Thursday, September 30, 2010

Personality Types

William Marshall. The foure complexions. Engraving, 1662. Folger Shakespeare Library.
I’m a Type UHIDE-F Personality.

Here are some of the traits that Type UHIDE-F Personalities exhibit: individually minded, dignified, respectful, civil, courteous, intellectually engaging, curious, assertive, driven, justice-obsessed, withdrawn, indecisive, introverted, thoughtful, sensitive, community-minded, extroverted, decisive, sad, happy, angry, warm, cool.

There is a tendency among scientists to try to group and classify things, whether it is plants, animals, insects. This tendency has also translated to the need among cognitive scientists to group humans according to personality types. Such an approach to human classification has led to a number of standardized tests being developed over the years to get an assessment of a personality type.

The purpose of such tests are likely related to a better understanding of humans and how we think, feel and operate. From the scientific lab to business desk is always a short step away. The last few decades has seen a sharp rise in the use of personality tests. This has led to a whole raft of industries and sectors, including business, education, police and the military, who rely on such tests to assess individuals on their ability to conform to certain organizational expectations.

The first modern personality test was the Woodworth Personal data sheet, which was first used in 1919. It was designed to help the United States Army screen out recruits who might be susceptible to shell shock. Many others followed, including the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT).

Most, if not all of the tests, are based on the work of Carl Jung [1875-1961]. a Swiss psychiatrist, who was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud. Much of the classification theories emanated from the work of Dr. Jung. In a sense, each is a variation of a similar theme, assessing various mental, emotional and intellectual abilities, and assigning a letter designation that generally corresponds to a personality type.

One of the problems with self-assessment tests, particularly those related to employment, is that people can either lie or answer in a way that would meet the employer's expectation. Although some measures have been built-in to modern tests, including raising the same question in another part of the test to see if there is correspondence, the tests are not completely reliable. Yet, again, the test cares more about validity, which is assessed using statistical measures, than accuracy.

This brings up the question of the scientific validity or rigor of such tests. Personality tests give the patina of scientific validity, but they are hardly scientific. Some scientists have questioned the validity of personality tests and type. Yet, they persist, in part because such tests are a multi-billion dollar industry, and in part because they seem to do the job.

Doubtless, the best test could hardly be classified as a de facto scientific, whereby it can accurately predict how a person will behave in all circumstances. (And, of course, no sane person would argue so.) The tests can only predict, based on statistical measures, the probability that a such a person with such self-described traits will behave under such circumstances.

Barbara Rose, a staff reporter, with the Chicago Tribune newspaper wrote an article criticizing such tests. (See Critics wary as more jobs hinge on personality tests: 31 October 2004. As Ms. Rose writes:

"I can't tell you how many business people come up to me because someone has given them Myers-Briggs, telling me, I'm a `this' or `that'" type, said psychologist Leigh Thompson, the J. Jay Gerber distinguished professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management."No academicians worth their salt would put any stock in it," she said.
Yet, decision-makers continue to place too much emphasis on test results, since the candidate has been assigned a particular personality (in letter or combination of letters) in black-and-white. One can argue that this approach leads to reductionist thinking. It relieves the decision maker of agonizing decisions, and gives it over to test results. In a sense, in their assessment and in their mind's eye, you are such a personality type.

Not really. Equally important, personality, many argue, is not a predictor of behaviour. Future beheviour is as hard to predict as predicting the weather. It's too complex. There's the rub. Behaviour is not as completely predictable as is Newton's laws of motion or the Second law of Thermodynamics.

And that's why I do not have to rely on a test to know who I am. I am Type UHIDE-F personality, shorthand for Universal Human who values Individual Dignity, Equality & Freedom.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Being YourSelf

Your Existence

“It appears to me to be indisputable that he who I am to-day derives, by a continuous series of states of consciousness, from him who was in my body twenty years ago. Memory is the basis of individual personality, just as tradition is the basis of the collective personality of a people. We live in memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope, the effort of our past to transform itself into our future.”

Miguel de Unamuno [1864-1936],
Spanish poet, philosopher and writer,
The Tragic Sense of Life (1921) 

Miguel de Unamuno [1864–1936 ], Spanish essayist, novelist, poet, playwright and philosopher, in 1925.SourceWikipedia CommonsAgence de presse Meurisse

ne of my favourite existential thinkers is Miguel de Unamuno. In The Tragic Sense of Life (a 1921 translation, by J.E. Crawford Flitch, of Del Sentimiento Trágico de la Vida, 1913), Dr. Unamuno recounts a conversation that took place with one of his best friends, with whom he took frequent walks:
On a certain occasion this friend remarked to me; "I should like to be So-and-so (naming someone, and I said: "That is what I shall never be able to understand—that one should want to be someone else. To want to be someone else is to cease to be who one is. I understand that one should wish to have what someone else has, his wealth or his knowledge; but to be someone else, that is a thing I cannot comprehend." (p. 9)
Neither can I. Now the expression “being yourself” might be casually thrown out too much, usually as a reminder to the person’s essential being. The reason that this sentiment is universal is that there is a powerful instinct in us to be precisely who we think we are. And, if truth be told, would you really want to live your life as someone else? That does not mean you cannot improve areas of yourself, if you find them deficient in some way.

But, can you really change your core being, your essence?  Is this even desirable, even if it is obtainable?  Such a being as yourself has been developed, so to speak by a combination of genetic influences and environmental effects, a combination of your parent's genes and the way that you grew up. Our obsession with trying to be someone else, like a celebrity, so as to conform to some societal notion of normal or acceptable behaviour is to deny yourself. And it is patently absurd and self-defeating. You will lose self-respect and get nothing of value in the bargain (Think Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby).

Today’s times are conformist to a large degree. The individual pressure (and fear) to conform to societal notions, partly resulting from advertising interests, stigmatization of the other and self-censorship, has lead to a giving up of individuality and individual freedom. In a society with a lot of putative choices, all roads become narrow and directed. The end result is an inability to make individual choices, and a loss of human dignity. The public spaces, meant for freedom of expression, has become smaller, and the need to conform larger.

If you notice children, they are very comfortable with themselves. Off course, we do not wish to remain as children in thought, action and all behaviours. That would make us childish individuals, and there are enough of those types already. But we can have a comfort with ourselves, which brings self-respect and self-acceptance.

The struggle is to be yourself is not easy, notably when so many false values accost you daily. The trick is to be yourself without imposing your values or intruding on others’ beliefs, while maintaining self-respect and self-dignity, and equally providing the same for people around you.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A World Without Religion

My point is not that religion itself is the motivation for wars, murders and terrorist attacks, but that religion is the principal label, and the most dangerous one, by which a "they" as opposed to a "we"can be identified at all.
-—Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, noted atheist, and popular speaker,
The Devil's Chaplain

My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak and transitory understanding, can comprehend of reality. Morality is of the highest importance—but for us, not for God.
—Albert Einstein [1879-1955], Nobel laureate in physics

Some people subscribe to the thinking that religion is the root cause of all the world's evils. Thus, as the thinking goes, and this is in its simplest form, if all religious belief and practices were eliminated from the face of the earth, then, ipso facto, hate and wars would be eliminated.

It's obvious that discussions revolving around religion cause a lot of pain and anguish in people. The reasons, I suspect, are always almost personal. (It's certainly true in my case, as I struggle with my religious faith and practice.)

To be sure, atheists have every right to broadcast their views, make them known and convince others of their merit. It's good for democracy. In an open democracy, debate is welcome, where opponents and proponents ought to be able to speak in a forceful yet courteous and civil manner on any discourse. Ad hominen attacks, however, do little to advance a point of view and only cause rancour and anger. It does little for democracy.

Yet, the atheist position is weak.  On the position of morality, for example, one could question whether atheists adopted a morality from the culture in in which they were residing, thereby benefiting from a kind of halo effect. That is, the surrounding culture informs everyone's morality. (Atheists, of course, argue differently.)

Equally important is looking at the history of surveillance, repression, and mass murder of dissidents in socialist states, such as the Soviet Union, the eastern bloc, and the People's Republic of China during the Cultural Revolution, when atheism was the official state ideology. (There are many articles, books and papers coming out on this dark period in history, notably in Russia, as writers, journalists, historians and academics continue searching through the once-secret archives.)

Leaving the issue of morality for another time, I offer the following thoughts.  One can undoubtedly point at the atrocities committed in the name of religion throughout history. And it's likely that no major religion is immune from this charge. Yes, major acts of horror and barbarity have been committed in the name of religion, religious belief and faith acting as its justification.

No one of sane mind and sober intellect can condone such wanton hatred and violence. I join those who are committed to its elimination.

But, then again, the record of secular, or non-religious, leaders has hardly been worthy of honour or esteem. The list of mass murderers include the likes of Messieurs Hitler, Stalin. Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein, all devoted secularists, whose record of mass murder, destruction and ethnic cleaning is unparalleled in modern times.

One can easily summon a list of people—both of the faithless and the faithful—who have used their position of supreme authority to commit torture, mass murder and other evil acts. That only proves that hate and murder are universal evils that are extremely stubborn and difficult to stamp out.

Da Vinci's Mona Lisa: Leonardo  Da Vinci is the quintessential Renaissance Man.  What a poorer world it would be without such masterpieces. DaVinci's religious views informed his work, including one of the world's most-famous paintings.[This is a photographic reproduction done by Amandajm, June 2010. The original painting can be found in the Louvre in Paris, France].
Christianity remains the religion with the highest number of followers, claiming 2.0 billion followers, reports, or about one-third of the world's people. It's small wonder, then, why Christianity becomes a lightning rod for criticism: It's the majority. And this also explains why scientists, many whom were  brought up to some degree in the Christian faith, feel a need to attack it and dismantle its apparatus.

Yet, such thinking is without merit, and I say this as someone who is not a Christian, yet respect its culture and history. I say this, as well, as someone who has neither a particular axe to grind nor a religion to promote. Consider what, for example, the Christian world of art, music and literature has given us.

Would we be richer without such works as DaVinci's "Mona Lisa," or Handel's "Messiah" or Milton's Paradise Lost, to name only a few great examples? How about the great works of literature and poetry by Dante, Dostoevski and T.S. Eliot that bring so much meaning to people's lives. This argument ought not to be dismissed or easily discarded.

As for scientists who claimed Christianity as their religion, the list is too numerous to mention. Suffice to say, you can include Newton, Galileo and DaVinci among the leading lights whose work and thinking advanced science. Albert Einstein, who might not have been a man of great religious faith, was certainly no enemy of it either.

What I suspect the advocates of a world without religion want is an unfettered ability to carry out their scientific endeavors without any religious objections, and to reside in a world in peace. The former needs further examination and discussion, and any raised objections to scientific progress ought to be looked at judiciously, and not only by scientists, as there is too much at stake. The latter, on the issue of peace, I join them. I too long for a world devoid of hatred and violence. I too long for fairness and justice. I too long for a lasting peace.

Yet, pointing the finger at Religion is no solution. Even so, it is highly unlikely that religious belief would ever vanish, given that about 80 per cent of the world have declared some religious affiliation. And to use scientific language, the probability of success is low. That shows most people cannot find meaning solely in a rational materialistic universe. Most people need transcendence, and religion provides that comfort to many of the world, notably to the world's poor, beaten and downtrodden.

Even if atheists were somewhat successful in their campaign to eviscerate religion from its foundations or neuter it, such actions would add nothing to repairing or improving the world, even for scientific inquiry. It might result in a lot more harm, following the law of unintended consequences.

Truly, the problem lies elsewhere, and not solely at the doorstep of religion.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Having Fun

 I know it is wet
And the sun is not sunny.
But we can have
Lots of good fun that is funny!
—Dr Seuss in Cat in the Hat (1957)

Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel) wrote Cat in the Hat in response to an article by John Hershey in Life magazine that children weren't reading, because they found books boring. (You can read Mr. Hershey's article about the dullness of grammar school readers in a 1954 issue of Life magazine, "Why Do Students Bog Down on First R? A Local Committee Sheds Light on a National Problem: Reading.")

Since then, the children's book has sold millions of copies and has been translated into many languages (11). It is obvious the book has a charming appeal. I read it as a child, and my wife and I have read Dr Seuss's oeuvre multiple times to my children. I still enjoy all the books. Yet, the Cat in the Hat remains my favourite, not only because of Mr. Geisel's imaginative use of only 236 words, but also because the book is for adults.

I sense that book's message, if it indeed has one, is that fun can be spontaneous and unplanned. At a time when social engineers and pedagogues, with a little help from some child psychologists and the multi-billion dollar toy industry, tend to steer children to play dates, structured outings and planned everything, it is refreshing to read that fun can be unplanned and spontaneous, the way children like it.

Spontaneous play is important for many reasons, says Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who wrote of its importance in a report, The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds (2007). 

Dr. Ginsburg writes:
Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children. Despite the benefits derived from play for both children and parents, time for free play has been markedly reduced for some children.

Knowing How to Have Fun: Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) seated at desk covered with his books / World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna, 1957. Courtesy:  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Yet, it's easy to make an adjustment. If you have ever seen children unwrap presents, many times they will find the wrapping or box more fun to play with than the actual manufactured toy. My 2½-year-old son, for example, likes to play with my office supplies: paper, paperclips and elastic bands. I sense it's because he sees me "play" with these items and not with the toys.

That might be bad news for toy manufacturers, since they cannot manufacture spontaneous fun. And parents like myself must be prepared for the fun and chaos when the Cat in the Hat comes for a visit.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Beatles in Hey Jude

Recorded: July 31, 1968 at Trident Studios, London, England, with the forty-piece orchestra
Overdubbed: August 1, 1968
Released: August 26, 1968
John Lennon: acoustic guitar, background vocal
Paul McCartney: lead vocal, bass guitar, piano
George Harrison: lead guitar, background vocal
Ringo Starr: drums, tambourine
Forty-piece orchestra - sustained notes, clapping, "na-na-na" chorus

Song Evolution:
It was written by Paul McCartney as a comfort for John Lennon's son, Julian, 5, after the breakup and subsequent divorce of his parents, John and Cynthia Lennon. Paul has said that the words came to him in the car, while he was driving, going from "Hey Jules" to "Jude."

Paul was displeased with the line, "The movement you need is on your shoulder," saying it sounded as if he was singing about his parrot, but John convinced him that it was probably the strongest line in the song. John later commented that the song was actually written for him subconsciously by Paul, as an indication that it was OK for John to go ahead and leave him for Yoko. 

In a 1980 interview with David Sheff for Playboy magazine, John Lennon recounted his thoughts on the song's meaning:

Paul said it was written about Julian. He knew I was splitting with Cyn and leaving Julian then. He was driving to see Julian to say hello. He had been like an uncle. And he came up with Hey Jude. But I always heard it as a song to me. If you think about it... Yoko's just come into the picture. He's saying, 'Hey Jude' - 'Hey John.' I know I'm sounding like one of those fans who reads things into it, but you can hear it as a song to me. The words 'go out and get her' - subconsciously he was saying, 'Go ahead, leave me.' On a conscious level, he didn't want me to go ahead. The angel in him was saying, 'Bless you.' The devil in him didn't like it at all because he didn't want to lose his partner.
Which subsequently happened, and with that ended one of the greatest singer-songwriting collaborations in modern times, and The Beatles ended as a music group and began their path to becoming musical legends.

Hey Jude
Copyright: Paul McCartney & John Lennon, The Beatles

Hey Jude, don't make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better

Hey Jude, don't be afraid
You were made to go out and get her
The minute you let her under your skin
Then you begin to make it better

Anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude refrain
Don't carry the world upon your shoulders
Well, you know that it's a fool who plays it cool
By making it a little colder
Na na na na na na na na na

Hey Jude don't let me down

You have found her now go and get her
(Let it out to let it in)
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better better better better better better Whooooooooo

na na na na na na na
na na na na hey Jude
na na na na na na na
na na na na hey Jude
na na na na na na na
na na na na hey Jude
na na na na na na na
na na na na hey Jude
na na na na na na na
na na na na hey Jude

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Joneses are Unhappy

It is our job to make women unhappy with what they have. 
—B. Earl Puckett, quoted in Stephen Donadio, The New York Public Library: Book of Twentieth-Century American Quotations, 1992

The philosophy behind much advertising is based on the old observation that every man is really two men — the man he is and the man he wants to be."
William Feather [1889-1981], American publisher and author

Classy Woman, Classy Drink: The 1890s advertising print shows a well dressed young woman, wearing hat, white gloves, and pearls, holding up a glass of Coca-Cola, seated at a table on which is a vase of roses, the "Drink Coca-Cola" sign, and a paper giving the location of the "Home Office [of the] Coca-Cola Co." as well as branch locations. The woman who modeled for this artwork was Hilda Clark (1872-1932). Courtesy: US Library of Congress.
Advertising makes everyone unhappy, men and women. And that is both its power and purpose. The role of all advertising is to create a need, often imaginary, in humans to purchase things. The unsaid assumption in all advertising is that unless you purchase this product or service, you will remain unfulfilled. But that "unmet need' can change by purchasing something, and the sooner the better.

By purchasing a particular product, as the poster for Coca Cola from the 1890s above suggests, you will quickly join the ranks of the classy and respectable people, which always has an appeal. So, by purchasing this beverage, in a sense you have now joined the ranks of the mythical Jones family.

Or, the advertising might appeal to a primordial familial instinct of preservation when it comes to financial products like life insurance, education-savings plans or savings plans in general. The motto and its many variations are, "If you care about your loves ones, you will do this..." Talk about pulling the heart-strings.

Of course, advertisers use psychology and other instruments of influence to compel you to buy things, particularly high-priced items and feed the maw of conspicuous consumption, or in modern parlance, to show off. One method of influence is feeding the need among some to become an early adopter, essentially the first on your street to have that product. After a comprehensive advertising campaign, the company announces that the product will be released for public consumption at a certain date in the morning.

Hence, the image of people lining up before a store opens to be among the first to own that product, which is now usually an electronic device. That fulfills the need to impress, to set you apart. (Compare that image to people lining up for food in less industrialized countries after a flood, earthquake or other natural disaster.)

Allow me to use a personal example to illustrate a point. Many years ago, in my early twenties, I wanted to own a Jacquar automobile, which I considered the ultimate in luxury and fine British workmanship. Of course, it was beyond my reach, and I settled for something less, a Ford Tempo.

Around the same time, I happened to meet a class-mate, and he showed up downtown in a beautiful Jacquar in British racing green. My heart stopped. It was precisely the car I admired and wished to own. I was, of course, envious. We drove it in, and as I admired the wood paneling and leather interior, I casually asked him, "What's it like to own such a beautiful machine?" His response, "At first, I couldn't get over the idea that I owned such a beautiful car. But after a few weeks, it was a car, a machine that took me from Point A to Point B."

My Dream Car is Just a Machine: Jaguar XJ6 photographed in Fairfax, Virginia, USA. Photo Credit: IFCAR

I learned a valuable lesson. The initial allure of ownership eventually dissipates to an everyday practicality. So, a great amount of time is needlessly wasted in finding the right cell-phone, the right HDTV, the right car, the right furniture, the right computer —all under the influence of what advertiser's say about the product, and, more important, because of advertiser's influence, what your family, friends, co-workers and colleagues will say about your newest purchase. Will they like it? Will they criticize it?

Even the super-wealthy are not immune from advertising or social pressures; their acquisitions, such as fine art, large mansions and luxury aircraft fit the mores of their social class.

To be sure, much of whether one "enjoys" the purchase rests on what your newest and dearest say about your latest purchase. And in casting judgment or that, they cast judgment on your tastes and, more important, on you. Your self-esteem or, rather, your dignity takes a blow. And with that, your happiness is also less than what you expected it would be.

If you remember Maslow's hierarchy of needs in descending order of importance—physiological, security, social, self-esteem, and self-actualization—you will quickly see that possessing things, apart from physical and security reasons, does not rank as essential. Yet, advertiser's well aware of Maslow's Pyramid capitalize on it to influence people to make purchases, either for social or esteem needs.

We all could live with less stuff. A great majority of people in the world do, and are fine with it. That might explain why studies show that people living in countries with very little advertising, so-called developing nations, are much happier and content. The poor might not have all the luxuries we have, as they have little contact with the rich and, therefore, they do not know what they are missing.

Or perhaps they do.
Note: I would like to hear your stories and views on what you consider important, whether it's the economic crisis, the erosion of democracy and humanity or anything that affects the human spirit. Many of us are going through very difficult economic and trying times. The Poor, the working poor, the struggling family should not be stigmatized. You can help make a change and a difference in society. Everyone should be able to live life with dignity. I love to hear your stories.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Rich Shall Always Be With Us (2010)

Wealth of Individuals

The American Dream: Only a Few Good Men Need Apply. 
Photo Credit: Ramy Majouji, 2010

The rich are different from you and me
—Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s
The Great Gatsby (1925)

In an earlier post, I wrote how the poor shall always be with us. A good friend of mine, Sheldon, after reading the article, remarked, "The rich shall always be with us." That was astute of him.

And, of course that is true. And when one thinks of rich (and powerful), one's mind naturally turns to Wall Street, that symbol of plutocracy. Consider the report in last week's Globe & Mail, a Big Business booster, which essentially says that Wall Street has not changed its ways (see Wall Street has changed, or has it? by Joanna Slater):
For some experts, such jockeying is a dismaying sign. They consider it proof that Wall Street  hasn’t changed very much despite its near-death experience two years ago, when Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. filed for bankruptcy, sending financial markets into chaos.

Trying to change Wall Street’s behaviour through legislation has a poor track record, says Charles Geisst, a finance professor at Manhattan College who wrote a history of the industry. “The traditional way to [get around it] is just to devise new financial instruments that aren’t covered under the regulations,” he says.
So, if money is to be made, the wealthy and powerful will find ways to circumvent the intended meaning of the law. Such not only speaks of arrogance but unfettered greed. It also speaks of giving too much credence to wealth and the acquisition of money. To which end? one must ask.

Wall Street Meeting Place: Thousands gather at the Subtreasury Building on Wall Street In New York City during Armistice Day, 1918. 
Photo Source: New York Times photo archive, 1918.
Money has no inherent moral value. An instrument to purchase goods and services, money is a highly emotional symbol, notably in a society that uses money (or lack thereof) as a base to measure an individual's value (hence the term Individual Net Worth). For the super-wealthy and -privileged, unfettered access to more money is their goal, their right, they say.

For an excellent analysis of how out-of-touch Wall Street has become, read Paul Krugman's op-ed piece in The New York Times, The Angry Rich.  Prof. Krugman, a Nobel laureate in economics, gives  a sense of how blinded to reality these plutocrats have become. These entitled ones have become caricatures.

The rich shall always be with us, no doubt. But what is questionable is whether the Wall Street examples of avarice and hubris contribute fairly to society's betterment. (And, more important, should people be richly rewarded for failure.) If greed is one of the primal forces driving most of the workers on Wall Street, it speaks of a society that is poorer for it.

One would hope that the finer feelings of courage, kindness and justice would become more prominent in a financial world that some says is ruled by Social Darwinism. Whether that would ever happen is an open question.

Which brings to mind one of the most memorable lines in film: "Greed is good," from Wall Street, released in 1987. Twenty-three years later, Oliver Stone is ready to show Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. It is slated to hit theaters worldwide on Friday September 24th.

Note: I would like to hear your stories and views on what you consider important, whether it's the economic crisis, the erosion of democracy and humanity or anything that affects the human spirit. Many of us are going through very difficult economic and trying times. The Poor, the working poor, the struggling family should not be stigmatized. You can help make a change and a difference in society. Everyone should be able to live life with dignity. I love to hear your stories.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On Civil Disobedience

That government is best which governs least.
Henry David Thoreau [1817-62], American writer, poet and philosopher

The defiance of established authority, religious and secular, social and political, as a world-wide phenomenon may well one day be accounted the outstanding event of the last decade. 
Hannah Arendt [1906-75], German-Jewish political theorist,
in Crises of the Republic (1969)

Non-violent resistance implies the very opposite of weakness. Defiance combined with non-retaliatory acceptance of repression from one's opponents is active, not passive. It requires strength, and there is nothing automatic or intuitive about the resoluteness required for using non-violent methods in political struggle and the quest for Truth.
Mohandas Gandhi [1869-1948],
Leader of India's Independence Movement

In 1849, Henry David Thoreau wrote an influential essay, Civil Disobedience, which looks at when you ought to follow your own conscience. This essay ought to be read, since its relevance resonates beyond the time it was written, its verse universal. As Wendy McElroy writes in Henry Thoreau and Civil Disobedience:

Civil Disobedience is an analysis of the individual’s relationship to the state that focuses on why men obey governmental law even when they believe it to be unjust. But Civil Disobedience is not an essay of abstract theory. It is Thoreau’s extremely personal response to being imprisoned for breaking the law. Because he detested slavery and because tax revenues contributed to the support of it, Thoreau decided to become a tax rebel. There were no income taxes and Thoreau did not own enough land to worry about property taxes; but there was the hated poll tax – a capital tax levied equally on all adults within a community.

Thoreau declined to pay the tax and so, in July 1846, he was arrested and jailed. He was supposed to remain in jail until a fine was paid which he also declined to pay. Without his knowledge or consent, however, relatives settled the “debt” and a disgruntled Thoreau was released after only one night.

The incarceration may have been brief but it has had enduring effects through Civil Disobedience.
Many have read Thoreau's essay, including Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Buber, The Austrian-Jewish philosopher, who commented on its importance as follows:
The question here is not just about one of the numerous individual cases in the struggle between a truth powerless to act and a power that has become the enemy of truth. It is really a question of the absolutely concrete demonstration of the point at which this struggle at any moment becomes man's duty as man.…
—Martin Buber [1878-1965], in Man's Duty As Man (1962)

Greenpeace Invites You To a Black Tide Beach Party: Protesters from Greenpeace, covered in sludge, protest at the World Energy Congress in Montreal on September 12, 2010. Julian Vincent of Greenpeace International says:"We desperately need an energy revolution, moving beyond oil and other dirty fuels to power our future with clean, renewable energy."
Photo Credit: Sheldon Levy, 2010,
The obvious question is whether we have reason to protest today, as these young earnest environmental protests recently did. To be sure, the question of whether one ought to act with civil disobedience is one of conscience. The answer is a qualified yes, in that peaceful protests are more effective than violent protests, which serve the interests of a few and do not advance any cause.

Recent examples of successful peaceful protests were the protests and pressure put on the former Soviet Union to free Jews from Russia, so-called Refuseniks, during the 1970s. Issues of human rights and dignity always call for action on the part of all peoples with a conscience.

This includes deep concern for the viability of our planet, and protesting business-as-usual practices. We ought to applaud and protest, by word or deed, any practice that has a deleterious effect on our quality of life. These young protesters are acting with their conscience, drawing attention to what they sense is wrong with the world, and aiming to correct it. To do good. So, yes, environmental protests fit into the idea of civil disobedience.

They join an illustrious list of personages, including Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who have listened to and acted on their conscience. Such peaceful and diligent actions of the conscience always (eventually) lead to societal change for the betterment of all humankind. That's always good.

Note: I would like to hear your stories and views on what you consider important, whether it's the economic crisis, the erosion of democracy and humanity or anything that affects the human spirit. Many of us are going through very difficult economic and trying times. The Poor, the working poor, the struggling family should not be stigmatized. You can help make a change and a difference in society. Everyone should be able to live life with dignity. I love to hear your stories.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mind Your Manners

Friends and good manners will carry you where money won't go.
—Margaret Walker [1915-98], American poet

The decline of manners, the cynical pursuit without shame or restraint of personal advantage and of money characterizes our times, not without exceptions, of course, but more than we ought to be comfortable with.
—J. Irwin Miller [1909-2004] , American industrialist

Mothers teach their children to mind their manners. And they are absolutely right in doing so.

While good manners and class was the privilege of the aristocrats and old-money families, as part of what used to be designated "good breeding," it is no longer the case. (For an ironically humorous essay on good manners, see A Treatise on Good Manners and Good Breeding by Jonathan Swift, published in 1754 after his death). Good manners and having class is now open to everyone and anyone who deems it important.

A person of good manners is also a person who also exhibits classy behaviour and carries himself with dignity. One of the signs of true class is the ability to make others around you feel comfortable. Characteristics of politeness, kindness and equanimity tend to rule a mannered and classy person. You could have class regardless of whether you are rich or poor. (Although being rich today might be a decided handicap, given the tiresome antics of the super-wealthy and super-privileged.)

To be sure, it depends more on how you view people, the importance that you place on manners, and whether you view a social situation as an opportunity to advance yourself, or an opportunity to show dignity under pressure. And, like all behaviours, one has to nurture good manners.

Courtesy Lacking: High-change in Bond Street,—ou—la Politesse du Grande Monde: Fashionably dressed pedestrians on Bond Street. In the foreground, five men crowd a woman and girl off the sidewalk as they leer at them. The women, seen from the back, are oddly dressed. In the background, three ladies, also in exaggerated costumes, walking arm-in-arm in the roadway.
CREATED/PUBLISHED: [London] : H. Humphrey, 1796 March 27th.Source: United States Library of Congress.
Background: "This is understood to be a very fair attack on the want of courtesy in the gentlemen frequenters of Bond Street (the grand fashionable lounge at the time it was published), some of whom shewed no hesitation in taking the wall, and even the pavement of the ladies, throwing them, as here represented, into the street," says Wright & Evans, in Historical and Descriptive Account of the Caricatures of James Gillray [1851].

Consider the situation of going to a fancy high-priced restaurant and the server gets your meal mixed up. How you respond to that situation, either with understanding and patience, or anger and resentment, says a lot about how you view yourself in relation to others.

Let's compare the two approaches.

Rights-based or sense of entitlement: In a rights-based society, a person looks at a social situation as a need to assert his rights in all personal encounters. Rights comes first, and it matters little if the other person is shamed or belittled. What is important is to let the other person know that he made a mistake, and that he feels it deeply.
So, you might scream at the server, saying that you are not only paying a lot of money for this meal, but also that you are an important person. You might get your meal quickly, and you might justify your behaviour to the other dinner guests, but this approach usually results in everyone being upset, or at least feeling uncomfortable.

Classy manners: Classiness is the opposite of entitlement. You have empathy, because you have the awareness that you are also human, and can easily make mistakes. You want the other person not to feel humiliated, but to have dignity. In each social situation, the dignified person can carry on without feelings of shame and resentment and help you achieve what you want.
In the restaurant scenario, you downplay the importance of the mistake, perhaps use humour, and patiently wait for the meal that you ordered. What often transpires is not only getting the meal that you ordered, but also everyone remains in the right state of mind to enjoy it.
I vote for a return to class and dignity. The discussion on manners might seem trivial to some, given the major problems that we now face, yet manners and civility are the glue of a civilization. It's true that manners alone are not sufficient for a civilization to prosper, but it's equally true that a lack of manners are a sure sign of its decline and potential downfall.

I leave the last word to Laurence Sterne, an 18th century Irish novelist: "Respect for ourselves guides our morals, respect for others guides our manners."


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah

 Music video by Leonard Cohen performing Hallelujah. (C) 2009 Sony Music Entertainment

Leonard Cohen recorded the song in June 1984, and it was released by Columbia Records in December 1984. In a 1992 interview with Paul Zollo, published in From Songwriters on Songwriting, Mr. Cohen gives some background on the song's slow and painstaking evolution, so to speak:
That was a song that took me a long time to write. Dylan and I were having coffee the day after his concert in Paris a few years ago and he was doing that song in concert. And he asked me how long it took to write it. And I told him a couple of years. I lied actually. It was more than a couple of years.
—Leonard Cohen, 1992

By Leonard Cohen

Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I've seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

There was a time you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Human Use of Human Beings

All spirits are enslaved which serve things evil.
Percy Bysshe Shelley [1792–1822],
English Romantic poet, Prometheus Unbound

The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men,
but that men will begin to think like computers.
Sydney J. Harris [1917–1986],
American journalist

It has become appallingly obvious that our technology
has exceeded our humanity.
Albert Einstein [1879–1955],
Nobel laureate in physics

Norbert Wiener [1894-1964]: Prof Wiener, an American mathematician, advocated that we must have a clear vision of the technology's purpose, which must accompany technological know-how.
Photo Credit: Konrad Jacobs, MFO

When I was a student in junior college in the 1970s, I read a book for a humanities class called The Human Use of Human Beings by Norbert Wiener [1894-1964], a professor of mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Prof Wiener, a child prodigy, received his doctorate (in mathematics) from Harvard University in 1912 at age 18.

The book, first published in 1950, is a classic text on cybernetics,or the study of message transmission between people and machines. The book’s central warning about automation’s effects is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago when the book became popular.

Although Prof. Wiener advocated that automation would possibly relieve people of drudgery and repetitive tasks, he also warned against reliance on machinery to displace and dehumanize people. Wiener could not foresee that automation (and computerization) would in many ways introduce other drudgery or mundane work, like data entry, call centres, and low-level jobs with mind-numbing keyboarding tasks.

As for the prophetic warning about displacement and dehumanization, on that account he was prescient. Millions of people have been displaced by machines as part of technological advancement, many for good measure, some for not. Many of these people will likely never find work, as we advance further in the Digital Revolution, repeating a pattern established during the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s.

The unemployment rate in the U.S., for example, will likely remain around 10% for a while, many economists reluctantly say, including President Obama’s Chief Economist, Austan Goolsbee. (So far, eight million jobs have been lost since the beginning of 2008 recession, making this the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression that started in 1929.)

As Wiener says, we push ahead and progress with the knowledge that we take a great risk. The myth of Prometheus is still speaking to us, although today it might only be an echo. Such might influence Wiener’s and other prophets or visionaries’ tragic sense of life:
The sense of tragedy is that the world is not a pleasant little nest made for our protection, but a vast and largely hostile environment, in which we can achieve great things only by defying the gods; and that this defiance inevitably brings its own punishment.
Unfortunately, the law of unintended consequences is alive and in effect. He was not alone among eminent scientists to hold such a view. A contemporary of Prof Wiener was Albert Einstein, the noted physicist and Nobel laureate, who wrote about the place of technology in human affairs:
More and more I come to value charity and love of one’s fellow being above everything else... All our lauded technological progress—our very civilization—is like the axe in the hand of the pathological criminal.
One can disagree with Dr. Einstein, but one cannot easily ignore him. The problem rests with a type of technological worship, which sees each advancement as progress, its adherents faithfully bowing down to the gods of productivity and efficiency—as if that were all that mattered. Profit at all costs becomes the motto, and with technological advancement the profits have become larger, and the job losses greater.

Charity and love do not fit into any equation or any bottom line accounting sheet. They are, after all, the most human of emotions.

As Prof Wiener cautions us, it is not only important to develop a technology, but have an understanding and awareness of its ultimate purpose. That is a foresight that's often lost in the rush for technological advancement and excellence. The loss for humanity? Incalculable. 

Note: I would like to hear your stories and views on what you consider important, whether it's the economic crisis, the erosion of democracy and humanity or anything that affects the human spirit. Many of us are going through very difficult economic, moral and personal times. The Poor, the working poor, the struggling family should not be stigmatized. You can help make a change and a difference in society. Everyone should be able to live life with dignity. I love to hear your stories. 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Behind Conspiracy Theories

America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.
—John Updike, Problems and Other Stories
US author [1932-2009]  

Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe. 
—Frederick Douglass [1818-1895],
American social reformer, writer and statesman

Many people believe in conspiracy theories. The logic of most conspiracy theories is that the government has some sort of covert operation that has either kept something under wraps, or sanctioned something illegal or nefarious, done under cover of "night" to hide their activities.

The Roswell UFO Incident about aliens is an example of the first, the assassination of a public figure is an example of the second. (The first greatly explains the popularity of The X-Files, a TV show that aired between 1993 and 2002.)  I will not pass judgment on conspiracy theories or the persons who hold them. I am not so much interested in the veracity of conspiracy theories but in the reasons they take root in our collective imaginations.

I will leave the sorting out of truth and error to the experts, to marshal the facts and debate the various conspiracies in front of an audience or on the Net. My interest is looking at why conspiracy theories hold so much fascination for so many people. 

Some of the most famous conspiracy theories include the assassination of President John F. Kennedy [November 22, 1963], the death of Elvis Presley [August 16, 1977] and subsequent sightings of him post facto, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales [August 31, 1997], and, most recently, the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City [September 11, 2001]. You will notice that all four cases involve death, and, in particular, what is called untimely death.

The first three, President Kennedy, Elvis Presley, and Princess Diana, involved the untimely death of charismatic international leaders. Millions of people can remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news about the deaths of these legends. Millions of people had placed their hopes, faith and desires for a better world on these world-known leaders, and with their death came the loss of hope and feelings of despair. Such might be natural breeding grounds for conspiracies to thrive.

At the White House: Diana, Princess of Wales with the Regans at the White House, November 1985.
Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library.
If one examines conspiracy theories, you find some root causes: a distrust of the official government account of events, a general mistrust of government, a seeking of the hidden truth, a need for justice, and a sense of dissatisfaction or foreboding of the way society is headed.

In short, many thinking people share some or all of these traits, but, perhaps not to the same degree as those who put a lot of faith and energy in government-led conspiracies. That is, we do not entirely trust the intentions of governments, realizing that self-interest or bowing down to powerful special interests motivates much of what they do. But we might not share the view that governments always have nefarious motives.

When you question how difficult it is to fabricate a Conspiracy of Silence, that it would take the combined efforts of many independent organizations operating at arm's length—the media and the judicial and legislative branches of government—the conspiracy proponents remain undeterred, much in the same manner that religious adherents remain unconvinced by counter arguments.

That might be telling for two reasons. Many people distrust government, and many people have a need to search out for truth, seeking justice. Ultimately, people need to believe in something besides themselves. So, with the loss of a major charismatic unifying figure, such as President Kennedy, Princess Diana, or Elvis, people feel a sense of loss and, in some cases, alienation from the society in which they reside.

Equally compelling, conspiracy theories speak of helplessness and powerless and the search for meaning. There might be a direct correlation, or at least a relationship, between lack of faith in government and the level of conspiracy theories circulating worldwide.

That being said, it might be a worthy and practical endeavor for governments, the media and universities to discuss the social contract between government and the people, if only to explain its importance. If governments were more open, honest and sincere, and truly cared about the people they governed, instead of the trappings of power and of the next election, less conspiracy theories would be circulating.
Note: I would like to hear your stories and views on what you consider important, whether it's the economic crisis, the erosion of democracy and humanity or anything that affects the human spirit. Many of us are going through very difficult economic and trying times. The Poor, the working poor, the struggling family should not be stigmatized. You can help make a change and a difference in society. Everyone should be able to live life with dignity. I love to hear your stories. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Helping Your Self

I think somehow we learn who we really are and then live with that decision.
—Eleanor Roosevelt [1884-1962], former First Lady of the US

The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual; and, exhibited in the lives of many, it constitutes the true source of national vigor and strength. Help from without is often enfeebling in its effects, but help from within invariably invigorates.
—Samuel Smiles, Self-Help [1859]

Self-help books have had a following for more than 100 years, but have increased in popularity in the last 20 years. One thing that you notice about self-help books is the focus on self-education, self-improvement and self-respect, all of which I suspect are good things. Even so, the narrow focus is on Self, and specifically how to alter it to achieve some goal.

Public disclosure: I know what I speak, because before I was married, I read a number of such books, particularly after some crisis of faith or other existential problem. This was about 20 years ago, when I was in my twenties and early thirties, still searching and forming views on life, and as such was open to the advice of professional experts.

One of the reasons for their increased popularity is that mental-health professionals read such books and prescribed them to patients, says Prof. Gad Saad, Research Chair in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences and Darwinian Consumption at Concordia University's John Molson School of Business in Montreal. 

Point noted. In my case, not only my therapist, but friends and colleagues, often recommended books they loved and found helpful. The praised the books and the authors, who spoke about achieving happiness and contentment, as if they had the key to the good life. At least that's the way they spoke on talk shows and on radio interviews.

The authors, who often had PhDs after their names, also exhibited great confidence and faith in their knowledge and abilities to transform people's lives for the better. Their claims for success often centred on popular psychology, which often used some of the principles of psychology mixed with religious myth and stories.

Some of the books had a religious basis, others a metaphysical and others secular.  Even so, they shared some common traits All the books had exercises that you had to honestly complete, a type of self-assessment.

You Can Do It: Such is the central message of Self-Help books, which feed the Self, making it a huge market. Photo Credit: Daily Mail:
After reading all the chapters, and completing the numerous evaluative exercises in the book, which is often a mandate for becoming a better, kinder, more whole or spiritual person, for the most part, I still felt and thought the same as when I started the process. Mr. Smiles would have likely been disappointed in my lack of progress.

I found myself not feeling much better than when I began reading the books. So, even  in self-help I was an utter failure, unable to power my better Self to more money, more self-confidence, more mental acumen, more spirituality. If truth be told, I usually found the exercise tiring and draining. Perhaps the intense and prolonged focus on self invalidates the need to focus on others.

Note: I am not saying that self-help books are ineffective in helping people. Quite the contrary. They likely help millions of people through self-improvement of one kind or another, hence their popularity. Even so, such books did not help me in a way that I was seeking.

And there's the rub. Instead of reading a self-help book, I should have been talking to a friend. It would have been much more effective, much more fun, and less mentally and emotionally draining. Besides, I could have used the money I spent on these books for something more worthy.

Like meeting a friend for coffee or, even better, for a good dinner with sparkling, intellectual and intimate conversation.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Imagine by John Lennon (2010)


Imagine, by John Lennon, is the opening track on the album of the same name. It was released in 1971. 
Via: Youtube

When asked about the song in one of his last interviews, Mr. Lennon declared "Imagine" to be as good as anything he had written with The Beatles. Rolling Stone ranked Imagine as the third greatest song of all time. In a 1980 interview with David Sheff for Playboy magazine, Lennon remarks on the message of "Imagine":
Sheff: On a new album, you close with "Hard Times Are Over (For a While)". Why? 
Lennon: It's not a new message: "Give Peace a Chance" — we're not being unreasonable. Just saying, 'give it a chance.' With "Imagine" we're asking, 'can you imagine a world without countries or religions?' It's the same message over and over. And it's positive."
Of course, such a world is one of idealism, an abstraction, far from today's reality. The hard-core realists, the real-politicos, and the pragmatists all find this message of peace laughable and impracticable. And they they say so in no uncertain terms, smug in their understanding of the "real world." It may be so, but at least the message is positive, hopeful and full of dignity.
In Mr. Lennon's despair and melancholy, we sense and understanding of the obstacles of ever achieving such a world. The pathos is palpable, and in the song's dreamlike imaginings, we share that hope, that possibility of a world in peace. Such explains why the song resonates with millions of people, even today. They yearn for peace.
And why shouldn't they? Should they accept the status quo? The message is significant. This is far different than positive thinking and the other false feel-good messages of today.

By John Lennon

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

You are Not a Brand

Let not a man guard his dignity, but let his dignity guard him
—Ralph Waldo Emerson [1803-82], American poet and philosopher

One of the buzzwords today is branding yourself. Or, to put it more succinctly, you are a brand. Tom Peters, a management consultant and writer, gave currency to the idea of Personal Branding in an article in Fast Company called, The Brand Called You. As the personal branding experts say, it's how you look, what you say and, most important, how you appear to others—the complete package.

Dr. Peters explains it best in the article, The Brand called You, which he published in 1997:
Regardless of age, regardless of position, regardless of the business we happen to be in, all of us need to understand the importance of branding. We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.
Today, not surprisingly, there are websites, companies and magazines with names like Me 2.0 and Personal Branding Magazine dedicated to "packaging" people. Equally important, a whole cottage industry has evolved on this new method of self-marketing and self-promotion.

The next step might be coming up with a personal slogan and trademark, similar to what consumer-products companies have. Or to accept a tattoo for the company that you work for, as horrid as that vivid example is to most people. Such is the age of consumer marketing, where humans are expected to compete for attention in the same manner as do consumer products. When this happens, humans become abstractions, divorced from the whole range of human emotions and finer feelings.

That neatly fits into the explanation of how employers might view the people they hire. Workers, in a sense are purchased for a fixed period of time, says Prof. Paul Samuelson, a professor at MIT and an American Nobel laureate in economics:
One can even say that wages are the rentals paid for the use of a man’s personal services for a day or a week or a year. This may seem a strange use of terms, but on second thought, one recognizes that every agreement to hire labor is for some limited period of time.
—Paul Samuelson [1915-2009], American Nobel laureate in economics.
As quoted in Economics 1976 (10th edition). 

A Brand of His Own: A merino ram with a brand on his horn
Photo Credit: CGoodwin, 2008

Hence, the need to package and sell yourself as a personal brand. Without a doubt, I find this idea quite problematic, and morally and ethically bankrupt. I suspect, however, that I might be in the minority, particular among the younger generation who have grown up, and are proficient, with social media like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, to name a few social-networking sites.

If humans act like they ought to consistently sell themselves, likely a marketer's and human resources manager's dream, then humans might eventually look at other humans as a consumer product that could be bought or sold. It might sound far-fetched, even absurd. And, yes, I am exaggerating to make a point. But that's my concern, that we are traveling along the road to further erosion of human dignity, and where the respect for self becomes an artifact of another age.

We must fight against the unthinking conformism to false values, as this exercise in self-exploitation represents. Then, I will say this in protest, with all due modesty and respect, to whomever wants to take this to heart. You are not a brand. You are a human. You carry yourself with self-respect and dignity.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Days of Awe

No sin is so light that it may be overlooked. No sin is so heavy that it may not be repented of.
—Moses Ibn Ezra

If [a person] were able to survey at a glance all he has done in the course of his life, what would he feel? He would be terrified at the extent of his own power.
–Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Most Jews, whether observant or not, celebrate in some form the High Holidays of Rosh HaShanah (New Year's) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Today marks the midpoint of a 10-day period called the Days of Awe, or in Hebrew, Yamim Noraim.

The period of the High Holidays is when you see Jews of differing levels of observance, social status, rich and poor rub shoulders together, making their pleadings to G-d. Jews who never set foot in a synagogue the rest of the year are in regal attendance during the Days of Awe. Of particular significance is hearing the piercing sounds of the shofar, or ram's horn.

There's a likely explanation for its importance, which bears repeating. This is supposed to be a period of reflection, acts of charity and repentance. While all are important acts of the mind and conscience, I wish to now draw attention to the act of repentance. In the act of repentance, you admit that you have been guilty of some wrong-doing, whether large or small. The blasts of the shofar are supposed to act as a catalyst or clarion call to actions of self-reflection and, ultimately, repentance.

Blowing of the Shofar: One of the central symbols of the High Holidays is the blowing of the shofar, or ram's horn. The shofar says: "Wake up from your (moral) sleep. You are asleep. Get up from your slumber. You are in a deep sleep. Search for your behaviour. Become the best person you can. Remember God, the One Who created you." Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 3:4

Admittedly, we (myself included) have been guilty of something in the last year, like treating your spouse badly, talking ill of someone, or something more serious. The admission of guilt has a cleaning effect, notably if you believe there is a Supreme Being, G-d, who has the power to forgive whatever wrong you have committed. That is not to say that you can blindly and maliciously commit evil acts and expect everything will be all right. But the act of asking for forgiveness is a step in the right direction of trying to make things right.

And there is a distinction, often lost, between guilt and shame, says Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain, who explains the unforgiving nature of shame in the article, "G-d does not expect us to get it right all the time":

Today’s secular environment is a shame culture. It involves trial by the media, or public opinion, or the courts, or economic necessity, all of which are unforgiving. When shame is involved, it’s us, not just our actions, that are found wanting. That’s why in a shame culture you don’t hear people saying, “I was wrong. It was my fault. I’m sorry. Forgive me.” Instead, people try to brazen it out. The only way to survive in a shame culture is to be shameless. Some people manage this quite well, but deep down we know that there’s something rotten in a system where no one is willing to accept responsibility. 
Guilt, on the other hand, when admitted by the party responsible, tends to induce the individual to right action, Chief Rabbi Sacks points out.

Ultimately, guilt cultures produce strong individuals precisely because they force us to accept responsibility. When things go wrong we don’t waste time blaming others. We don’t luxuriate in the most addictive, destructive drug known to humankind, namely victimhood. We say, honestly and seriously, “I’m sorry. Forgive me. Now let me do what I can to put it right.” That way we and the people we offend can move on. Through our mistakes we discover the strength to heal, learn and grow. 
I invite you to read the full article, G-d does not expect us to get it right all the time. Once again, I wish everyone a Happy New Year, and a meaningful, compassionate and dignified year.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Leonard Cohen's "Democracy"

In this music video, Leonard Cohen performs “Democracy” in the PBS special LEONARD COHEN LIVE IN LONDON, in 2008.

The song was written after the coming down of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The words speak for themselves, which are surprisingly and pleasingly hopeful. Mr. Cohen, who remains a prophet in our times and all times, says about the song in a 1992 interview with Paul Zollo published in From Songwriters on Songwriting:

It’s not an ironic song. It’s a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country. That this is really where the experiment is unfolding. This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where even the sexual orientations confront one another. This is the real laboratory of democracy. So I wanted to have that feeling in the song too. 
Leonard Cohen, 1992
By Leonard Cohen

It's coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square.
It's coming from the feel
that this ain't exactly real,
or it's real, but it ain't exactly there.
From the wars against disorder,
from the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It's coming through a crack in the wall;
on a visionary flood of alcohol;
from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount
which I don't pretend to understand at all.
It's coming from the silence
on the dock of the bay,
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It's coming from the sorrow in the street,
the holy places where the races meet;
from the homicidal bitchin'
that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.
From the wells of disappointment
where the women kneel to pray
for the grace of God in the desert here
and the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State!
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on.

It's coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It's here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it's here they got the spiritual thirst.
It's here the family's broken
and it's here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It's coming from the women and the men.
O baby, we'll be making love again.
We'll be going down so deep
the river's going to weep,
and the mountain's going to shout Amen!
It's coming like the tidal flood
beneath the lunar sway,
imperial, mysterious,
in amorous array:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sail on, sail on ...

I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can't stand the scene.
And I'm neither left or right
I'm just staying home tonight,
getting lost in that hopeless little screen.
But I'm stubborn as those garbage bags
that Time cannot decay,
I'm junk but I'm still holding up this little wild bouquet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Feudalism Redux

By all indications, we are inexorably moving to a modern feudalistic state called neofeudalism The idea might not be so far-fetched, if you consider what is taking place. The gap between the rich and poor is widening. In the U.S., for example, the top 1% own 50% of the wealth, making this a ruling plutocracy.

This is similar to traditional feudalism, common in the Middle Ages [approx 476-1453], where the system of power was balanced between king and nobles, or ruling aristocrats. At the bottom were serfs or servants, essentially today's working class.

In a neofeudal system of governance, government policies are instituted with the effect (deliberate or otherwise) of systematically increasing the gap between the rich and the poor. In addition, the power of the rich is increased and the power of the poor is decreased. 

This combined effect is similar to the effects of traditional feudalism where a ruling elite, holds in their manicured hands, the fate of those workers below it. The workers in this case would be the poor, the working poor and the shrinking middle-class, all contributing to the enlargement of the aristocrats wealth.

Manufacturing Consent: Ford assembly line, 1913.
In a state controlled by the rich and powerful, modern-day aristocrats, workers can ill afford to quit their jobs, for fear of losing their accumulated possessions, including home, car and, in many cases, company pension plans to which they have assiduously contributed. 

Workers, whether tradespeople or professionals, in a great sense become a slave to work, if only to maintain a way of life. But the thinking goes further than that, says Garrett Johnson, in a recent article in the Huffington Post:
Neofeudalism isn't just about the powerful taking over everything. It's about conditioning the poor to accept their designated role in society, even fighting to defend the ability of the wealthy to exploit them. It requires working people to do things that are against their own interests, and nowhere is this more true than in our current economic system.
The rest of the article is insightful and a recommended read, including the following point: "Another manifestation of neofeudalism is the growing power of corporations, that leave the  poor dependent on private interests more powerful than the government, a situation resembling traditional feudal society." 

And in another nod to modern feudalism, the masses bow down and worship the ruling wealthy class, the privileged elites, the high priests of commerce. As problematic as that might appear to civilized secularists, it just might prove that humans have a genetic need to worship.

Note: I would like to hear your stories and views on how the economic crisis. Many of us are going through very difficult economic and trying times. The Poor, the Working Poor, the Struggling Family should not be stigmatized. You can help make a change and a difference in society. Everyone should be able to live life with dignity and hope. I love to hear your stories.