December 28, 2008

Rick Warren and Obama

I admire very much a blog piece by David Quigg, “What Would Obama Do If Obama Were Mad at Obama About Rick Warren?? Talk about defusing an issue by asking a good, weird question! He shows what thoughtful commentary might be like, commentary that makes people think.

On the Warren issue, I have a small thing to say. I am always looking for people significantly smarter than me. They give me hope, because I cannot see a way out of most of the problems I know about. The sign of somebody being smarter than me is that they do something that seems stupid, but looks less stupid, the more I look at it. This Warren invitation is that kind of a decision. Warren has to accept. It Warren accepts, he implicitly admits that there are points of connection between his views and those of Obama that outweigh the differences: he cannot give an invocation at the inaugural and thereafter claim that Obama is the anti-Christ. His followers will have trouble with that, also. So his only option is to accept and then to put distance between himself and Obama in the content of his invocation. But we know from the Wellstone memorial experience that partisan political rhetoric on unifying, sacred occasions is absolutely the wrong thing to do. It's suicide. So any distancing, within the invocation itself, will have to be very subtle. Shakespeare could pull it off; so could Lincoln.

A political chess move that can only go wrong if one’s opponent turns out to be Shakespeare or Lincoln is a pretty clever move.

Posted by shea0017 at 1:53 PM

December 27, 2008

Life-changing video - 2008

I am voting for these, for 2008, all from Youtube:

1. Warren Buffett did a talk to an MBA class a while back. The whole thing is up on Youtube in 10 minute segments. Segment 1, about his general approach to happiness and success, is comforting and inspiring.

2. This talk by a Nobel economics laureate, Daniel Kahneman, says very surprising things about happiness, making me realize that I think I know many things about happiness that just aren’t so.

3. Two Palestinian girls talk with great enthusiasm about being martyrs. It shows how kids are vulnerable to adults.

4. As an antidote to 3, here’s Tom Jackson, a philosophy for children teacher, talking about how he works.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:34 AM

December 26, 2008

A Story: Trying Out Political Ideals

I did an interview this week with Wendy Rahn, a U of MN political science professor who founded Survivors’ Studio, an exercise studio for women with cancer. This was a real challenge for her, on top of professional responsibilities and a family. What struck me in the interview though was not the idea of someone with a really cool, benevolent hobby, but rather the picture of someone who teaches every day about forms of cooperation, about the centrality of trust to human enterprises, about public solutions to private problems engaging in just the sort of enterprise that makes all those abstractions tangible, immediate, daily realities.

In the academic world, there is a space for community service on the professional resume. That has some effect on promotion and tenure decisions. But this is different: a project closely integrated with one’s academic work, giving dimension and ensuring accountability in a way not otherwise possible. I can imagine a funding source within the academic environment to make this kind of small scale project feasible, and to build practical experimentation into the overall projects of university teachers across a range of disciplines. This is an idea with the potential to transform departments and to shift public expectations of the academy.

For more on Wendy Rahn’s work, which includes a substantial public education component, go to

Posted by shea0017 at 10:26 AM

December 23, 2008

Could we just kind of not panic so much, maybe?

Intelligence is only occasionally about screaming. Mostly, it is about saying, “This is pretty much what a reasonable person would expect.? The newspaper I read seems to me not to be setting a high enough standard for intelligence. It uses too many exclamation points. I can imagine a comparable paper charting the progress of a family’s year. “New car!? “Bigger house!? “Giant loan approved!? “Caribbean Vacation!? and then, three months later: “Big bills arrive!? “Bank demands interest!? “Credit cards maxed out!? What’s wrong about these headlines is, in each case, the exclamation point. There was nothing particularly wonderful about the good things, and there is nothing particularly surprising about the bad things, and they are all tied together in one pretty understandable package, called causality.

No one who thought was ever much in awe of strategies like using up cheap, non-renewable energy sources, failing to clean up our ongoing environmental messes, making rich enemies, selling weapons indiscriminately, using low levels of antibiotics for relatively trivial purposes, and encouraging psychologies in which desires grow without limit. No one who thought thought those strategies could be pursued forever.

Some newspapers have in their titles the word “intelligencer.? Could we please have one of those papers, locally or nationally, with all good speed? Why can’t a paper start from two messages: (1) what’s happening economically is no more shocking than death, or trees losing their leaves, or the tide washing away your sandcastle, and (2) people have the opportunity, at this moment in history, to build a national order, political and economic, that respects reality, that understands causes, that lives in the world instead of floating somewhere above it.

Posted by shea0017 at 2:37 PM

December 21, 2008

"Trust me; I'm not in jail yet."

Governor Blagojevich of Illinois is quoted in the Star Tribune (12/20/08, A-10) saying, “Afford me the same rights that you and your children have: the presumption of innocence.? The context: he wants to remain in office until he is tried and convicted. He surely has the right not to be taken to some small windowless cell for an indeterminate time. He has the right not to be tortured and abused. He has the right to face the normal court system, not some special court constructed to ensure an easy conviction and to make appeal impossible. Those are important rights, as we have come to realize in the last few years. But he has no claim to remain in office. The standard is, at least: “Can he do the job adequately?? For a job that can only be done by someone who has the trust and respect of many people, the widespread suspicion of serious wrongdoing disqualifies him, just by itself. Leave aside the question of guilt.

There may be jobs in the world that only a few people can do, so that those who control access to those offices have to tolerate all sorts of odd behavior, to get the talent required. A new governor is not in that position. Many people can do the job. Many people are eager to do the job.

Blagojevich’s statement is an example of a statement that cannot be allowed to stand as reasonable discourse; otherwise, our talk about very important matters will be poisoned. There is nothing more important in human life than the logic of “giving someone the benefit of the doubt,? because any complex social system runs on trust. If we lose our way with respect to this topic, we lose our way practically in many areas of life.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:32 AM

December 19, 2008

Distant Early Warning - Wisdom Falls Like Dew From Heaven

Two examples:

1.On Monday, December 15, TPT in Minnesota aired “Torturing Democracy,? an account of the use of torture by the United States government. The producer, and critics of U.S. policy, had hoped that this documentary would air before the November elections. Stephen Segwaller, the person in charge of programming at WNET, is quoted in the New York Times as saying, in response to such criticism, “I suspect that when we air it and other people air it there will be some criticism, attacking its motive rather than its content.? Thank God for the audio recorder and the opportunity to hear people’s real words. Try living inside that sentence for a few minutes. Also consider how that sentence might have been crafted accurately, “Critics of an early airdate, before the election, will say that our motive was _____; critics of a late airdate, after the election, will say that our motive was _____.? If you actually lay out those two criticisms, one may look stronger than the other. But the thing he said amalgamates all criticisms: “You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.? The issue this evades: who’s doing the damning?

2.The documentary highlights the guidelines for torture, which have to do with avoiding certain horrific results – organ failure, death. One communication says, essentially, “If they die, you have gone too far.? This is I think a basic error: guidelines have to be independent of their goals, otherwise they cease to be guidelines and become the advice, “Do what makes sense to you.? Consider a book for bridge engineers that said, “Make sure the bridge doesn’t fall down unexpectedly.? One wants help from experts to identify the early stages of catastrophe, so as to avoid catastrophe. This is a pretty elementary mistake – to undertake to provide guidelines and then, at the last minute, to pull up and not provide guidelines. People should be criticized for doing that, in authoritative memos.

I am sure that some people will be annoyed at this point, because they think that there is something terrible about guidelines for making people hurt, that the whole enterprise is devilish. It will seem trivial to worry about bad sentences, about incoherent memos, when lives and sanity are at stake. I want to say: it is very important to look at the particular moves by which the train derails, the moments at which something important is given up. The broader criticisms will come in hindsight only. At the moment that an event is unfolding, someone is confronted with a quote or a memo that feels funny, and has the choice of either worrying or not. That’s when something can still be done. It has to be one function of education to acquaint people with the feel of slipperiness, by a thousand examples. Unfortunately, we have a thousand examples in public life. (We likely speak a few, every day, also.)

Everybody repeat after me, “Sir, could you explain that once more. I don’t quite follow.? This is not the bravest thing a person could say, but it might be just brave enough to stop a train that’s just starting up. I think it is important for ethics to highlight the possibility of slightly braver than ordinary actions, like asking for clarification.

In The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene pictures a priest about to be executed, having the thought, “It seemed to him at that moment that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage.?

One other point: there is such a thing as a moral community. People who run things have aides and advisers and deputies to help them not get caught up in intoxicating mistakes, to look for the slippage that suggests that something is about to go wrong.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:54 AM