes are malls. And the long roads are full of cars. Some arteries are clogging. Heart attacks are imminent. 

If I dial back a little more, I can see the vast deserts and tundras that belt the planet There is no water in those places. Not enough to live on year-round. And they are spreading. Millions of people are migrating to water, and away from war. Their neighbors don’t want them. Their homeless, country-less children are starving. The fact that those children are growing up—if they do grow up—uneducated is the least of their problems. But not ours.

Not far from my neighborhood of boxes are communities with bigger more expensive boxes: the gated homes of the one percent. Truth be told, even though I live in a smallish box, it too is an expensive one. The best thing about my part of the country is that it is called Silicon Valley. 

Yes, the denizens are rich, but they are less likely to be clipping coupons and playing golf than struggling to solve problems they have set themselves against. Some are trivial, in terms of those starving migrants, but others are consequential. We do not yet fully know the global contribution to civilization of communications platforms like Facebook, for instance, or the transformative power of the information Google gives us all as easily as plugging in a lamp, but they are likely to be huge.

I live almost as far from our nation’s capital as possible, in miles and mindset. I mourn the state of our politics. Our elected representatives are wasting precious time and resources squabbling like school children. Blame who you will. There is plenty to go around.

Our government now is, at best, following our society. It certainly is not leading. Perhaps it never does. Perhaps politicians only do things when enough of their constituents force them to. There have been surges of government leadership—the New Deal, the civil rights acts—but we have seen nothing like them in a while. 

I wish I could use Google Earth to go back in time. I think I know what I would see. Instead of vast expanses of boxes, I would see villages. The people would be farmers. They would grow enough to feed themselves, then some would sell their crop surpluses to others, and maybe design a better plow and sell that, and commerce would be born. Soon you would be able to get things others grew or made. Then plumbing. Then electricity. Hospitals would be closer. Vaccines. A zippy motorcar.

You can argue about whether all that amounts to progress. Most think it does. Sure, we have frightful economic stratification today, but when we were living in villages, there were kings in castles. On the whole, the villagers are better off now.

So the question I ask myself is: Why is that, why are we better off now? Was it the noblesse oblige of the kings. I don’t think so. We’re better off now because we worked hard to become so. We did it individually, with invention and effort, but the effect was collective. This is why I love Silicon Valley. My neighbors are inventing today’s new plows, today’s steam engines, today’s electricity, today’s railroads. They are in the vanguard of the march of progress.

I don’t know if we needed feudal kings—maybe they provided mafia-like protection—but I’ve always accepted that we need government today. Someone has to build the roads, provide for the desperately poor, etc. But the lot we have at the helm of our national government is collectively incompetent. Any company in Silicon Vally would have fired them. Teamwork is a watchword in Silicon Valley. Washington is pretty much the opposite of teamwork.

Am I swinging toward libertarian? Maybe. Our government is now so inept and dysfunctional that I think that we might be better off trying to go to the next stage in the evolution of our civilization without it. Or at least without it on a national level. 

Who would defend us as a country? Good question. Maybe Elon Musk. He’s better with rockets than Kim Jong Un.

Who would keep the usurers and fraudsters at bay? Another good question. This may sound ridiculous, but I believe there may soon be an app for that. Think crowd-sourced yelp-like machine learning algorithms, think bitcoin.

Who would arrest and imprison the criminals? Maybe we should take a break from that. We seem to have overdone it. Contract security, electronic tethers, maybe the odd shock collar. Who knows. We couldn’t do worse.

Who will collect taxes and take care of public works? Why can’t that be collaborative? By community. There is always money to be made in public works. Let road builders put in toll roads. Let the people nearby vote on whether they support the idea. There’s easily an app for that.

Who will stop global warming? No one, apparently. The one thing I am pretty sure of is that whatever is done will be done out of self interest. Ultimately, and over the long term, the savage Darwinism of commerce is the best incubator of self-interested behavior.

The commercial world is full of fraud. It’s the birthplace of fraud. But government is doing no better on that score, and it is lazy and inept to boot. At least in commerce you have to hustle or some other guy will take your customers. There will always be fraud in commerce, but with more information more readily available than ever, the consumer’s ability to detect fraud is better than ever. Much better than or ability to know what the hell the government is doing, if anything.

I don’t know how we shrink government to the size we can drown it in the bathtub, as Grover Norquist proposed, but I’m beginning to wonder whether that shouldn’t be the next project for my brilliant neighbors in Silicon Valley. Our government as it is now functioning is obsolete. As an investor might say, it is ripe for a takeover.

Maybe someone will design an app for that.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Faith To Be All In

Father Daniel Berrigan died a few days ago. He and his brother burned selective service records in a Maryland parking lot in 1968. They rejected the notion that the moral thing to do when you commit a crime is to serve your time, and they took it on the lam. They were soon caught and served three years. It wasn’t to be the last time for either of them. Daniel Berrigan protested against injustice as he saw it until the day he died, at 94. Like Martin Luther King, he called us to moral arms.

Berrigan was a Jesuit priest. King was a Baptist minister. Berrigan’s church wasn’t fully supportive of his radicalism, but he kept the collar, and he kept fighting. Reading his obituary made me think that maybe I’m wrong about religion. Maybe it shouldn’t be eradicated like a pest infestation. 

These days not much good is coming out of pulpits. Pope Francis is an exception, in his words if not his institutional reforms. But radical jihad is doing nothing for the image of Islam (and who is, I might ask?). The hard right shift of American Protestantism, and American Catholic dogmatism, threatens pluralism and free expression.

The thing about being a priest, or equivalent in other religions, is that it gives you (literally) a pulpit. People are predisposed, indeed conditioned, to listen to what you have to say, to consider it thoughtfully. You don’t (not right away) get ignored as a kook. You are Father Berrigan. We are taught to honor our fathers.

The other thing about religious training (the responsible kind, anyway) is that for the most part it teaches moral behavior. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Help the poor. Visit the sick. Have mercy. If you internalize those messages, and if you aren’t corrupted by the inside game of the church hierarchy, it is hard to look away from injustice. You preach against it. You march against it. You go to jail in protest.

Maybe we will develop a class of secular (Atheist) moralists. Maybe they will gain a following. Bernie Sanders comes close. He hasn’t put his life on the line, though. He hasn’t gone to jail. When you get down to it, he’s just a politician. His ideas are noble, but he has no more hope of passing single payer health care than Father Berrigan did of stopping the Vietnam War. Actually, that’s not true. Sanders probably has less hope. The protests Berrigan started ultimately did lead to the end of the war. A big reason for that was that Berrigan (and King for civil rights) was willing to go all in—personally all in—for what he believed. We saw that, and we followed him.

Father Berrigan believed that one must keep trying to do the right thing regardless of the near certainty that it will make no difference. That is a heavy burden. One that his faith helped him bear. Can we match his resolve without his faith? Or in the absence of faith, in the absence of a belief in a higher order and purpose, does making a difference seem too pointless?

At the end of his obituary, The New York Times published one of Father Berrigan’s poems. As so often, the poet tells the truth beautifully:

My brother and I stand like the fences
of abandoned farms, changed times
too loosely webbed against
deicide homicide
A really powerful blow
would bring us down like scarecrows.
Nature, knowing this, finding us mildly useful
indulging also
her backhanded love of freakishness
allows us to stand.

Monday, April 25, 2016

I Will Never Lie to You About Having Sex With That Crook

“I am not a crook.” Richard Nixon.

That has always been one of my favorites. He was of course. But that was the least of it. He was also a paranoid bigot.

After Tricky Dick we had a bit of a backlash to presidential dishonesty and elected Jimmy Carter, who promised, “I will never lie to you.”

All that moral integrity turned out to be too wimpy for our taste, though, so we tossed the peanut farmer from Plains for a movie cowboy with barely credible black hair and a twinkle in his eyes who promised a new morning in America. If you weren’t poor. Or a woman (he killed the ERA). Also he didn’t fund the Contras in Nicaragua with secret illegal arms sales to Iran. Reagan’s defense when he came clean was that he didn’t know the details. At least that was credible. He never knew the details.

“Read my lips, no new taxes.” George H. W. Bush. Oh, except those new taxes. Had to do it. Wouldn’t be prudent not to.

“I did not have sex with that woman.” Well, not that kind of sex, at least not with that one, but close enough. (And, on that subject, let’s not even get started on Kennedy. Which one? Any of them.)

And the saddest, to me personally, uttered by my latest hero: “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” Oops, there it is, right there in the Syrian sand, a red line. Imagine that.

I’m not saying politicians are congenital liars. They’re just…well, politicians. Sometimes they just get carried away telling us what we want to hear. Othertimes they get caught at some Machiavellian skulduggery or taking a wide stance in the men’s bathroom stall. So they duck. Backpedal. Lie. Cover up.They’re like toddlers caught doing something they know they’re not supposed to. It’s kind of amusing, really.

Amusing! You’re shocked, you say, that I find humor is such grave breaches of public trust. It’s not that, honest. It’s just that I find humor in human nature. Look at your kids. Look at yourself. See what I mean? Really, is it reasonable to expect more from our elected officials? (Other than Jimmy Carter, who was so humorless we got bored with him.) They are only human, after all.

So if trust is not the proper yardstick, what is? The answer is simple: policies.

But if we can’t trust them, how do we know they will flow through with their policies?

Good question. We don’t, not entirely. But there is a momentum to policy. There are a Congress and a Cabinet. A lot of people get behind policies. The president is the leader, but he or she is leading a big herd. The herd is going to keep going, even if the president suddenly decides he or she wants to go the other way. Herds have momentum. And ultimately a collective mind of their own.

So who do you want to be your wrangler? That’s the question you have to ask yourself. Do you want the herd to go east or west? Who’s mapping the route to green pastures and who’s asking Siri for the location of the nearest slaughterhouse? Maybe the candidates want the job for the wrong reasons. Maybe they were thrown out of the last town they were in. Maybe they hit the bottle a little too hard. But whatever their honesty, or your impression of it, they aren’t going to get the herd where you want it to go if they set off in the wrong direction.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Good Taste and Terrorism

Raise your hand if you love “rose gold” (the newish color for Apple products). Me, not so much. I don’t know why. I just don’t. Maybe because it’s ugly.

But wait. I can’t say that. Not about an Apple color. Not me, one of their die-hard fan-boys. Besides, it sells like crazy. Could I be wrong?

Where I grew up, in the South, good taste was a matter of high snobbery, an ineffable mark of good breeding and class. It was like blue eyes or a great physique, except for people who had neither. “Yes, she has a certain animal appeal, but her clothes are so common.”

We used to call bad taste “tacky.” Too bright. Too showy. Of course, we were Puritan stock, so sartorial modesty was deep in our DNA. I remember the first time I went to an Indian wedding after I moved to LA. All those bright colors. I was new to learning about the world and it was at first hard to reconcile my “ bright is tacky” heritage with my affection for the father of the bride. A similar internal conflict arose within me when my grandmother returned from five years in Bangkok with a closet full of Thai dresses. I think we gave them all away when she died; no one in our Southern family wanted them. I was an idiot then. I admit it. I have purged most of those biases. All but rose gold.

Go with me now as I wander down a similar path to the Stanford Mall. I’m sitting at an outside table, eating a sandwich and working on a story, when a person-sized robot rolls by. It has cameras all around it and it emits an eerie Twilight-Zone music (presumably so you’ll know it’s there and not bump into it). Once in a while it announces that it is a security robot. 

Okay, a little creepy, but fine. As I sit there, though, it comes back by a half-dozen times. I begin to imagine that it is focusing on me. I wonder if I fit some security profile. I’m a white man out in the middle of the day. Out of work? Disaffected? I have a black backpack with me. I think about giving it the finger. I wonder what it would do if I put black tape over its cameras.

I do not like to be surveilled. I moved all the way from Nashville to Los Angeles specifically to get out of reach of my father’s surveillance network. Anonymity has always offered me a kind of private bliss. As I imagine religion might offer others.

That same day, I read about a PhD student at Berkeley who was escorted off a Southwest flight and questioned by the FBI for three hours because he was speaking to his uncle on the telephone in Arabic. “Inshallah,” he said at the end of the call. Big mistake. Everyone who has watched thrillers knows that’s what the bad-guys say right before the bomb goes off.

So what does that have to do with rose gold? That color (or choose one you don’t like) is the other. Those people (speakers of strange languages) are the other. We don’t like them. If prompted, we fear them. Enter the flight attendants who ask you to leave the plane. Enter the security robot at the mall.

I admit to internal turmoil. I want us all to be left alone, but not so much so that we kill one another. There’s an inherent conflict there. I know that.

All this got me wondering, again, why I don’t like rose gold. There’s the raised by Puritans explanation. I do favor black and white. But it’s more than not liking rose gold: I think its ugly. Why do I take that step? Wouldn’t it be sufficient to say (which I do, except in meditations like this), hey if you like it, great. But secretly, some part of me feels, hey, if you like it, there’s something wrong with you. Definitely not raised by Puritans.

I’m civilized enough not to say these things out loud. “Nice, phone dude,” is what I say. But why do I feel that tiny frisson of disgust? What part of evolution has brought that on?

It’s adaptive, I suppose. The other might kill you. Whether it’s the guys in the next cave or the mushroom you have never seen before. This is the root of taste as a matter of survival. That and middle school.

We want pluralistic societies. We want tolerance for differences. Indeed, we must have those things if we are to survive as a species as we wash up over one another in the rising tide of humanity. Eventually, with exposure, we get used to the differences among us. It seems to take a lot of exposure, though, and a lot of time. I hope we get there in something faster than the speed at which we learned to walk upright.

And maybe by then I will think rose gold is beautiful. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

A Man for Another Season

I mourn Antonin Scalia, the man. He was, by all accounts, a man of intelligence, humor and charm. But I will not miss Antonin Scalia the jurist. He had a pinched view of the Constitution that was for another time.

He was a textualist, by which he meant that a law says what its plain language states, not what the people adopting it meant. Unless the people adopting it were the founding fathers, in which case the law (the Constitution) means what they meant it to say. He called that approach being an originalist. I call it expedient.

Enough has been written about the state of politics, suffrage and slavery at the time of the founding of our country that it need not be repeated. Suffice it to say that under those circumstances the Constitution is an amazingly democratic and pluralistic governing credo. Which is why it has endured.

Our society is very different today than it was then. We have adapted to tremendous shifts in economic, political and cultural norms. This is why we have endured. No organism, amoeba or nation, can survive and flourish if it fails to adapt to a changing environment.

The founders did not contemplate today’s conditions. They could not have. To try to gather their views, as if by seance, to inform decisions about how we should live together today, is folly. Most of us aren’t even interested in our father’s or grandfather’s old-fashioned opinions about how we should live our lives, never mind Thomas Jefferson’s.

Justice Scalia took pride in saying that he did not let his personal views inform his judicial judgements. I do not believe that.

He was unabashedly homophobic. He did not advocate protecting women’s reproductive rights. He thought it was fine for us all to carry arms, no matter the gun violence in our cities. He said once, only half joking, that he might draw the line at shoulder-held anti-aircraft weapons.

He was, in his devout adherence to his Roman Catholicism and to his personal views about what is socially moral and acceptable, a man of an earlier time. He did not like the cultural changes the were thrust upon him. And he did not like expanding the interpretation of the Constitution to accommodate them. He fought back by saying those expansions were not part of the plain text, were not part of what the founders had in mind, and so were illegitimate.

He did not like the right to privacy found in Roe v. Wade. He thought the concept of substantive due process was an oxymoron. He did not think Brown v. Board was well decided. He thought it was not a good thing, through affirmative action, to let blacks swim in educational waters that he thought might be too deep for them.

He was an eighteenth-century man railing against the modern world. Women, gays, blacks. He resisted change, but change we must.

So long, Antonin. My condolences to your family and friends (among them your ideological opposites, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Elena Kagan, which says a lot about you as a friend). I’m not religious, but you were. I hope you’re up there in heaven with Jefferson and Adams slapping you on the back, welcoming you home.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Woman of a Certain Age

Judi Dench for President. She wouldn’t take any crap off Putin. Or Bond. Or any of the boys she regularly keeps in their place.

Or Helen Miren.

Or Gloria Steinem.

Maybe we could have a seance and see who Eleanor Roosevelt would favor.

Strong women one and all. 

The question today is this: are we ready to go beyond the strong women of film and the lionesses of feminism and elect a woman as president? 

I hope so. Not just because I think it would be the same kind of breakthrough as was electing a black man, one that offerers a role model to girls and women, one that gets the rest of us used to the idea, but because I think a woman might do a better job than a man. I’m quite certain that Hillary Clinton would do a better job than any of her rivals.

Bernie Sanders has good ideals, but no way to get there. The Republicans, by and large, don’t even have good ideals. It’s hard for me to imagine why any modern, self-respecting woman would vote for any of the current crop of misogynist Republican contenders.

As to Bernie, he’s the Ralph Nader of this go round. He has broader support, but the same flaws. He’s rigid about what he sees as right and wrong. If you don’t agree with him, he doesn’t want to talk to you. He wants to lead a revolution, not a discussion. His revolution isn’t going to happen in our country any time soon. And, as far as he is concerned, neither is a discussion of alternatives.

These things seem so obvious to me that I am struggling to understand why Hillary Clinton isn’t the landslide choice of anyone, man or woman, who wants the country to be the land of opportunity for all, not just the wealthy, but who also understands that the animal spirits of capitalism are why our economy leads the world.

Hillary Clinton takes on her adversaries forthrightly. She scolds when she thinks someone needs it. She fights back aggressively when attacked.

Kind of reminds one of “M.” We all love M. But the Bond films are just movies, and a man is the star. 

We admire the strong women of film. We admire pioneers like Roosevelt and Steinem. Somehow, though, we are having a hard time going from them to a woman president.

We are emotionally conflicted when it comes to women. We admire strong women, but they scare us a little. Most of us have been raised by and around women in more traditional supporting roles. It’s a little weird to think of them leading us the way men have in the past.

Rather than admit that very natural reaction to cultural roles in transition, we come up with excuses in the specific case to put off the day of reckoning. She’s too shrill. She’s too bossy. Sure, a woman would be fine as president, just not her.

Many say that women have had to be tough to get ahead in a man’s world. The implication is that, yes, she’s disagreeable but she had to be. I don’t buy that. I don’t think the women who are rising into leadership roles are any different than the men they are replacing. They are as tough as they need to be. It’s just that we’re not used to seeing that from women.

We need to get used to it. There’s nothing wrong with them. The trouble is in the eye of the beholder.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Is Sexy Sexist?

Is sexy sexist?

On either side of the gender line?

It will be a great day when women and men are treated equally. It will be a sad day if we lose sexy in the process.

I believe we can have our cake and pop out of it too. 

Here are some ideas for how:

Objectify money, not women (or men). Objectify fame. Objectify private jets and Pulitzer prizes. Objectify anything but each other. All those other things are things. We are not.

No article of clothing is “asking for it.” Still, there are horses for courses. Dress for the way you plan to work or play, and don’t mix up the two.

Gender equality begins at home. Do for one another the things we know make us feel good, and the things we don’t really want to: Examples in category one: compliments (even when a bit of a stretch); opening doors; random flowers (for men or women); making dinner. In category two: cleaning the house; staying home with the sick kid; visiting his or her family regularly; giving up some of your career to make his or hers better.

Gender equality means fantasy equality. Do what turns the two of you on. That’s a different thing than all the rest of life. You may not think you can turn fantasy on and off like a light switch, but trust me, you can. Really, it’s more like striking a match.

And lastly, in this time of transition for women from fifties wives to tech warriors, and for men from Don Draper to Mark Zuckerberg, don’t gender stereotype your children. What you teach them before they know anything else can take a long time to unlearn. Teach them to see themselves the way you want to be seen.

I love a powerful woman (both in principle and in real life). I love a sexy woman (ditto). Make something like that happen in your own life (with the gender of your choice). Believe me, it doesn’t get any better.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Spreading the News

The Good News came to Iowa last night. Good news for Cruz, Trump, Rubio and their large blocks of evangelical supporters.

What does that mean for the rest of us?

The English word “evangelical” comes from “euangelion,” Greek, meaning “the good news.”

So far so good.

According to the website of the National Association of Evangelicals, “The evangelical faith focuses on the ‘good news’ of salvation brought to sinners by Jesus Christ.”

Okay, not too bad. A little specific to that one prophet, but I grew up around Christians and they seemed harmless enough at the time. This was after the crusades and witch burnings, so I never felt any fear other than of having to sit in church and listen to some guy tell me that pretty much my whole plan for the next week was going to send me to hell. I even liked singing bible songs around campfires. (The s’mores were a big inducement.) Here’s one song I remember:

Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Red, brown, yellow
Black and white
They are precious in His sight.
Jesus loves the little children
Of the world.

The song was written by C. Herbert Woolston of Chicago, who was said to have been inspired by Matthew 19:14, where Jesus says, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.”

So that’s good, right? The good news according to Jesus is to welcome all the little children, regardless of color.

But wait, not those Muslim kids. He couldn’t have meant them. And surely not the Mexicans and Central Americans. There were no Muslims or Mexicans nearby when Jesus uttered those welcoming words.

Maybe what Jesus urged us to do must be construed in the context of his time. Maybe evangelicals are originalists, like Scalia on the Supreme Court.

There were Egyptians nearby in Jesus’s time, but nobody is talking much about Egyptian immigrants just now. Syrians were all over the place then. They’re trying to get in now, but the darlings of the evangelicals—Cruz, Trump and Rubio—don’t want to let them in because they might be terrorists. Maybe that’s a distinction an originalist evangelical can hang onto. There were no suicide vests in Jesus’s time, so no worries about welcoming a few Syrians in those days, but now…  

I have to say, what evangelicalism seems to me to boil down to is rejection of anyone who is not a Christian. As far as I know, Iowa’s evangelicals haven't suggested dealing with heretics the way as ISIS does—I haven’t seen any images of bloody heads rolling down snow-covered Iowa corn rows—but they make me nervous nevertheless.

I’m not a Christian, but that’s not supposed to matter in our country. Remember us, the nation founded by people fleeing religious persecution?

Elections have consequences. This isn’t about a constitutional interpretation by the Supreme Court, which tries with varying degrees of success to balance our two pillars of religious liberty, the establishment and the free-exercise clauses of the First Amendment. This is about the will of the people. Whom do we want to lead us? What principles do we hold most dear?

Are they exclusion or inclusion? Are they fear or hope? Will we help others, as Jesus and the Golden Rule exhort us to, or only those who look like us and share our faith?

Monday, January 25, 2016

A Life Out of Focus

The first images of the movie have the jumpy, chaotic gaiety of a home video. The girl, age five or six, is at a family gathering, smiling and miming. Everyone is smiling and laughing in that too loud, too good-natured family-get-together kind of way. The adults are sunk deep into couches and the kids are roiling about and the film washes out now and then with the glare of backlighting and then zooms in on the faces one at a time to save this moment for each person to be able to see how they were then.

You think: This is so ordinary. Where is it going? Your attention drifts to the others in the theatre. You wonder why such obvious sentimentality holds their attention.

When you look back at the screen, the images are unsteady. The hand that is holding the camera is shaking, or maybe the children are shaking the whole room. The girl is more aware of the camera than the others, was even in those first scenes, you now realize. She is hamming it up, almost flirting, even at nine or ten.

There is another jump-cut of time passing. The family is not in the scene now. The girl is alone in a park at twilight. She has a cap pulled low over her forehead. She seems to be looking for someone. Before we see if she finds him or her, she wanders into darkness.

You can see from the reaction of people around you that the abrupt change of mood has gotten their attention. They are not unwrapping candy wrappers. They are not slurping sodas. 

Now the on-screen images are of the girl in her teens and she is running. We can’t see from what, but she seems afraid. She is stumbling. Her mouth is open and it looks like she is screaming, but there is no sound. Then we see others behind her. We don’t know who they are, or whether they are chasing her to save her or harm her. She glances back at them and keeps running.

A man in the row ahead of you whispers something to the woman he is with, and they get up and leave.

The girl, older still, is in shadows. Wandering. We can see her face but not what she is thinking or feeling. She is expressionless. She drifts in and among people and speaks to them but we cannot hear what she is saying. She takes a paper bag from a boy who looks older than she and moves off into the shadows again and when the camera finds her she is lying on the ground, a coat pulled up over her. It looks like she is asleep. She might be dead, she is that still. That alone.

The rustling of people getting up catches your attention, and you see that many are leaving the theatre. The movie doesn’t seem to be over, but it is over for them. Maybe they just don’t want to see what is going to happen to the girl. They should stay, you think. It can’t end this way.

The scene shifts to a diner. The girl is in a booth. She is painfully thin and pale. She has a plate of french fries in front of her, smothered in ketchup. Someone is in the booth across from her, but we can’t see who. It seems that her unseen companion is speaking to her. The girl glances up now and then as she eats the french-fries and the ketchup reddens her mouth, but we cannot hear what is being said. She finishes the food and gets up and leaves. The camera follows her out into the bright afternoon. She walks along the sidewalk, weaving slightly, and gradually the camera pulls back and we can see her approach a group of people paused at a stoplight to cross the street. She stops at the back of the group and when the light changes the group crosses the street and spreads out and it becomes difficult to pick her out of the crowd.

There are only a few others left in the theatre now. No one is getting up. They seem as stunned as you. Why have we been watching this? you want to ask them. Why would someone tell a story like this? It is not a story of redemption or triumph. There is not a happy ending. There is no ending. We have no idea what will become of the girl, but we are uneasy for her, afraid for her. She is on her own, choosing her own path, but we wonder if it was not somehow chosen for her, if she was not propelled along it by those earlier scenes that were so blurry and out of focus, or by some blurriness inside her that kept what she was seeing as distorted and elliptical as the scenes we have been watching. We wonder what we are meant to learn from them. How we are meant to feel. Where, when we leave the theatre and go out into the bright afternoon, we are meant to go.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Playing Against Type

—Jamestown, VA. Winter, 1609. The Starving Winter. 

I have built a sound cabin of logs I cut while the weather was fair, daubed with clay and straw. We have a fire pit in the corner, with a ventilation hole. I can’t call it a fireplace, but it suffices. We are adequately warm and dry, but we, like all our neighbors, have little food. Daily I tramp through the woods and try to snare a hare or partridge. The game is hunted out nearby, though, and I dare not wander too far lest I fall prey to savages and leave my family defenseless. Lately, I have taken to hunting at night so that I can safely range farther. I sit in a snowbank staring into the darkness, my senses as sharp as the cold, and wait.

—Belle Meade Country Club, Nashville TN. 1959. The Summer of White Privilege.

I have played golf almost every day. I am getting better, but not fast enough. To impress my father with my improvement, I sometimes kick a ball out of a bad lie or concede myself a putt that is too long for that, even among boys. For lunch I have round chicken sandwiches on white bread with no crust, served by Pewee or Shorty or one of the other waiters at the club who are at this stage somewhere between my servants and my friends. It is not enough, though, this ceaseless repetition. Golf is challenging, but not a challenge. My survival will not depend on it. I’ve gotten a paper route, getting up at 4:30 to deliver the morning paper. In the afternoons, I’ve started cutting yards. I’m making money. Not my father’s money. I don’t sign a ticket at the club on his account for it. I’m saving for a car, one I will pick out myself.

My ancestors survived that Starving Winter, or ones very like it. I survived—if you will forgive the use of the word in this context—the Summers of White Privilege. The restless need to be doing something to forge ahead is deep in my DNA. When I’m not honoring its imperative, I get uncomfortable. Like I am now. Like I have been for years.

From the days of that first paper route, I loved to work. I loved the independence, the sense of self worth, bestowed by both the money I earned and by the force-field of energy and purpose that was the work itself. I was never happier than when riding through the rain on my bike tossing newspapers onto dry porches with the precision of a big-league baseball pitcher. I was never happier than when doing five deals at once as lawyer, sleepless and exhilarated to be lancing legal judgements through storms of conflict over money and power.

Not everyone has been as happy with my DNA. I was driven. Sometimes it wasn’t pretty if you got in my way. I didn’t spend enough time with my family. No, that’s an understatement.

Then a strange thing happened. I stopped all that restless charging and began writing. I kept it up because I liked the calmer me. I liked being with my children. I nodded to my DNA by making pancakes and after-school snacks, coaching soccer, running a chess club. But that crop of kids moved on. (They all do, let me just warn you.) 

And now, here I am, the new calmer me, writing away, ever hopeful. It’s a better life that daubing the chinks in the cabin with clay and straw as the snow piles up and the children cry for food, but there is an unease to all its ease. Something in me stirs. It is restless. It urges me to do something. I don’t think it cares what, just something, As long as the doing is all consuming. As long as I’m all in.

Does that mean I’m not all in on writing? I think it must. I like it. I am a better man for it. I understand myself better, the world better. But it is a faintly painful kind of better. I don’t think I’m happier. Just better.

I wonder sometimes if my DNA will ever leave me alone. Will it evolve within me (if such a thing is possible) in time for me to be both better and happier. Will it change at all? To be more evolutionarily specific, I wonder what I have passed along. The compulsion to survive, almost certainly. But also the urge to create? There is nothing I would like more than to read this blog by my children or grandchildren when they are my age. To learn how they will feel then. About the world. About themselves.