Comments on It’s All for Your Own Good

An incisive essay by Jeremy Waldron in The New York Review of Books, “It’s All for Your Own Good,” presents an important critique of how liberal paternalism undermines self-respect among those it intends to benefit.

In his commentary on two recent books by Cass Sunstein, Why Nudge? The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism and Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas, Waldron offers an even-handed evaluation of the strengths and weakness of various efforts to encourage beneficial behavior by shaping available choices.

A classic example is offered by 401(k) retirement plans. Many people don’t enroll in those plans or “select levels of contribution that are far below what would be most advantageous to them.” Sunstein proposes discouraging this pattern by assuring that “enrollment at some appropriate level of contribution is the default position—the position that obtains if the employee does nothing.” This approach would not be a requirement. The employee would remain free to make a different decision. But it would result in more workers being better prepared for retirement.

Waldron considers such nudging “an attractive strategy.” After all, he says, “There is no getting away from this: choices are always going to be structured in some manner, whether it’s deliberately designed or happens at random. Nudging is about the self-conscious design of choice architecture.”

With a wise and effective government, “the result would be a sort of soft paternalism: paternalism without the constraint; a nudge rather than a shove; doing for people what they would do for themselves if they had more time or greater ability to pick out the better choice.” Sunstein calls this “libertarian paternalism,” which Waldron describes as “a good-natured paternalism that is supposed to leave individual choosing intact.”

In contrast to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to ban super-sized soft drinks, “a nudger wouldn’t try anything so crass. If you ordered a soda in nudge-world, you would get a medium cup, no questions asked; you’d have to go out of your way to insist on a large one.” Sunstein would also abolish trays. “You could insist on a tray if you wanted to hold up the line, but a tray-free policy has been proved to lower food and beverage waste by up to 50 percent in certain environments.” Though Sunstein approves some requirements, such as seat belts, he leans toward methods that leave more choice.

Though Waldron acknowledges that “all this seems sensible,” he also says “there is a core of genuine worry.” His first concern is with the policy makers, whom Sunstein, a professor and former Obama Administration official, refers to as “we.”

We know this, we know that, and we know better about the way ordinary people make their choices. We are the law professors and the behavioral economists who (a) understand human choosing and its foibles much better than members of the first group and (b) are in a position to design and manipulate the architecture of the choices that face ordinary folk. In other words, the members of this second group are endowed with a happy combination of power and expertise.

Waldron points out that “regulators are people too. And like the rest of us, they are fallible…. There is a new book by two British political scientists called The Blunders of Our Governments that might serve as a useful companion to Why Nudge?

Sunstein indicates some awareness of that fact. But according to Waldron,

He offers little more than reassurance that there actually are good-hearted and competent folks like himself in government…. I am afraid there is very little awareness in these books about the problem of trust. Every day we are bombarded with offers whose choice architecture is manipulated, not necessarily in our favor. The latest deal from the phone company is designed to bamboozle us, and we may well want such blandishments regulated. But it is not clear whether the regulators themselves are trustworthy. Governments don’t just make mistakes; they sometimes set out deliberately to mislead us. The mendacity of elected officials is legendary and claims on our trust and credulity have often been squandered. It is against this background that we have to consider how nudging might be abused.

Beyond that issue of trust and competence, Waldron moves on to examine what he calls “deeper questions,” including “the element of insult” and “condescension.”

Deeper even than this is a prickly concern about dignity. What becomes of the self-respect we invest in our own willed actions, flawed and misguided though they often are, when so many of our choices are manipulated to promote what someone else sees (perhaps rightly) as our best interest? Sunstein is well aware that many will see the rigging of choice through nudges as an affront to human dignity: I mean dignity in the sense of self-respect, an individual’s awareness of her own worth as a chooser…. Practically everything he says about it, however, is an attempt to brush dignity aside…. Sunstein seems happy to associate himself with those who maintain that dignity just equals autonomy or that if there is anything left out of that equation, it is not worth bothering with.

Eventually what we are told by Sunstein is that autonomy is just a surrogate for welfare—what people ultimately want is the promotion of their own well-being and it doesn’t really matter how that comes about…. I must say that I find all of this remarkably tone-deaf to concerns about autonomy.

And allowing dignity to just drop out of the picture is offensive. For by this stage, dignity is not being mentioned at all. Sunstein does acknowledge that people might feel infantilized by being nudged. He says that “people should not be regarded as children; they should be treated with respect.” But saying that is not enough. We actually have to reconcile nudging with a steadfast commitment to self-respect.

Waldron believes “any nudging can have a slightly demeaning or manipulative character,” but acknowledges that if nudgees are always openly told what is happening, that impact might be mitigated. However, Waldron reports that though “Sunstein says he is committed to transparency, he does acknowledge that some nudges have to operate ‘behind the back’ of the chooser.”

It may seem a bit much to saddle Cass Sunstein with all this. The objections about dignity and manipulation that I’ve been considering can sound hysterical. It is perfectly reasonable for him to ask: “Is there anything insulting or demeaning about automatic enrollment in savings and health care plans, accompanied by unconstrained opt-out rights?” The strategies he advocates, when used wisely and well, seem like a sensible advance in public regulation, particularly when we consider them nudge by nudge.

However, Waldron concludes:

Still, it is another matter whether we should be so happy with what I have called “nudge-world.” In that world almost every decision is manipulated in this way. Choice architects nudge almost everything I choose and do, and this is complemented by the independent activity of marketers and salesmen, who nudge away furiously for their own benefit. I’m not sure I want to live in nudge-world, though—as a notoriously poor chooser—I appreciate the good-hearted and intelligent efforts of choice architects such as Sunstein to make my autonomous life a little bit better. I wish, though, that I could be made a better chooser rather than having someone on high take advantage (even for my own benefit) of my current thoughtlessness and my shabby intuitions.

I share his worry. And though his reference to being “made” into a wiser man may be ironic, I’m uneasy with that option and would be more interested in creating a less hectic world that would enable everyone to take more time to be more thoughtful and inspire one another to absorb information that could be made more transparent. Regardless, Waldron’s concerns about how paternalism undermines dignity and self-respect are well-taken and need to be taken seriously.

Comments on Divine Fury: A History of Genius

In “Wonder Boys?”,  a review of Divine Fury: A History of Genius by Darrin M. McMahon in the October 9, 2014 issue of The New York Review of Books, Tamsin Shaw explores the nature of human consciousness, the notion of “genius,” and its relationship with the cosmos, or God.

Early on Shaw introduces the issue by considering the proposition that the universe is indifferent to the fate of humanity by quoting a parable posed by Friedrich Nietzsche:

In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in the innumerable solar systems, there was once a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of “world history”—yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.

Shaw responds, “This picture of cosmic insignificance is what the idea of genius has repeatedly challenged.” He says:

The genius, on this understanding, answers the human demand for what Thomas Nagel has called the “yearning for cosmic reconciliation,” that is, for a way of living in harmony (being connected “intelligibly and, if possible, satisfyingly”) with the whole of reality…. The genius has provided us [a way] that permits us to see ourselves, in however attenuated a sense, as the point of it all….

According to Shaw, the transcendental idealist tradition in philosophy, founded by Immanuel Kant, “gave rise to a notion of genius that unified the human mind and nature in a distinctive way.”

Kant had argued that Newtonian physics could not explain how complex, self-organizing life forms such as plants and animals could come into existence. Human artifacts with complex mechanisms have an external cause, but plants and animals appear to be self-organizing and self-maintaining. Kant suggested that the best way to describe them was as if they were behaving with an inner purposiveness (emphasis added)….

Kant saw the same kind of process in the work of the artist. Beauty in a work of art consisted for him in the ability to stimulate a pleasurable interaction between our understanding and our imagination, a state of free play that could not be captured by any determinate concept…. Artistic genius connected us in a deep way with nature.

The early Romantics seized on the idea of an organism as a means of describing nature not as a machine but as a living force,… The mental and the physical were understood as manifestations of the same underlying force generating the infinitely complex, self-organizing structure that was the cosmos. Human creativity was continuous with this self-organization but it had a special status as the point at which the whole process achieved self-consciousness.

The Kantian concern with the beautiful was eclipsed by his notion of the sublime. …[T]he mind can grasp infinities that our senses cannot show us. Beethoven was the artist who, above all others, conjured this feeling of confronting titanic forces and yet soaring above them, exalted.

Shaw then considers controversies in physics and mathematics concerning whether “the relationship between the mental and the physical could be modeled as a mind comprehending an objectively existing external reality,” or whether “any explanation of the natural order must ultimately have a physical basis.” Shaw holds out hope that the universe is not indifferent to humanity and that human consciousness is not determined by physical causes.

But unless physicalist naturalism succeeds in explaining how the cosmos can contain conscious creatures for whom the universe is intelligible, there will be those who hold out hope of an alternative. Thomas Nagel, one of the few philosophers today holding onto such hope, implies that we in fact have an ethical obligation to understand our deep relation to the cosmos, because “in each of us, the universe has come to consciousness.” As Schlegel said, we are nature looking back at itself. But many more geniuses would be required for us to uncover what this really means.

To my mind, this perspective implies that God is personal, because the Mystery that structures and energizes life has fostered human consciousness.

Shaw argues that an underlying unity is reflected in the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, in whom “we have found an artistic genius to make that abstract order resound with human emotion.”

The formal qualities of these works, the internal logic of counterpoint and harmony, are dazzling. But at the same time they somehow express authentic human emotions. Objective abstract order and subjective human experience are mysteriously in harmony….

He says, “Bach, it seems, has kept alive for a few the faith that genius might vindicate the human mind from the perspective of the universe,” which, according to many, is indifferent to humanity.

Shaw concludes:

We are relentlessly destroying the only known life-supporting planet in our solar system. The human mind may yet render itself absurd without any help from the cosmos…. Our “baby Einsteins,” every one of their emerging minds a miracle, justify to their parents all of conscious human existence. We must hope they can find new “possibilities of being” for themselves.

Once I asked Ajahn Amaro, the Buddhist monk, what he would like to learn. He replied, “How human consciousness emerged.” The same mystery applies to the emergence of life itself. Scientists still have not develop a definitive answer to either question.

Until they do, if they do, we can only relish the Mystery. We may not be “the point of it all,” as Shaw put it. Just how “special” our status may be is unknown. All we know for certain is that we are wonderful creatures and life is beautiful.

My “Ego Trip”

Shortly before I self-published My Search for Deep Community: An Autobiography, a good, trusted friend told me that the title and cover (which features a head shot of me) did me a disservice because they suggested an “ego trip.” He suggested “Searching for Deep Community” as an alternative title, presumably because it would be less self-centered. His comments bothered me a great deal, so I reflected on them for a few days.

Then I told him, “If others take it as an ego trip, that’s their problem,” and proceeded to publish and distribute some 50 copies, mostly to people I discuss in the book. About 20 readers have given me valuable feedback, most of which has been positive. So I’ve begun posting the book on the Web at http://deepcommunity.org. My plan is to edit the book a bit as I go along, especially in order to correct mistakes that have been pointed out. And eventually I may re-write it considerably, make it much shorter, and try to get it distributed more widely.

But my friend’s comment still bothers me, causes me to reflect on my motives, and prompted me to google the definition of “ego trip,” which is “something done primarily to build one’s self esteem or display one’s splendid qualities.” I acknowledge that my ego would like to be recognized as a “great man” as my mother repeatedly told me I would be. And I’ve long been ambivalent about any recognition given me. But when I told Ajahn Amaro, the Buddhist monk, that I had mixed feelings about the praise I received after serving in Baghdad with the Iraq Peace Team during the U.S. invasion, he told me, “Relax. Accept it like icing on the cake. People want to express their appreciation.” I think his advice was wise. The degree to which I am motivated by my ego is very small compared to my desire to help relieve suffering. I would much prefer to work under a pseudonym with a democratic team of co-equal collaborators who had an enormous, positive impact on the world, with only my close friends knowing that I was involved.

I’m sharing my full life story primarily because I hope doing so will plant some seeds that will contribute to the growth of “deep community,” which I define as a community of individuals who examine themselves deeply, resolve to acknowledge mistakes in order to grow personally and become more effective, work to change national policies that are the root cause of great suffering, and support one another in those efforts. I believe such communities could play an important role in helping to foster the kind of change that we need in this country.

In “A Meditation on Deep Community ,” which I presented to the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples on July 14, I elaborated on that perspective by stating:

  • Relieving suffering requires addressing root causes, getting deep.
  • Addressing root causes requires correcting national policies that are the source of so much suffering.
  • If we see a child drowning, we don’t tell her to pray. We change her environment.

In “Changing the System: A Proposal for a National Conference,” I reported on my suggesting to Berrett-Koehler (BK) Vice-President David Marshall that BK convene a national working conference focused on these questions:

  1. What is “the system”? How can we best describe and analyze it?
  2. How do we need to change it?
  3. What organizing strategies are needed to build a popular movement pushing for those changes?

Shortly after I posted this proposal, Marshall posted the following on Facebook:

Super reader Wade Hudson advocates for a “Changing the System” National Conference in 2015. It’s cool to see such leadership from somebody in the largest BK stakeholder group: readers. This may fit with three of our five initiatives from our 2014-16 Strategic Plan: Connect with Customers, Build Our Brand, and Commit to Diversity and Inclusion. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

He also tweeted about it and @BKpub retweeted his tweet.

I am encouraged by that response and am hopeful that BK will pursue a problem-solving collaboration of the sort I proposed.

But I am not making any assumptions. Most political activists don’t take time for personal growth, and most people engaged in personal growth don’t take time for political action. Integrating the personal and the political, my life-long commitment, is not easy. To foster such holistic communities, I believe we need new tools, or formats for meetings, that could be easily replicated and adopted by activists who want to nurture self-development, both their own and that of their fellow activists. Knowing of no such tools that are being used at present, I’ll continue to look for them and encourage others to develop them, as I have with the Movement Strategy Center, the Center for Spirituality and Social Transformation, and others.

In the meantime, I prepare financially for my old age by continuing to drive taxi part-time, am deeply involved with organizing the Residents’ Council in the 170-unit senior-citizen apartment building where I live, and hope to start blogging regularly on essays in the New York Review of Books, while continuing to post chapters to My Search for Deep Community.

I often feel alone with my concerns. But I know there are many others who share a similar perspective. Figuring out how to find each other, connect, and grow our numbers is the dilemma. Hopefully, someday soon, it will happen.

Changing the System with Love, Wisdom, and Power: A Declaration for Action (10/17/14 Draft)

NOTE: This declaration is intended to indicate the kind of brief statement that could be considered, along with other similar declarations, at a national conference to launch one or more projects focused on systemic reform. The latest draft of a proposal for such a national conference is posted at http://www.wadeswire.org/?p=1232. As it is amended, the latest draft of this statement will always be posted here. Feedback on both is welcome.


Changing the System with Love, Wisdom, and Power: A Declaration for Action
By Wade Hudson  (10/17/14 Draft)

The system is broken and we know it. To turn this nation into a compassionate community, Americans must unite as never before. . To build popular power, we need a long-term vision rooted in shared values and a realistic, step-by-step plan for achieving that goal. This Declaration outlines how we, the signers, aim to help achieve that goal. You are invited to join us.

The percent of voters who believe the government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves increased from 29 percent in 1964 to 79 percent in 2013. Almost four in five Americans are dissatisfied with the political system. That same percentage is convinced that corruption in government is widespread. Two-thirds are dissatisfied with the state of the economy. Most Americans report they’re so upset they “would carry a protest sign for a day” if they could. Strong majorities favor major changes in national policy and believe grassroots pressure is needed to achieve that

Our major institutions, including our economy, our government, our media, and our schools, and ourselves as individuals and our culture, are interwoven into a self-perpetuating social system that preserves the social ladder, which has become increasingly steep. Most of those who do well pass on their advantages to their children and grandchildren, with little regard for others or the environment.

The system corrupts our culture and dehumanizes our people. No one escapes its impact and everyone reinforces it, actively and passively. Most Americans are seduced by the hope of “making it” by climbing the ladder. We seek to make ever more money and gain more power over others. We deny who we really are so we can please parents, teachers, and bosses. We accept that some one person must always be “in charge.” We dominate when we can, and submit when we cannot. We reduce others to objects, use them, and discard them. We look down on those we consider inferior. We’re constantly comparing ourselves to others, trying to prove ourselves (to others and to ourselves). We fail to develop the self-confidence that is needed to challenge authority effectively. We fear to be different, We become self-centered, which limits our ability to collaborate with others as equals. We’re almost always thinking about what to do next and neglect to examine our feelings honestly and develop our humanity. We have few intimate friends with whom we discuss personal issues. We rarely actively and respectfully listen to others. Hopeless about prospects for joining with others to affect national policy, we resign ourselves to voting on Election Day.

To change the system we need to change ourselves, consistently become more fully who we really are, tap into our inner strength and courage, let go of our fears, and join with others to leave the world a better place for future generations.

Most Americans embrace shared values. We want to treat others as we want to be treated. We want to learn how to better respect and love ourselves so we may better love and respect others. We want everyone to have healthy food, clean air, drinkable water, peace and quiet, economic security, a safe environment, rewarding social interactions, good friends, a healthy family, ongoing learning experiences, and  a fair chance to realize their best potentialities. We want to be productive and happy, have fun, experience joy, be of service to others, steadily become better human beings, relieve suffering, and advance human evolution. We appreciate intangible realities, ponder or revere the Mystery that energizes and structures the universe, and want to be in harmony with Mother Nature. We affirm being honest, courageous, humble, free, generous, disciplined, responsible, firm, and flexible.

We believe working-age adults who are able and willing to work should be able to find a good job that enables them to avoid poverty. Private businesses should serve the public interest, treat their workers fairly, and refrain from damaging the environment. Law and order is essential and everyone should be treated equally in the eyes of the law. Legitimate authority should be respected and when individuals abuse their power they should be held accountable. Individuals have the right to their privacy as long as they don’t violate the rights of others. Throughout society, we must promote nonviolence, reconciliation, empowerment, partnership, cooperation, and collaboration.

Down deep, we care. When others suffer injustice, we want to relieve that suffering and prevent future injustice. Identifying problems is not enough. We also want to correct root causes, which requires changing national policies.

We have majority support on important issues. Now we need to sustain popular power to push for what we want. With concentrated action, we can restructure our society.

Persuading Congress to respect the will of the people will not be easy. Though we are a divided nation in many ways, we have seen positive results when we have united.  We have the ability to break through discouragement and apathy. By taking a small amount of time each month to communicate with our Congresspersons, we can unite and speak with one voice. When we do, we will have the numbers of our side. It will take time, but if we move forward step-by-step, we can eventually build the unity we need.

We who engage in political action need to overcome weaknesses that divide us. By improving how we relate to others, we can increase our effectiveness. With peer support,  discipline, focus, patience, and willingness to  examine ourselves honestly, we can learn better how to face our mistakes so we can avoid them in the future. No one needs to tell us how to change and we don’t need to tell anyone how they should change. Each one of us can set our own goals and support others in their efforts.

To foster that personal and collective growth, we who sign this declaration will gather at least once a month with a team of at least two other signers to share a meal and report on our self-development efforts and our political action aimed at national policy. By setting aside special time to share a meal, listen to one another, enjoy each other’s company, have fun together, and explore how to move forward, we will improve our skills and increase our numbers. Knowing that others are participating in this network will deepen our sense of community.

Often with members from other teams, at least one member of each team in our network will meet with their Congressperson’s staff to explore how the Congressperson and the community can work together to promote the kind of change affirmed in this Declaration.

At the same time, we will steadily encourage activist organizations to form a broad, national coalition to launch a Million Member Mobilization to communicate the same message to Congress in a timely manner on a top priority proposal backed by a majority of the American people. With those numbers, at least one member of every one hundred households will act in unison and the impact will be enormous. Congress will listen when 2300 persons per Congressional district speak in one voice.

That goal is ambitious. But as we steadily mobilize more like-minded Americans, more people will participate. Many people are passive because others are passive, not because they don’t want to act. We must try to break that downward spiral with an upward spiral. Without massive, sustained unity, our chances are limited, so we intend to do our best to encourage the development of a Million Member Mobilization.

In addition, other forms of action are available. Some of us can and will engage in nonviolent civil disobedience focused on winnable objectives and negotiating compromises. If enough of us back a top-priority consumer boycott, we can persuade corporations to honor the public interest. And, if we have to, we can stay home from work on the same day in large enough numbers to persuade key decision-makers to take our concerns seriously.

Individual members of our network will consider supporting those actions as they emerge. By developing our network and strengthening our personal capacity to be effective, we are building a pool of concerned individuals who “promote the general welfare” (the goal presented to us in our Constitution). With this shared vision, time-efficient work, discipline, persistence, patience, and a positive spirit that attracts people, we hope to motivate others to join in this movement.

By pushing for realistic, positive change to advance the common good, we can move forward step by step, meet neglected needs, build our collective power, and restructure our deteriorating society into a compassionate, truly democratic community.

Changing the System: A Proposal for a National Conference (10/17/14 Draft)

By Wade Hudson

The system is broken and we know it. In the short run, our social system appears to work for a few, but their gains are superficial, the system is not working for most Americans, and in the long run the system may collapse as it becomes increasingly top heavy.

The percent of voters who believe the government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves increased from 29 percent in 1964 to 79 percent in 2013. Almost four in five Americans are dissatisfied with the political system. That same percentage is convinced that corruption in government is widespread. Two-thirds are dissatisfied with the state of the economy. Most Americans report they’re so upset they “would carry a protest sign for a day” if they could. Strong majorities favor major changes in national policy and believe grassroots pressure is needed to achieve that.

To build popular power, we need broad agreement on a long-term vision rooted in shared values and a realistic, step-by-step plan for achieving that goal.

Given those realities, concerned individuals must increase and broaden understanding of how the system functions and how we can reform it fruitfully. Toward that end, I have proposed to Berrett-Koehler Publishers (BK) that they convene a national working conference focused on the following questions:

  1. What is “the system”? How can we best describe and analyze it?
  2. How do we need to change it?
  3. What organizing strategies are needed to build a popular movement pushing for those changes?

A careful, deliberate, collaborative process could pull together the best ideas available about how to restructure our society. That plan could help motivate a massive number of individuals to work together toward that end. Using the “wisdom of crowds,” the efficiency of the Internet, and careful collaboration, we can change the world in a deep and sustainable manner.

BK is a logical candidate to organize a national conference whose participants would consider written proposals for action that had been posted online and discussed extensively beforehand. BK’s best-sellers include Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, The Serving Leader by Ken Jennings, Leadership and Self-Deception by Arbinger Institute, and When Corporations Rule the World by David Korten. Their books fall within three categories, “BK Life” (the personal), “BK Business” (the social), and “BK Currents” (the political). With this broad perspective, BK is dedicated to “systems change” and adopts a holistic approach to the world.

Their current strategic plan affirms:

We seek to abolish class systems (wherein one group has an enduring structural advantage over another group) in all areas of organizations and society, including ownership, wealth, belonging, power, accountability, compensation, and access to information and resources.

Given their credibility, connections, and commitment to systemic change, I believe BK could initiate a process that would engage readers, authors, and activists in developing a plan for how to improve our world fundamentally. BK could contract with a diverse set of prominent writers to draft brief responses to the questions posed above and invite those writers to dialog with one another and then consider modifying their original statements. That dialog could be posted on the Web for review and comment by the general public. The writers invited to participate could include individuals such as Alice Walker, Cornel West, Van Jones, David Brooks, Fritjof Capra, Robert Reich, Naomi Klein, and others whose prominence would help elicit strong participation.

The conference could be loosely based on “Open Space Technology,” with a variety of proposals presented for consideration. Participants would “vote with their feet” and participate in breakout groups focused on those proposals that most appeal to them. Space could be provided at the outset for new last-minute proposals from participants. If no unanimous consensus emerged concerning a specific proposal for action, after the conference different groups could implement those proposals that most appealed to them.

If you support this proposal or have suggested amendments, please comment below. As this proposal is amended, the latest draft will be posted here.

NOTE: Though I do not assume that the conference organizers would select it as a focus for the conference, my own suggestion for the kind of statement that could be considered is “Changing the System with Love, Wisdom, and Power: A Declaration for Action.” I also welcome feedback on that statement.

 

Many Activists Need An Intervention

sunset's trumpet : plate from the children's story "Mr. EveNing" (1991)

To turn this nation into a compassionate community, Americans must unite as never before to change national policies. To achieve that unity, political activists need to improve how they operate.

Yet most activists, habituated to their traditional methods, fail to engage in serious self-examination, honestly evaluate their strategies, admit mistakes, and evolve. Our efforts are commendable. At least we are trying. Overall society is likely better off than it would be if we did nothing. Nevertheless, we need to do better, much better.

The Occupy Central demonstrators in Hong Kong offer inspiration with their deep, disciplined commitment to nonviolence. A recent interaction with David Harris, the renowned 1960s’ draft resister and author, offered me encouragement. The response to the “A Meditation on Deep Community” that I presented to my Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples heartened me. I was pleased that my minister, Rev. Dorsey Blake, liked a draft of a “declaration for action” that could be the focus of an action-oriented national conference and said he would ask Jakada Imani, head of the  Center for Spirituality and Social Transformation whether his center and our church might co-sponsor such a conference. A dialog about that draft declaration with Ronnie Dugger, the writer and activist, was reassuring. The feedback I’ve received to my limited distribution of print copies of the first edition of my autobiography, My Search for Deep Community has been encouraging. And my organizing with the Residents’ Council at my 200-unit, non-profit apartment house has been rewarding. On the other hand, certain encounters with activists recently have been less positive.

The other day, while walking home from the store, I saw an old friend with her back to me talking to two people. I walked up to them and joked, “Don’t believe a word she says.” The two strangers informed me they were canvassing for the upcoming election. They asked me how I felt about two ballot measures and I told them I was supportive, but when they asked me about David Campos’ campaign for Assembly, I replied, “I’m not sure. I just heard that some friends of mine are supporting David Chiu because he offered more support to them on the domestic-violence controversy surrounding Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.” The male canvasser replied, “Campos merely wanted due process,” and proceeded to talk for almost two minutes about the two officials’ positions on other issues. Having been unclear about the facts in that case, suspecting his statement was inaccurate, and truly wanting to discuss the dilemma, I replied, “I do not appreciate you lecturing me rather than engaging in a dialog with me about my concern.” He answered, “Well, I’m a school teacher and I can be pedantic.” “That’s a problem too,” I said, and everyone laughed. My friend then hugged me and told them about how we first met and the second canvasser asked me where I lived, after which we learned that I do not live in the district they were working. I commented, “Well, I guess I wasted your time,” and walked off, irritated because none of them engaged me in that dialog that I told them I wanted. Afterwards, I realized my alienation may have led me to be unduly rude. I expressed no appreciations, did not even say goodbye to my friend (who also failed to engage in a discussion about my concern), and walked away too quickly. But I knew the canvassers had probably been trained to avoid wasting their time.

A few days later I received a phone call from the same campaign on the same three issues. The caller immediately started reading his script at some length. When he finished and asked me his question, I said, “I have a suggestion. In the future, when you reach someone, first ask them if they have a minute to talk about your issue.” He replied, “OK,” but proceeded to read me the rest of his script without asking me if I wanted to talk. He was reading from a written script, but most activists have a script in their head and repeat it endlessly, like a tape recording. Their understanding is that “leadership” involves mobilizing people to do what the leader wants, a notion that is reflected in President Obama’s attitude about “American leadership.”

On September 30, I drove down to Stanford University for an opening reception for a new exhibit of incredible documentary photographs from the 1960s taken by Bob Fitch, an old friend. The event, titled “Movements for Change,” featured a panel of activists from the 60s, including Harris. The panel made opening statements and engaged in a conversation with the audience for about 90 minutes.

When none of the panelists offered any reflections on lessons learned from the past that could inform the future, I tried to get the floor to pose that question, but was unable to get recognized. No one from the audience raised the issue either. Before we adjourned, Bob suggested that the audience circulate and engage in dialog with one another.

In line with his suggestion, I approached a Stanford student who had spoken eloquently from the floor about his activism and asked him, “Have you noticed any weaknesses in past movements that need to be avoided in the future? Mistakes that we can correct moving forward?” He replied by talking about how activists’ intellectual frame needs to shift toward a more transnational focus. I responded by commenting that his remarks were outer-directed and I was more interested in how we relate to each other and the general public. He then said we need more face-to-face interaction. I agreed and asked if any other points come to mind. He said none did. I half-expected him to then ask me about my thoughts, but he didn’t, so I thanked him for his responses and moved on. I was amazed that this elite student of activist movements had apparently not been prompted by his professors to reflect more deeply on that issue, and that the panel would engage in a 90-minute conversation about their activism without reflecting on the question.

I then connected with Harris and asked him the same question. He replied by talking about how “the movement” fell into drawing an ideological “line in the sand,” which undermined its original openness to various perspectives. When I asked him for other examples of weaknesses, he addressed how “ego” is often a problem and that activists tend to “stop learning.” I found his comments very astute and reassuring.

The informal reception that followed was unsatisfying. I approached a few people, including another old friend, but experienced no substantive dialog. (I need to find some new ways to deal with “cocktail parties.”) And my ride home with my friends was also lacking. In the car, I reported on my interactions with the Stanford student and Harris, hoping it would lead to an exploration of the issue. But it elicited only one brief comment, and the rest of the ride involved no real evaluation of our past and ongoing efforts.

So I resolve to be patient. I’ll continue with our Residents’ Council and maybe expand to some neighborhood organizing. I’ll remain active in Fellowship Church (including our October 19th 70th Anniversary) and work to enrich that experience, participate in the October 18 “Soul of Work” workshop, and post to my blogs more frequently, where I hope to plant seeds that will somehow bear fruit someday. I’ve begun posting a Web-edition of My Search for Deep Community: An Autobiography. I envision a new book, which may be a brief memoir focused more narrowly on deep community. Perhaps a strong, inclusive committee will eventually organize a national conference to launch a holistic project that integrates the personal and the political, as I suggested to Rev. Blake. I invited Harris to participate in a public dialog concerning how activists might be more effective, perhaps using a yet-to-be-defined format that would foster rich dialog among all participants. And perhaps I can make some new connections by posting this October 23 Meetup.com event:

San Francisco Personal-Political Mutual Support Workshop
Let’s explore how political activists can be more effective.
We’ll explore developing one or more models that political activists might use to support one another in their efforts to become better human beings and more effective activists. One option is for each member to confidentially report on their efforts and their plans, with no unsolicited feedback. We may experiment with various other models at future workshops. care of myself and others in my life as best I can.

In the meantime, as Kathy Kelly’s Iraqi friend advised her, I try to remember to “love the Universe.”

My Search for Deep Community — Web Edition

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After making some corrections, I’ll be posting My Search for Deep Community: An Autobiography to the Web. If you want to receive the chapters as they are posted, you can subscribe here: http://www.deepcommunity.org/ I just posted the Front Matter.

Uber Attacks Taxis (and Readers’ Comments)

Gas-guzzling Uber cars are killing San Francisco’s energy-efficient taxi industry. San Francisco needs to protect and improve its publicly regulated taxi system.

Prior to Uber, which uses smartphone apps that allow customers to get rides from drivers using their personal cars, San Francisco limited the number of taxis. That policy enabled drivers to make a decent living, so they stuck with it, became more knowledgeable, provided better service, and had a relatively good attitude with tourists. We were called “ambassadors of tourism,” the City’s biggest industry. Many passengers visiting the City told me they were impressed with San Francisco cab drivers. Cab companies made enough money to buy new cars frequently, so the City requires all new taxis to use natural gas or electricity.

The City also requires drivers to service all law-abiding people and accept paratransit vouchers for seniors and the disabled. And the City requires drivers to undergo background checks for egregious criminal activity and requires cab companies to carry substantial insurance to cover accidents whenever the cab is in operation. None of these regulations apply to Uber. So as Uber grows and taxis decline, the City will suffer.

But the California Public Utilities Commission ruled that Uber vehicles are not “taxis,” even though the dictionary defines that term as “a car that carries passengers to a place for an amount of money that is based on the distance traveled.” So Uber enables several thousand cars to illegally operate as taxis and take business away from taxi drivers, which adds to air pollution.

Uber, which means “over” in German, considers itself above those regulations. The word “Ubermensch,” or Superman, was central to Hitler’s philosophy. Why a company would brand itself with that word boggles my mind. I take it to be a reflection of Uber’s arrogance, and the elitism of the tech world.

This development is another example of worshipping the “free market.” Uber declares its intention to break up the “taxi monopoly.” To see that what future will look like, take a taxi in Washington, DC, where there has been no limit on the number of taxis, and observe the condition of the old, run-down vehicle.

Salon.com has covered the issue well. A search for “uber” from their homepage reports many excellent articles, including “Why Uber must be stopped.” That article begins:

What is Uber? A paragon of free market efficiency and technological innovation serving the greater convenience and comfort of the general public? Or living proof for why capitalist societies require regulation?

On September 23, the San Francisco Chronicle featured a page one article titled, “S.F. taxi owners, cabbies join forces against Uber, Lyft, others.”  That article begins:

Taxis, badly losing the battle on San Francisco’s streets, are finally fighting back.

After seeing 65 percent of their business migrate to ride services like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, taxi drivers and company owners, at odds for decades, have joined forces — not only with one another but with their overseer, the Municipal Transportation Agency.

Their common goal is to save the taxi industry — highly regulated by the city as part of its transportation network — from extinction at the hands of the largely unregulated upstarts… .

“The Tragedy of the Commons” has hit the San Francisco taxi industry. As defined by Investopedia, that phenomenon is:

an economic problem in which every individual tries to reap the greatest benefit from a given resource. As the demand for the resource overwhelms the supply, every individual who consumes an additional unit directly harms others who can no longer enjoy the benefits.

Yellow Cab, the City’s largest company, used to fill all of its available shifts. Last month, it filled only two-thirds. That means fewer hybrids on the street and more air pollution, thanks to Uber.

As I told the California Public Utilities Commission at a hearing last week, when I was thinking about switching the Uber, I asked Uber if they have a limit on the number of Uber drivers. They told me that they do not, and have no plan to establish a limit.

This development is reflected elsewhere in the emerging “sharing economy.” As Jon Taplin wrote:

the average 30 year old might be holding down four or five jobs simultaneously in this brave new world–driving an Uber car while renting their spare room on Air BnB and raising money for their video on Kickstarter while doing odd jobs on Taskrabbit.

Taplin quoted an unnamed mentor:

for better or worse – the sharing economy has to lower the GDP and at least currently would speed up the demise of the middleclass and push more onto the long tail of minuscule incomes that in turn accelerates the sharing economy since that is the only way these folks can survive. This all has many unintended consequences and in the long run may not enhance sustainability.

And he reported:

The writer Venkatesh Rao makes the basic point that the so called sharing economy is designed by the 1% to help the 90% destroy the livelihoods of the 9% who make up the small business middle class.

Whether “designed” for that purpose or not, Rao describes the Internet-facilitated impact precisely: another reason for growing inequality.

I rode in a few Uber cars and learned from the drivers that they must drive six ten-hour shifts each week in order to make a non-poverty income. As the number of Uber drivers increases and it becomes harder to make money, Uber drivers are going to be more stressed out and will drive more recklessly.

One reason I’ve driven taxi half-time is that I could make enough money to live simply and have time to do my community-service work as a volunteer. Then I got on the first-come, first-served list to get my own permit, or medallion, for a small sum, and did after twelve years. Since then, I no longer have had to rent my cab and, through the company, I collect rent from others who use my taxi when I don’t drive.

Then the City changed the system to require new drivers to buy medallions from current owners for $250,000. After the City takes 20%, if I sold my medallion now, this policy would leave me with $200,000 before taxes. And I could sell my Yellow Cab stock for $30,000. So I’ve figured that once I’m no longer able to drive, that would be enough for me to live on for the rest of my life. (Since I lived on “movement wages” before switching to cab driving, my Social Security retirement is minimal and I have no savings, so I feel the need for some cushion.)

Now, however, I fear that my medallion will soon be worth much less. Already my income has taken a big hit. My monthly share of our co-op’s profits has declined by almost 50%.

So I’ve devoted long hours to evaluating different options and developing an emergency, barebones budget in case I become disabled prematurely. And for the first time in my life, at the age of 70, I’m getting serious about saving money.

I also drove more taxi to see how much I can earn now that City streets are flooded with Uber vehicles (and Lyft cars, another so-called “transportation network company”). So I was driving more and writing less than I would prefer, which was frustrating. Fortunately, I’ve finally developed a good plan for how to proceed.

The breakthrough was discovering that seniors in San Francisco have access to free and low-cost food. Monday I paid $1.50 at the Salvation Army for a good meal and walked away with five granola bars and four apples. And next week I’ll start getting one of the bags of free food from the Food Bank that are delivered to my building. And I’ve learned that the maximum food stamp allotment is $179 per month. So I now realize I won’t have to worry about going hungry.

And here at my residence, when I move to the top of the list for the Section 8 subsidy, my rent will only be 30% of my income (after counting 2% of my assets as income). At that point, my rent may be only $300 per month. So if I have to, once I stop driving taxi, I figure I can manage if I stop paying for massages, concerts, and movies, and get the cheapest cable, Internet, and phone services.

In the meantime, however, I’ll still indulge in my middle-class comforts and travel two months a year. But that reality check has prompted me to now take public transit home at night and limit myself to one restaurant per month (except when I travel). My current budget indicates that I can do that and still save $500 per month by driving taxi 20 hours a week.

This plan will enable me to get back to my real work, which will include posting more here.

+++++

READERS’ COMMENTS

In response to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Fostering a National Movement:

From R:

Interesting. I’ve been wrestling with this for some time. I’m afraid I’m becoming very cynical and for the most part feel the majority of Americans don’t give a damn. Where I’m at in my thought about all of this is: if the American people keep voting in incumbents and turn the senate republican does it affect me? Yes and no…psychically it is very difficult but economically it doesn’t as I have my own business and I’m on Medicare now. Mind you the air, water and environment will be worse but hardly worse than it is now under a so called democrat. The rich will get richer, there won’t be unions and everyone will be policed in their bedrooms. So if the people want to vote against their best interests…fuck’em. R

My reply:

I do not believe that most Americans do not give a damn and I do give a damn about them.

++

Anonymous:

What you write is important, valid and of hopeful spirit.  I know from the experience of being retired and not having the same work community that nourished me in the banter of staying true to myself while listening to others opinions is deeply missed.  And, I find there is a community divide within the labels we once gave, such as, “lefties”, progressives, liberals, moderates, conservatives.  It is more difficult today to organize within a local community around local issues nonetheless national or international issues.  Unless the community is organic, it is difficult to sustain.

I applaud your many attempts, your consistency, your hope, your creativity, your thoughts and words.  Everyday I try and make a commitment to be involved and each day that commitment is softer than the day before.  If there is anything I need more at this point in my life is a quiet, contemplative arena to rid myself of the cynicism of today’s politics and my aging.

Thank you always for trying.  Thank you always for your faith and hope.

With respect and friendship,

My reply:

Thanks for your kind words and best of luck finding that arena that will enable you to deal with cynicism, which certainly afflicts me from time to time.

++

From Richard Moore:

You explore here the most important questions of our time: Is it possible to transform society in line with what people really want and need, and if so, how might that be accomplished? These are questions I too have been studying and thinking about for more than ten years.

As part of my research, I looked in history at examples of revolutions and of mass movements, both those that succeeded and those that failed. And I have noted the differences between conditions then, and the nature of our regimes today, which include sophisticated means of mass propaganda and mind control.

My negative conclusion from these studies is that a mass movement, where deep community comes from being a member of the movement, is not a viable approach in our modern societies. If they are not suppressed, they will be co-opted. In the domain of mass persuasion, and with it’s ability to ‘create conditions’, the state cannot be overcome.

My positive conclusion from these studies is that a decentralized movement, where deep community comes from belonging to an engaged local community, does show hope for bringing about transformation. Among other advantages, such has not having a vulnerable center, a community-oriented movement can be inclusive, while a mass movement is always divisive, particularly in its early stages.

How to build such a movement, however, has eluded my grasp so far. My latest ideas are here: Building the new in the shadow of the old.

thoughts?

richard

My reply:

Evading the system is impossible. Co-optation is inevitable and is problematic only if it leads people to be satisfied. We need to steadily restructure the system step-by-step, while keeping our eyes on the long term. Local efforts are valuable, but eventually they must unite to change national policy. Otherwise they reinforce those policies.

++

From Roger Marsden:

Hi  – yeah – I like the idea of linking up – formalizing a community grfoup with a representative. Kinda obvious really — integrating grass rfoots into the “system.” It requires the representative to be responsive. it would be nice if there was a way for it not to be only depedndent on each community to create it for themselves but in concert with a national movement.

Roger

My reply:

Good to hear, Roger. Might you want to meet with one or more close friends to experiment with one or more models for how to structure such a group?

++

From Yahya Abdal-Aziz:

Great idea!  I’ll be listening out for anything that may help you in this search, and for any insights you gain or any such tools you create.

And try this one on for size: AA have the archetypal 12-step program, and it’s their best-known tool.  And it’s user-friendly, except for two sticking points:

that some people don’t want to admit that there is a higher power;

that some people don’t want to submit to any power whatsoever.

Because of these points, people have been experimenting with various non-theistic, non-submissive versions of the AA approach.  Which is fine if it works better for them.

So bearing in mind those difficulties, can we craft a step-by-step program that:

is as inclusive as possible

helps people with the learning you describe

helps unify their efforts at bettering the lot of all the disadvantaged in your [or my (*)] society

That would be one suitable tool, wouldn’t it?

(*)  Australia is not the USA, although we have many similarities – some of which we tend to blame you for! ;-)

Regards,

Yahya

My reply:

Yes, I agree AA is suggestive, but limited. I also think it’s 12 steps are too complicated. I hope to continue to experiment with developing a model or models and to suggest to others that they do the same. I’m particularly interested in doing it with people interested in impacting national policy.

++

From Michael Larsen:

Write on!

My reply:

Thanks!

 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Fostering a National Movement

A friend recently asked me, “What is missing in your life?” I replied, “I would like to participate in a massive grassroots movement to impact national policy.” She replied, “That’s a tall order” and changed the subject. Her response is typical. Interest in building a national movement is limited.

Nevertheless, I persist. From time to time, certain events encourage me. One example was the August 17 op-ed in Time magazine by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar @kaj33, the former basketball star. Titled “The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race,” the essay argued, “Ferguson is not just about systemic racism — it’s about class warfare and how America’s poor are held back.” The sentence that struck me most strongly was the following (the key phrase was emphasized with italics): “If we don’t have a specific agenda—a list of exactly what we want to change and how—we will be gathering over and over again beside the dead bodies of our murdered children, parents, and neighbors.”

Precisely. That is what I was trying to get at with “A Meditation on Deep Community,” which I presented to the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples on July 14. In that piece, I stated:

• Relieving suffering requires addressing root causes, getting deep.
• Addressing root causes requires correcting national policies that are the source of so much suffering.
• If we see a child drowning, we don’t tell her to pray. We change her environment.

The most problematic element in Abdul-Jabbar’s formulation is the “how.” One barrier that any such strategy must address is the social conditioning that has been embedded in each one of us. This dehumanization divides us and undermines our ability to work together effectively. To unite, we must unlearn this “internalized oppression.”

Different individuals have different issues. Trying to tell others how they need to change is counter-productive. Each individual can make their own decisions. But we can support one another in these efforts, if only by listening to one another report on our successes and challenges.

Growing a unified movement will be enhanced if we develop user-friendly tools, like Alcoholics Anonymous did, that concerned individuals, without going through any elaborate training, can easily use to meet the unmet need for deep connection. I would like to experiment with such options that could be easily replicated, and learn about other such efforts.

We also need to develop new structures that will facilitate broader political engagement between elections. The other night, a disturbing dream woke me up in the middle of the night. It involved a double murder, the first of which was a mistake. The dream left me with a sense that my dream of a national movement was dead. I had trouble going back to sleep.

But I woke up with a wrinkle on an old idea: get a group together to engage in a series of open-ended, problem-solving discussions with their Congressperson’s office about how the Congressperson and the community might work together to build that movement. One option that could be placed on the table at the outset would be monthly Congressional Community Dialogs, the carefully structured forums I’ve been proposing for some time.

Regardless, we need to keep on pressin’ on. If we do, eventually we can fulfill that dream that Abdul-Jabbar and so many others have articulated.

50 Essays Guaranteed to Make You a Better Person

Originally posted by Emily Temple on Flavorwire 

It’s hard to be a person in the world today — or, really, any day, but today’s what we’ve got. Humans are striving creatures, and also empathetic ones, so most of us are always looking for an opportunity to improve ourselves, even in tiny, literary ways. We’ve already established that novels can make you a better person, but of course, novels also take you down a long winding road to get there. If you’re looking for a more direct shot to the heart, try an essay. After the jump, you’ll find 50 essays more or less guaranteed to make you a better person — or at least a better-read one — some recommended by notables of the literary and literary nonfiction world, some recommended by yours truly, incessant consumer of the written word. Don’t see the essay that changed your life? Please do add it to the list.

To read commentary on the 50 essays and the essays themselves, click here.