31 May 2009

Time for Obama to Embrace the Irrational

Obama's administration faces a problem we've had 8 years to forget about: like many smart policy makers before them, they are at a loss about how to rebut the irrational argument.

Closing Guantanamo Bay is a perfect example. This matter of how to handle prisoners of war when you have no forecast cessation of the war and no enemy state is messy, but one most politicians have seemingly given up on explaining to constituents. There are lots of issues that could come up surrounding the closing of what has been a wonderful recruiting tool for terrorist. Obama's administration was ready for those arguments.

But of course, those are not the arguments that Republicans unveiled. Their argument? It is not safe to have these terrorists in our maximum security prisons. There is no way to rebut an argument that has neither facts nor logic behind it. Such an argument completely bypasses the frontal lobes and makes it way directly to the hypothalamus. It is all emotion and no reason.

Whether it is talking with enemies, dealing with climate change, or crafting financial bailouts, Obama has to confront emotional opposition that shows - not just ignorance of, but - disinterest in the systems involved. It is not enough to attempt understanding of these systems and then craft policy. Not in a democracy. One has to be mindful of keeping the support of people who don't understand these systems.

It seems to me that to sustain widespread support for his policies, Obama has got to be more sensitive to the need for crafting emotional arguments that depend little on reason. It is not enough to engage in reasoned dialogue around the table with peers; before unveiling a policy, the administration ought to first craft the purely emotional appeal.

It seems like the only rational thing would be for the Obama administration to embrace the irrational. I'm not sure there is any other way to sustain support once the nation's disgust with dubya fades. There continues to be a gap between what makes for good policy and what makes for good politics: the gap between emotional arguments and reason seems to account for most of this.

29 May 2009

Weekly News Opera

What if the backstreet boys got back together to lampoon the news in a mock-opera style? Okay, so other than every Sunday morning talk show, what would you have? That's right - you'd have this.

28 May 2009

Love & Learning

Everywhere, we learn best from those whom we love."
- Goethe

Bernard was sipping something.

"What are you drinking" I asked.

"Green tea," he said with an excited grin. "Do you know about this? It's supposed to be really good for your heart."

"You just getting around to reading old periodicals, Bernard?"


"Never mind," I waved my hand. "Green tea sounds good. Can I get you anything else?"

"It's kind of bland," he volunteered. "I had to put about six packets of sugar in it."

I got a green tea and a scone and sat back down. "Hey Bernard," I queried, "What do you make of all this talk about education reform?"

"Ha! Those will never work. All the ideas start with the system as it is."

"You just know this? That the education reforms will not work?"

"Sure. It's obvious," he blinked. "I mean, they think that education has to do with the head."

"It doesn't?"

"We always underestimate the importance of love in learning. We think that learning starts and ends with the head but the head is almost incidental. Learning starts with a condition of the heart."

"But by heart you mean hypothalamus, the seat of emotions, so really you are talking about the head."

"Don't mask your ignorance by spouting trivia," Bernard scowled.

"Sorry," I bent my head and sipped my tea.

"If a person doesn't feel loved, doesn't feel safe, they're not going to open up. If they don't open up" Bernard spread his hands flat, "no learning."

"So how do you make a child feel loved when teachers can get fired just for touching a child?"

"You give them space to be heard. Rather than grade their efforts to learn, you encourage them. You accept them. People who are judged on every move, every test, every action, become guarded, become careful. As children become more self-conscious and more careful, they learn more slowly. The emphasis shifts to avoiding mistakes rather than trying something new - the essence of learning."

"So what do you do? I mean, practically speaking. What does this suggest?"

"The first step would be to stop grading."

"You really think that's a habit schools can give up?"

"You either make children feel safe or you make them feel judged. It all depends on whether schools want to encourage learning or encourage defensiveness. You can't have both."

“But you need some kind of feedback. Kids can’t just float free.”

“Right!” Bernard nodded enthusiastically. “Feedback on their progress towards learning, towards mastery. The point is not to grade children on differences – probably many of them that are innate and defy techniques to change them. The point is to let all the children become proficient in what they need and what they have potential for. You don’t give them a C instead of an A. You give them more time, or use a different approach. Or even steer them in a new direction. Children need feedback, which is very different from being judged.”

I laughed. "Well, I'm sure that the kids would love not being graded."

Bernard smiled as he stole the rest of my scone. "The love has to start somewhere."

24 May 2009

Pragmatism is No Longer Pragmatic

Pragmatism is no longer pragmatic. Generating solutions in a way that depends on focusing on specific problems in a specific context is no longer enough in a world of massive interdependency. If you focus on creating an optimal financial derivative without concern for the larger system of which it’s a part, you might actually trigger a collapse in mortgage markets or the entire banking system. What works best in isolation is increasingly irrelevant or even dangerous: the pragmatic, heads-down solution may have become the problem.

Pragmatism emerged when the same thing happened to Enlightenment thinking. Enlightenment thinking was about universal truths, or principles. Pragmatists discarded the search for the universal and south instead for specific solutions. The birth of pragmatism in the late 19th century was coincident with the birth of the knowledge worker – engineers, marketing professionals, managers, etc. who had to discover or create specific solutions for the specific technological or market problems they faced.

But no one works in a vacuum. We never have. But in today’s world, inter connectivity, connections, the ripples of dependencies, and environment or context are more important than they’ve ever been. What goes on within a nation-state is rarely isolated to that nation-state, for instance; technology in the US can contribute to flooding in India and economic policy in Mexico can contribute to population growth and wage stagnation in the US.

To focus on the particulars of a problem is to miss the context, the larger system of which it’s a part. Pragmatism is no longer pragmatic because solutions cannot simply ignore the context.

Systems thinking begs the question of vision: what larger system do you see yourself as part of? And this is a matter of choice – to a degree – and vision. Obviously, issues of sustainability and systems limits impose constraints on any problem set.

But beyond that, one chooses the history he’s a part of by the choice of context.
Leadership creates a credible narrative that puts specific actions into a larger context. It gives meaning. It provides boundaries for problems. And it suggests goals. It does not dictate choices, it simply provides a context for them.

The most pressing need today may be the need to create a credible context for individual choices. What is the future we’re creating? What do we see as the future of humanity and this planet? How will life be better and different in 10 years? 100? I don’t suppose anyone can impose such a vision – but properly articulated, such a vision could compel behaviors.

Pragmatism that assumes uncoordinated autonomy will no longer work. It's time for leadership that assumes a shared fate rather than individual fatalism.

23 May 2009

Just Keep the Change, Thanks

"Would you like change?" the waitress asks as she scoops up the small folder with her bill and my payment. And I realize, right this instant I can't really think of anything that I'd change.

Maybe politics is inevitably loud and obnoxious because it brings out the folks who've decided not to be content. Protesters are not happy people - or at least they are not happy in the moment they step into the political arena.

If you want something in the market, you make a good consumer. If you want something in your community, you make a good citizen. If you want nothing, there is little anyone can do with you. Contentment undermines economic growth and promotes voter apathy.

Today is Saturday. I'm taking the day off from protest, from politics, from economic musings. I am content just to be home on a beautiful day. And somehow that feels deliciously seditious.

22 May 2009

Advertising : Matchmaker of Ancient and Modern

In advertising we find the marriage of the most advanced and most ancient technologies: desire for status or sex is married to the latest products to emerge from corporate labs and factories. We buy the newest stuff for the oldest of reasons.

The ad, properly done, creates a false association. Gorgeous, svelte women are somehow associated with beer. The rational mind knows that imbibing 200 calories per glass is probably not going to make one more desirable to a woman who so obviously values fitness. But something has already happened in the process of watching TV. Fictional shows put the snap into the trap of ads.

Science fiction and fantasy in particular - but really any fiction - depends on a suspension of disbelief. Once we've sat before the TV we've already laid aside our capacity for critical thinking. We are ready to believe. So, when the ad comes on, although no one explicitly says that beer will make gorgeous women want you, the implication is enough. We buy the pitch and then buy the product. (And of course, those of us who are superior know that it is not beer that works like this. We know it is actually the whitening toothpaste or luxury car that will make her want us.)

The Internet, as much as biotechnology, represents a current apotheosis of technology. So many amazing advances come together to enable us to watch a dog on a skateboard. And it is a running joke with real substance that the Internet is funded by porn. My work email address spam does not work when I log on remotely and it amazes me how many writers of emails are offering to make my penis longer (an offer that seems odd coming from a total stranger). Advanced technology is funded by stimulating ancient impulses.

Modern technology is really just a sophisticated repression of base impulses. People who cut advertising costs during a recession naively believe that the ads get financed by the companies who produce new technology and products. In actuality, the companies able to sell this new technology are financed by the magic of ads: ads that give repressed desires a acceptable outlet.

Of course, one of the problem with reading blogs is one never knows whether the author is merely speculating out loud or really means what he or she has written. Of course, until the comments come in, even the blogger is uncertain.

20 May 2009

Dan Ariely on Predictably Irrational Humans

You may need to click through on this link as folks (sorry Sandi and Allen) seem to be having trouble with the video as it is embedded.

18 May 2009

As the World Spins

The Republicans are expressing outrage at Obama's deficits. This is like the runner up in a fart contest calling the winner gross. If they're truly outraged at big deficits they ought to finally give up their worship of Reagan and defense of Bush2.

Some Catholics attacked Obama and Notre Dame because they didn't think that one of the nation's leading universities should invite the president to speak (because he's pro-choice). Those Catholics should be reminded that the protestants, deists, closet agnostics, and general collection of anti-papists who founded this country reluctantly let them in because they were worried that once safely here, the Catholics would try to subordinate our laws to the whims of the pope.

Tomorrow Californians will likely vote down provisions to fund their state government. Californians are so angry that even our local public radio station in San Diego has begun to sound like right-wing talk radio. They don't even deny that needy constituents will lose out without more taxes (e.g., the mentally ill), but insist that the only way to get politicians to stop wasting money on (trivial) appointments for each other is to deny the government money. How brilliant. Anyone who looks across the border at Mexico where tax rates are only 18.5% can see that the best way to reduce corruption and abuse in government is to cut taxes, budgets, and the ability of the government to actually govern.

Lest you think that I'm a mindless Obama defender, I'll say that his policy for education suggests a history of paste-eating. He is spending $100 billion to "fix" the 5,000 worst schools in the nation by firing all the adults in those schools and starting over. There is nothing in his (and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan's) policy that suggests that he realizes that the 5,000 worst schools are just as much a product of the educational system as the 5,000 best. To act otherwise is to de-moralize millions of professionals, create chaos, and miss the opportunity to actually make systemic change. If Obama's plan worked, education would have already been "transformed" by the half dozen previous presidents. The only thing unique about his approach is the magnitude of the budget he'll waste.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been rebuked for calling the swine flu a pandemic. Apparently casual users of the term have something other than three nights in bed with a fever when they think of a pandemic.

Republicans are now claiming that Pelosi knew about torture back in 2003. This would have been remarkable. In 2003, even Bush and Cheney were unaware of torture. Or so they told us. So if Pelosi knew about it, she'd have been unique. This is sort of like the devolution of their protests against climate change.
1. We aren't torturing.
2. I mean, we are torturing but it is not authorized and was just the act of a few mavericks.
3. Okay, we authorized it but it worked.
4. Ha! Nancy Pelosi never once said a word of protest and she knew! We might have done something immoral and ineffectual but Pelosi didn't stop us.

17 May 2009

Maddie Explains Systems Thinking. And Women

I’d been traveling a lot and it’d been too long since I’d lunched with Bernard and Maddie. Maddie came to our table with a hat – a small, foppish affair that coerced a dopey grin from me. Of course, with the political sensibility of a place setting and a casual kind of emotional awareness, she was the closest thing I knew to an autistic savant and an odd foil to Bernard who had seemed to reverse this equation, as if these aged siblings were the ying and yang of emotional and social intelligence. Or maybe it was just my judgment that was skewed. In any case, I had missed our conversations. I had missed them.

Bernard was fretting about his granddaughter. “She doesn’t seem capable of just deciding who she wants to be outside of a relationship,” he said. “I worry about her. It’s almost like everything is up for grabs – from career to belief system – until she finds the right guy.”

“I know what you mean,” I chimed in. “How does she even know who the right guy is until she knows who she wants to be?”

Maddie cocked her head. “You boys have no clue, do you?”

“What?” I was baffled twice. Once that she’d actually called us boys and again with her accusation of cluelessness.

“I’ve been reading that stuff about systems thinking you suggested I read, Ron.”

“You have?”

“Yes. You suggested it but you don’t really understand it, do you?” She looked at me innocently but it felt like a strong accusation.

“Well, I would hope that I do,” I said hesitantly, unsure where she was going with this.

“Those systems thinkers use lots of fancy language, but isn’t the real message behind systems thinking that you cannot understand parts until you understand what they’re a part of?”

“Yeah,” I grudgingly acknowledged. “I guess that’s it, although that seems a little simple.”

“Or you can say that context is everything, right? If you don’t know the context, you don’t know the thing.”

“So what does this have to do with Emma?” Bernard inquired, insulted that Maddie would so quickly turn the conversation from his granddaughter.

“Well, guys don’t seem to take naturally to systems thinking. But I think that it is ingrained in us women. We know things intuitively that you simply don’t and we don’t need fancy language and models to know this.”

“Such as?” Bernard asked.

“Well, you are saying that your granddaughter should define her life without regard to her most important relationship,” she looked at Bernard and then turned to me. “And relationships are the whole point of systems thinking, right?”

“Yes,” I said, wondering how she had managed to so quickly get past the verbiage of systems thinking to its essence so quickly.

“Well, your granddaughter is much smarter than you, as women are, and that’s why men dominate in culture. It’s not just their brute strength that makes this a man’s world. Men make the choices and women, who understand that without relationships the world would fall apart, accommodate. They do this not because they are weaker. They do this because they are smarter. Of course your granddaughter is trying to figure out relationships first. If everyone acted like a marble in a pinball machine, the world would fall apart. The fact that you men are unaware of this doesn’t make you better – it just means that we women have to make adjustments that you won’t, that you are not even aware need to be made. “

I was more than impressed by Maddie’s uncharacteristically long speech. “So you are saying that women are naturally, intuitively, more aware of relationships? They’re the systems thinkers?”

“Well isn’t it obvious?”

“And because of this, a young woman starts with relationships and then fills in the parts, whereas men start with the part and then work to the relationship?”


“Wait!” Bernard actually hollered. “Wait,” he said more softly, self-conscious about his outburst. “You are saying that a life is just a part? A life is a whole. It’s huge. And you are saying that a life is just a part?”

“It kind of makes sense, Bernard,” I agreed. “We get created by our culture, by our society, by our families. In that sense, a life is just a part.”

“But you can rise above that. Progress – even psychological health – depends on you being defined by something more. It is a terrible thought, that we’re determined by these things, these relationships that we just wake up in.”

“You don’t have to be so extreme,” Maddie said. “Women choose how they adapt to relationships, even what relationships to adapt to. But they start with relationships.”

“Well what about you,” Bernard queried. “You start with relationships?”

Maddie beamed. “No,” she said. “Not any more. Now I’m free. I know what it’s like to be a man. And it makes life so simple.”


“My kids are grown up. My husband is gone. I don’t have to start with relationships anymore. I have so few variables to consider that I feel like my IQ has gone up by 30 points. Life is so simple now. I see now why you men seem to get so much done even when you spend so much time on the couch apparently doing nothing.”

“Ouch,” I said.

“Systems thinking is exhausting,” Maddie said. “It wore me out for 60-some years. Having to consider relationships and other people before I could figure what to do next. I’m so glad to be done with that. Now I even have enough intellectual energy left over to read books on systems thinking.” She reached over and patted Bernard’s hand. “Don’t worry about your Emma,” she said. “She’ll think like you do. Eventually.” And then Maddie got a faraway look in her eyes. “The real pity is that you men don’t know what this is like – what It’s like to think both ways. Just think what you could do if you did.”

I would have taken offense but Maddie’s foppish hat and smile completely disarmed me. I could, stupidly, only smile back and nod. “Too bad, indeed,” I agreed. “It’s like we’re missing a whole life.”

“That’s what you have us for,” she squeezed my hand. “We’re the life you’re missing.”

I could not contain myself. I leaned in and planted a kiss on her head, stylish hat and all.

15 May 2009

Panic on Planes

My own theory is that airlines have no serious chance of ending the cycle of bankruptcy as long as flight attendants continue to act surprised that people on board might pay them with a $20 rather than exact change. Watching the alarm in the eye of one this week, I was reminded of the quip about what must run through the mind of a goldfish every 10 seconds as it circles its bowl: "oh look! a castle! [10 seconds later] oh look! a castle!" But for flight attendants it is not circling the fish bowl but, rather, moving from row to row. "Oh no! A $20! [2 minutes later] Oh no! A $20!" This surprise seems to me a clue that management and personnel have no idea that this is actually a business they are running. Imagine being in WalMart and hearing a panicked cashier ask over the PA, "Has anyone got change for a $20?"

Bored with flying, on this last flight home I did engage the woman beside me in animated conversation. In response to all of her questions, I responded loudly, with a heavy, incomprehensible accent, sprinkling just a few perceptible words in the mix. I'd prattle on for a bit and then sit there with an expectant look, waiting for her to reply. As it turns out, she did not ask too many questions. This was a pity, really, because I was just getting the hang of the accent when she gave up.

My favorite moment on the flight this week was when a little guy - just under 3 - was walking to the front of the plane with his dad when he suddenly realized that we were in a contained space. "We're trapped!" he exclaimed, hands out stretched. Of course, my brief moment of amusement at his sudden revelation quickly gave way to panic when I realized he was right. Trapped at 30,000 feet.

As near as I can tell, airport security isn't doing much to make anyone feel more secure.

Why Conservatives Will Always Think It's a Liberal Media

Given the conservative agenda, they will always see the media as liberal. The problem is, the media doesn’t report what should be but, instead, report what is. (The media that matters, anyway.) The same is true of education (but I won't bother to make that argument in this post).

We can compare the "liberal" media with conservatives on two topics: abstinence-only education and poverty.

For a good reporter, there would be no obvious solution to the problem of teen pregnancy. A really good reporter wouldn't even automatically accept the notion that teen pregnancy would itself be a problem. (It would make a great story for some reporter if he could report that teen mothers were actually happier than older mothers and their children went on to have better lives. What shocks conventional wisdom makes for better headlines.) If it turns out that sex-education that suggests but does not rely on abstinence turns out to more effectively protect teens from STDs and unwanted pregnancies, this is the story a good reporter will file. Outcomes dictate the story.

For the conservative, outcomes don't matter. Unmarried teens having sex is wrong. If sex education that explains the use of contraceptives and takes the stigma out of sex encourages even one more teen to have sex, it is a bad thing. The numbers, or facts, surrounding the occurence of disease or pregnancy don't matter. The story is not what happened but what should happen.

A similar thing happens with poverty. For the reporter, statistics matter (or ought to). Some policies lift more people out of poverty than others: the numbers of unemployed and homeless go down in the wake of certain tax and spending policies or education and outreach programs.

For the conservative, being homeless or unemployed is more likely to be a story of morality. If someone gets sick and is uninsured, they should have taken better care of themselves (do you see how fat those poor people tend to be?), or should have put more effort into a career and been able to afford insurance or ...

For the reporter, the story of poverty is objectively reported as changing in reaction to certain kinds of policy choices: theocracies, anarchies, and totalitarian regimes create more poverty than democracies, for instance, and democracies with welfare states have less poverty than democracies with no safety net. For the conservative, there is no question about what policies are best (fewer taxes and less government), therefore a rise in poverty offers a lesson to people to be more careful, industrious, and better at saving. It never calls into question which policies ought to be enacted, though, because those are already known.

Given that conservatives care so deeply about what SHOULD be and less about what is, they'll always see good reporting as having a liberal bias.

14 May 2009

Rockets Force Game 7!

My buddy Daryl, who has guest blogged here at R World, is in the news. His Houston Rockets have just forced the Lakers to game 7 of the playoffs. There is a fascinating article about Shane Battier and Daryl in last Sunday's New York Times' Magazine by Michael Lewis (author of Moneyball and Liar's Poker).

Just remember, you read about Daryl here at R World before you read about him in the New York Times. Do you need further proof that blogs live in the future that newspapers will write about?

12 May 2009

Am I the One Confused or ...?

Just to be clear ...

The conservatives' spokesperson for abstinence-only sex education is teen mother Bristol Palin and their spokesperson for the sanctity of heterosexual marriage is a topless model and Miss California Carrie Prejean?

11 May 2009

Chait's The Big Con - Lobbyists, Taxes, and Attacks on Character

From Jonathan Chait's The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics, 2007

The Bush administration has routinely - so routinely it no longer makes news - appointed lobbyists to oversee their former employers. Harvey Pitt, Bush's first choice to head the Securities and Exchange Commission, had made his name defending the accounting industry, Ivan Boesky, and anybody else seeking more lenient treatment of financial malfeasance. Pitt took the helm of the SEC and promised a "kinder, gentler" agency where "we aren't going to play gotcha." ... Mark Weinberger, the Bush treasury official charged with regulating tax shelters, is a former lobbyist for purveyors of tax shelters. Soon after taking office he declared, "I want to change the 'us' versus 'them' mentality - the 'us' being government, the 'them' being business.

Workers in the middle of the income scale pay about 16 percent of their income in federal taxes, whereas those in the top 1 percent pay about 25 percent. But that's offset in part by state and local taxes, which hit the poor and middle class much harder. Taking into account all taxes, the top 1 percent pay a third of their income in taxes, and the middle fifth pay 27.5% of their income. This is a very moderately progressive system.

The plan to defeat Clinton's policies by weakening his personal image worked perfectly. In 1994, for instance, a Wall Street Journal poll found that every element of the Clinton health plan commanded majority support. Only when it was identified as "the Clinton plan" did respondents turn against it.

08 May 2009

The Leading Cause of Dementia?

The Republican Party recently turned to Jeb Bush to help them decipher what they have gotten wrong. It is hard to imagine a move less likely to help them get things right.

Then, the conservative pundits who threw their support behind a presidential candidate who didn't know how many homes he owned are using Obama's request for spicy mustard as proof that he's not really a man of the people. (Can you imagine Sean Hannity's questionnaire for determining whether someone ought to be granted security clearance? Have you ever eaten a taco? Vietnamese spring role? Matzo ball? Miso soup? Why?)

Soon, studies will show that these conservative pundits cause as much brain damage as sniffing glue and will come with a warning, like cigarettes. Until then, the radio-listening habits of many of our elderly will continue to facilitate the dirty work of dementia, creating confusion about causation and relevance.

06 May 2009

Women & Injustice at the Supreme Court

"We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help to free the other half."
- Emmeline Pankhurst

This weekend I managed to spoil an increasingly rare and initially pleasant family meal. I confronted my adult children about some facts. The result was more harmful than helpful. And my wife's emotional intelligence proved more important to our children than my facts and logic. Which brings me to the Supreme Court.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is making an appeal to have another woman on the Supreme Court. She argues that women's understanding of gender discrimination, in particular, is different from men's. Since Bush replaced Sandra Day O'Connor with Samuel Alito, our supreme court has had only 1 woman. By contrast, 4 of the 9 Canadian Supreme Court Justices - including the Chief Justice - are women.

Oddly, claiming that there is no real difference between men and women is one way to discriminate against women.

If women think about things no differently than men, it really doesn't matter whether we include them in decision-making groups like the Supreme Court. Their views will be represented because any intelligent woman would reach the same conclusions as any intelligent man. Or so this argument would suggest.

Yet women are different - in ways that ought to influence policy and judgement. Women's brains have about 10% more neurons for language and more for emotions as well. They are better at communication and emotional understanding - both in terms of reading emotions and expressing them. Women are not shorter versions of men. They are different and it seems that pretending they are not is one of the more subtle ways of discriminating against them.

The term "court" comes from the king's court. One key to establishing the authority of early monarchies was gaining a monopoly on judgment. If there was no other authority to whom one could appeal, it was harder for people to challenge the monarch's power. Coming from that tradition, it is no mystery that the courts are very conservative, in terms of defending the status quo and the existing social system.

One reason that W. Edwards Deming opposed grades in schools is that grading the performance of student in a system makes the assumption that it is not the system that needs changing. Yet as we learn more about how people learn, we realize that different kinds of brains require different styles of learning. People love the story of Einstein's early struggle with education - being labeled slow by a teacher so steeped in the style of late 19th century education as to have missed the budding genius in his class. But far more struggling students never do bloom. I rather optimistically think that in the future, we will become more adept at educating more types of brains. For now, I think that failure to teach more children how to become fluent at a foreign language or master some particular level of math is a failure of the education system at least as much as it is a failure of those particular children.

If our society is failing to appoint more women to positions of power, it could be that women are lesser. More probably, women are different. And in ways that our systems fail to accommodate or acknowledge.

Bader Ginsburg's suggestion that we appoint more women to the Supreme Court ought to be heard. Any household where only the man's judgment is heard is one where a great many facts are overlooked - facts about human reality at least as real as any that can be demonstrated with scientific evidence.

It may be that we go through three stages of gender rights. In the first, we acknowledge differences but dismiss women as lesser. In the second, we pretend that there are no differences, a position that still rather conveniently allows us to deny them authority. In the third, we acknowledge those differences and simply demand that our social systems be changed to benefit from those differences rather than squelch them.

We're in the 21st century now. We should not have to still point out that any system that represents women as one of nine is a failed system - not a failure of women.

03 May 2009

Bring Back Vaudeville - but just for graduation

My eldest is about to reach a huge milestone: she's completing her bachelor's degree next month. She's debating about whether to attend the graduation ceremony. There should be no debate, but I share her ambivalence. The modern graduation is a poor excuse for a ritual, but it ought to be as fresh and interesting as the graduates themselves.

The education department could use facebook, class rosters, shared dorm floors, personal requests, and random assignments to create graduation groups of, say 40, a number that would allow more than simply hearing one’s name read over the PA. In preparation for this graduation ceremony, each graduate should be made to learn one magic trick or card trick and then, as they perform the trick, they can tell a story about a class, a classmate, mating in class or even something they've learned or how they've changed as a result of their brush with higher education. Each graduate would essentially perform a little vaudevillian routine.

This would not only make the ceremony so much more memorable and enjoyable for us parents and friends, but it would actually give these students skills too often overlooked as helpful in the effort to win friends and influence people. Plus, it would be so much more dignified than just tying balloon animals and telling jokes.

02 May 2009

Happiness is no Photo Op

Saw this at Thomas's place

If you observe a really happy man, you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden… He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar stud that has rolled under the dressing table."
~W. Beran Wolfe

I was thinking about this very point recently, about how happiness doesn't always look happy. I laugh about as much as anyone I know and am genuinely happy when I do, but I suspect that most of the time I'm happy I am not laughing or even smiling. I'm engaged.

I wonder if one reason we have trouble with happiness is that it doesn't always make for good photo ops, doesn't make for exciting scenes in a movie. So we holler and act reckless, not because it makes us happy but because this is what happy is supposed to look like. Actually, one of the few things that we do know about happiness is that it is unaware of its own image.

01 May 2009

Clues that You May Be in the Midwest

I'm flying home yesterday, connecting through Kansas City, MO. A man and woman about my age are sitting next to me, talking for most of the 2-hour flight. He's found an audience and is sharing whatever stories he thinks might impress her, detailing money he's spent on things like his kids education and Caribbean vacations. Towards the end of the flight, an apparent feeling of intimacy allows him to share his feelings about politics. After talking about his disdain for all things San Francisco, he supports his point by sharing his hatred of Nancy Pelosi. "I was watching her on the TV the other night and I just said, 'This country would be so much better if someone shot her.'" And I'm guessing that he'd advertise himself as a law and order type, in spite of the obvious comfort he seems to take from this alternative to democracy.

Then, as I'm actually in the Kansas City airport, I overhear a man walking by. Once again, a man who seems to think that his views on politics will somehow please the women he's with.
"They said that when an African-American became president, that would be the day that pigs would fly. Well, swine flu."