Danger: Trump Risks our Future by Rewarding Dictators

photo credit: Yalibnan, 2022

Trump risks our freedoms by rewarding dictators. At a recent rally in New Hampshire, he again praised the vilest dictators in the world, like Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un. He also explained why. They have nuclear weapons. They could destroy us. So, ingratiate yourself with them, don’t upset them. Don’t stand up to them, sidle up to them. Is this sound strategy?

This is an old strategy for Trump, one he used in NY City to create his real estate empire by getting along with organized crime. It worked. At what cost, we don’t know. So now he applies this strategy to international relations.

Unfortunately, this is a very common human strategy for dealing with bullies, especially in small towns or other small settings where avoidance isn’t possible. We frequently saw it in Westerns. It makes us feel less vulnerable. In recent years, however, our society has campaigned, as the Westerns did, to promote standing up to bullies, not sidling up to them, as the better choice, albeit the more stressful one. Accommodating bullies only works short term and expands the problem by encouraging more people to become bullies, as it clearly has with Trump. His philosophy for how to be successful is one he has readily shared: make others fear you.


Memorial Day for the Those Not Remembered

We long to be remembered. Sometimes going to great effort to be remembered. Create a legacy, we are advised. As we prepare for Memorial Day, let us consider honoring those who have no legacy side by side with those who do. Let us memorialize those who have no one who remembers them. The unknown soldiers. Soldiers we regard as enemies. Let us honor them too. Those with no headstones. Mass graves. The last of a line. The unidentified victims of crime or poverty. Nothing for metal detectorists to locate. The recently extinct tribes as well as the long list of extinct and vanished tribes and civilizations not remembered, some with no trace at all. The other species that have gone extinct, known, and unknown, recent, and ancient. We honor them as our fellows. We must not forget them as we honor those whose memories we easily cherish.

photo credit Nick van den Berg, Unsplash


The Need for Self-Vetting

A UC Berkeley scholar recently disclosed that she was not Native American after all. All her life she believed that she had some Native ancestry because she had been told so. Now she learned otherwise. Deeply apologetic, she acknowledged the hurt that such a claim causes indigenous people.

It is not only people who are knowingly lying who need to be vetted. We may believe something to be true about ourselves but not know it as a fact. Family lore is not always factual, nor is self-lore. Why make claims about oneself or one’s family if you don’t actually know them to be true, haven’t done the research to verify them? Many reasons. We want to believe it and vetting is hard work being two.

At a high school reunion, I wanted to share memories with a woman who had been in a one act play contest with me and another male actor. She told me I was mistaken, that she was not in that play and I must be confusing her with someone else. She seemed quite certain, which meant that my vivid memory would be inexplicably faculty.

I went and got the third actor and asked him in front of her who was in that play. He named her. She had been certain that I was wrong. But certainty, it turns out, is only a feeling. It is not an indicator that we are right. This is an important lesson on the short list of how to live. Don’t trust feelings of certainty. Vet anyway. My classmate could have said simply that she didn’t remember being in the play instead of asserting that she wasn’t.

Believing something and knowing it are not the same. To stick with what we have verified makes life a lot less interesting, but more ethical. No speculation, no conjecture, no just passing along what we have been told.

In some contexts, credibility is crucial. “I’ve never seen this document before.” “Well, you signed that you read it and agreed to follow it.” Why not simply, “I don’t remember reading this document. Let me check it out.”

This realization opens up a whole new practice of vetting ourselves, even the formative things we think we remember but may not be factual. The result may be a real trimming down of the self that we carry and present to ourselves and others. This includes stating our relationship to what we are saying. For example, “My mother told me that as a child I…, but I have no recollection of that myself.” Or, as some people do, “All I know is that is how I remember it.” That is the best we can do until we do what we can to vet it.


Justices Thomas & Roberts Reveal a High Court with Low Standards

Image: Dezeen

A recent disclosure by ProPublica about Justice Clarence Thomas reveals a high court with low ethical standards. When you become a Supreme Court justice, it seems, among the things you are given to join the club is a pair of ethical blinders to have in common with your colleagues. ProPublica revealed that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has for many years received lavish gifts of travel and lodging, essentially free vacations he could not afford. Some carry a value of half a million dollars. This puts him in an asymmetrical relationship with a megadonor to conservative causes with numerous business interests.

Thomas says these are family friendships, not business relationships. But, really, does he think he would be invited along if he were not on the Supreme Court? And wouldn’t he be less inclined to make decisions, like in tax cases, that would upset the donor? These vacations also give extended access to the donor’s buddies to influence him along with regularly treating him to the benefits of income inequality.

Thomas says colleagues advised him that there was no need to disclose these gifts even though they were lavish and would naturally put a person into a position of indebtedness and create or reinforce the inherent bias that comes so easily with mega wealth. If so, his colleagues need retraining in professional ethics along with him. When you consult someone about ethics, you are best to consult with people who are least likely to tell you what you want to hear. Thomas also doesn’t think that he needs to recuse himself from cases where his wife, a conservative activist, has had a hand because he thinks he can be fair minded, which he should know he cannot be the judge of.

Displaying a disturbing lack of wisdom, Chief Justice John Roberts has said that the high court does not need ethical oversight because they are such good people. Right. Where has he been when all the research came out on self-serving bias and group think? Knowledge of those factors is now so widespread that he looks naïve or lame to think the average person would be reassured by what he says. Individuals and organizations cannot police themselves and certainly not without codes of conduct written by others. Human beings, however honorable, just don’t behave that way.

When I was the director of a private mental health clinic, I would never hire someone who was not a member of a professional association with a code of ethics that could expel them for violating it. It is just wise practice to put yourself in a position to be answerable like that. Furthermore, we had to refresh our knowledge and use of the code of ethics every two years and how it applies to difficult oor especially tempting situations. Believe me, we all drift. Even the Dalai Lama, as honorable as he is, was caught on video kissing a boy on the lips and asking him to suck his tongue, claiming he was trying to be funny.

Separation of powers should not mean no standards of professional conduct, though I heard enough licensed mental health professionals claim their license allowed them to operate independently without ethical accountability. A license to practice doesn’t mean that, nor should separation of powers mean that. The Supreme Court should be a role model for promoting and following ethical standards, not being above it all. We should not trust a person, an institution or a business that think they can ethically self-regulate.


Sacrificing the Truth Like Fox News

photo credit Gaspar Uhas Unsplash

Fox news couldn’t tell the truth about the election without losing its viewers. Try telling the truth in Russia and not getting imprisoned. Try being a teacher in Florida or Texas and not getting fired. Try being a minister and not losing members. Try telling the truth about your employer and not getting shut out of future employment, or a former employee and not get sued. Try landing major contracts or even meeting sales goals. Try telling the truth to your children and not getting alienated. Try getting a date, or a second date. Try staying married. Try getting hired or getting into an elite college.

So, when we decide to tell the truth should we just climb upon the cross and be done with it? Is truth telling an act of self-sacrifice? Some like George Santos and Fox News believe we can’t be successful without being dishonest and that everyone does it. Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but nearly always it is an act of courage.  There is also an art to it that can increase the chances of success.

We can tell the truth harshly or skillfully, as diplomats learn to do. Some of that is a soft startup, as relationship researchers John and Julie Gottman call it. You prepare the listener to hear what they don’t want to hear. There may be a way to do that with election results people don’t want to hear. How hard did Fox try? You do that because you care about people and you care about the truth. Also, according to research by Mary Gentile at the Darden School of Business, we are more likely to speak truth and values when we learn the means to do so, which addresses the courage aspect. It could also be that Fox News could learn to be a true and honest news organization and have a healthy audience if that is something they aspired to. If not, closing shop may be the honorable thing to do. Losing an election due to a less impressive resume may be as well.

It may be the case that telling the truth will always carry some risks we must be willing to bear. We owe a lot to those who do. Dishonesty need not prevail. Self-interest at the expense of the truth is an assault on society we should not tolerate.


Child Labor in My Home Town

photo credit CBS

In my hometown of Worthington in southwestern Minnesota, the hog packing plant has been busted for violating child labor laws. The kids were cleaning dangerous equipment, some of which I knew intimately from using them in summer employment as a college student. I am appalled. Our town used to be idyllic, part of the empire of Lake Wobegon, a town that explicitly cared for her children. That is, until further reflection.

I now recall that parents let us kids run behind the mosquito fogger truck that sprayed pesticides in our neighborhoods. The city’s giant toboggan slide into the lake was notoriously dangerous and unsupervised. Kids growing up on farms would be injured or killed by farm equipment. We wrenched our backs weeding fields of soybeans and detasseling cornfields.

My parents, who both grew up on farms, while we were raised in town, had the philosophy that as soon as we kids could physically do a task, it was ours to do. We cleaned with dangerous chemicals, we ironed clothes with an iron a bit too heavy for us to comfortable control. We ran a steam roller that pressed sheets and linens. When we could reach the lawn mower handles and push the beast, we were expected to do it, despite the fact that they sent people to the Emergency Room with leg injuries. Kids were kicked by cows and horses. We pushed stuck cars out of ditches. We delivered heavy Sunday newspapers during blizzards.

While children naturally want to help their families, and parents may need their help, children lack the capacity for fully informed consent, or knowledge of what is dangerous, among other problems inherent with child labor. And adults under financial pressure or greed have their judgment impaired about what to require of children. This is why the objective oversight of distant government, for all its faults, is required to keep us all in line. We can’t trust our own judgment or our own perception as to what is reckless or what is simple exploitation.

Here is where the philosophy that something is only wrong if you get caught crashes into moral reality, like a toxic train wreck in Ohio.


Should We Increase the Birthrate?

Businesses need workers and consumers. Governments need taxpayers. Churches and other such organizations need a critical mass of members and contributors. And so, we get warnings from the Japan’s prime minister that they simply must increase the birth rate. Economists have made such warnings also for the United States and China. So, it is the duty of women to have more babies to support the economy?

What is the spiritual future of that? Children can’t be told the lie that they exist because of their parents’ love or that they exist because God loves them. No, they exist to serve the economy.

Of course, this is totally backwards. The economy should serve the people, not the people the economy. And no one should have more children than they really want. If the economy will suffer, and social institutions, then the economists must invent new forms of economy. Not only is it inhumane to call for more workers to be conceived, the future of ever-expanding economies will deplete what our host, the earth, can supply. And to simply allow more immigrants in because we need more workers and consumers, while that should be done, it is not the right reason. Motivation matters in how we treat people.


Be sure to Thank Fortuna This Thanksgiving

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Be sure to thank chance (Fortuna) for what you have to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. We tend to overlook the role that chance plays when things go well for us. The Greeks and Romans did not. Back in the days of polytheism, chance was separated out as a goddess in her own right. Fortuna was her name.

Chance has been secularized as Lady Luck, but this is in situations, like gambling, where we know that chance or luck are at play. Even though people superstitiously try to influence chance (cross my fingers, knock on wood) there is no way to do that.

Many people in a monotheistic belief system operate as if there were no meaningful chance. When good things drop in their lap, they thank God, when they should be thanking Fortuna. When misfortune happens, they get conflicted about God, when God has nothing to do with it. No, Professor Einstein, God does not roll dice, Fortuna rolls dice.

One might wonder why a creator God would have things operate by chance or probability rather than merit. For Christians, there is the Parable of the Sower. Jesus told about the farmer who cast his seeds randomly, so seeds fell on good soil and bad. We can see this as a parable about Fortuna, who does things blindly or randomly. Some statues of Fortuna show her blindfolded as riches spill out of her cornucopia. Consistent with that, Jesus said that rain falls on the just and the unjust. (Matthew 5:45) This is important to remember. Why? Chance may be as fair as it gets.

For people who operate outside monotheism, they can easily say that “shit happens,” and that’s that. It happens to good people and bad. Nothing to get hung up about.

So, we can look at ways we’ve been unlucky this year, like living in a place that had historically devastating weather or getting COVID despite being very cautious. But Thanksgiving is the time to identify how luck has come down in our favor, however that might be, big or small. This is important so we don’t think that we have somehow deserved the good fortune that has come our way. This makes us more considerate toward those whose luck has not been so good.

Some think chance is unfair, that what happens in life should be based on merit. Some believe that everything is based on merit, like karma would suggest, that we somehow deserve whatever we get in life, good or bad. But this ignores the huge role chance plays, even in the circumstances we were born into and the opportunities that follow from that. And it sets us up to treat others unjustly.

So, let’s not forget Fortuna and notice where good luck is operating.

We don’t want to be like the person Coach Barry Switzer described, the one who was born on third base and goes through life thinking they hit a triple.

Thank you, Fortuna, for whatever good luck has come my way!


Speculation & Power: The Case of Paul Pelosi

Scientists make speculations to generate ideas to test empirically. Their speculations are within the bounds of what is already known. The rest of us, not so much. Our motives are generally not to seek the truth of anything.

Now there are people making public speculations on why Paul Pelosi was attacked in his own home. Why would they do that?

Speculation is a form of motivated reasoning.    

  1. Public speculation hurts people we want to hurt. We care more about that than about the truth. “I’m just saying….”
  2. One motive is to exert power. It sends the message that I can do the same thing to you, so don’t get out of line.
  3. Public speculation demonstrates how smart we are, that we don’t just accept the official word about something like the sheep do. So, if you want to know what is really going on, listen to me, not to them.
  4. We speculate to avoid feeling stupid, that we don’t know the answer to something. We can catch ourselves in this when we hear ourselves saying, “I don’t know, but….” The ethical alternative is to just say, “I don’t know,” and leave it at that. Better to feel stupid than to hurt someone.

We could identify others, but you get the idea.

So why would the likes of Elon Musk, Donald and Donald Jr. publicly speculate on why someone was attacked when they are in no position to actually know anything about it?

I won’t speculate.     

Is President Biden Too Old?

Is President Biden too old? Is quarterback Tom Brady too old?

Are we really inviting people to engage in age discrimination? I hope not, but then (full disclosure), I’m old. But so have been some really great baseball managers.

When an old person makes a blunder, we blame their age. When a person in their prime makes a similar one, we regard it as a mistake.

To not hire someone or not vote for them based on anything but their qualifications and performance is simply unfair. It is also kinda stupid as it categorically rules out a lot of great people. Age, gender, race, whatever.

If Tom Brady can no longer read defenses fast enough or throw the football hard enough or far enough, then those are the reasons to bench him. Not his age.

Similarly with politicians. Performance matters; age does not.

It is difficult to not engage in age discrimination. Really. My doctors seem too young to be competent. I’m wrong about that. Likewise, I can find myself thinking that a politician is too young or too old. That does not lead to good decisions to really important questions.

We need to watch our prejudices when they sway our judgment and not let them get the better of our decision making. The well-being of the nation depends on it. Voting is not the time or place to be exercising our prejudices.