Something’s Broken in Democracyland

A whole bunch of people I don’t know made some decisions, and I have absolutely no say in the situation. And I couldn’t if I tried.

Most folks who read this blog live in countries that attempt or claim to be democracies. If that is you, I have a question for you: How much say or choice do you feel like you have in the world that immediately surrounds you? If you want to be listened to by people that make decisions that affect you, are you able to speak to them and be sure that they will take you seriously?

I’m guessing that, for the great majority of us, the answer to that last question is no.

I’ve been thinking about a couple of psychological phenomenons that happen when humans don’t have control. One is relatively documented (though I’m having trouble thinking of the search terms to google it with) and that is when people engage in activities with a high rate of failure outside of their control, they create superstitions around success and failure. The best example I know of is baseball. People who are good at baseball will fail upwards of 70% of the time when they have an at-bat (for the sake of this conversation I’m going to ignore advanced metrics). A pitcher can strike out two batters in a row with the same pitch, then give up a home run to the next batter while still using that same pitch. The games are low scoring enough that what scientists call “statistical noise” can be the determining factor in winning or losing a game. Often. So often that whole team’s seasons can occasionally be chalked up to the equivalent of a fluke. So baseball players develop a wide array of superstitions about playing. They will have a lucky glove, lucky socks, lucky facial hair. If they wore a certain undershirt when they did really well, they’ll keep wearing that undershirt. On and on. I encountered this when I first started playing baseball when I was a kid at six years old, and it’s something that gets brought up in current broadcasts of professional games today featuring grown men.

But that is a vocation. What happens when people are left out of the decision making process for most of the issues that affect their daily life? What if there are some people out there somewhere making those decisions, and you don’t even know who they are? Why did that road get paved? I don’t know. Why did that bridge get built? I don’t know. Why is the local school’s curriculum the way it is? A whole bunch of people I don’t know made some decisions, and I have absolutely no say in the situation. And I couldn’t if I tried.

My hypothesis is that’s when people create conspiracy theories. In our current political climate, lots of people are writing about how conspiracy theories get disseminated. But why are people coming up with conspiracy theories in the first place? Why are people open to conspiracy theories at all? My own personal experience is that I’ve never heard a conspiracy theory come out of someone’s mouth who has also had a strong relationship with their local government and/or community. The more I’ve worked with local government in my career, the more absurd most conspiracy theories sound. I know that my own personal experience is not statistically significant, and my experience has me wondering about ways to test this hypothesis.

If my hypothesis were true, then that would mean that our current prevalence of conspiracy theories is a symptom of a greater problem. The problem of disconnection from our communities and our systems of power within our country. This dovetails nicely with my view that there is a severe lack of pro-social pro-community structures in our American society. Another hypothesis that I haven’t developed a test for.

A whole bunch of people I don’t know made some decisions, and I have absolutely no say in the situation. And I couldn’t if I tried.

This feels like the motto for modern democracy. Not that there isn’t a shortage of folks who say “but you can be heard if you try!” “You can be the change in the world you want to see!” In my view, thinking like that is thinking designed to overcome the problem. But it isn’t addressing the problem. The problem with modern democracy is that reality needs to be overcome by everyone, all the time. Very few people have the energy for that.

My own personal conspiracy brain says “it’s that way because that’s how they want it.” But I don’t actually think that’s true. I think this is an unhappy accident.

So what do we do about it? I’ll let you all think about that. I’m thinking about regular community gatherings, that are official in one way or another. I think we need to make sure that people have multiple connections with the community around them. I’m thinking of small government on a neighborhood or borough scale. I’m also thinking that these sort of things, and a lot more ideas that will strengthen our communities, will become more doable as we strengthen the middle class and address they systemized inequality within our country. I’m not thinking of social media. I think we’ve seen the ceiling for social media, and it’s considerably lower than everyone thought it would be.

How do we even begin to measure how connected a person is to their community and the systems of power that affect them?

Here’s what helped me understand Israel & Palestine

If you’re like me, you learned almost nothing about the ongoing conflict in school

Growing up in the United States in the 80’s and 90’s, everything around me was pro-Israel… without any real explanation of how or why. Nothing truly opened my eyes to the history of the region until I stumbled upon the incredible podcast series by MartyrMade: Fear & Loathing in the New Jerusalem.

Darryl Cooper does a great job of telling the history as well as dispelling many of the myths we’ve been hearing for years.

For those of you unaccustomed to history podcasts, spending hours listening to something like this can seem daunting. MartyrMade is one of the very best out there, and the time goes by fast. History podcasts are my jam, I listen to them while I’m commuting.

In Honor of Obstinacy

(this space intentionally left blank in the hopes you’ll click the link)

I’ve been thinking about obstinacy. I’ve been thinking about it in the context of American politics, Middle Eastern politics, and everything else. I’ve been thinking about the stubborn unwillingness to question one’s beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that those beliefs are incorrect. I’ve been thinking about how it’s common, prevalent, in our world today. Yet, it’s always been with us, hasn’t it?

Is it new for a politician’s followers to assert that the politician won an election, when there is no evidence that they did? No. Is it new for one people to take land from another people and then act like it’s been their land the whole time? No. Is it new for people to ignore all reasonable advice that would keep them safe in the time of a global pandemic? No.

Yet, it’s one thing to know that these are historical truisms of humanity. It’s another thing to live it. It’s another thing to know that people are falling for the same old stuff they’ve always fallen for, and there probably isn’t anything you can do about it. There certainly isn’t anything I can do about it.

You and I, all of us, are subject to the whims of the people in our community. Relatively speaking, we are all just bits of water riding the waves of humanity. Sometimes, those waves take us in the wrong direction. None of this makes me feel better.

Yet, obstinacy serves it’s purpose. I’m sure there are many an entrepreneur who will tell you that they had to keep going in spite of all the evidence otherwise. I’m sure every person has their story of having to persevere in spite of all evidence pointing against them.

Maybe that entrepreneur thing is a myth. Maybe that is something we just tell ourselves, in America. It certainly seems like I’ve heard it everywhere. Part of my thinking on this, is that in America, I think we may have a collective mythology about obstinacy. Our heroes are people who stood up against the masses, who went against the long odds.

The statistical outliers.

So when we’re confronted with things that challenge our beliefs, why can’t we be the heroes to? Can’t we say; I know better than that? Doesn’t it feel good to zig when the rest of the world is zagging? Does it feel good to know that you know better than the masses who are just sheep?

A saying I find very relevant to our times is that; extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Today it feels like a lot of folks are forgetting the evidence part.

Yet again, none of this makes me feel any better. For me, the challenge is forgiveness. The challenge is to forgive people even though they hold fast to beliefs that I find nonsensical. Even if my life is made harder or shortened by their behavior because they hold those beliefs.

How do you forgive someone who reinforces your suffering because they refuse to acknowledge the truths that are readily apparent to you?

Don’t get me wrong, my suffering is minuscule in the grand scheme of things. My suffering is just the suffering of someone who sees the pain of people living on this planet in the year 2021.

But you know what? I’m gonna give it a shot: I forgive you, humanity. I forgive you for hanging onto ideas long past when they’ve outlived their usefulness. I forgive you, for letting people suffer and die to achieve your own selfish ends. I forgive you for messing up. I forgive you for doing, and saying, the wrong thing at the wrong time. I forgive you for making things worse. I forgive you for abusing your power. I forgive you for disrespecting people’s sovereignty over their own lives. I forgive you for ignoring the impact you have on your community and your environment, so you can continue to enrich yourself. I forgive you…

…. now stop it.

🤪

We Can Come Together

This inauguration, let’s remember that unity is possible. It just takes us putting the effort into doing it. I’m inspired to re-share the music video I had the honor of making with Amy Obenski a couple of years ago for her song, In Each Other’s Arms. It’s especially salient today.

Dude, You’re In A Cult

I was scrolling through my twitter feed, as one does, and I saw someone had tweeted something to the effect of “Check in on your MAGA friends. See how they are doing. Do they have any big plans coming up?” I kept scrolling, but that idea stuck with me. So I started checking on my MAGA friends by looking at their facebook feeds.

It’s not pretty, y’all. I saw a lot of denialism. The bubble has not burst. In the past, I have engaged with folks on an argument by argument basis. Like “hey, you know that’s not quite true? Check out this data (citing a source) and this data (citing another source).” Only to be told that my sources aren’t true, and that I’m being lied to. But when I asked them for their sources, I would get nothing whatsoever. Or I’d be told to watch some youtube videos (ha!). Or I’d be told to google something, I’d google it out of due diligence, and find myself in a conspiracy theory and clickbait filled website that clearly has no journalistic integrity whatsoever. Engaging with folks about this stuff became Sisyphean. Yet they are still out there, doing their thing…

Now, I feel like we need to be talking on a different level than individual arguments. I just want to say “Dude, you’re in a cult.”

Always good to keep this handy

I don’t expect that simply pointing out to someone on their facebook page that they are in a cult is going to go well. I don’t expect that pointing out to them that their distrust of “mainstream media” has been weaponized to get them to willingly believe lie after lie after lie… will be accepted readily.

Don’t know the source of this…

But, what is going to make a difference? Back when I was in high school, we’re talking the late 90’s, I would just say the shit I had to say. I would just stir the pot. Some of the desire to do that is still in me. One of my favorite phrases is “the truth shall set you free, but first it shall piss you off.”

I do know from experience, that even if the truth is said in the most caustic way, if it’s repeated and inescapable it will eventually sink in. But how to do that online, during a pandemic, when this sort of communication is effective in person? How do we compete with the lies that are repeated and inescapable to our friends and family who have sipped the kool-aid?

In person, a person can see that when I’m telling them that they’re in a cult that I still love and respect and admire them. Online, I’m just words on a page. A person can think “do you think I’m so stupid that I would join a cult?!?” And I, not seeing that on their face, can’t say “no, being in a cult isn’t about intelligence. It’s about the cult meeting a deep unmet need that you have.” I imagine the person that is being told they are in a cult will think they need to defend themselves, lest they get cancelled, or defend their cult – because cults are bad m’kay. But I don’t want to make their life harder by telling them they are in a cult, I want to make their life easier. I want them to know that the world outside of their cult isn’t filled with scary, lying, evil people. It isn’t filled with communists. It isn’t even filled by deluded sheep that have had their minds numbed by the mainstream media. Really!

I haven’t written something like this before because I have been afraid of the backlash. People in cults don’t like being told they are in cults. Some of those people are my friends. Also, now that the events of the last few weeks have confirmed all of our instincts about Donald Trump as a president, it’s intellectually easier to call a spade a spade. Or a cult, a cult.

I’m not an expert here. I have read quite a bit about cults, and my biggest takeaway has been that no one is really an expert. We might just have to muddle through these conversations.

So, if you think this may apply to you, imagine when I say “Dude, you’re in a cult” that I say it with love. That I’m not attacking you, I’m inviting you to look at life differently. And if you aren’t ready to look at life differently, I’ll be here when you are.

How I Made Facebook More Tolerable

Since I haven’t deleted my account yet…

Let’s be honest, Facebook sucks. Those of us who are on there, are there because it meets some sort of utility for us. But the blatant – uncritical – sharing of propaganda by friends and family, the clickbait, the ads, the profiting from hosting disinformation and hate, the extreme disincentives to having constructive discussion on the platform… not to mention the stupid algorithm. THE ALGORITHM! It’s just all so much.

But the ability to connect with folks I care about on their platform is still unrivaled amongst social networks, and that’s why I haven’t deleted my account already.

So, what I did do, is unfollowed everyone who posts something once a day. Specifically, posting something that they didn’t create, on a once a day average. It has totally changed my experience of my facebook feed. I’m no longer bombarded by… crap. I unfollowed people whose politics I agree with, and whose politics I disagree with.

There are still political posts, there are still memes – but it’s thoughtful stuff now. I see the people’s posts that have some thought in them, and where they share about their lives. Because the facebook algorithm prioritizes what you interact with, and I will talk politics with anyone, all I was seeing before I made this change was rage and division inducing headlines. I didn’t unfriend anyone, I just removed some folks from my feed.

If you’re out there posting a bunch of stuff you wrote, photos you took, etc… I still see all that! I’m here for that stuff.

Maybe It Takes Getting to Know One Another

“People aren’t being seen”

For a long time now I have been pointing out to anyone who will listen that community is broken in this country. At least where I live, in California. I think we are seeing the consequences of that brokenness all around us; in our crazy political environment, our high homeless population, the ridiculous numbers of people in prisons and jails, even in the wide wealth disparity. Our rising suicide rate, our daily mass shootings, the mind-boggling amounts of money we spend on health care – the list of symptoms of our broken community just seem to go on and on. Oh, our lowering life expectancy too.

Since I work with people who are homeless, I do a lot of reading specific to the field. Street Roots published an article about the cognitive reasons why housed people struggle to feel empathy for people who are homeless. Not only is the article relevant to homelessness, I think it’s relevant to every aspect of our civic culture today. The italicized portions below are from that article.

“People aren’t being seen,” (Harris) said. “If I’m a busy person, going through a city where there are tons of homeless people, and I have to stop and consider the minds of all of these people, that might make me feel very uncomfortable. Moreover, if I don’t feel like I have the resources to help, there’s nothing I can do to alleviate that suffering. That feeling stays with you. Our brain says, instead, if I take a second to stop and think about your suffering, it’s going to make me feel bad. So, dehumanization becomes a kind of emotion regulation strategy.”

Online, with social media, we have all faced a time where we were forced to consider the mind of someone who clearly has wildly different views than we do. How much easier is it to tune those people out than is it to actually think about what they are saying? How much easier is it to, then, just write off people who share those views and de-friend them or block them out entirely? How hard is it to have your ideas challenged online and to refrain from yelling or letting the conversation devolve into insults?

“We readily help kids and cute animals, in part because we know that whatever trouble they’re in, they can’t really be held accountable,” (Zak) said. “We’re less likely to be so understanding and forgiving when it comes to homeless adults or drug addicts. This tendency to judge rather than help is partly the result of a spot in the prefrontal cortex called the subgenual cortex. It’s full of oxytocin receptors, and it appears to modulate the degree of empathy by regulating the release of dopamine. No dopamine means no reward from engaging with the other person, which makes it less likely that we’ll reach out empathically.”

In America, there seems to be a very strong desire to withhold services from people who don’t “deserve” them. This makes sense if, when we feel powerless, we dehumanize the people in our communities who need help. Since they are still suffering, they are living proof of our failures….

I’ve been wrestling with the idea that humans have an innate desire to help other humans. That commerce is based on contribution. What do people pay for? They pay to be contributed to. Whether it’s food, housing, entertainment, interaction. We pay for other people to contribute to us, and we want to contribute to other people. When we see people who are homeless, most of us see people we can’t contribute to. Most of us see that we have failed to help them.

Is it easier to blame the homeless than to take responsibility, as a community? I would guess that most of us don’t even think in terms of our community. We don’t think about what services we want to be sure that our community members have access to. We don’t think about what we as a community are doing to alleviate suffering in our midst. Is it easy to say “they made their choices,” “they are addicts,” “they are getting what they deserve?” Maybe the people who say those things felt the powerlessness of dealing with someone who’s choices were chaotic and out of control. Maybe they had to detach from a loved one to maintain their sanity and control over their own lives. A real community has each other’s backs. What’s it going to take to start thinking like that?

“If we design interventions to help people meet members of such stigmatized groups and get beyond the stereotype and see the person behind the social category, they tone down their judgments and feelings,” (Hewstone) said.

Hewstone is literally saying that if we get people from different social groups to meet and interact, then we will ratchet down the judgement, the yelling, and the divisiveness.

WHAT A THOUGHT

So then, if we had strong communities, maybe we wouldn’t be having this problem in the first place?

Now I’m going to talk about politics. I think that the level of division in our country is a security threat. It is a threat to our democracy. It appears that multiple foreign countries have figured out how to manipulate our elections and political process for their own gain. Almost exclusively, they are preying on our own divisions to do so.

Is it an incorrect conclusion then, that the best way to fight for and save our democracy is to get to know our neighbors? To meet and get to know people in our community who don’t think or live like us? To talk with the homeless, the middle class, and the rich? To talk with brown, black, white? To talk with young, middle-aged, and old? With men, women, and everyone in between?

That seems like a logical conclusion to me. It seems to me that it is time to do our patriotic duty. It seems like, all it’s going to take to stand up for the principles that our country are founded upon, is for you and I to go out and bridge the gaps in our own lives.

Bridge the gaps, instead of fighting for our point of view. No one is going to do it for us.

‘MERICA!

Reuniting the US sounds like a Herculean task

How can I accept my country slowly, painfully tearing itself apart? A country who’s founding motto is “Out of Many, One.” A country that calls itself the United States.

A comedian friend of mine posted on facebook, that he wore a shirt that had some American flag themed decoration on it for his comedy set. That after his set, a lady came up to him and told him that he should not wear that shirt because he was obviously a liberal and liberals aren’t patriotic.

This is where we are at today.

We’ve been leading up to this for a long time. Way back in 2003, if my memory serves, I was working on a bond campaign for a local library. I was talking with a potential volunteer for the campaign, and he asked me if I was a Republican. I said no (I’m not registered with any party), and he said good – that he would never work with a Republican. But it was different then, than it is today. It wasn’t quite so… visceral.

I remember reading about a time when the political parties in this country could get along. Or at least, not view each other as the enemy. It seems to me that all that came crashing down when Newt Gingrich was the speaker of the house in the 1990’s. But the days of seeing allies across the aisle, if they ever existed, seem to be gone.

This is very upsetting for me. Because at some point, this state is a conscious choice for everyone involved. We choose to badmouth our political adversaries. We choose to lie about them. We choose to heap endless tons of criticism upon them. We choose to distort what we see to serve our political ends. We choose to tear down our fellow countrymen and countrywomen. We choose to shut out wide swaths of our own people from the political and policy making process. We chose this, and we choose it again every day. We are 327 million people (last I checked) choosing to do this to ourselves.

How does anyone turn that around?

I don’t know.

Maybe I have an idea, though. What I can do, is bring people together locally. Maybe that will make a difference. Maybe there are other people, in other parts of the country, who are doing the same.

Maybe getting people off of the internet, out from in front of their screens, and talking to each other – maybe that will make a difference. I feels, to me, that social media and media in general today is just designed to inflame. That we are all inflamed, and that’s why we don’t hear each other. That’s why people who think differently than us look like the enemy.

Normally, when I write about something that is bothering me, I write until I feel better. In this instance, I don’t know that I will be able to feel better about this. How can I accept my country slowly, painfully tearing itself apart? A country who’s founding motto is “Out of Many, One.” A country that calls itself the United States. A country where every man (and woman) is equal. The land of the free and the home of the brave. Maybe all that great stuff I was told about our country as a kid was hokum.

But that hokum is worth fighting for.

I don’t have easy answers here. Maybe all there is to do is to continue to move forward. To continue to try things, and to see what works. To continue to stand for what I believe our country should stand for.

Right now, that’s all I’ve got.

Liam Neeson is doing what we want

Chances are, you do something today that is not going to be socially acceptable in 40 years.

You are going to want to be able to apologize, show remorse, and move on. Lets give him space to do the same. He is not unrepentant, he isn’t saying “you know what? I’m still mad about this. I’m going to get my baton and go out into the streets of Ireland right now…” No. If he was, then go ahead, have at him.

He’s not a fragile man who thinks that you should never apologize. Liam is showing us how to grow. There are some people, who carry the same feelings he carried back when he went looking through Ireland for a black man to kill, who are only going to be open to changing their views when they see that someone else has already changed their views. Who, in the face of social pressure to change, are only going to harden their hearts and buckle down – but who will listen to someone who felt the way they do.

This is how we grow. If we don’t allow space for people to sincerely apologize and atone for their misdeeds, we don’t allow people to move on from the thinking that lead to those misdeeds in the first place. Something about our human brains; owing up to our mistakes allows us to let them go, hiding them doesn’t.

This is made somewhat simpler by the fact that he didn’t actually do anything. He didn’t assault or attempt to kill anyone, even though he meant to for a few moments of his life. This conversation gets more complicated when someone took an action that harmed someone else, but it’s still a conversation to have.

Also, what he wanted to do wasn’t okay then either. But it was significantly more socially acceptable then than it is today.

I, as well as most of you who read this, live in America. I admire a few of the people who founded our country in the late 1700’s, and consider most of them to be good people. Yet many of those men I admire were slave owners and probably misogynists.

Cultures and attitudes change, and in our time they are changing within our lifetimes. If we don’t allow people to raise their hand and say that they were wrong in how they thought, they are sorry and they have grown from thinking that way – then not only do we condemn them for the mistakes and foolishness of the past, but we condemn ourselves. For inevitably, one day we will find ourselves in their shoes.

Why I Endorse Kalen Gallagher for San Jose City Council

And you should encourage anyone who lives in San Jose’s District 9 to vote for him

If the next generation of leadership in America is like Kalen, then we are going to be okay. Sorry if that’s not super enthusiastic – but as someone who is deeply disturbed by current political events – being okay would be a huge win. If Kalen is elected, I’ll literally be able to sleep better at night knowing that, finally, a portion of our country is in good hands. Even if it is just a district in San Jose.

Alright, that may be slightly melodramatic. But it’s also real, so let me get into why I feel that way. I’m not looking at platforms when I evaluate candidates, I’m looking at character. When it comes to character, Kalen is the sort of person I wish would hold office throughout our nation.

Also, I took that photo from his website. I hope he doesn’t mind.

Kalen is fair: If you approach him with a concern, and you mean well, he is going to hear you out. He’s not going to shut you down because of your political views or affiliations. Listening is probably the rarest and most essential skill for our political leaders, and he does it better than most. But, do your homework. Because he has done his. If you are quoting an article, or a piece of research, make sure the research is real and the sources exist. Kalen is sharp, and he will suss out flim-flam pretty quick.

Kalen is honest: He and I met when we were 10 years old (I think. Maybe we were 11? One of the two). We made it through the rocky middle school years, through high school when we were all trying different things, and into adulthood. On many occasions as a kid, I witnessed Kalen stand up for the truth even when a lie would have been more expedient. As an adult, he has learned the wonderful art of addressing what is real without alienating people. If only more people in politics today could do such a thing…

Kalen knows when not to take sides: Partisanship is literally killing our country today. I think that it fills a great need within all of us to not feed into the hyper-partisanship that rules our discourse nationally, and instead work to bridge the gaps between all of us Americans. That Kalen is doing the work to bridge the divides locally is exemplified in this excerpt from this article, that notes that he isn’t conforming to the normal business-labor divide that has defined the San Jose city council in the past:

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Kalen is prepared to hear your feedback: Full disclosure here, I volunteered a bit on his 2012 campaign for the school board of the Campbell Union High School District. I may have donated to that campaign as well (I don’t remember, sorry). What impressed me then, and continues to impress me, is the technical apparatus he has set up to make sure that he is able to hear feedback from his constituents. I don’t know how he’s done it exactly, but Kalen consistently reads and cites the emails and messages he receives through his work as an elected official. As someone who goes through life with 16,000+ unread emails, I find that nearly astounding.

Kalen is not beholden to special interests: And someone is scared about that. I don’t have to tell you how corrupt politics in America have become. This is a well worn truth at this point. Kalen can prove that he is more interested in serving his constituents than any special interests. He has a track record of doing so. As someone who has known him for about 25 years now, since we were both kids, I can tell you that this is a deeply held principle for Kalen. This is nowhere near some sort of political stunt. That being the reality, someone is using special interest funds to smear Kalen. He breaks it down best here. The blatant lies and misrepresentations that are being shared throughout San Jose just for a city council position are both sad and embarrassing.

Kalen is effective: I think Kalen best summarizes how he did as a member of the school board for our old high school here, from his website:

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I included that last sentence on purpose. I truly think that Kalen is finding the path forward in American politics beyond the divisiveness of today. I think we should encourage that, and embark on that path ourselves.

Please folks, if you know anyone who lives in western San Jose – share this with them or tell them about Kalen’s campaign. We need to be putting more good people in office.