Category Archives: On Living Here Now

On Bravery, Part 1

On bravery and fear

Reading the writings of Roberto Saviano or just the facts about his life can be a humbling experience. I feel a certain prescience because I had developed slight familiarity with the man’s work before the documentary about him appeared on Netflix streaming… yay me. His story is the essence of bravery as well as the end result of fear.

Growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, during the 1970’s, I recognize in Saviano’s descriptions all the attributes of a city in the grip of organized crime- the weird mix of terror, pride, and amusement that is shared by long-term hostages. The situation is frightening even while it is absurd- absurd like circus clowns. Also, frightening like home invasion.

Let me be clear. I never witnessed an act of organized crime. I don’t know squat from personal experience. National news reports portrayed my hometown as Bombtown, USA. I didn’t have to know anything personally. It was all laid out there for the rest of the country to see and I had no trouble smiling knowingly in my college dorm when  people blinked nervously whenever they learned the name of my hometown.

Bravery and idiocy

I watched as our region became a national laughingstock by electing a congressman who had… I honestly don’t know where to begin, but let’s say that he was the sheriff and there was ostensible bribery and then crazy press conferences and it involved local crime figures and then he ended up in federal court a few times… This overshadowed the two main plots of life in the Mahoning Valley: 1) jobs evaporated around 1980 and left the region destitute; and 2) before that, the region had become a convenient sparring ground for criminal organizations based around the Northeast.

When I returned to Youngstown around 1990 and worked in legal services, I discovered that one of my co-workers had testified before Congress about organized criminal activity in the Mahoning Valley. He had been asked to investigate and prepare a report, which he happily provided me. Reading about the actual events that drove federal investigation of my hometown was chilling. I have visited often enough in recent years that the cold has faded. Now, I mostly feel sad when I drive through a city that the state government has left for dead.

Before joining, I envisioned legal services like everyone else: crusading young attorneys as portrayed on film. Every case would alter the future of American jurisprudence. You would think that a year of law school would drive out the heroic image of the attorney. Perhaps I did know better, but I still saw it as a fight on the side of the angels.

Bravery in surprising places

I was wrong about many things, but not about that. After I joined the portion of our practice dedicated to supporting employees in the workplace, I found it difficult to fully appreciate the good that I did while there. I was simply too close to the details. Then, I would take a walk through the halls and see other attorneys obtaining food and protection for broken families. I saw damaged souls in our conference rooms given guidance and a little help as they started back on paths to self-sufficiency and self-respect. Those experienced attorneys working on health and family matters were the real angels.

I interviewed my clients and had to wonder about them at times. They came with bundles of issues that I learned to unpack. More than once, I went to my supervisor and said something along the lines of “this person has this serious legal issue that needs our help, but they are incredibly rude/prejudiced/smelly/etc.” The response was always that you take the client as you find them. You don’t get to select them from a catalog.

See Bravery, part two

The Greatness of America

Patriotism

Before I get to greatness for America or anywhere else, no matter where you live, you are a patriot. You may happily decry the noise, the smell, the weather, the sanitation, the road repair, the taxes, and all the rest of the litany of dismay, but let someone visit from away. Let them say one word against your home, your neighborhood, your town or your country and you are prepared for that argument. How dare they?!

The home and the neighborhood are usually easy to carry in our hearts, as long as they haven’t recently featured in a special segment on the local news. But that’s sort of the problem with defending your country writ small. There’s just too much information out there about all the misdeeds that have brought the United States to its current place in time.

Regardless of how you view the U.S.A. today, our past is littered with land grabbing and slave trading; war mongering and war profiteering. Our predecessors did some heinous shit. They bragged about it, too. Unfortunately, for everyone else on the planet, their ancestors perpetrated some pretty awful shit, too. Whoever you are, somebody above or below ground has a justifiable beef with your ancestors (and quite possibly you, too).

So, when we talk about patriotism, a relatively newfangled concept made popular in the 19th century by European governments that were trying to unite disparate groups of people into nations, you’re talking about allegiance to an idea, not a shared history. Back then, someone had to figure out what it meant to be a German, for example. (That one took some twists and turns, didn’t it?) As you might imagine, language, education, and bureaucracy also came along for the nation-building ride.

Defining America

In our case, the idea of the U.S.A. must have felt like “we like big business; we’ve got the biggest business of them all”- something that became possible with incredible expansion which provided uncountable resources. Big business created jobs, which lured waves of immigrants. That led to one of our favorite ideas: the melting pot of America.

This remains a favorite story that we tell ourselves, as if all people are always welcome. The experiences of those who were here when Europeans arrived, those transported here against their will, and those who suffered endless prejudice upon arrival belie the melting pot.

Then we brag about our freedoms enshrined in our Constitution. For better or worse over the years, our highest court justices would tell you that those are not freedoms. In their writing, the less circumspect have come right out and called them restrictions. They stop certain people from doing certain things. Freedom is a creation of individual experience within the restrictions of any given moment. Consider that every freedom for the individual is a restriction on the group’s ability to prevent something from happening. We have to let you say your bit because we believe in the freedom of speech. We have no good way to describe any freedom without stating that the freedom is exercised at the tolerance of the rest of the people.

As for democracy… let’s just say that we cherish it like a pawnbroker cherishes his wares. Everything is for sale for the right price. The tail wags the dog and we have no savior because democracy inherently cannot be saved by one person. Democracy is an extension of the body politic, a malleable mass that may not be for sale, but is always for rent.

Let’s not forget

Yet, I believe in the greatness of the promise of our country . And I do believe that other people do look to the U.S.A. as a beacon, but probably not for the reasons touted by travel brochures and government propaganda. I’m not the first to say that we live in one of the first modern countries- arguably the first.

Pre-modern countries would be those where your role in life is determined at birth. Essentially, you will do what your parents did. Social mobility may not be completely unknown, but it is extremely rare. The advantages were that you knew what you were doing tomorrow, next week and next year. In its most basic form, you could outline your life for anyone interested and be pretty dead right straight through to death. On a larger scale, this meant that the country was in a groove and likely to continue on its current path. The rulers were going to come from a small cohort and they would ensure that the status quo remained unchanged. Bureaucracy could remain relatively small. The middle class was mostly unnecessary because who needs currency? You get the idea.

Modern countries birth children who have no clue what tomorrow is bringing. They have to figure it out for themselves. They arrive in a world driven by money and an endless array of choices. A similarly long list demands their time and energy. Animals, including humans, have to learn how to thrive in such a design because we are not necessarily equipped for such a life. Nothing about our mammal brains suggests that we can cope with economics and meteorology and recipes for kugel. Except, it is either that or we go back to a world in which virtually all of us live in mud and watch our children die.

And yet

As a nation, this means that we have no idea where we are going. Periodically, we reach for comfort by electing someone that reassures us that tomorrow will be just like yesterday. Sometimes that’s a familiar name from yesteryear or someone who spouts reassurances that they can bring back the “old ways.”

We assume the ability to auto-correct quickly. We expect rapid change and facilitate it. If our lives hold the promise of social mobility in a relatively short time, then we can veer from villainy to heroism and back even more quickly. As a nation, we can do it in annual cycles. Since our successes are admired, the world accelerates around us, though not always on the basis of a foundation like that provided by our predecessors. They were nowhere near perfect nor in harmony, but they recognized something about the need to allow for change over time. Something about that might lead to better places.

Moreover, in our effort to look ahead, we assume the past is irrelevant.  Willful ignorance (and not a lack of conservative principles) leads us to avoid hard truths learned by those who came before us. Our system is heavily weighted in favor of those with money and a working knowledge of game theory. This is possible when majorities ignore accumulated learning and treat the world of ideas as a marketplace and not as a scientific laboratory.

What makes us great and we don’t talk about

At times, you can feel the rest of the world looking at us a little askance (unless they live somewhere that they feel things are moving too fast into the future, too). They know what the true greatness of the U.S.A. is. Sometimes we forget, but that beacon of hope is that we will make a future for ourselves. We can never know what it will look like, which can be terrifying. Yet, that is the whole point of being a citizen here. We grasp hands and take a flying leap into the unknown because that’s the real promise our Founding Fathers made: the future is unwritten.

On Voting 15: Concluding Thoughts

We deserve representation for our votes

Perhaps the true message of the inability of the major parties to maintain real dominance is that we require alternatives to extended power reigns. That desire to impede long, tight grips on the government by individuals (or monolithic groups like the aristocracy or the Democrats or Wall Street or…) may well have been the true motivator of the Founding Fathers. Perhaps some of them feared that more than they felt the need to distribute freedoms.

Bear in Mind

Much of what I have posted over the past two weeks suggests that voting behavior in 2016 was not too far afield from the norm, but this caveat must be raised:

  • None of this suggests election meddling did not occur or that such meddling is not heinous and criminal. The voting was close enough and the ultimate representation skewed enough that nothing about the data rules out meddling. In fact, historical precedents (such as Hayes/Tilden) should encourage a thorough review of the election. The last thing we need is a regression in validity.
Third Parties

The two primary parties have an immense investment in ensuring that no third party rises to challenge their hegemony.

  • Voter turnout in 2016 has been studied endlessly with the weird conclusion that it was up and down from prior elections. Either way, the turnout from those who could vote was somewhere between 55% and 60%. This means that the Democrats captured 28.6% and the Republicans 26.4% of eligible voters. (I used 57.5% as a good mid-point for turnout and the total voting pattern I outlined a few days ago for the 2016 federal government.)
  • The two major parties have a clear vested interest in keeping turnout low. If a third party could energize another 25% of the voter population to show up at the polls, then they would be in the driver’s seat. If that sounds impossible, we are talking about 75% turnout, which puts us within the realm of the possible compared to other nations. Keep this in mind the next time you hear about support for voter ID laws and all the rest. Neither party benefits when too many of us actually vote.
  • The most successful third parties (at getting people into federal seats) have been geographically limited. This should be a model for getting such a thing rolling. As a humble suggestion, start some local third parties with quality funding and telegenic candidates. Get elected and then start merging parties across regions. Find some common ground among Green and Libertarian and Conservative and all the rest and refuse to back candidates running with the two major parties.
  • The occasional independent candidate can break out, but they often run on a single issue (sometimes in opposition to a single issue). Often, they melt into one of the parties upon election. I would argue that an independent candidate with means and likelihood of victory ought to join a nascent third party.
Abstaining

The majority of the eligible population do not participate in most elections.

  • I understand that we have done a good job making it inconvenient and difficult to vote. We vote on week days and often work a distance from our polling station. The primary last week in New York was conveniently scheduled from noon until nine, which sounds good, except that I know people who work that entire time. We can’t vote on a Saturday? Not even try it? Of course, as I mention above, it does work to the advantage of the two major parties to keep turnout low.
  • No matter how annoying or difficult, we all still need to vote. Maybe start taking the day off until your workplace actually closes for a couple hours from lack of employees and puts up a sign that says “Be back in two hours – we are celebrating our nation by voting”.
  • Not voting is a vote for the winner. That doesn’t bother enough people. The two major parties rely on ennui to keep potential voters at home. That ought to anger people, but then… ennui.
Republicans

They last had a good run when Truman annoyed voters and Eisenhower excited them. Otherwise, most people haven’t really been inclined to vote Republican.

  • Stole a few pages from the old Democratic party and learned to game the system. All of this worked well for the Democrats until well after WW II.
    • Hit the smaller states hard
    • Gain control of state governments and manage state-wide decisions on federal voting; this would be gerrymandering and voter ID
    • Appeal to people with staunch conservative views on social issues
    • Drape yourself in the local version of patriotism
  • Essentially, the Republican party was the minority party for the past 70 years based on voter preference. Any claim to a right to govern is based on the shady math of our election process. It does feel like we have forgotten that we became an independent nation in the first place because our government representation did not reflect the reality of our population.
Democrats

Somehow, the Democrats have turned themselves into the meritorious party done wrong by the system.

  • In the past 50 years, the Democrats earned an outright majority of the popular vote for all federal offices only three times: twice under Jimmy Carter and once under Barrack Obama. That’s not much on which to base a claim to general popularity.
  • Probably can claim that they are playing the long game. That sounds good anyway. We do tend to switch back and forth between the parties for President, but that’s a shell game with a lot of visual appeal. In the long run, the Democratic party will no doubt adopt the 21st century version of its old tactics (currently employed by the Republicans) and we’ll all look back on these days and wonder what we (currently aligned with either party) were thinking.
What I Expected

Laying my cards on the table, this series was not my original intention. I had been thinking about the way politicians and political parties influence the populace. While pulling together my thoughts in that area, I casually dug around in past election results. Obviously, that distraction turned into full blown research.

Even so, I expected to find that the Democrats had been generally ill-used of late and that it was a recent phenomenon. My current view of a pendulum swinging back and forth in favor of each party is an evolution from that earlier perception that the Republican party had found a new way to play the game.

The real problem took a while to crystallize. I simply do not believe that the make-up of our elected representatives at the federal level reflects the will of the people. Moreover, I believe that has long been the case. The fault in my research is that I did not go back far enough in time. I do not know when (or of) the elected representation ever did reflect the will of the people. Perhaps some day.

Part 1 of the series is where all this begins