Thursday, May 28, 2009

Bananas for Miss Baker

Fifty years ago today, two monkeys were launched in a space capsule from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and returned alive. These little primates captured the imagination of the entire country and proved the feasibility of human space travel. Unfortunately Able, a rhesus monkey, died a few days later of complications from surgery. However Miss Baker, a tiny spider monkey, lived in comfort for another 25 years at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

For the rest of her life, Miss Baker received an average of 100 letters a day from school children who had heard of her great adventure. Over 300 people attended her funeral. Buried on the grounds of the rocket center, she is commemorated with a plaque. Every now and then, to this day, someone leaves a banana on her grave.

I think this anniversary is reason enough to pause and consider the great gifts we humans receive from our animal companions. Animals in the wild inspire us with awe and wonder. Millions have suffered torment and death in the name of research, which has expanded our knowledge and sometimes lengthened our lives. Household pets lavish love and loyalty upon us, and in the process, help many of us learn responsibility and empathy for others.

So if you’re reading this at home and you have a pet, take a moment to scratch the dog’s ears, open a can of tuna for the cat, give the bird a cracker. What better way to spend the next few minutes of your life?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Of Ambassadors

Kudos to President Obama for selecting Jon Huntsman as ambassador to China, and kudos to Mr. Huntsman for accepting the position.

Of course, cynics on both sides of the proverbial isle were quick to point out the political advantages to both men: Obama tucks a powerful and popular Republican away on the other side of the world, and Huntsman adds to his political credentials for a possible future run for higher office.

If they’re smart (and both men are very smart), they considered many things in making their decisions. Obama’s question to his advisors was, “Who’s the best person in America for the job?” (Not “Who’s the best Democrat?”) And Huntsman seems to be a man for whom service to God and country is a big value. How better to serve than to use his expertise and experience in Asia to benefit the interests of two countries he loves—and a world that increasingly depends on international understanding and cooperation.

And how refreshing it will be to have an ambassador who actually speaks the language of the country in which he serves! For too long, America’s attitude toward other nations has ranged from condescending to paternal to arrogant. News clips of American ambassadors abroad have inevitably shown them speaking with heads of state in English—the only language the ambassadors knew.

In Huntsman, we have an ambassador who understands not only the primary language of China but also business and governance—areas in which his host country is struggling to emerge into the modern world. This is what candidate Obama promised and what America needs—bipartisan cooperation and dedication to something higher than politics.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

An Old Expression

When people seem pigheaded about one thing or another, my husband often shrugs and repeats something he heard in his childhood: “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” (I know it’s not correct in terms of today’s gender sensitivity, but it is an old expression.)

This bit of folk wisdom is something we should take to heart and share with our elected officials on Capitol Hill. People are turned off by tactics designed to force agreement or compliance—shouting (or SHOUTING), name-calling, sarcasm, manipulation, and contempt will never convince anyone of anything. And as we all know, there’s plenty of all of that in the public discourse in America today.

Another thing that never works—in families or in legislatures—is win-lose arguments or situations. In the long-term, there’s no such thing as “win-lose.” There’s only “lose-lose” (e.g., “You got your way this time, but I’ll get you next time!”) or “win-win” (e.g., “We’ll compromise and both get some of what we want.”).

Unfortunately, it’s easier to shout down the opposition than to formulate careful arguments. And it generally takes less energy to beat someone down than to compromise. Taking the high road is always more work. But if even a few of us can master the art of treating one another with respect—even when we vehemently disagree—perhaps the habit will spread. (Would it be too much to hope that it might spread all the way to the nation’s capital?)

While I’m on the subject of respectful disagreement, I’d like to thank all of you who’ve recently commented on these posts. As our discussions continue, I feel that we’re getting better and better at recognizing one another’s good intentions and sincere efforts to understand. I hope you agree.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Value of Goodness

One of my favorite educational thinkers, Howard Gardner, says education should, at a minimum, provide students with a good understanding of three basic values: truth, goodness, and beauty. If we as a culture can agree that those values are important (and it’s by no means certain that we can), then it seems to me that there are a lot of people in leadership positions (in government and business) in this country that need to go back to school.

For the present, let’s talk about goodness.

Whether they realize it or not, all people who think at all about goodness eventually come to one of two conclusions:

1. Goodness is objective, consisting of universal principles that have an existence of their own—regardless of whether we choose to recognize or respond to them or not, or

2. Goodness is subjective, consisting only of impulses within the individual human mind.

At some point, we choose which of these positions to take, and that decision is the basis of all our moral reasoning.

I submit that morality resides in acknowledging that goodness is objective, not subjective.

Those who believe that goodness is objective—that some things are just inherently good or bad—conclude that goodness is rooted in doing what's best for others. They cultivate empathy, imagining how their decisions might impact others, and act accordingly.

Those who believe that goodness is subjective—that “good” and “bad” exist only in the mind of the actor or agent—conclude that goodness is rooted in culture and convenience. They act pragmatically, according to what they deem to be best for themselves, feeling obligated only to their own self interest.

From studies of the brain, we know that some people are born with more and some with less of a tendency to be empathetic—and, hence, to feel responsible for others. As in all human traits, there tend to be extremists at both ends of the spectrum. There are people whose tendencies toward empathy and compassion make it hard for them to set reasonable boundaries. They tend to be used by others and become “enablers.” At the other end of the spectrum are the true sociopaths—people who feel no empathy or compassion whatever. As is almost always the case with human traits, the “healthiest” position lies somewhere near the middle of the spectrum.

But here’s where moral reasoning comes in: The traits we’re born with are only tendencies. Our decisions consist not only of tendencies but also of choices. Furthermore, the choices we habitually make affect our tendencies (and actually, over time, change the structure and chemistry of the brain). We're not automatons, blindly acting without volition according to our genetic tendencies. We're people who can choose how to behave, even when those choices conflict with our natural tendencies.

This means that we can choose to act with moral responsibility toward others—even when we don’t tend to feel empathy or compassion. We can 1) deliberately cultivate a feeling of empathy or compassion by imagining ourselves in the position of the other, or 2) we can act in accordance with what reason tells us is right, even without feeling empathy or compassion.

This brings us to a subject that’s been very much n the news lately: torture.

I submit that, by any rational standard, torture is wrong. It doesn’t matter what the purpose or excuse may be—it’s wrong. It wouldn’t matter if it “worked” to produce valid information. (It doesn’t.) And it doesn’t matter who knew about it—however you choose to define “knowing about it.”

Deliberately terrorizing or causing extreme pain or discomfort to people who cannot defend themselves is torture. Torture is morally wrong, illegal, and antithetical to civilization. Those who torture are barbarians. Those who defend torture are evil and dangerous.

We must not allow anyone—Dick Cheney, his daughter, John Boehner, or anyone—to distract us from the essential facts: in the first decade of the 21st Century, the United States adopted a policy of depriving others (it makes no difference who) of their essential human rights, committing cruel, horrific, and despicable acts of torture.

It happened. There’s nothing to debate.

We can’t begin to recover our dignity, integrity, or moral stature as a country until we admit that and focus our public attention on making sure it can’t happen again.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Real "Debate"

Thank goodness Obama’s speech at Notre Dame is over. Now can we please stop hearing that ridiculous, misleading phrase “the debate about abortion”?

There’s no debate. Where’s the debate? Like making and selling alcoholic beverages, abortion was once illegal in this country, and now it’s not. Making it illegal didn’t work. It didn’t stop abortions from occurring. It only made them more dangerous—just as outlawing alcohol only made drinking more dangerous. (During Prohibition, thousands of people each year died or were blinded from the effects of wood alcohol.)

No one who has a lick of sense is suggesting that the Supreme Court should reverse itself and prohibit abortion again. It’s not going to happen. Get over it.

By the same token, no one—least of all President Obama—is saying that abortion is a “good” thing, either. In some cases, it may be the lesser of two evils, but it’s never a good thing. How many women do you suppose deliberately go out and get pregnant every year so they can have an abortion? Pro-choice isn’t pro-abortion. Pro-choice simply acknowledges that the decision to bear a child is a private, not a public, decision.

There are other “bad,” destructive things we allow people to do in America. Take smoking, for instance. Smoking causes illness and death to human organisms. We may not approve of people’s choosing to tar their lungs and raise their blood pressure; however, as long others don’t have to breathe the smoke, we recognize smoking as a personal, not a public, choice.

If American Catholics want to decrease the number of aborted fetuses, let them start with their own church. The antiquated, irrational opposition of the Catholic Church to contraception is probably the single biggest factor responsible for unwanted pregnancies—and, hence, for abortions—in the world.

Sure, the Pope in Rome and happily married Catholic women can say, “Unmarried girls and women shouldn’t have sex, and married couples shouldn’t limit the size of their families.” Fine. But that’s not realistic. It’s not going to happen. Get over it.

Those who, in their ignorance, protested the appearance of President Obama at Notre Dame because of his rational, common-sense position on issues related to reproduction would have been far better off spending their time and energy to support effective family planning. A contribution to Planned Parenthood—which counsels women on how to prevent unwanted pregnancies—is more likely to prevent abortion than all the marching and protesting in the world.

If Catholics and members of other conservative religions want to do something to make the world a safer place for the unborn, more of them should be engaged in a matter worth debating: whether it’s not long past time that their church changed its antiquated, destructive position on contraception—the best and most realistic method of reproductive choice.

Resolved: That abstinence from sex should not be the only option human beings have for avoiding pregnancy.

Let them debate that.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Anger Addiction

At the gym the other day, I was on the treadmill watching Fox News with the sound turned off. Video clips were the usual snippets of dramatic tragedy—people searching the ashes of their former homes, Pakistani women weeping over the caskets of loved ones, photos of missing children. What struck me most, though, were expressions on the faces of the commentators and guests: they all looked hostile and angry.

That’s what I dislike about Fox News television—it’s a hostile, angry station. (I should add that the mobile print version doesn’t reflect that attitude—I read it on my cell phone all the time.) When my husband’s channel surfing, it’s instantly apparent from the next room when he happens to land on Fox News—the voices are several decibels louder than on other stations and angry enough to trigger the fight-or-flight response.

And that, apparently, must be the attraction for a lot of people.

As an only child, I grew up in a fairly quiet household and missed out on sibling rivalry and the squabbling that usually goes with it. By nature and habit, I may be more than usually averse to anger. I tend to avoid people who are habitually hostile and angry in their attitudes. Hence, I have an aversion to Fox News television.

Unfortunately, the problem with Fox News is not just aesthetic. I believe that it is a major reason for the extremism and hostility of so many of the well-intentioned right-leaning people in this country. In 1964, Marshall McLuhan introduced the phrase “the medium is the message,” and his analysis was never more relevant that it is today: the medium (e.g., the anger and hostility of Fox News television) embeds itself in the message. Inevitably, the medium affects how the message is interpreted.

To me, this explains how otherwise intelligent, even well-educated people can develop (and, against all evidence, maintain) a paranoid, “us-against-them” mentality when it comes to national affairs—and get so angry about everything. Fox News creates a reality in which a few brilliant, courageous, morally superior anti-heroes (the Cantors, Palens, maybe even—God help us—Cheneys) lead the charge against an evil, deluded, scheming majority who are apparently mesmerized by the Great Socialist. (It wouldn’t matter which Democrat won the election—the essential elements of the plot would be the same.)

I have a couple of problems with this. First, it’s impossible to be angry and think at the same time. Secondly, anger—like many emotions—can literally be addictive. Like all addictions, habitual anger drives the thought process, causing people to rationalize and justify their feelings. (“If I-we-they are so angry at _________,” the thinking goes, “he must be a really bad person.”)

When emotions lead, thinking is skewed, and it can be impossible to have a rational discussion with people caught in this cycle. The anger and hostility of the far right—stoked continually by radical media like Fox News television—make it extremely difficult to have a relaxed, mutually respectful conversation in this country between “conservatives” and the rest of us—including members of that newly endangered species, the “moderate” Republican.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Emotional Brain

I’m reading an excellent book which, in a few paragraphs, summarizes the neurological basis for credit card debt and the sub-prime mortgage debacle. In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer explains how our emotions tend to overvalue immediate gains at the expense of long-term advantages.

The problem is this: thinking about immediate rewards occurs in one part of the brain—the mid-brain limbic system—and thinking about longer-term rewards occurs in another part of the brain—the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system—rich in dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure—rewards us immediately for making a decision that feels good. When we make a rational decision—such as the decision to save $50 for retirement instead of spending it on yet another pair of shoes—there’s no such reward.

The mid-brain works hard to short-circuit many of the decisions we make with the rational prefrontal cortex. “All these cells want is a reward,” says Lehrer, “and they want it now.”

It’s only been in the past ten to twenty years that scientists have really begun to understand how the brain works. New imaging techniques allow them to actually watch a brain in action, as movement and colors on a monitor show the level of activity in different areas. This type of knowledge has immediate practical applications, and the sooner we can get it out to the general public, the better.

With knowledge of how our brain works, maybe we can learn to choose which part of it we use to make certain types of decisions. Maybe we can learn to quit duping and doping ourselves with short-term rewards and empty promises. Maybe we can learn to distinguish between emotional and rational decisions and—with an overall plan for a healthy, successful life—quit letting the emotional brain drive the train.

Clearly, both emotions and intellect are necessary for making good decisions. But most of us tend to get the balance wrong a good deal of the time. Understanding the advantages and limitations of the emotional brain might go along way toward helping us all make better choices.

In the days to come, I’m going to look for times when I’m tempted to do something my rational mind doesn’t approve. I’m going to try consciously shifting my thinking from my mid-brain to my forebrain. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Politics and Education

“Education is politicized everywhere, but rarely as much as in the United States [where] education at every level, federal, state, and local, is suffused with political considerations.”
−Howard Gardner, The Disciplined Mind

Every year in my state, as in every state, hundreds of bills having to do with education are proposed in the legislature. For the most part, these bills represent attempts by special interest groups and the legislators themselves to micromanage what goes on in schools. Everybody has an opinion about how schools should be run—whether or not he or she has any knowledge of good educational practices or any recent experience in schools.

Having legislators decide matters of curriculum—e.g., whether reading should focus primarily on phonics or word recognition—makes about as much sense as having the legislature vote on which tumors should be considered operable or which drugs should be used to treat diabetes. It should be the role of legislators to establish state professional standards in certain areas, set up a means to ensure that professionals meet those standards, and then let the professionals do their jobs.

As a nation, we’ve long had a commitment to providing education for every child. The system for delivering that education, however, has been greatly impaired by the “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome. Federal, state, and local governments, as well as individual school districts, tend to add layer upon layer of regulations and guidelines that are, as often as not, contradictory, ineffective, or counter-productive.

So now that fresh conversations are going on around the country about every issue, including education, here’s how I propose that educational policy should be broken down:

The role of federal government should be to
  • fund research on learning and on best educational practices

  • set national minimum standards for funding per student (much as it currently sets the standard for a “minimum” minimum wage)

  • set minimum standards for safety and facilities (including building standards, lighting, air and water quality, and student-teacher ratios)

  • establish broad national curriculum standards in the various disciplines.

The role of state government should be to
  • encourage professional development of teachers to encourage continued learning about both educational practices and their major areas of academic discipline

  • ensure that state funds are provided to meet or exceed national standards of minimum dollars per student

  • enforce safety and building standards

  • support development of basic curriculum guidelines for each grade level to avoid pointless repetition or omission of essential learnings

  • collect and distribute tax monies to be distributed equitably to districts throughout the state.

The role of local governments should be to
  • provide basic services (e.g., police and fire protection, social services, etc.) to protect students and staff

  • add additional funds from local bonds or levies to fund education beyond the minimum standards provided by national and state regulations.

The role of local school boards and district staff should be to
  • hire and support staff

  • allocate monies received from federal, state, and local governments

  • select texts that meet or exceed the standards required by federal and state

  • ensure access to education for every student.

Agreeing on the roles appropriate to each level of government would go a long way toward simplifying the issues facing education today.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Sunday in May

On this particular Sunday in May, I’d like to express my profound appreciation to the women I know who are not mothers.

There are perhaps a dozen women in my life who either chose not to give birth or who were not fated to do so (at least up to now). Each one of them makes the world a better place, each and every day, in ways they might not be able to if they had children. I suspect that, especially on a day like today, some of those women wonder about the choices they’ve made or the turns their lives have taken. So today, I’d like to share a few thoughts on the subject.

First—and this is a fact—the world doesn’t need more children. This earth is well populated, and from an environmental standpoint, it would be best of we didn’t tax it any further with more human organisms. Our dominance on the planet is secure for the foreseeable future.

Second, the women I know who have not borne children have developed their own potential in ways they might not have had they been required to spend decades putting the needs of children first. Generally speaking, they’re well educated. Many have meaningful and satisfying careers. Most are politically, culturally, or socially active in ways that enrich the lives of those around them.

Finally, many of the women I know who are not mothers are terrific “aunts”—either literally or figuratively. They’ve become part of the “village” we all know is necessary to raise a child. Some have helped their biological sisters, who may have been unable or unwilling to do the best job possible of raising kids—or they’ve just been the “other adult” in a child’s life, someone who’s a positive role model or who offers a fresh point of view. Many of the non-mothers I know are terrific teachers, counselors, or coaches.

I despise the term “child-less,” which seems to imply that a woman without children is somehow “less.” Not so. Perhaps she is “more” than she might have been otherwise. For some, a better term might be “child-free.”

For myself, I adore my children, and I’m grateful to have them. As an only child, I knew that I could never be anyone’s favorite aunt. My children have taught me, and continue to teach me, much that I would not have known otherwise. Some people learn these things in other ways.

So for all my beautiful sisters who are nobody’s “mother,” I wish you a perfect spring day, peace in your heart, and the wisdom to celebrate your very special role in the world.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Bristol Palen's Media Tour

What are they thinking?

I don’t blame Bristol Palin one bit for flaunting her status as an unwed mother. She’s just a kid. And besides, there’s certainly no evidence that her genes or family culture would discourage her from seeking the limelight. But what about the adults involved in this ill-conceived (pardon the pun) public spectacle?

As someone who has more than a passing knowledge of teenage logic, I can tell you two things: 1) they crave role models, and 2) they tend to be very concrete in their thinking. What you see is what you get.

So we take an attractive, unmarried girl who got pregnant by her handsome, athletic high school sweet heart, and what are the consequences? First, she and the sweetheart appear on national television at the Republican National Convention. The girl’s mother shares her joy at the prospect of being a grandmother. The presidential hopeful beams with pride as though he were the expectant grandfather. The crowd roars approval. The girl’s name is suddenly a household word all over America. I wondered at the time how many girls in good Republican homes watched all that and got a very different message than their parents might have expected.

Take Two. The child is born in December and, the media being what it is, celebrated like an heir apparent. The baby is, of course, adorable—clean, quiet, and cuddly. Mother and child are getting lots of attention.

Take Three. Bristol Palin—to all appearances, unencumbered and not the least bit inconvenienced by having a baby—is launched on a celebrity tour, palling around (to borrow her mother’s favorite expression) with teen idols like Hayden Panetierre, and obviously having a wonderful time.

All this is going to discourage young women from having sex?


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The F Word

For those of us who struggle to understand national affairs from a rational perspective, it’s a source of perennial amazement that so many others—especially intelligent and even well-educated others—persist in beliefs that range from quirky to downright paranoid.

Like Don Quixote, the Republican “base”—the core of extreme conservatives—seems passionately involved in tilting with windmills, fighting battles that exist only in their minds (such as the current campaign against Obama’s so-far nonexistent Supreme Court nominee). Rage is their banner and fear is their shield, and they regularly and willfully submit themselves to rhetoric that keeps those passions stoked.

And where can such rhetoric be found? At the pulpits of conservative churches (where, for many years, the words “politics” and “abortion” have been synonymous); in the secular fire-and-brimstone speeches of conservative talk radio; and, most of all, in the commentary of pundits on one particular television station. If there’s one thing today’s political conservatives seem to have in common, it’s their devotion to the “Fair and Balanced.”

Any attempt to argue with the circular logic typical of these sources (e.g., “Obama is bad because everything he says and does is wrong because Obama is bad”) is dismissed as propaganda—dastardly lies perpetrated by the “liberal media” (which is to say any sources other than the afore-mentioned).

Cult-like brainwashing can only be cured by removing the victims from the source of their delusions. Frames of mind and powerful emotions—even unpleasant, negative emotions—are habit forming and self-reinforcing. However, in a free country, those so afflicted—like those who are prey to other types of addictions—must decide to remove themselves.

If the airwaves suddenly went silent, forcing people to do more reading and perhaps even listening to others of different persuasions, perhaps we as a nation would make better progress toward cooperation, mutual understanding, and true “bipartisanship.”

Monday, May 4, 2009

Recreating the Wheel

Several “leading conservatives” (although where they’re “leading” nobody knows) have started a new search for meaning with a campaign called the National Council for a New America.

Maybe someone forgot to tell them, but we already have one of those. It’s called the Obama administration. Composed of the best minds and problem-solvers in the country, this “council” is working at breakneck speed to solve many of the enormous problems facing this country and the world.

Meanwhile, led by Eric Cantor, a few remnants of the General Opposition Party (GOP) are preoccupied with regaining their personal popularity and whipping up emotional angst and general dissatisfaction among what’s left of their "base.”

With no agenda other than opposing anything proposed by the duly elected government (and refilling their own campaign coffers), these folks are just generally against. Their peevish attitude is familiar to anyone who’s worked with kids—the pouting and rock-kicking that goes on at the playground among those not chosen to be first at bat.

The thing is, they’ve been invited to play. The work going on in Washington right now requires all hands on deck. But Republicans who try to accept President Obama’s often repeated invitation for bipartisan cooperation—in other words, those who aren’t anti-everything—are not only marginalized but threatened with political defeat by members of their own party. (Hence, the recent defection of Arlen Spector.)

You’d think their constituents would get on board and tell these renegade Republicans that campaigning should be a seasonal event and their real work should be problem solving, not problem making. Good ideas are always welcome; but would someone please explain to Eric Cantor that “no” is not an idea?