Hold America Together

I am extremely fortunate in that I have been able to avoid an echo chamber in my life.  The fact that I grew up on a farm in a rural Midwest community formed my background as a conservative.  But since I have spent much time in higher education and in Los Angeles, I have been exposed to many liberal perspectives.  As such, my family and friends are somewhat evenly split between liberal and conservative leaning persons.

As such, I know all of these people, liberal and conservative, are fundamentally good people that want to do the right thing in their daily lives.

Unfortunately, too often we allow our politics to blind us to that fact, and we demonize the other side as a mortal enemy that must be vanquished.  When this viewpoint takes hold of people (on either or both sides of the aisle) it leads to the unraveling of stable democratic nations.

Please know, that whatever your politics, if you support Trump or Biden, or whatever, more than likely, if I’m friends with you, I still consider you a friend, because I know how good of a person you are regardless of politics, and I enjoy having you as a friend.  (And the flip side of the same coin, if I don’t like you, it probably has nothing to do with your politics and who you support, but rather just that you are simply annoying as hell.)

Since it is critical for us as a country to remember that we are all in this together, and not each other’s enemies, I joined Braver Angels a few months ago.  An organization that brings together people with different political beliefs to see that we can have honest and respectful conversations about the issues on which we disagree.

In anticipation of the fall out from such a divisive election, Braver Angels has rolled out a “Hold America Together” campaign.  There is a letter denouncing any calls for violence or unrest in the aftermath of the election, that you can sign.

Additionally, I have signed up to organize Hold America Together online groups.  These small groups would be among people of similar mindsets.  (There would be liberal groups and conservative groups), because this would not be the time for debate.  The groups would serve as a chance to discuss the election results and then determine positive actions to de-escalate tensions in our personal networks.

Any group I hold, I plan on being extremely relaxed.  In fact, I will look at it more as a slightly structured virtual happy hour (so feel free to crack open a beer during it; I’ll have one or two myself!).  They are set to be just a one-time 2-hour discussion, but they could continue if people so choose.

If you are interested in taking part in one of these online Hold America Together groups, please send me a personal message.  Please include your leanings during the election, so I can place you in an appropriate group; and also let me know your general availability for an online get-together.

I hope you will join me and Braver Angeles to Hold America Together.

Braver Angels Website

It’s More Than Personality

One of the most frustrating things I’ve heard over the past four years is that Never-Trump Republicans like myself don’t like Trump because of his rough personality.  While I’m sure there are people that do feel that way and would accept Trump if he were nicer, that is absolutely not at all why most of us are opposed to Trump.

To be clear, I don’t care about political correctness or niceness.  I would consider supporting Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino if he ran for office.  Most of us are opposed to Trump, and his Republican enablers, for a multitude of reasons and the dangerous path he is taking the USA.

Below is an incomplete list of my reasons for opposing Trump.  You may agree with them or not, that is fine, and I respect that. But these are not policy disagreements and they are not personality criticisms.  These are all based on a general concern about competency, integrity, and a movement towards authoritarianism.  This is why I have long believed that Trump is an existential threat to the republic.

  • The dismissal of science (“Science doesn’t know”; taking the country “back from the doctors”; etc.)
  • His record of business failures. He’s not a successful business man, he just played one on TV. Granted, he is probably the greatest salesman in the history of the world.
  • Always pushing conspiracy theories without any evidence, starting with the Birther conspiracy theory, accusing Joe Scarborough of murder; allegations of millions of instances of voter fraud; retweeting the Bin Laden is still alive and Obama had Navy Seals killed; noise from windmills causing cancer; etc.)
  • His Orwellian distortion of reality and consistent lying. (The non-existent Obamacare replacement; Veteran’s choice; his inauguration crowd; Mexico paying for the wall, changing the Hurricane Dorian projection map; “cleanest air and water”; “alternative facts”; etc.)
  • The “I alone can fix it” speech at the 2016 RNC; which should have sent chills down the spine of any one with a cursory knowledge of history and authoritarianism.
  • His disrespect for the military. And I’m not talking about unsubstantiated allegations in the Atlantic. I’m talking about:
    • Stating that his dating life in NYC in the 1970s was his own personal Vietnam; (after his multiple deferments)
    • Claiming that John McCain wasn’t really a war hero because he had been captured
    • Saying he knows more about ISIS than the US generals
    • His treatment of the Kahn family
  • All while pretending to be a tough patriot, again reminiscent of authoritarian regimes (military parades, literally hugging the flag, etc.)
  • His desire for loyalty to himself rather than the Constitution or the people (criticism of Jeff Sessions recusing himself; telling John Kelly to keep Omarosa around because “she only said GREAT things about me”; etc)
  • Similarly, the cabinet meetings that begin with members praising Trump; like something out of North Korea.
  • Speaking of North Korea, his praise of Kim Jong Un. I can understand being wiling to meet to calm tensions, but the love letters and bromance are disturbing.
  • Sowing distrust against our critical institutions (FBI, intelligence, “Deep State”, our ELECTIONS!!!, etc.). A stable democracy depends on trust in such institutions.  If they are truly as corrupt as Trump claims, then a competent and honest leader would work on reforming the institutions.  Instead, Trump just throws out accusations.
  • The sheer number of former administration officials that have come out against him. If they are all corrupt liars, then how were Trump and his team so easily fooled into hiring so many of them?
  • Beyond the ones that are opposed to him, all the officials that have had to resign due to ethics scandals.
  • The self-dealing between the government (and the Republican party & his campaign) and Trump properties
  • His appeals to divisiveness and framing those that oppose him as scum, traitors, animals, etc., instead of trying to bring the country together.

These are all evidence of an extremely dangerous path.  We can have disagreements about personality and policy, but these are more fundamental concerns that I believe put the future of our republic at risk.

Republicans are Winning Battles but Losing the War

I have made the point many times that I believe the USA will be socialist by 2050 if the current Republican party does not change.  Aside from what I’ve said before, one of the other major reasons is because today’s Republican party consistently chooses to ignore history and chase Pyrrhic victories.

At the dawn of the 3rd Century BC, Greek civilization was declining and Rome was rising.  Greek settlements in southern Italy recognized the threat and requested help from Greece.  King Pyrrhus of Epirus led the Greek forces.  In 279 BC, he won the battle of Asculum over the Romans.  But in doing so, he lost most of his commanders, and a large portion of his soldiers.  Since they were in Italy, the Romans were able to quickly replenish.  According to Plutarch, when someone congratulated Pyrrhus on his victory, he replied “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” 

As such, Pyrrhus had to withdraw, and the phrase “Pyrrhic victory” was born. It is when one wins a battle at such a high cost, it ends up losing the war.

Now that we have that background, we should look at the rise of Communist and socialist regimes in the 20th Century.  I could admittedly be wrong, but I am not aware of any stable democratic country slowly slipping into a Socialist dictatorship by gradually implementing social programs (Western Europe).  Rather, these regimes have usually come to power in one of two ways: outright revolution (see below) or invasion by a larger Communist nation (Eastern Europe.)

In the cases of revolution, there has almost always been the same general process.  People express their displeasure with something, often economic hardship, and protest.  The government, often traditional and conservative, ignore the protests and the needs of their people, resist any meaningful reform, and dig in more, possibly even repressing the movement.  Pressure builds because the underlying issues are not addressed, and the movement eventually becomes a full-fledged revolution and potential civil war.  This is how many major Communist regimes took power:

The closest thing to a “slide” into socialist dictatorship would be Venezuela, but even that is a stretch.  Hugo Chavez actually tried to lead a coup in 1992, which failed and for which he was imprisoned.  However, after the economy continued to crater (due to falling oil prices) and corrupt politicians promising reforms but then implementing policies that benefited multinational corporations rather than the people,  the people of Venezuela decided to support and elect the former coup leader.  Unsurprisingly, this populist revolt, as they often do, led to an erosion of democratic principles in Venezuela.

Speaking of history, this past week I watched the Trial of the Chicago Seven.  It was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, a liberal icon to be sure.  But an interesting subtext of the movie is the tension between the two paths of the progressive movement in the late 1960s.  There is a line that Aaron Sorkin must love because he actually used almost the same exact line in the Newsroom almost a decade ago.  As Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman are arguing, Hayden points out that due to the radical nature of Hoffman and the Yippies, for the next 50 years, the progressive movement is going to be known for “passing out daisies to soldiers and trying to levitate the Pentagon.”  (My personal guess is that Sorkin has some animosity towards Hoffman and that group for corrupting his more moderate and pragmatic approach to liberalism.)

The Republican party is at a similar juncture right now that is critical to determining how the Republican party and the conservative movement will be seen for the next fifty years.  If we continue to go down the path of Trumpism, the Republican party will be known as the anti-science, white nationalist, “alternative fact” party.  These approaches might win an election or two in the near term.  But over the decades, it will push more and more people to the left, and to socialism.

Multiple polls have shown that young people hold socialism in almost equal regard as capitalism.  This isn’t because of “indoctrination” it is because young people see capitalism and conservatives ignoring the needs of many in society, while viewing the Republican party as corrupt hypocrites that will do anything to hold on to power, exactly the same as in those countries I listed earlier in the lead up to their socialist revolutions.  And they see the anti-science tilt of the Republican party and its tenuous alliance with white nationalists groups; and these younger, more educated, and more diverse generation wants nothing to do with it.

Going back to Pyrrhus, he at least understood the situation.  He was in southern Italy and knew the Romans had constant reinforcements.  The current Republican party is in the same situation as Pyrrhus.  When the progressive movement was radicalized, they at least had reinforcements from younger generations, because as we all know, younger people trend more liberal anyway.  Therefore, they could afford those missteps of the radicals because their ranks would consistently be replenished.

The current Republican party, as it trends older and older, does not have that luxury.  Young people are not replenishing the ranks of the Republican party.  We cannot afford to have 50 years of being portrayed as radicals.  We cannot lean into Trumpisms and the promises of winning by firing up “the base”.  Because the “base” is getting smaller and smaller.  And those are Pyrrhic victories.  If we continue to win like that, much like Pyrrhus, the Republican party, capitalism, and conservatism, “shall be utterly ruined.”

To Be or To Become: That is the Real Question

Mark Twain once defined a classic as “something that everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read.”

This can be applied to so much in life.  Everyone wants to be great at something, but few want to go through the process.  I heard a story on the radio the other day.  An amateur musician went up to a famous professional and said, “If I could play as well as you, I would play all the time.” The professional replied, “That’s how I learned to play well.”

We want to “BE” something special, but don’t want to put in the effort to “BECOME” something special.  We focus on the results rather than the process.  Admittedly, this focus on results rather than process has been a huge issue for me throughout my life.  I did not even realize it until I became a teacher and gained a new perspective on development, especially in the education realm.

Over the past few years, as I have moved into more management and leadership roles, I have focused a lot on self-improvement, and the concept of process over results has come up again and again.  Anyone who has tried dieting has probably heard that the focus should be on healthier eating and exercise habits rather than a goal of losing a specific amount of weight.

Part of this also means accepting criticism and growing.  The greatest in any endeavor (music, athletics, art, business) did not just begin as the greatest.  They accepted criticism and used it to improve.  They did not only listen to the flatterers that told them they were already great.  That is what those full of wasted talent do.  Greatness involves taking a hard look at oneself and always searching for areas for improvement.

This focus should also be how we approach politics.

Too often, our desire when discussing politics is to “BE” right.  We want to prove that our viewpoint is the correct one.  Instead, what if we went into these debates wanting to “BECOME” right.  To learn from one another and arrive at the best possible way forward.

Similarly, we want to prove that our party is better than the other party.  We tear down those with differing viewpoints and hold ourselves up in self-righteousness.  Instead, why not focus on “BECOMING” the best political party we can be?  We can work on staying true to our principles and values and finding ways to improve.

Even if you do think the other side is hypocritical or misinformed or weak or corrupt or whatever, so be it.  Your focus should be on holding yourself and your party up to higher standards, not just excusing your own bad behavior by saying “what about them.” We should not want to just BE slightly better than the other side.  We should want to BECOME the best version of ourselves.

This should also be our approach as a nation.  The Constitution begins with “We the people, in order to form a MORE perfect union…”  The reverse of the Great Seal of the United States is an UNFINISHED pyramid.  The founders never claimed to have created an Eden.  They knew that the role of future generations, and their challenge to us, was to build upon their work and continually improve the nation and BECOME as great as possible.

We owe it to those past generations to not look backwards and rest on our laurels, but to pick up their endeavor, and we owe it to future generations to look forward, hand an ever-improving nation on to them, and challenge them to do the same, always striving towards an UNFINISHED, yet continually MORE perfect union.

Challenge Your Assumptions

Tonight begins the final phase of the campaign.  I am sure the vast majority of you already have your minds firmly set, and I’ll be honest, mine is too.

But I have a request for those of you that are leaning towards Trump.  I’m going to ask you to grant the same courtesy that I did towards Trump supporters a couple years ago.  I ask you to take a step back, assume good intentions, and ask yourself why people on the other side think the way they do.  I won’t bore you right now with my reasons for opposing Trump, but I will say it’s not because he’s mean, or politically incorrect, or an outsider, or has moral failings in his personal life.

In doing so, I ask you to let go of your assumptions about people you disagree with.  When I was looking into why people support Trump, I was able to understand many of their reasons.  The problem is that I have found many of those reasons are based on bad underlying assumptions.  These are based on general beliefs and principles, not so much specific policy ideas.

Some of them are in fact true and I’ll grant you these:

  • The coastal “elites” have looked down on and dismissed middle, rural, small-town America for years. (I spent over a decade dealing with this attitude in LA.)
  • Both sides have catered to special interests; and an outside independent force could shake things up
  • Globalism of the past 25 years has been focused on corporate interests rather than workers, similar to above.

However, there are other, more critical underlying beliefs that seem to be common among many Trump supporters that I cannot accept.  If any of these resonate with you, I only ask that you step away for couple of weeks and consider the possibility that these assumptions might not be true.

  • “The mainstream media constantly lies and makes things up.” (While they may have a liberal bias, which I’ll discuss in a later post, and they are fallible humans that will make mistakes, journalists have a code of ethics and try their best to be accurate.)
  • “Democrats and liberals are stupid and/or evil and will destroy America.” (I know too many good and intelligent liberals to even consider this possibility.  While I don’t think their ideas are the best path for the country, they won’t “destroy” America.)
  • “White, Christian, straight, males are now an oppressed group and under attack. “ (Trust me, I have never once in my life felt oppressed. On the flip side, I have never felt “guilty” about that identity either.  I simply want all other groups to have the same rights, privileges, and opportunities I’ve enjoyed. And on a side note, I do agree that Christianity is under attack… but not from outside atheist forces. Rather, from internal modern pharisees that are more focused on earthly power and judgement than on following the teachings of Jesus)
  • “Bureaucrats and scientists are biased and you can’t trust them. They might even be conspiring against Trump and his supporters” (I’m not sure where to even begin with this. But I’ll just make two points… (1) lifetime civil servants and scientists go into their professions out of a love for what they do, not because of power and money… politicians, pundits, and business people are more likely to have those motivations.  And (2) the larger the conspiracy, the more difficult it is to keep it secret. So if you are relying on conjecture rather than a large amount of hard evidence and numerous whistle-blowers, there is probably a reason.

This is already too long.  My main request is that you please take a step back for the next few weeks and consider the possibility that your underlying assumptions might be wrong.  And try to view Trump and his actions with fresh eyes.  It might surprise you.

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Last week, I participated in a workshop held by Braver Angels, a group committed to working against the ever-increasing polarization in America.  They were originally called Better Angels, from the closing words of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

(NOTE: The group recently changed their name to Braver Angels, “officially” because of the courage it takes to challenge polarization, but more likely due to another organization having a very similar name.)

I have often written about the need for bipartisanship, and this was one more episode for me to try and learn more.  What I have learned is that even I can still have stereotypes of some people that disagree with me, as much as I try to hold myself accountable to pushing for respectful dialogue across divides.

It is amazing how polarization can so distort our reality and critical thinking.  There was a study of psychology about how partisans that would be able of correctly using math to evaluate a medication, would make mistakes in inference when it is related to a hot button issue, in the study it was gun control.

What was more surprising was that the effect becomes even more evident in people with strong math skills.

It is worth noting that the lead researcher is willing to admit that he himself suffers from these biases.

I have had conversations with people that are absolutely convinced they do not have bias and they only seek out the real truth.  And, therefore, whatever they come up with must be the absolute truth.  This is one of the many dangerous ways of thinking that has hurt our society so much.

(NOTE: the lead researcher of the first study, Dan Kahan, did a later study that showed a way to fight this “politically motivated reasoning” – curiosity!)

I personally believe, perhaps somewhat arrogantly, that I am one of the most rationale people I know when it comes to politics and seeing both sides of an issue.  However, I am also well-aware that I have extreme biases and even have bouts of cognitive dissonance and borderline hypocrisy that I need to address.

In this manner, I feel akin to the story of Socrates I mentioned in an earlier blog post.  The reason Socrates was so wise was his acceptance of his own ignorance.  I think my unbiased viewpoints are a result of my active criticism of my own biases.  As well as my own uncertainty about issues.

The surest way that I am going to lose respect for someone’s opinion in almost any discussion is when they have absolute certainty on something that such absolute certainty should be almost impossible (politics, philosophy, art, religion, etc.).  Or they arrogantly consider themselves to be free from bias and only listen to the truth.  They believe themselves above the bias that others feel.  This is a classic case of pride going before the fall.  They are unaware of their own biases which allows them to be blindly led astray.

As I mentioned in my last post, this is my paradox of perspective.  I cannot understand such certainty and close-mindedness.

As I said, I am well aware of my own biases, and in the course of the workshop I participated in, I came to realize that while I am a conservative, I am generally reasonable and don’t stereotype liberals.  However, I also realized that I have become close-minded and stereotypical towards Trumpism.  Now part of that is that paradox of perspective, that I find support for Trump to be mostly coming from a rather narrow mindset.  I am not going to go into that here, but I do want to point out that I have spent much of the past four years trying to better understand and empathize with support for Trump.  I have read articles and books and watched videos that are favorable to him because I do recognize my own anti-Trump bias.

The reason I bring this up is that many of my posts over the coming weeks are going to be much more pointed in their criticism, especially of Trump and the current Republican party.  I hope that you would read or watch them with an open mind and knowledge that I am coming from a place where I’ve tried my best to give the benefit of the doubt to opposing viewpoints, since that is how I usually try to conduct myself in political discussions.

There are many different opinions in our country, but I am willing to grant that most people want things to improve.  Our disagreements should be focused on the how to best improve.

To improve, we need to come together across those different opinions.  We may or may not reach agreement, but we need to at least reach a level of mutual respect, so we can at least find agreement in other areas.  And in order to do that, we need to reject the voices that selfishly seek to divide us.

I began with Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, and will close with his second:

With malice toward none, with charity for all; … let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds… to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.

A Paradox of Perspective

This past weekend was the first time in a few weeks I was able to walk to the local park.  As usual, I went with a book and a journal.  However, I ended up not doing much reading or writing and spent more time just looking around as I sat on a bench near the fountain.  There were a group of Middle Eastern women and their children sitting on some blankets and drinking tea nearby.  Throughout the 30-45 minutes I sat there, a steady mix of whites, blacks, Latinos, old and young people, gay and straight couples, all walked by.  While noticing this mix of people, I also thought of the nearby surrounding area where I grew up: rural, conservative, and mostly white.  As I dwelt on this it reminded me of one of my favorite aspects of living in the Champaign-Urbana area.  Thanks to its size and status as the home of Illinois’ flagship university, it has a diverse population.  Yet it is too small to have the level of segregation that is seen in larger cities.  Meanwhile, just a few miles outside of the city limits are conservative rural communities.  There is so much diversity of race, culture, and political thought all within a 25-mile radius.

To me, this is a wonderful situation.  Almost every interaction here is an opportunity to learn and grow, assuming we are willing to consider different perspectives in good faith.  It does not mean we have to change our mind, or assume superiority or inferiority, or come together and sing kumbaya.  It simply means that after having an interaction with someone with a different perspective, you give them the benefit of the doubt that they are a well-meaning human with their own experiences that has shaped their point of view.  Then you can say, “I can see why you think that.”

This concept of “walking a mile in another man’s shoes” and looking at things from a different perspective is one of the most fundamental skills I’ve tried to develop in myself, and tried to instill when I was teaching government class.

As such, I fell like I have developed this skill of being able to see and give credence to both sides of almost every issue.  While I have my own strongly held beliefs and opinions, I can understand why well-meaning people might think differently.  That is simply part of being unique humans.

But, as much as I pride myself on seeing things from different perspectives, somewhat paradoxically there is one perspective I can never understand… close-mindedness.  By consistently trying to see things from different points of view, I cannot take on the mindset of someone who rejects other viewpoints out of hand.  The paradox could also be considered in this manner: I am close-minded to close-mindedness.  I’m not sure how to work around that.

I don’t understand someone that automatically assumes their way of life and culture is superior to all others, without bothering to fully learn about other cultures.

I don’t understand how someone can stay in their echo chamber and not have any degree of humility that they might be wrong or any curiosity as to why someone else might think differently.

When I hear people dismiss liberals as hating America and wanting free handouts, instead of trying to understand their perspective of wanting government to make amends for social injustices and providing for the most vulnerable; I don’t get that dismissive mindset.

When I hear people dismiss conservatives as backwards and selfish, instead of understanding the background of likely coming from a culture that values tradition and self-reliance; I don’t get that dismissive mindset.

Pretty much every issue you can think of, social spending, abortion, racial justice, law enforcement, taxation, health care, whatever is extremely complicated and has a lot of nuance.  As such, there are multiple perspectives that need to be considered and approached with respect and common purpose of improvement.

We need to get away from the arrogance that our viewpoint is indisputable and anyone that disagrees is either evil or stupid.

If your positions on most issues are beyond reproach and you are absolutely certain of their infallibility, why are you even concerning yourself with our minor political squabbles?  After all, since you are obviously God, shouldn’t you be busy with the whole universe?  At least that would explain my paradox, because I cannot begin to understand the perspective of God.  But that’s just me.

Matt’s Essential Reading List #7

Continuing my short break from political posts… here is my seventh installment of what will eventually be 50 essential books to read.

A reminder of my guiding criteria:

  • Prestige of the author and/or book
  • Readability/Approachability
  • Subject Matter
  • Quality
  • Perspective

Another reminder: a * denotes that the book is also on Amazon’s “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime”


The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Meditations (Penguin Classics) by [Marcus  Aurelius, Diskin  Clay, Martin Hammond Albert Wittstock ]

Self-Improvement/Philosophical

Marcus Aurelius is considered to be one of if not the greatest of the Roman emperors, and is also sometimes considered to be the quintessential “philosopher-king”, a follower of stoicism: a philosophy based on strong and just ethics, focusing on and accepting the present moment, and controlling yourself with logic and reason rather than allowing yourself to be controlled by desire or fear.

He wrote his Meditations for his own reflection, not in order to be published.  Therefore, they give true insight into the thoughts and musings of one of history’s greatest men. The individual meditations are usually rather short and easy to digest, so this book is good for both someone new to philosophy and the lifelong student.

Meditations is on the reading list for some of history’s most influential people, and therefore should be on yours as well.


Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America by John Avlon 

Wingnuts: Extremism in the Age of Obama by [Perseus]

Academic/Expository/Analysis

This book was written in 2010 by a former speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani, long before the current epidemic of fake news and conspiracy theories.  It is scary to think about how comparitavely enlightened the world was a decade ago when Avlon wrote this book

He goes over the history of eccentric kooks long ago and how they were always there in the background.  But he spells out how talk radio and the internet were able to empower these crazies.  It was scary and frustrating when I read it seven years ago. In today’s world, it’s borderline nihilistic.

The book was updated about halfway through the Obama presidency, hence the different title.


*Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury 

Novel

One of the classics of dystopian literature, it goes beyond the standard topics of totalitarianism and is more of an insight into the masses and the willingness to gladly accept mindless and ignorant entertainment.

In later years, Bradbury stated that the main theme of the book was more about society turning to television and shortened attention spans and rejecting the written word, rather than a political treatise about powerful governments.

The story itself has entertainment value with both subtle domestic drama and more intense scenes of conflict.  It is yet another of those books that make the reader look at the current world of instant gratification with new concern.


All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot 

Memoir/Biography

All Creatures Great and Small by [James Herriot]

Not so much a true autobiography, but more of a collection of “inspired by true events’ stories from the experiences of James Alfred Wight (pen name of James Herriot) as a new country veterinarian in northern England during the 1930s.

As a farm kid who grew up working with cattle, and loves dogs, this is a wonderful “good old days” type of book, that you just read and imagine yourself there alongside the vet on his calls.  The simple pastoral life in Yorkshire farm country is lovingly detailed by Herriot.  The vignettes of his experiences are often humorous, sometimes insightful, and always entertaining.  It is the perfect book to read before bedtime as the chapters are short, self-contained stories that will leave you smiling before going to sleep.


Any Collection of Poetry EXCLUSIVE: The 2019 National Book Awards Finalists | Vanity Fair

Other

I readily admit that I struggle with poetry.  But I still appreciate the artistry of the form.  I wish I were more able to read poetry in the rhythm that it is meant to be.  And on those rare times that I do find myself in that rhythm, I can fully enjoy it.

Just for the sake of challenging oneself to ready something that takes more effort than a standard narrative style, I think it is important to read through different poems.  Occasionally, you may find one that speaks to you.  It isn’t important to analyze the poem in some pretentious manner, just enjoy the written art form.  I couldn’t begin to recommend a good poetry collection, so just find something that appeals to you personally.

 

Planning a Trip Around the World – Part 3 – What to Expect

Taking a break from the political posts that have been my focus the past couple of months, I wanted to finally finish my 3-part series for those interested in a trip around the world, or at least a long-term trip abroad.

To recap the first two installments:

Part 1: The First Steps (Start research; Formulate the big picture of the trip; Look for specific opportunities; Begin making necessary arrangements)

Part 2: What to Bring (including tech items, non-tech items, and clothing)

This installment is focused on what to expect when you actually prepare to leave and then during and after the trip.

Let’s be honest.  The most exciting part of any big vacation or adventure is the anticipation leading up to it. Once you’ve made all the necessary arrangements, and you have all your gear ready, those last few days and weeks, you will likely be a bundle of different emotions, both positive, such as enthusiasm and hope, and negative such as anxiety and nervousness.  Perhaps you might want to schedule some fun events and activities with your friends and families that you won’t be seeing for a long time.

Obviously, the specific mental, physical, and emotional aspects that you will encounter will depend upon the circumstances of your trip.  There will be vast differences between if you are doing this trip alone or with a friend, a significant other, or a group for the majority of the time.  Your goals on the trip will have an impact.  Depending on the places you visit, your language, culture, religion, gender, sexual identity, and race can all have an impact on your mental, physical, and emotional welfare during this adventure.  I will be writing from my perspective of a long term trip as a white, straight, American male going through many different countries and cultures on my own through the majority of the journey.

In those last few weeks and days before you leave, try to get yourself in as good health as possible.  Get plenty of rest and take care of yourself, you don’t want to spend the first couple of weeks struggling with jet lag, exhaustion, and/or an illness.  I actually ended up with bad cold & flu symptoms only a few weeks before my trip, and it caused additional stress while I was trying to take care of those final preparations.

Before and throughout the trip, getting as much rest is going to be critical for a few reasons.  Depending on your travel budget, lodgings, and transportation plans, sleep can be a precious commodity.  The only time in my life I have ever thoroughly fantasized about murder was a snorer with horrible sleep apnea in a hostel dorm room; the thought of smothering him with a pillow was a consistent companion throughout the sleepless night. Taking advantage of overnight busses and trains can be wonderfully efficient, giving you a chance to sleep while you travel to your next destination.  However, be aware that it will not be quality sleep.  So prepare yourself for the fact that you might need to take it easy when you first arrive at that destination, and might need a good night’s rest in a real bed before doing major activities there.

Here is one such example from my trip. I started out leaving the small Moroccan city I was staying at late one night to go to the airport in Agadir, to catch an early morning flight to Munich. I then spent the day walking around Munich.  That evening, I had a short flight to Amsterdam, and then went out on the town that night into the early morning.  Then had another early flight from Amsterdam, through Kiev, to Beijing, arriving at 2 AM local time.  I then went through customs and arrived at my hotel at around 5 AM, and had scheduled a full day tour of Beijing, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall, starting at about 8 AM.  (I was only in Beijing for one day and was going to be heading to Zhengzhou the next day.) When I got back to the hotel that evening, I had every intention of going out somewhere in Beijing that night, but my body had had enough. It had been more than 72 hours since I had slept in a bed, and I was feeling pretty rough.  It wasn’t just tiredness, I was worried I might be getting a little sick.  The comfortable king-sized bed had me in a tight grasp from early evening through the morning.

As part of the packing list in my last post, I mentioned a travel first aid kit.  You should make sure this includes some basic medications for colds, headaches, and stomach bugs.  Given the constantly changing climates you’ll be passing through, sitting in cramped quarters on planes and busses, eating different foods, and possible differences in hygiene where you are, it is almost a certainty that you will get sick in one way or another during your trip.  Consider yourself lucky if it’s only a minor cold or food poisoning that only lasts a few days.  When this happens, just accept it and get as much rest as possible to recover.  Don’t try to force yourself to do something you’re not actually up to doing, just because you want to do as much as possible.  Unless it’s an absolute can’t miss, like your assigned time to go up to Machu Picchu or something like that, you should just skip it and try to do it another day.  There will be other times to check out that market or take that day trip. If you don’t rest, it will take you even longer to recover, ruining even more of your travels and that’s assuming the illness doesn’t turn into something worse.  It’s best just to let it run its course, and then get on with your adventure.

As I said, for the vast majority of my trip I was on my own.  I am sure there are going to be some different stressors if you are traveling with one or more other people.  Personality quirks, different ideas for plans and activities, and general disagreements always come up in personal relationships.  In a travelling situation, with additional influences and being less likely to have a comfortable area to retreat to and calm down, these can become more intense.  Therefore, it is important to make sure you and your travelling companion(s) have already done some fairly long trips together and have good conflict-resolution skills.

One situation to be aware of that is probably more applicable to solo travelers, but can still affect someone with travelling companion(s), is a lot of short-term intense-feeling friendships.  Perhaps when you stay in a place for an extended time or go on a multi-day activity with a group of new people, at times you will make strong connections with some people.  This is similar to when you were a kid and would go to a sleepaway camp or something similar for a few days or maybe longer.  Often, you would connect with one or more of the other children and form a fast friendship.  Then at the end of your time together, it would feel like you have known each other for a long time and spent so much time together, but it also went by way too fast, and now you have to say goodbye.  Throughout a long journey like this, it is likely you find yourself in those positions fairly regularly.  The intensity of those emotions can take a toll, and there were definitely a few times during my travels where I would become melancholy for a couple of days after having to say farewell to a kindred spirit that shared part of this journey with me.

Relatedly, for solo travelers, loneliness can be an issue.  If you are considering doing this trip solo, you better have already done some solo travel of shorter duration.  For many years, I have often gone out camping by myself.  I remember once telling someone about doing so, and she replied that she felt she would go crazy if she had to be almost completely alone like that for an extended period of time.  Therefore, if you would like to do such a journey solo, work yourself up to it with short excursions of a few days completely by yourself.  Just like so much else, mental preparation will be key.

Throughout the trip, there will be numerous setbacks and things that don’t go according to plan.  It is critical that you learn to roll with it, even if you need a few minutes, hours, or a day to have a slight melt-down first.  One of the critical steps to helping with this is having a backup plan in mind. This includes, having critical spare items, as I mentioned in an earlier post.  That way if your phone or wallet is lost or stolen (or an ATM eats your debit card) while you are in transit, you won’t be completely in a lurch, and can still function with your spares while taking care of getting replacements.  Bad things are going to happen, accept that and prepare yourself.  That way, when they do happen, they are easier to bounce back from.  And remember, many of those setbacks and inconveniences, end up becoming fun travel stories eventually, like not being able to board a plane because you misread the visa requirements and need to spend 18 hours in the airport for the next flight or losing a sandal in Antarctica while doing a polar plunge or having to rearrange your travel to stay in Kenya for two additional weeks while getting a new passport.

As I mentioned earlier, the most exciting and happiest part of a trip is before you even leave.  And this will be true for each new destination along your continuing journey.  Each new city or country will have it’s own pleasures that you can’t wait to discover.

However, reality rarely measures up to what we’ve built up in our hands.  Sometimes it does, and sometimes the experience even surpasses the expectations.  But in all honesty, we usually don’t even realize that until after the fact.  It is easy to be a little disappointed and become bogged down in the frustration of mundane struggles, losing sight of the adventure you are having.  There isn’t much you can do to prevent this, it is just part of human nature.  The best you can do is be aware of it and try to enjoy the moment as best you can.

Ideally, as you go through an experience like this, it will broaden your experiences and perspectives.  Engage with locals and try to learn from them.  Accept the fact that you might discover some uncomfortable truths about yourself or your prior worldview.  It is all part of growth.  These different perspectives, along with the flexibility and problem-solving skills you will need to utilize through the struggles of travelling, will serve you well in future endeavors.  So try to view all positive and negative interactions and all successes and setbacks as unique learning experiences that you can benefit from for the rest of your life.

I was fortunate in that due to my reading up on long-term travel before my trip, I was already somewhat prepared for this next part.

At the end of the trip, whether it be as it is nearing the end or after it is complete and you are back home, it is very common to experience some emotional turmoil. It might be a bit of depression or just a wistful melancholy.  This can happen for a few different reasons.  It is likely that throughout the trip, the next step of the trip was your primary focus in life.  Now, suddenly, that’s over and you have to find a new focus.  It could be because you’ve just gone through an intense experience that probably few of your family and friends every have, so you’re trying to process what you did and you’re doing that alone.  It might simply be a matter of all good things come to an end.  My tumult hit me about a week or so after I finished my trip, and it lasted about two or three days where I really didn’t want to get out of bed.  I think my feelings were mostly because of the first reason I mentioned, needing to find a new focus.

This is yet another part of the adventure that you should just accept and be ready to deal with.  It would be good to perhaps identify some kind of a support network, maybe some friends and family have done something similar, and you can talk about the struggle of reacclimating with them.  Or else, since it is common and temporary, just give yourself some time to feel these emotions and let them run their course while you readjust.

At the end of the day, a long-term adventure like this, whether it be around the world, or hiking the Appalachian Trail, or backpacking through Europe, is going to be a life shaping experience.  As such, there are going to be many different impacts on you, physically, emotionally, and mentally.  Know they are coming, and just like the rest of your journey, enjoy the ride!

 

Science is Losing the War on Science

In the midst of the worst pandemic in 100 years, one thing has become absolutely clear, the fact that far too many people do not trust science.  This is not surprising as distrust in science has been growing for years.

This unfortunate turn to the dark ages forced scientists in 2017 to get off the sidelines and into the political arena, famously with the March for Science, and then more directly with groups like 314 Action, which recruits and supports STEM professionals for political campaigns.

While noble in purpose, this has been disastrous in practice.

The reason is because instead of being a nonpartisan movement to promote scientific expertise and inquiry in politics, the movement has made the lazy decision to simply align with the left; the political wing that already was mostly in agreement with the scientific community.

Therefore, it has resulted in no real benefit for science or for society, and at exorbitant cost to both.

Let’s focus on the single biggest scientific issue prior to the pandemic (and what will again become the biggest issue after): climate change.

The Democratic party already has accepted the realities of climate change and promotes policies to address it.  On the other hand, the Republican party has moved away from the science of climate change towards denialism.  In 1997, about equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats thought climate change had begun.  Over the next decade, the percentage of Republicans believing in climate change began to decrease while among the Democrats, it increased. 

If you were a scientist who wanted to build a consensus to address climate change, you should work on changing the minds of those Republican voters.

But instead, the science activists have decided to focus on running STEM professionals in races as Democrats. This serves no purpose.  They are preaching to the choir.  It doesn’t even really help if you are a liberal, because while STEM professionals would be good voices on science debates like climate change, you are taking out other candidates that already agree with you on science, and might actually be of more use for you for other liberal causes.  I don’t get it, but if liberals want to cut themselves at the knees, so be it; that’s on them.

Where it does bother me though is that it injects partisanship into science.  The right wing misinformation ecosystem sees the scientific community in league with the Democratic party and it makes it easier for them to dismiss science as having a political agenda.  People rarely vote based on scientific issues anyway, so it is not like right-leaning voters are going to change their support because of a group of scientists are running on the left.  Consequently, most people who normally vote Republican will still vote Republican anyway, but now they will be even more suspicious of scientists and their “liberal agenda.”

When Joshua Morrow, the Executive Director of 314 Action, was asked if the group would support a physicist running as a Republican, his response was: “Find that person, and we’ll have that discussion. Find that unicorn.”

That condescending attitude has been on display for decades by the academic left, and it has pushed right-leaning voters into the arms of charlatans that bring snowballs onto the floor of the Senate as “evidence” against climate change or that claim certain physical ailments are caused by dream sex with demons.

If Joshua Morrow and the 314 Action group really want to change the direction of this country regarding science, instead of virtue signaling and pushing a liberal agenda, they should be scouring the land for those “unicorns.”  Because that’s how things will change.

They need to find any right-leaning scientists they can and help them run in Republican primaries.  Even if those primary candidacies are Quixotic endeavors, they will at least add a scientific voice to those primary debates and hopefully begin to gradually enlighten some voters on the right.

They should be partnering with groups like RepublicEN and the American Conservative Coalition.  These are right-leaning groups that accept the realities of climate change and are trying to pull conservatives in that direction.

Because if and when these groups and actions can convince more and more Republican voters of these realities, then we can begin to have actual reasoned debates on how to address climate change (left-leaning government interventions vs. right-leaning market-based solutions) rather than the surreal and farcical debate on whether or not man-made climate change is even real.

For being supposed scientists, these activists don’t seem to understand basic psychology.  People are hesitant to believe outsiders over their in-group.  If you want to convince them, you need to ally with and become part of their in-group.

I readily (and with shame) admit that the Republican party is the anti-intellectual and anti-science party, and will be resistant to pro-science voices for a while. This will not be easy.  But simply allowing science to ally with the left, while seemingly easier, will not work and will only hurt in the long run.

We need to do the hard work of partnering activist science groups with willing Republican groups and candidates, not opposing them just because they are Republicans.   As those voices become more established in the Republican party, then they can hopefully counteract the voices of ignorance on the right and start pulling the party and its voters back towards science and reason.

Because if science chooses sides in politics, it’s going to lose.  And if science loses, we all lose.