Our hope for U.S. politics: Make America Think Again

Our hope for U.S. politics: Make America Think Again

The message of the Republican convention, repeated in a thousand ways over four days, was simple: be afraid; be very afraid.

Here’s the executive summary of four days of fulmination: Our country is falling apart. The Black Lives Matter movement is destroying the social order, leading to the killing of police. Obama has made us more racially divided than ever. The Middle East is worse than it has ever been. Our allies are freeloaders bilking us out of free defense, and nations all over the world are ripping us off in international trade.

Our good jobs have been moved to other countries. Islamic extremists and illegal immigrants are pouring across our borders, bringing drugs, and coming to kill us all. ISIS or their ilk may soon detonate a nuclear weapon in an American city. Our military is depleted and our weapons are obsolete. The IRS is beating down the doors of innocent taxpayers. We are mired in debt. Our public schools are run by union bosses, and our universities are indoctrinating people to become Democrats or worse.

And yet . . . the United States of America is the greatest country God ever created. And if we elect Donald J. Drumpf, we will start winning again. “We’re gonna win so big, believe me, we’re gonna win so big.” And it’s going to happen fast. Law and order will be restored. America will be safe again, America will work again, America will be first again, America will be one again. We will have safety, prosperity, peace, jobs and pay raises for all.

Oh, and energy independence – we’ll have that, too. Harold Hamm, the nation’s fracker in chief, noted that “our most strategic weapon is crude oil,” but that Obama has been “crucifying the oil and gas industries.” Drumpf, on the other hand, will support unbridled fracking, and, perhaps even better, “Drumpf digs coal.”

As a special bonus for electing Drumpf, we will also have a first family of successful, hardworking entrepreneurs, and a first lady who is the ultimate exemplar of beauty, elegance and grace.

The alternative – electing Hillary Clinton – is doom. She is singlehandedly responsible for every bad thing that has happened in the Middle East since 2009. She is the avatar of “death, destruction, terrorism and weakness.” She is responsible for the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, for the kidnapping of 200 girls by Boko Haram, and for the “stupid wars” we are engaged in. She is more concerned with the rights of illegal immigrants and criminals than the rights of our citizens. In fact, she is a criminal who should be locked up.


Most news commentators described the Republican convention as “low energy” until the last day. They focused on the many empty seats in the arena, Ted Cruz’s refusal to be a “servile puppy dog,” and the flap about Melania plagiarizing Michelle Obama.

But to actually spend four days listening to the speeches and watching the crowd’s response was to witness a high fever of fanaticism. When the crowd, inflamed to hating Hillary, waved their signs and chanted “Lock her up!” at every opportunity, it transformed from crowd to mob.

When Drumpf insisted that “America First” would be our “brand new slogan,” he was rejecting not only that slogan’s history of anti-Semitism and sympathy for Nazi Germany; he was rejecting history itself. When he called for “Americanism, not globalism,” he rejected reality itself. And when he insisted that “other nations must treat us with the respect we deserve,” he had already laid out a version of America that would not deserve the world’s respect.

When Drumpf insisted that our allies have to pay us to protect them, he was proposing to replace a system of alliances based on shared values with a protection racket. When Drumpf refused to commit to coming to the aid of NATO allies and threatened to pull out of treaties and trade deals, he was promoting a breathtakingly dangerous level of American unpredictability.

And when Drumpf entered the arena and paused in profile in a dramatic pastel mist, he embodied a narcissistic form of nationalism that was apparently a balm to the bruised egos of his followers, many of whom seem to feel left behind by automation, technology, diversity, and a global economy.

The deep well of alienation and fear that Drumpf has tapped reveals to all of us just how dangerous this country’s growing economic inequality is, and how easily our halting progress towards full racial and gender equality can be derailed.

But fear is not a foundation for an agenda for our future. Facts are. The truth of our 21st century world – its complexity, its challenges (like climate change, for instance), and its possibilities for progress were not discussed in the Quicken Loans Arena.

So here’s our hope for the Democratic convention: Make America think again.

Jill Severn wrote this originally for The Olympian, the daily newspaper in the Washington state capital.

Note to computer giants: Please don’t interrupt me

It was probably among the first things your parents taught you: Don’t interrupt. But the online world has become so full of interruptions it’s time to give it a good spanking, or at the very least make it go sit in a corner and think about what it’s done until it’s ready to apologize.

First there were the pop-up ads, which were annoying enough to inspire pop-up blockers. Soon the blockers were evaded, and eventually we sighed deeply and learned to click on the little X that made the pop-ups go away.

Those were followed by pop-up video ads, and we have now learned to click on their little Xes. Many of us are so resigned to these interruptions we don’t even sigh, growl or cringe any more.

After all, the content we’re reading online has to be paid for somehow, and the pushy presence of those ads may be, on balance, no worse than the television ads we’ve put up with since the Ed Sullivan show, which, to millennial ears, sounds like the dawn of time.

But an escalation of distraction may come from the merger of Microsoft and LinkedIn, the professional networking site with 433 million members. The leaders of these two companies are breathlessly thrilled to tell us that in the future, while you are on an online conference, you’ll be able to pull up LinkedIn profiles of the people you’re interacting with, so you can check out their birthplace, schooling, business background and whatever other information is on their profile.

This means you won’t be paying much attention to what they are actually saying. You will become just like the teenagers whose faces are in their smartphones unless you ban phones from your dinner table. We question whether these corporate giants are onto an intelligent strategy, particularly in light of recent research showing that 98 percent of people really can’t successfully multi-task.

But the real horror lies in the possibility that this merger will invade Word, the ubiquitous Microsoft software used by nearly everyone who writes anything. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Randall Stross, a business professor, reports that in a powerpoint presentation, the leaders of the two companies showed a graph called “a professional profile everywhere” with a disturbing set of arrows, one aimed directly at Word.

This arrow may be a dagger to the heart for writers everywhere, who want nothing more than to be left alone while writing. Does anyone want an online intrusion saying “here’s an expert who knows more than you do about this topic”? Surely not. We have Google for that, and it can be distracting enough, taking us down rabbit holes of tangential information so arcane we lose track of what we came there to find out.

What anyone who writes – whether it’s a letter, a novel or a thesis – really needs is simply to be left alone. So, note to Microsoft and LinkedIn: Don’t interrupt. Please.

In bed with a cadre of birthers, bigots and buffoons

In bed with a cadre of birthers, bigots and buffoons

Poor Paul Ryan. The nation’s highest ranking Republican and Speaker of the House describes comments by Donald Drumpf about a judge with a Hispanic surname as “a textbook definition of racism,” but can’t quite bring himself to withdraw his endorsement of the candidate. Most of his party colleagues concur, fearing that an open split in their party will cost them seats in the House and Senate this fall.

Thus, the leadership of the Republican party – the party of Lincoln – has sold its soul. By accepting Drumpf as their standard bearer, they’ve lowered their standards right down into the gutter.

This is a sad time for those Republicans like Senators Lindsey Graham and Mark Kirk, and for Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and others who have the integrity and courage to oppose Drumpf. And for those still on the fence, it must be sobering to read the very moderate Tom Friedman, writing in the New York Times, “If a party could declare moral bankruptcy, today’s Republican party would be in Chapter 11.”

Having once climbed into bed with them, Republican leaders now find themselves locked in a smothering embrace.

But Drumpf didn’t suddenly fall out of the sky. His candidacy is, as many have noted, the full flowering of an eight-year- old backlash against the election of our nation’s first black president. Obama’s success drew America’s most virulent strain of racism out of hiding and was a major driver of the Tea Party’s “take back our country” rhetoric.

During those eight years, Republicans slid slowly into acceptance of an ever more extreme cadre of birthers, bigots and buffoons. Having once climbed into bed with them, Republican leaders now find themselves locked in a smothering embrace.

Last week, Ryan’s painfully illogical position of disavowing the racism of the racist candidate he supports overshadowed his attempt to gain some media attention for his proposals for a new Republican agenda to address poverty. Republican positions on international trade deals, immigration reform, foreign policy and other issues are also being pushed aside by Drumpf’s insistence on representing only the reality TV audience that attends his rallies.

Tom Friedman proposes starting a New Republican Party from scratch – one that is committed to some basic principles such as “pluralism, immigration, democracy, trade, the rule of law and the virtue of open societies,” and free from dominance by special interests. Today’s Republican party, he believes, is now beyond redemption.

But of course the problem isn’t just that Drumpf is ruining the Republican party; it’s that if elected, he will ruin the country. And ruining our uniquely powerful country will surely wreak ruin on the rest of the world.

The alternative, Hillary Clinton, may present another dilemma. If electing the nation’s first black president caused this incredible backlash of nativist, racist energy, what will electing the nation’s first female president cause? Are Drumpf’s statements and behavior regarding women red flags?

If the popularity of Donald Drumpf shows us anything, it’s that a lot of people are nostalgic for the bygone era of white supremacy and male dominance, and willing to support an authoritarian leader in a vain attempt to return to that past.

It will be a happy day when our country is finally beyond these first-of- a-kind candidates, and beyond the backlashes they provoke. Until that day, our challenge as both Republicans and Democrats is to clearly and unequivocally reject those dark impulses, and keep working to create a civic culture where the quest for full equality and moral progress matters more than transitory partisan advantage.

Summer: it’s a time for purposeful idleness

Summer: it’s a time for purposeful idleness

One of most annoying burdens of growing up Protestant is the nagging belief that idleness is a sin. Summer is definitely the time to throw off this sadly mistaken belief.

The truth is, doing nothing is arguably quite virtuous. When we are truly idle we burn no fossil fuels, harm no fellow creatures, and annoy no one.

Yet people stay busy – and often annoyed – even on vacation. They load up campers, hitch on boats, and head for the nearest freeway. Or they strap on backpacks, climb into kayaks, or fly away on airplanes. All of these activities require planning, buying, burning and consuming.

Once I read in a garden magazine about a man who decided to spend his vacation closely examining his own back yard. After two weeks, he reported, he had only made it halfway to the back fence. He had spent most of his time on his hands and knees with a magnifying glass, observing the insect life in his garden. He said it was like visiting another world.

Purposeful idleness calms the mind, lowers the blood pressure, and restores all the scattered pieces of our selves to their proper places.

I think about him often — both when I see insects whose lives are a mystery to me, and when I look at the stars and think about what is little and what is big. I think his adventure was probably equal to that of any astronaut. And he didn’t burn up any rocket fuel.

But of course, he was actually doing something. It takes a little more focus to really do nothing.

This is especially true at home, where there are always unfinished — to say nothing of un-started — household projects. We need to remind ourselves periodically that these projects are unimportant; that telephones won’t break from going unanswered, and that it is perfectly legal to hang a Do Not Disturb sign on a door to a house rather than a hotel room. (It gives the neighbors something to talk about, too.)

For those who garden, learning to be idle at home is a special challenge. The weeds, after all, are out there growing at every moment of the day and night. But the very most beautiful sight in my back yard comes from a neighbor’s neglected corner, where an un-pruned, un-fertilized rambling red rose has climbed up an old plum tree and cascaded artfully over the back fence. Such reminders of the benefits of inaction are everywhere, if only we think to look for them.

But to develop the fullest appreciation of idleness, it is necessary to turn to the Buddhist masters for instruction. (No one, after all, talks about the Buddhist work ethic.) The Buddhist practice of meditation has worked its way into our mainstream culture because sitting still and doing nothing reliably makes people feel better. Purposeful idleness calms the mind, lowers the blood pressure, and restores all the scattered pieces of our selves to their proper places.

But you don’t have to be a Buddhist to behave like one, especially during the summer.


The Pacific Ocean | George Le Masurier photo

Must we go to Mars to appreciate Earth?

Must we go to Mars to appreciate Earth?

When Earthlings first saw photos of our planet taken in space, it sparked a flowering of awareness that all humanity shares a common home – our inexpressibly beautiful and fragile blue dot. Our annual celebration of Earth Day arose from this new consciousness, and this new sense of shared responsibility for the health of the whole planet.

But more recent advances in space exploration may instead offer the promise of an escape from this responsibility.

The Kepler spacecraft recently discovered 1, 284 new planets. The total number of planets that may support life – those in the Goldilocks” zone where there might be water and habitable temperatures – is up to about two dozen.

And Elon Musk’s SpaceX is actively planning to colonize Mars sometime in the 2030s.

The best we can hope for is that adventures in space will teach humanity what an unfathomable wonder our little blue dot of a planet is …

While human curiosity and ingenuity make space exploration inevitable, colonizing other planets still seems highly improbable to us, since our biological selves are not well adapted to anyplace but earth. This is one major reason they call Star Trek science fiction.

But more visionary people disagree, and are rabidly enthusiastic about space travel and the prospect of living on planets light years away.

This evokes a new uncertainty in the relationship between humans and the earth.

Does the possibility of finding a home on another planet weaken our bond with earth, and make people less committed to repairing the damage we have done to it? Will the day come when humans have so abused our home planet that it no longer serves our needs, leading us to abandon it? This is the worst that could come from the prospect of travel to other planets.

We find ourselves hoping that further exploration will find that none of the Goldilocks planets can support human life without insufferable hardship. And if Elon Musk does actually mount an expedition to Mars, we expect its major value will be a demonstration of just how miserable and difficult it would be to live there.

The best we can hope for is that adventures in space will teach humanity what an unfathomable wonder our little blue dot of a planet is, and inspires them to come home and take care of it.

To paraphrase Chief Seattle, the earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth. We always have been and always will be earthlings. Truly, there’s no place like home.