Saturday, May 12, 2018

Mother Sun

I missed my mother’s last Mother’s Day. That was ten years ago. I still feel badly about that, but not just that. She had just gone off to live near my brother. He was looking after her, visiting her often in a nursing home. When she lived near me, as she did for almost all of her last fifteen years, I helped her move along life’s inevitable path, from living happily alone to having someone come in a few days a week to wondering why when they came into her little room in the nursing home the caregivers talked among themselves as if she were not there.

I did my best, that’s what I tell myself. I left the daily care to others, but I kept her affairs ship-shape and went to doctor’s appointments with her and made sure she was getting good care and visited her often and brought her over for Sunday brunches and walked and then wheeled her though the park or drove her around in my little convertible with the top down. I drove a little too fast, just so she could remember what it was like. She wore a straw hat and a long scarf that fluttered in the wind like the tail of a kite.

I shopped for her and left supplies in her kitchen and bathroom, but I didn’t take on much of her personal care. No baths. No helping hand getting to the toilet. I thought she would prefer the privacy of a caregiver. Or maybe I just knew I would.

When I think of her now, I think sometimes of those moments of lost intimacy and wonder if it would have made her happier if I had bathed her the way she bathed me when I was a child. I wonder if she wanted the touch of my hand on her shoulders, the warm water from the washcloth in my own hand. 

There is one thing I didn't do that I’m sure now I should have: sing to her.

She sang to me when I was a child. She had a lovely voice. She sang “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “Bye, Bye Blackbird.” Other songs too, but those are the two I remember best. Once, late in her life I asked her to sing Bye Bye Blackbird the way she used to sing it to me, and I recorded it. I listen to it now and then when I want to remember her gentle sweetness.

I sang to my first girlfriends as we drove down a million country roads. I sang to Meg at our wedding, spontaneously, joyfully, perhaps drunkenly. I sang to my children almost every night. I don’t know why I didn’t sing to my mother. Maybe, even when I was trying to be the adult and take care of her, I was still the child, the one to be sung to.

A song I sang to my youngest sons at bedtime would have been perfect for her as she lay in those last beds. I could have run my fingers over her forearm as she closed her eyes and listened. I could have touched her cheek as she drifted off to sleep. I could have switched off the light and slipped out of her room, knowing that she felt the warmth of that song as I did, knowing that she knew it was the way I felt about her.

The last lines of that song, “The Rose,” are,

“When the night has been too lonely
And the road has been too long
And you think that love is only
For the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter
Far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed that with the sun’s love
In the spring becomes the rose.”

I was that seed. She was the sun.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Going Home

I’ve been in Europe for two months now. In two weeks and two days, I’m going home. I’m not looking forward to it.

There are good friends at home I’ve missed. (Hi, dear ones; you know who you are; see you soon). And even though we talk and text often, I feel a little disconnected from my children; you know, like I couldn’t rush out on the playground and save them from a bully, even though they are all adults now.

And my roses. I’ll be happy to see them blooming. Mother’s Day roses, Meg and I call them, because they always bloom then. They, like Meg, bring unearned beauty to my life.

Okay, I haven’t watched tv this entire trip, so I need to catch up on a few shows, especially Game of Thrones.

The rest of it…meh.

Europe is always like a tonic for me. I see the world as a bigger place. I see Europe’s triumphs and troubles, and I see its history, which is both inspiring and depressing. Inspiring because—well, just look around at the art and culture—and depressing because even these noble souls are not that much better at learning from the tragic mistakes of their past than those of us in our very young nation.

I can see Europe from afar. Objectively, I think. Coming here is like a study in civilization. Old walled cities, old cathedrals, modern high-speed trains, street-corner food markets, labor strikes, and yes, migrant crises.

But I can’t see America objectively. I am blinded by my hopes; and lately, we have been dashing them. There’s no other way to put it.

After the civil-rights movement, I thought we would continue to be less prejudiced and offer more opportunity to all. It coincided with post-WW II economic prosperity, and I assumed that if Jim Crow was dead, everyone, black and white, would be able to take part in the American Dream. For me, that dream wasn’t of a welfare state, it was of upward mobility achieved through hard work.

Now, years later, I’m having to face the fact that Martin Luther King did not kill old Jim Crow, he only wounded him. The legacies of slavery and segregation run far deeper than I realized. Blacks do not have equal opportunity with whites. There is still a lot of work to do to achieve that. Not only for blacks, but for Hispanics and our other growing minorities as well.

But instead of building on the work of MLK, we seem to have entered a backlash phase of tearing it down. There are many signs of this, but new restrictive voter ID laws are the most blatant and strike at the most essential freedom of democracy: the right to vote.

Not long after the civil-rights movement, we almost passed the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which said women had to be treated as equals. Not only did we fall short of codifying what should be a bedrock principle of how we live together, but we have been backsliding ever since. Abortion rights have never been on shakier ground, not since Roe was decided. Planned Parenthood is broadly under attack, even though it helps prevent many many more abortions than it performs. We just elected a president who has no respect for women. Not just those who want abortions, all of them. “Grab them by the pussy,” he says.

That’s the part I’ve been trying to understand. How did he get elected? There have always been men like Trump. I’ve known dozens. I’ve gotten up and left many a lunch table to avoid having to listen to their racist and misogynist jokes. I see now that I should have done more than excuse myself; I should have called them out. But at those tables everyone was laughing. I thought it was just them, a small minority of fat cats. I see now I was wrong.

I suppose I’ve answered my own question. Trump got elected because a lot of people agree with his darkest urges, his racism and misogyny. Sure, some of them may have felt left behind economically and hoped he would bring back their coal mines and steel mills. But that wasn’t the driving force behind his support. It was fear that the world is changing, that the old order of white male supremacy is crumbling. The very thing that gave me hope when I was a young man—a broadening of opportunity for minorities—struck fear into the hearts of enough voters to put Trump over the top. They weren’t the only reason he won—there were plenty who just wanted tax cuts for the rich and an end to Obamacare—but they were the deciding factor.

I live in California, which is putting up a spirited defense to the worst of Trump’s policies on climate change, the environment, healthcare and immigration. But California can’t do it alone. And Trump is doing all he can to undermine my state’s efforts to continue to protect our habitat and our vulnerable residents.

Being on another continent gives me emotional distance and historical perspective. But they are just a palliative, like morphine for a cancer patient. They are not a cure. And now I must wade back into the melee. I want to fight for what I feel is right, but it is discouraging to have to start at the bottom again on issues I thought were well and finally decided. It’s like a game of chutes and ladders, when you hit one of those places that sends you back to the beginning.

There’s nothing to do but stay in the game, keep rolling the dice. But I do wish those trap doors weren’t there. And I do hope the people who put them there, those who voted for Trump and revanchist politicians like him, will find something more humane to do than cheering when someone tumbles down the chute to the bottom below them.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Monsters and Other Fairy Tales

Children believe in monsters. To reassure them we hold up the covers and shine a light to show them there is nothing under the bed. We tell them fairy tales about creatures who adore them: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy. These are harmless fictions, we think, because we understand that soon enough our children will outgrow them and enter the real world of no magic, no illusions about what is real and what is not.

That passage into adulthood is bittersweet. One cannot live as a child, with a child’s fantasies; still, once lost, the innocence and credulity of that time are gone forever.

Or are they?

Sometimes when we grow up we find new fantasies to hang onto. We have a powerful, instinctive urge to believe in something magical, something that will bring us gifts not because of anything we have done, just because of who we are.

This is why we are credulous both as children and as adults. This is why when we grow up we bet on the lottery. Why we accept things people tell us that may seem fantastical but that we want to believe, things that hold out the promise of presents under the tree and coins under our pillows.

We know our children must grow up. We have all suffered through it ourselves. We think that an adult who still believes in Santa Claus is not playing with a full deck. But is he really that unusual? How many of us still cling to fairy tales? 

There is the one about how everything will be all right if we can just get the monsters out from under the bed, or at least keep them on the other side of the border.

And the one about how if we give our tax dollars to the rich man selling magic beans we will get a beanstalk that we can climb to a basket of golden eggs.

Don’t build your house of straw, the wolf will blow it down. Put a wall around it.

Hop up on the fox’s back and let him carry you across the stream. 

What could go wrong? After all, it’s only a fairy tale.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

America's Atlantic Wall

I’m hiking the coastal paths of Brittany, France, skirting granite cliffs that fall away a hundred meters into the sea. I pass the occasional lighthouse or medieval fort, but more often I come upon the bunkers of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. There are huge concrete troughs for big artillery guns, smaller bunkers for anti-aircraft and machine guns, and warrens of underground tunnels and caverns for the German soldiers who manned the guns. 

Many of these fortifications are overgrown now, but once you start noticing them, you see them everywhere, stretching in a line across the cliffs overlooking the English Channel. The big guns were brought in to destroy ships in the Channel, and the other fortifications were dug in to defend against an invasion to liberate the countries Germany occupied. Hitler called it his Atlantic Wall. It stretched from the northern tip of Norway and down the coast of France to Spain. A million Frenchmen were drafted for the work.

Hitler wasn’t the first to try to wall off Europe. Almost every European city of any importance had a wall around it. Those old walls are now tourist attractions. Hitler’s Atlantic Wall was breached just two years after he built it. 

The lesson to me is obvious: walls don’t work. They may seem like a good strategy for dealing with hostile neighbors, or for securing ill-gotten gains, but they invite attack. They will be breached. It’s just a matter of time.

I can imagine a time when walls may have seemed like the only way to protect ourselves. I can certainly imagine an enemy so bloodthirsty that he can’t be reasoned with, an enemy who must be defeated if we are to live. Hitler was one of those. As was Japan in WW II. Today, there may be newcomers to that unsavory club: North Korea is an obvious candidate. Perhaps Iran. Perhaps Russia. Perhaps even China.

But Mexico? Central America? I don’t think we are in much danger of being taken over by our neighbors to the south. Yes, many of their people want to come here, for the economic opportunity or to escape the violence in their homelands, but they do not want to conquer us. For the most part, they just want a chance for a better life.

That is what America has always offered the world. We have been more welcoming at some times than others, but for the most part we have opened our arms to immigrants. Now, with the fear of “the other” that still lurks in our ancient base brain being inflamed by a nativist president, we are thinking about building a wall. Or, more accurately, he and his base are.

Most of us know what Europe has learned over and over in its centuries of civilization: walls don’t work.

Not physical walls, like the one Trump wants to build on our southern border. Not economic walls, like the protectionist tariffs he’s rolling out. Not cultural walls, like the ones he creates when he calls Mexican immigrants murderers and rapists.

The world is still a hostile place. It would not be smart for us, or anyone, to be defenseless. But America, with by far the strongest military ever known to man, is certainly far from defenseless. We have nothing to fear from people clamoring to come here to escape poverty and strife. Indeed, we need immigrants to continue to prosper economically. We can afford to help them, and thereby help ourselves. And doing so is probably a lot cheaper than building a wall—a wall that’s not going to work over the long term, anyway.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Viva la France

Education and healthcare are free in France. The trains are fast, ubiquitous and punctual, and lovely. Baguettes fresh out of the oven cost a dollar. Good wine is inexpensive, and even more ubiquitous than trains. In Paris, every corner has a bookstore.

What’s wrong with that picture?

It’s a goddamned socialist country, that’s what’s wrong!

Well, true enough. France is socialist, at least compared to the United States. It’s not socialist in the old meaning of that term—a top-down planned economy—but those that are are autocracies that have, by and large, fallen prey to corruption at the top and poor quality of life at the bottom.

France, though, and a few other countries nearby, seem to have mastered a kind of socialism-light melded with democratic elections. Every time I come here, I begin to wonder if my lifelong allegiance to the fierce capitalism of my country is wrongheaded. The question is this: what are we each gaining as a result of our different approaches, and what is being given up? A useful addendum to the question is: by whom?

The United States is the innovation capital of the world. We owe that to the profit incentives of relatively unfettered capitalism. Social welfare is not really our thing. Carry your own weight, make your own way, that’s our heritage and our moral credo. Government aid to even the poorest among us is a fight to secure, and even taking that aid carries a social stigma. People look at you like you could do better if you tried harder. We judge ourselves that way. There is a lot of shame in our national psyche. 

France is not unimaginative or unprosperous, but it doesn’t have the productivity power of the United States. Some say it doesn’t even want that. Someone is always on strike here. It’s the trains now. (Still, I’m riding on a comfortable one as I write this, slipping in between strike days.)

I’m a fervent capitalist. I believe capitalism is the economic model that best harnesses human greed to the yoke of prosperity. I’m also a redistributionist. Not everyone is, or can be, successful in the arena of capitalistic combat, so out of humanity, we need to tend to the wounded warriors, or even those who never had a chance to strap on their armor and pick up a sword.

I think the French probably enjoy making money as much as we do, but perhaps they are less obsessed with money as the final objective of their endeavors. If true, why is that, do you suppose?

Perhaps it is because they have had longer to consider their options. They lived through the Dark Ages, through feudalism and monarchies, and now they have come out into a kind of sunshine of democratic socialism. Really, after millennia of struggle, where they are now must seem like utopia.

The United States, on the other hand, was founded by people who didn’t choose to throw off the yoke of servitude but who ran away from it. We came to our continent, took it away from those who were here before us, spread out so as to not get in each other’s way, and commenced laboring like so many beavers in a big pond. With that personal freedom, and all those natural resources, of course we began to think of ourselves as hearty and self-reliant. It didn’t hurt in nurturing that strict moral code that our rootstock was Puritan.

So we come to this moment in the early twenty-first century, America and France, with perhaps fundamentally different views of who we are and how we got here. We see ourselves as exceptional. The French may see themselves differently; I’m not sure what the right adjective would be: Enduring? Patient? There is certainly plenty of personal and national pride in France, but it seems more directed toward their triumphs over adversity and economic inequality. We in the United States have faced adversity from time to time, but our country has not been overrun by foreign invaders multiple times, or ruled by kings with guillotines.

It’s possible that coming from such different backgrounds, we just have different priorities. For a couple of hundred years, Americans tilled and smelted a rich life from scratch. We seem to be having trouble accepting that we have succeeded. Fear of the next famine or other calamity is deep in our DNA. And if you aren’t part of the group working toward prosperity, we don’t have much time for you.

The French, on the other hand, lived so long in scarcity, both of the basics of existence and personal freedom, that they seem committed to never going back there, individually or in the aggregate. They have structured their society to be a place where all enjoy basic benefits of food, health and education. They don’t seem to want to crawl over each other to get to the top of the income heap. They just want to make a good life for as many as possible.

And so I return to my first question: What’s wrong with that picture?


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

So Long, Facebook?

Mark Zuckerberg lives in my neighborhood (although, believe me, my house is nothing like his). Meg and I passed him and Priscilla Chan out walking one night, and we all nodded and said hi just like any neighbors. Larry Page is rumored to be building a house not far away, near where Steve Jobs lived, I think. My son’s chess teacher (really more like a chess philosopher) was a mathematician at Stanford and an early mentor to Page and Sergey Brin. He called them “those boys.” It’s not surprising, I suppose, that having been exposed to these people this way, they seem to me like regular folks. Of course I don’t really know them, but nodding sidewalk neighbors and “those boys” don’t seem like they could be bad guys.

I was early on Facebook, long before they went public. I have always been a huge fan of Google. And Apple. Tech holds a place in my heart and soul like volcano gods for early man. Beautiful, exciting, occasionally a little frightening. For years it’s been obvious how Google could be dangerous, but so far they seem to be toeing an acceptable line, giving us all tremendous benefits of accessibility to knowledge without obviously high costs. Or perhaps I’m not fully up to speed on the costs of having Google in our lives in such an intimate way.

But this post isn’t about Google, it’s about Facebook. 

Early on, Facebook seemed to be just what it was originally designed to be: a social hang out. It’s been nice for me. I’ve been able to keep up with friends, old and new, with whom I would otherwise have lost contact. We chat, I see what they’re up to, how their kids are growing up, etc. No downside to all that, right? No cost, right?

Now we learn, courtesy of Cambridge Analytica’s exploitation of Facebook’s members’ information, that there most certainly is a cost. I do not approve—I repeat, I do not approve—of being part of any shenanigans to hijack an election for a man like Donald Trump, or anyone else, for that matter. That’s not why I signed up for Facebook.

So I did what I have done in the past, but with more earnest effort this time: I adjusted my privacy and sharing settings on Facebook. The Facebook settings are a thicket of such density and thorniness that one has to wonder if they have not intentionally been made difficult to hack through in order to discourage users from limiting what Facebook can do, and permit to be done, with their data. 

Facebook is not a charity, I understand that. It needs to make money. I’ve been naive, I guess, about how their machine works; if we can believe their public protestations of innocence, so have they. 

When I’m naive, it’s dangerous to me. What a company like Facebook is naive, it’s dangerous to our democracy. That is not an acceptable cost for being in a social club.

I loved it when Facebook was the platform to spread the word of the Arab Spring. I love that they want to bring the internet to underserved places in developing countries. In their best moments that can seem like a modern Marshall Plan, fostering democracy, prosperity and goodwill around the world.

But here in their home country, they have let us down. They have, guilelessly or not, permitted themselves to serve as a massive platform for misinformation and trickery.

I would hate not to keep up with my friends. (Maybe we can all use Instagram.) I’m just not sure I can continue to be a part of a platform that can be so easily turned against our most fundamental interests. We’ll see. In the meantime, maybe “those boys” at Google can help Mark figure out how to clean up his business model.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Learning the Hard Way

We’re on the train from Paris to Barcelona, along the path of world wars. Out the window I see the men with bayonets fixed to their rifles charging the barbed wire and the men in the trenches rising up to return fire, and then, looking over time, only a few decades, I see the panzer tanks of the blitzkrieg and the men and women outside the small stone villages like the ones we are passing with their hands held high over their heads as the Nazi soldiers inspect them and decide whether they will live or die, and whether there and then or in a death camp.


For me the fields of France are the eternal fields of war. They don’t look very different now than then, bare and speckeled with snow along the tree lines on this last day of February. I think of how cold the soldiers, the boys, must have been in those trenches, how merciless the tanks of the second German invasion.

I see those boys in the fields and I wonder if others do. It’s a different world now than at the end of World War II. The Germans and the Japanese, so thoroughly defeated in that war, roared back into economic dominance. It remains to be seen what that means. The Germans are setting almost as much economic policy for Europe today as they did when they overran it militarily. Japan isn’t the economic tiger it was in the 1980s, and the country it used to dominate, China, has taken over the title as regional monarch.

When I was growing up in the South, I regularly walked the killing fields of the battle of Nashville and the battle of Franklin of our Civil War. But they weren’t fields of war to me. They were just boring patches of farmland. I had no sense of the Civil War. I could not imagine the boys dying in those fields and in the parlors of their homes where they were sometimes brought home to die. The Civil War meant nothing to me. Less than nothing. I rejected talk of it the way I rejected talk of all things that would never matter in my life.

I wonder if young men and women today see the fields of war of the generations before them with that same lack of interest and curiosity, whether they see the mistakes of those who came before them as unique to the frailties and vanities of those times.

The frailties and vanities of today are manifested by the nuclear saber rattling of the United States and North Korea. By the islands China is building in the open sea to control shipping and military routes. By Russian tanks in Ukraine and its new missiles announced just today.

Perhaps because I dismissed our Civil War as an anachronism, I was unprepared for the resurgence of white male nationalism that was awakened by the racist and misogynist rantings of our current president. I would like to blame him, but he is just one man. It is we who are to blame. Millions of us elected him, apparently without memory of Southern lynch mobs or the time not so long ago when women didn’t have the right to vote.

In Europe, the hard right is building fences to keep out migrants, and the fears they cater to are winning them elections again. I thought fascism had been not just defeated but eradicated. But like polio, it is making a comeback. I thought racism was dead, but it was merely lying dormant in the cold ground of our darkest urges.

The cliche is that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. I’m sure I am not the first to suggest a modification to this wisdom: it may not be enough merely to know history to avoid repeating its mistakes, we may have to personally feel the pain of the lives shattered, the children lost, the future lost. To those who come later, the past may seem quaintly antiquated.

“We are not like that,” they will say, the ones who walk the fields and cannot hear the guns and smell the cordite.

But they are, I fear. We all seem to be. Only when the pain of tragedy is seared in personal memory does it seem hold us back from our human need to conquer and dominate. If there were a way to pass that pain along to each new generation, not just the fact of it but the actual night sweats, we might escape the tyranny of our evolutionary imperative. Otherwise, it won’t be long before another generation learns these terrible lessons the hard way.


Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Stuff of Memory

Remember setting up house? Pots and pans. One pan, anyway. A dish or two. Coffee pot. A decent knife. Laundry basket, or maybe not, maybe just a corner of the closet. You were busy and free. You weren’t worried about all that stuff.

But it piled up, and then you moved in with someone else and his or her stuff, and pretty soon you needed more room not just for the stuff but for the baby that was on the way, a prospect both exhilarating and terrifying. 

That baby did it. Before her, stuff was just stuff. Now it became the cradle, an ornate antique with lace linens, in imagination if not reality. The flowered wallpaper. The changing table. The rocking chair. The toy box. The soccer goal. The study desk and lamp. The stereo. The couch with popcorn between the cushions. The television with fingerprints on the screen. And finally, the duffel bag for college.

You keep her bedroom like a silent migratory marsh pond. When her visits become less frequent, you begin saving things you think she might like for her new apartment. A set of plates she always loved. The pots you cooked all her meals in. The lamp she read by. Your attic becomes a shrine to both her past and her future.

But she never comes for her old things. She sets up her own house and finds her own mate and has her own kids. You begin to save her childhood toys for your grandchildren. Your attic is getting crowded.

And now here you are with all that stuff, which is not stuff to you but the memoir of your life. Long after you know it won’t be needed, not even by you, you keep it, knowing without admitting it that one day you will be gone and those bits of your life will remain, knitted together like the gray twigs of an old robin’s nest, still sturdy and serviceable, but abandoned.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Rotation

Two weeks ago, a limousine driver in Manhattan killed himself in front of City Hall. He did it, he said in an earlier Facebook post, to show how services like Uber and Lyft had killed his livelihood. The New York Times reported that the mayor of New York said, “Let’s face it, for someone to kill himself there’s an underlying mental health challenge.”

No doubt. 

Still, I keep thinking about that poor driver’s plight. When he started in the 1980s, he could support himself driving 40 hours a week. Lately he hadn’t been making enough to survive even driving 100 hours per week. Perhaps he had other problems, as Mayor de Blasio suggested, but his deteriorating work life was obviously a big contributor to his desperation.

Like coal miners in Kentucky, steel workers in Pennsylvania and textile workers in South Carolina, he was a victim of relentless economic change. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company predicts that by 2030 up to one-third of American jobs may be lost to automation.

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari observes that the shift by humans from hunting and gathering to farming created more food to support population growth but resulted in worse individual living conditions. Hunter-gatherers had more diverse diets, more leisure time and were less isolated than their farmer successors, who had to toil alone morning till night to grow and harvest their wheat, which made up and unhealthy percentage of their diet.

According to Professor Harari, early tribes of humans could work well together up to a number of about 150. After that, communication and coordination got too tough and the group splintered. Only when humans invented fictions that people in disparate locations could rally around did that numerical limitation fall away. Religion, nationalism and corporations are fictions, he says—they don’t exist in reality, only in our imaginations—that permitted the species to work together in common cause by the thousands and millions. By enabling collaboration across geography and time, fictions gave us power that reality did not. In their thrall, or under their banners, we created mighty industries, cured diseases and went to the moon.

Still, our moral ethos in America, the subjective way we see reality, is through the lens of self-reliance. Carry your own weight; lift your share of the load. If China or Uber steals your job, go find something else to do if you want to survive.

It’s not quite that brutal. We do have a social safety net. But it’s pretty close to the ground, and it has quite a few holes. By the time you hit it, you’re pretty far gone. Those of us who are prospering are helping by paying taxes to support food stamps and children’s health care, but it’s not enough. There are a lot of desperate people out there who have been left behind by the dramatic economic changes of the last century. And the rate of change is picking up.

Working life in the United States today is a game of musical jobs. The music stops now and then and you try to take your place on the manufacturing line or at your office desk only to find it’s gone. You haven’t changed, the economy has. Maybe you can find another job, maybe not. Maybe the need for your skills is just gone and isn’t coming back.

The free-market economy works well overall, but it’s not always so good on an individual level. And it’s heartless. It’s up to those of us who benefit from its dynamism and efficiency to give it its heart. In the small tribes of yore, where the pain was plain on the face of your neighbor, and impossible to ignore, anthropologists tell us everyone pitched in to help the sick and the weak. In our huge national tribe, it’s easy to look away.

We need some substitute for the compelling immediacy of the up-close-and-personal suffering of a fellow tribe member. A compact that we make among ourselves, like the charter of a business that governs the conduct of its employees, or the commandments of a religion that guide its followers. Professor Harari would call it a fiction, and so it would be. A fiction we would honor as steadfastly and unquestioningly as we worship our gods. A fiction that would unite us behind the promise that when the music stops for someone, there will be a fund to support him, a fund to which we will all contribute as routinely and piously as we drop bills in the collection plate at church.

Instead of God or Google, we might call our new fiction “Rotation.” It’s a non-judgmental word and a good descriptor of what happens: people get rotated out of the economy by drought, poverty, bad health or technological change. Its objective—like the objective of a business to make and sell products, or of a religion to save souls—would be that no one who has been rotated out of productivity will go hungry or be left without health care. When the music stops for you, because your job disappears or for some other reason, you will not be abandoned.

All this might sound like little more than a linguistic gussying up of the welfare state. In a way, that’s right. It’s an attempt to set aside the political baggage associated with welfare and return our notion of personal responsibility to one another to the time when we lived in small tribes. In a nod to those ancient times, we might think of it as establishing a kind of modern volcano god to whom we offer tribute as a defense against the random savagery of the free market and the capriciousness of personal calamity. Or we could simply view it as an acceptance to our common humanity, a humble acknowledgment that “there but for fortune go you or go I.”

Monday, December 25, 2017

A Prayer to Us

It’s Christmas morning, and the Pope is praying for peace. I like Pope Francis (except for the fact that he lets the Catholic Church remain patriarchal). He has generally progressive and humane ideas about our responsibilities to one another in this life. But he’s wasting his time praying for peace.

Prayer has been a staple of the religious and, in emergencies, the non-religious for millennia. I assume every pope since the beginning of popes prayed for peace. We might ask ourselves why those prayers have not been answered.

For atheists, the answer is easy: no God.

For those who believe, from the fervent to the hopeful skeptic, the answer is more complicated.

Many say, He gave us free will, so He doesn’t intervene. Of course, if you believe that, you have just made the case for why prayer is a waste of time. He’s letting us do our thing, presumedly hoping we will learn from our sins and eventually evolve into more moral humans. (It’s always a He, right? This is Francis’s problem with women priests, I assume.)

If you believe He does intervene occasionally, you have to ask yourself when. Why does he permit so many children to starve to death worldwide? Or be butchered by their genocidal elders? Those poor babes don’t live long enough to learn any lessons. Really, if you look at life and world events, from wars to natural disasters, it’s hard to think God is involved in our day-to-day affairs.

He seems to have left it up to us.

Looked at that way, prayer is more of a complaint than anything else. “Help, we can’t fix this. Bail us out.”

But He’s not going to. He has left it up to us.

If that’s the case, I suggest we quit praying and start doing something about our troubles. 

Here are a few ideas:

1. Vote for politicians who seek peace. Resist the urge to revert to tribal defensiveness. Open your hearts to the other.

2. Give time or money to organizations that help those in need. Go global or go local. Your choice.

3. Spread the word. Post on Facebook your hopes for peace and goodwill, and what you are doing to advance them. Or Instagram. Or Twitter. Be a voice in the wilderness.

4. Reach out to those around you. Forgive old sins. Bandage old neglects. Stitch up the wounds of your friends and family.

Don’t give yourself to the Lord. Give yourself to your fellow man. I imagine that if She’s paying any attention to us at all, that’s what She wants of us. Surely She’s not concerned about crowd size and loyalty. We already have one of those in our lives right now, and we see how that’s going. That’s not the kind of God we want.