Ideas as Rabbits, Writing as Horse-Racing?

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Today is John Steinbeck’s birthday (27 February 1902 – 20 December 1968). Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, and wrote classics such as Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, and The Grapes of Wrath (which won the Pulitzer Prize). As you might expect, Steinbeck had a few things to say about writing.

In the April 1947 issue of Cosmopolitan, for instance, Steinbeck said,

Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.

The trick, of course, is to turn the ideas into fully-formed stories and books. It’s not always easy, and it’s not the most predictable line of work, as Steinbeck observed in a December 1962 issue of Newsweek,

The profession of book-writing makes horse-racing seem like a solid, stable business.

That’s why so many of us ply other trades to support our writing habits. But we persist (as I pointed out last week), whether we consider it art or craft or simply obsession. But how can we persist long enough to create something worthwhile? In June 1969, Steinbeck told The New York Times,

The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.

Certainly the prolific writers I know prove that writing is the most important thing in their worlds — and I suspect one reason why my output is not what it could (or possibly should) be is that I don’t think of my own writing as all that important, and am too quick to prioritize other things over it.

Horse Racing
How does writing compare to horse racing? (Image: “Horse Racing,” by Peter Miller, on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

But before this blog post devolves into self-recrimination, how about something completely different?

Given our current political environment, it seems important to close with something Steinbeck wrote in one of the essays in the last book he published, 1966’s America and Americans.

The President must be greater than anyone else, but not better than anyone else. We subject him and his family to close and constant scrutiny and denounce them for things that we ourselves do every day. A Presidential slip of the tongue, a slight error in judgment — social, political, or ethical — can raise a storm of protest. We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear. We abuse him often and rarely praise him. We wear him out, use him up, eat him up. And with all this, Americans have a love for the President that goes beyond loyalty or party nationality; he is ours, and we exercise the right to destroy him.

Thus it has ever been. So even if writing is less stable than horse-racing, maybe it’s not so bad after all.

(But I still think I’d make a good President.)

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We Must Be Strong

Much of what I observe in our polity today — and over the past several years, frankly — seems calculated to weaken the United States. Sometimes it appears to be for short-term financial or political gain, by people who want to cash in before everything goes Tango Uniform.* Sometimes it appears to be for ideological gain, by people for whom the U.S. represents something terrible.

In contrast, I believe we must not allow ourselves to weaken, to diminish, or especially to disappear. The U.S. must be strong: economically, diplomatically, and most especially militarily. I hold that an enfeebled, chastened, toothless United States would be a prelude to disaster for the world.

"If You're Not Outraged...You're Not Paying Attention!"
Our national symbol, making its voice heard. (Image: “‘If You’re Not Outraged…You’re Not Paying Attention!’,” by Kenny P., on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

Why? Because for all our faults, for all our failings, for all our missteps and miscalculations, we have done more than any other nation in history to protect and preserve the weak by virtue of our strength. The way I see it, in terms of the sheer power at our disposal, we have wielded our strength more judiciously and with less outright malice than pretty much anyone.

If you believe otherwise, I will not attempt to dissuade you in this brief missive. But I will not let your negativity become my prophecy or your perception become my reality. I will not let reports of our decadence and decay or predictions of our doom and decline dash my hope in a better future, or my belief that our systems are the best systems under which people can be free to live and produce and thrive.

We must be strong. I would rather we could demonstrate our strength in ways that build rather than break, heal rather than harm, and even when — not if, in this imperfect world — we need to use our strength to defend ourselves and those we treasure, I would prefer that we do so swiftly, cleanly, with as much restraint as possible. But we must be strong in the first place.

We are not perfect, and we will make mistakes. In spite of our imperfections, however, we are in general a shining example of what is good in the world: freedom of thought, freedom of action, freedom of association. If we are to remain so — both free, and an exemplar of the best that freedom conveys — we must remain strong.

___
*A technical term.

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Feeding Upon Corruption

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Given the response to the first full week of our new Presidency, it seemed fitting to share one of my favorite quotes about our tendency — and here I use the royal “our” when in particular I am thinking of the media and of political pundits — to think the worst of those we dislike or with whom we disagree, and to give voice to the worst of our thoughts.

This week’s quote comes from the Occasional Meditations of English churchman Joseph Hall, specifically number 31, under the title “Upon the Flies Gathering to a Galled Horse.” The language may be a bit difficult (it was published in 1630, after all), but it will reward a close reading:

How these flies swarm to the galled part of this poor beast; and there sit, feeding upon that worst piece of his flesh, not meddling with the other sound parts of his skin!

Even thus do malicious tongues of detractors: if a man have any infirmity in his person or actions, that they will be sure to gather unto, and dwell upon; whereas, his commendable parts and well-deservings are passed by, without mention, without regard. It is an envious self-love and base cruelty, that causeth this ill disposition in men: in the mean time, this only they have gained; it must needs be a filthy creature, that feeds upon nothing but corruption.

Horse Fly
“It must needs be a filthy creature ….” (Image: “Horse Fly,” by Jonathan Bliss, on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

Does that not describe our sensationalist media? Does it not often describe many of the rest of us, as well?

Do we not, from time to time, gather at the metaphorical wounded flesh of an opponent, feast upon the blood and fill our bellies with the gore? Is it not both self-serving and cruel for us to do so? Does it not say something about us that we focus our attention not on that which is admirable, but on that which is tainted? Yet of course we do so with only the best of intentions, or so we tell ourselves, forgetting where good intentions leave us.

This week, even when it comes to people with whom I disagree, I think I’ll try to find things I can commend more than condemn. You’re welcome to try the same.

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Monday Morning Insight: The Angry Truth

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

 

It’s the last Monday of 2016, and I think everyone will agree it’s been quite a year.

One characteristic of this year, and especially this political year in the US, has been the sometimes difficult relationship both sides of our cultural divide have with the truth. From presenting things as true that are unverified, to believing things to be true in the face of reasonable doubt, to “news” from various sources that ranges from fake to simply untrustworthy, truth has sometimes been hard to find.

With that in mind, it seems like a good time to focus on a little piece of wisdom I read a long time ago from Wally Bock, a Marine veteran and management consultant here in North Carolina. I wrote it down when I first read it, and it’s a warning many of us should take to heart:

You can hide from the truth, but it will find you. When it does, it will be angry.

Truth ->

“Truth ->,” by Jeremy Brooks. (On Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

 

It may seem odd for me to focus on an idea like that; after all, my first album was called Truths and Lies and Make-Believe. “Perceptions and illusions,” I sang, and I meant it.

But the idea that angry truth may find me one day gives me pause. So I don’t offer any commentary on the quote, just a suggestion — for myself as much as for anyone — for this week leading up to the New Year and maybe, just maybe, for the New Year itself: Don’t hide from the truth. Face it. Acknowledge it. And either learn to live with it, or find a way to alter it.

___
P.S. If you want to know more about Wally Bock, here’s his web site. And here’s his June 2009 blog post that ended with this week’s quote.

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Monday Morning Insight: The American Crisis

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

 

On this date in 1776, the first article of a series known as “The American Crisis” was printed in the Pennsylvania Journal. Written by Thomas Paine and signed “Common Sense” — after his own pamphlet which had been published in January and was fundamental to the case for the colonies’ Independence — the series was meant to encourage the American public to remain steadfast in the Revolutionary War.

Paine wrote the first article in a particularly dark moment of the war, when General George Washington had been forced to retreat across the Delaware River. Washington had the article read to his troops to bolster their morale. And how could it not, with an opening like this?

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

The American Crisis

The first page of “The American Crisis,” number one (1776). (Image on Wikimedia Commons.)

 

Two hundred forty years later, our republic — for which Paine and so many others risked so much — is in the latest of a series of recurring but relatively minor crises over how best to govern our affairs. In some respects this may be because “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly,” and a great many of us have obtained a great deal with far less labor, risk and cost than our forbears.

I don’t think this latest internal strife is the existential crisis that some have made it out to be; in spite of all our faults and foibles, I remain optimistic about our prospects. But this passage from further on in “The American Crisis” seems particularly apt:

‘Tis surprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run through a country…. Yet panics, in some cases, have their uses; they produce as much good as hurt. Their duration is always short; the mind soon grows through them, and acquires a firmer habit than before. But their peculiar advantage is, that they are the touchstones of sincerity and hypocrisy, and bring things and men to light, which might otherwise have lain forever undiscovered. In fact, they have the same effect on secret traitors, which an imaginary apparition would have upon a private murderer. They sift out the hidden thoughts of man, and hold them up in public to the world.

In the days of our Revolution, panics spread through word of mouth and the printing press: how different from these days of mass media and rapid messaging! And in this modern age, many people — whether secret traitors or not — are all too quick to reveal their hidden thoughts even without a panic, especially when those thoughts are hateful or destructive or degrading. The concept of shame has fallen out of favor, after all.

It is hard to deny that recent events have been “touchstones of sincerity and hypocrisy” in our ongoing discourse, and have brought things to light about many of us … about our prejudices and preferences, our desires and depravities … “which might otherwise have lain forever undiscovered.” These are just the latest in long lines of events, monumental and minuscule, that have prompted outpourings of angst, turmoil, and passion. Yet I still remain optimistic about our future, that we stand a reasonable chance of getting through these strange days with our nation intact.

And in the end, as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy points out, some of the best advice may simply be, “Don’t Panic!” Because this panic, too, will come to an end.

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Monday Morning Insight: My Country, Right or Wrong

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

 

Since the week starts with Election Day Eve, I thought this 1872 quote from U.S. Senator Carl Schurz (2 March 1829 – 14 May 1906) would be appropriate:

My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.

When we vote, we either vote to keep the country right or to set the country right. It depends on our point of view, whether we think the country is or isn’t moving in the right direction.

But the work goes on after we vote, too.

(Image: “2016,” by Gordon Johnson, on Pixabay under Creative Commons.)

 

Every day we have the chance to keep our little corner of the country right, or to set it right if it begins to go wrong. It’s harder work than voting (when we vote, we delegate the work to others), but it’s more direct.

And if more of us did the work, it would be far more effective.

The trouble is, recently so many people have put so much effort into tearing down each other, a lot of work needs to be done no matter who wins the election. I hope we’re up to it.

But, have a great week, no matter what happens tomorrow!

___
P.S. Don’t forget, if you’re not already sure who you want to vote for, you’re welcome to write in yours truly for any office, anywhere.

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Third-Party Voting, and Baseball

Or, more precisely, third-party voting and the World Series.

I get it: a lot of us are sick of politics, and in particular of one or the other or both of the major party candidates. As a result, many of us who would normally vote along with one of the major parties are thinking and talking about voting for a third-party candidate.

I’m not sure I can do that.

The way I see it, a usually reliably major-party voter opting for a third-party candidate is equivalent to pulling for the White Sox or the Reds in this year’s World Series.

(In case you missed last night’s Game 1, or you’re not much of a sports fan, only the Cubs and the Indians are actually playing in the Series.)

In other words, I feel that if I voted third-party, it would be like cheering for a team — any team — that’s not even on the field. It certainly wouldn’t be cheering on the winner, helping them to victory, and it wouldn’t even effectively be cheering against whichever of the two teams I’d rather see lose.

Image: “The great national game — last match of the season to be decided Nov. 11th 1884.” Macbrair & Sons Lithograph, from the Library of Congress online collection, showing “a sandlot baseball game of presidential hopefuls with James G. Blaine pitching to Chester A. Arthur, with Samuel J. Tilden behind the plate and Roscoe Conkling as umpire, at first base is Benjamin F. Butler with a handgun in his belt, at second base is John A. Logan holding Ulysses S. Grant close to the bag, at shortstop is John Kelly, and at third base is Sereno E. Payne, in left field is John Sherman and in centerfield is Samuel J. Randall. They are playing on a field labeled “Potomac Flats” with the Potomac River in the background.” (Click here for a larger image.)

 

Maybe your third-party vote is more clear-cut. Maybe you believe in the values represented by the Libertarian Party or the Green Party or whatever, and consider yourself affiliated with them. Maybe you’re an Independent, and have no history with either the Democrats or the Republicans (and certainly no loyalty to either). If so, more power to you on your third-party selection.

But maybe, like me, you usually vote for a particular party. (If it matters that you know, I usually vote primarily Republican, though I don’t recall ever voting a straight ticket.) And since I usually ally with one of the major parties, I see voting third-party as a de-facto vote against my usual party.

If I vote third-party, it will not send any kind of message to the Republican leadership. It might clear my conscience or assuage my guilt by giving me the ability to say “I didn’t vote for X” when they try to implement some ill-considered policy. (Talk about self-interest in politics. I could achieve the same result by simply not voting.)

Heinlein had it right when he pointed out that if we have nothing or no one we want to vote for we can surely find something to vote against. Voting third-party may feel good, as if I’m voting against both of the major parties, but it seems like a damn ineffective way of doing so because it cannot prevent the side I find most disagreeable from winning.

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The Power of a Single Thought

I had a dream last night, but I can’t remember anything about it because in that tenuous state between sleeping and waking I had another thought — specifically, an idea related to a short story I plan to write — and that thought drove every vestige of the dream from my mind.

And, in the process, it impressed upon me the power of a single thought: that it only takes one single thought to crowd out all other thoughts. One single thought, if we concentrate strong enough on it or if we find it sufficiently compelling, will color our perceptions and bind us in mental chains.

I admit that this observation is not really new or particularly profound — others have pointed out our tendency to hold on to and defend various ideas in the face of contrary evidence — but it hit me this morning in a powerful way.

Consider this: complete each of the following sentences with the first thing that comes into your mind.

  • Hillary Clinton is a __.
  • Donald Trump is a __.
  • Gary Johnson is a __.
  • Jill Stein is a __.

Locked and Loaded

What strong chains we forge to bind our thinking! (Image: “Locked and Loaded,” by Thomas Hawk, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

Was your first thought about each of them positive, negative, or neutral? It likely depended on where you fall along the political spectrum and, in the case of the Libertarian and Green party candidates, whether you know much about them at all.

Now, consider each of the following statements that may be considered observable facts:

  • Hillary Clinton is a lawyer.
  • Donald Trump is a businessman.
  • Gary Johnson is a businessman.
  • Jill Stein is a doctor.

How do you react to those simple statements about the career paths of the candidates, based on your first thought about each of them? Do you find that the first thing that came to mind earlier influenced your reaction to the next thing that was presented?

It seems to me that those first thoughts become our filters, the lenses (rose-colored or otherwise) through which we see the world. The first thought, especially if it conveys a value judgment, becomes, if you will, a self-fulfilling mental prophecy.

This applies to more than just politics, of course, but the political example occurred to me this morning because it’s particularly timely. In some respects this tendency is wired into the way we think and learn: according to Theory of Knowledge, we form concepts and then test those concepts against reality, but sometimes our concepts affect how we perceive reality. As a result, I’m not sure any of us can (or if it would even be desirable to) remain completely objective, with neutral impressions of everything. We are not Vulcans, after all.

But maybe, if we recognize this mechanism in our own thinking, we can be a bit more accepting, a bit more forgiving, not by rejecting our first thought or convincing ourselves that our first thoughts are wrong, but simply by recognizing that our first thought may be incomplete.

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Some ‘Anti-Candidate’ Post-Debate Thoughts

First, a confession: I didn’t watch all of Monday night’s debate. I missed about the last half hour, I think.

Second, an evaluation: Mrs. Clinton looked poised and was better prepared than Mr. Trump, though that seems a fairly low bar to clear. Mr. Trump’s failure to take what would have been some fairly easy shots at Mrs. Clinton seemed almost deliberately contradictory to his usual “attack dog” style. (Yes, people have pointed out Mr. Trump’s interrupting Mrs. Clinton and the unfortunate moderator, but Mr. Trump seemed mild-mannered and deferential compared to his performances in the primary debates. Whether that was intentional, I cannot say, though I have seen speculation that it was calculated to make him seem less intimidating to voters.)

Now, some more specific observations:

  • Both candidates talked a bit about the National Debt. Mr. Trump made the point about how large it is now, without driving home the point that it is much larger now than it was eight years ago. Mrs. Clinton made the point that Mr. Trump’s proposed tax cuts would add to the debt, without explaining whether her proposed tax increases would actually reduce it. But the moderator missed an opportunity to ask them one simple question: Are you going to balance the Federal budget every year? Because if not, then you’re not going to reduce the National Debt.
  • Mrs. Clinton scored some points with the “Trumped Up Trickle-Down” phrase, and she praised her husband with respect to the booming economy we enjoyed during his Presidency. Then, however, she made the curious statement that trickle-down economics led to or was responsible for the recent recession. I found that curious because trickle-down economics was not a hallmark of George W. Bush’s 2001-09 term; it was a hallmark of Ronald Reagan’s 1981-89 term. If trickle-down economics lasted until the 2008 recession, then, that would imply that the economic policies of the intermediate terms didn’t count for much.
  • Mrs. Clinton also scored points by pressing Mr. Trump about his company’s failure to pay suppliers for services rendered. I would like to know the story behind that, and the terms of the agreements that were violated — or that were negotiated so strongly in favor of the Trump conglomerate.
  • Just once I would like to see a debate in which one of the candidates actually takes a moment to explain what is and is not the President’s job. With respect to economics, for instance, to explain a bit how the budget process works (I’m not sure Mr. Trump knows very much about that). With respect to military matters, instead of sniping at each other about who has a plan to defeat ISIS/ISIL/Daesh/whatever the Islamofascist quasi-Caliphate is calling itself today, it would be refreshing to have a candidate say, “No, I don’t have a plan because that’s not the Commander-in-Chief’s job. That’s why we have a Secretary of Defense; that’s why we have Combatant Commanders; that’s why we have the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I will give them direction, they will recommend courses of action, and I will make the decision. Next question.”
  • The two of them had a lot to say about policing, but policing is a local issue rather than a Federal one. It would have been nice to have them discuss whether they think the Executive Branch has a role in local matters, and if so what that particular role might be, rather than hearing about whether “stop and frisk” was or was not effective when it was in place in New York City.
  • The crime and gun control portion was one of Mr. Trump’s missed opportunities. A simple question that he could have asked: How many criminals and gang members have ever gone through a background check in order to purchase a firearm legally?
  • The question about cybersecurity was another missed opportunity. Mr. Trump certainly did not display any sort of killer instinct, or he would’ve pointed out the irony of someone trying to come across as knowledgeable about security who could not recognize that paragraph markings in a message denoted classified content; alternately, he could’ve asked about how increased cybersecurity might have protected mishandled emails that, it turns out, included very highly classified information.
  • Also on my list of things I wish Presidential candidates would talk about in order to show that they understand or at least appreciate National Security and military-related issues: the DIME: the instruments of National power.

Prepping the debate

(Image: “Prepping the debate,” by Leigh Blackall, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

In the end, I was disappointed that the smaller-party candidates had not crossed the threshold of making it onto the debate stage. That might have been more entertaining, and almost certainly more enlightening.

It is easier, of course, to talk about playing the game than it is to play the game: to analyze the debate afterward than to participate in it in real time. It may be that if I had the chance to debate I would not have fared any better. Then again … I think if I had a team of people to help prepare me and quiz me, I would be able to hold my own.

Put me in, Coach. I’d love to take a swing at it.

___
P.S. I’m the Anti-Candidate, and I approved this blog post.

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Monday Morning Insight: the Educated Electorate

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

 

It may do little to improve your Monday to remind you that tonight is the first Presidential debate of the 2016 election. Here’s something to think about as the debate looms, from a letter written this week in 1820 by Thomas Jefferson:

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.

undecided

A photographer spotted this bus in Australia. I feel as if I’m riding it to the end of the line. (Image: “undecided,” by Vanessa Pike-Russell, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

In other words, YOU and I are the “safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society” in which we live. Our government is not, because everyone can point to one or another excess of the government in which it abused its power and curtailed citizens’ liberties. As individuals, we have much less power and inclination to interfere in the lives of our fellow citizens; our government, on the other hand, seems to have little better to do than to interfere in all our lives.

For us to exercise our control over the government and the powers we grant to it — “with wholesome discretion,” as Jefferson wrote — we need to educate ourselves. And if we fail to do so, and allow the government to abuse its power further and so erode ours, then we have ourselves to blame.

Enjoy the debate!

___
P.S. If anyone is interested, I’ll try to compile a post or two about how I would answer tonight’s debate questions.

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