Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Francois de la Rochefoucauld

When we are unable to find tranquility within ourselves, it is useless to seek it elsewhere.
-- Francois de la Rochefoucauld

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Heraclitus

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.
-- Heraclitus

Monday, January 29, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Robert Caro

Every president has to live with the result of what Lyndon Johnson did with Vietnam, when he lost the trust of the American people in the presidency.
-- Robert Caro

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Montaigne

I quote others only in order the better to express myself.
-- Montaigne 
(perhaps this should be my motto)

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Woodrow Wilson

I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.
-- Woodrow Wilson

Friday, January 26, 2018

Quote of the Day -- John Stuart Mill

Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing 
-- John Stuart Mill

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Scott Adams

Remember there's no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.
-- Scott Adams

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Sara Bloomfield

Well-taught history teaches us about human nature and pushes against common human tendencies. It prevents us from settling on simple answers to complex questions. 
-- Sara Bloomfield, Director US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Book: The Despot's Apprentice

Author Brian Klaas is a hometown boy made good. I remember him as the kid brother of our daughter's friend Ann. He was the little runt trailing after his brother James on the Little League team coached by my husband. Then all the kids grew up and went off in various directions, to their elite schools and careers. I heard about Brian periodically from his mom Barbara. She proudly and nervously described his studies in failed (and therefore not very safe) states. Fortunately, Brian survived his stays in faraway lands and emerged as a widely regarded expert in despotism and failing democracies. I barely recognize the scruffy little boy I knew beneath his very professional looking image. I wonder if he's even acquired a British accent? 

I have yet to catch Brian as a commentator on TV or radio, but I just completed his latest book. And he really is a hometown boy made good. He writes with authority and impressive command of a broad spectrum of information. His argument is logical, articulate, and well-organized.  Most importantly, it flows and it's easy to read. Giant intellects are most impressive when they make their knowledge accessible without dumbing it down. Bravo, Brian!

In the age of Trump, it is difficult not to get a serious case of whiplash wondering which misdeed to focus on -- lying, vulgarity, petulance, nepotism, misogynism? Klaas' book is both clear and comprehensive -- a sure cure for whiplash.

Here is a brief rundown of the chapters:
  1. Doublethink -- lying, cognitive dissonance, convincing people that 2 + 2 = 5
  2. Fake News!  -- delegitimizing the press, especially the critical press
  3. Lock Her Up!  -- demonizing opponents
  4. From Russia with Love -- all the possible ways that Trump and his family are benefiting from a Russian connection
  5. How to Rig an Election --  theories about what happened leading up to November 2016
  6. Divide and Rule -- focusing his supporters on scapegoats (immigrants, black and brown people)
  7. Flood the Swamp -- benefiting financially from the office of President
  8. The Deep State -- inventing a sinister conspiracy against him
  9. Take Your Kids to Work Day -- unparalleled nepotism
  10. The Despot's Cheerleading -- praising and cozying up to other world leaders with questionable ethics and tactics
Klaas' argument throughout is that Trump doesn't rise (or sink) to the level of any of the true despots used as examples, but Trump uses many of the same techniques. Klaas makes a convincing and obviously very frightening case that we're headed in the wrong direction. We need to take civic responsibility and try to turn the ship before we are indeed shipwrecked. Read it, weep, and then do something!

Quote of the Day -- Warren Buffett

Read 500 pages like this every day. That's how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest.
-- Warren Buffet

Monday, January 22, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Bernard Berenson

I would I could stand on a busy corner, hat in hand, and beg people to throw me all their wasted hours.
-- Bernard Berenson

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Do "Great Men" Make a Dramatic Difference?

We recently saw the wonderful movie Darkest Hour, focused on Britain and Winston Churchill during a critical time in the early days of World War II and the fall of France. The film dramatically contrasts Churchill's insistence that the only option for dealing with Hitler was militarily, versus the desire of Neville Chamberlain and others to attempt negotiation. It culminates with focus on Churchill's tremendous ability as an orator to arouse the patriotism of his fellow countrymen. Of course, with hindsight we know that Hitler's crimes were far worse than anyone knew in 1940 and that negotiation wasn't a viable option. I can't help but wonder what the world might be like today if a "great man" like Churchill hadn't arisen at exactly the right time? 

The great man theory was popular in the 19th century, with Thomas Carlyle as one of its leading advocates: "The history of the world is but the biography of great men." Great, of course, shouldn't be confused with good. You can easily argue that the history of the twentieth century was shaped indelibly by another "great man," Adolf Hitler. Which leads to the counter-argument, also popularized in the 19th century by Herbert Spencer, that "such great men are the products of their societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before their lifetimes" (Wikipedia).

Most historians agree that the disastrous Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I led to the economic and social conditions in Germany that in turn led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. We lacked "great men" at Versailles to rise above their justifiable grievances and think about the long-term consequences of bitter revenge. Conversely, we can thank the "great men" at Yalta for doing a better job of negotiating an end to the second great war from the perspective of Europe, although they laid the foundation for the Cold War.

Many great thinkers and writers are intrigued by the trade-offs between larger-than-life individuals versus the surrounding economic and historic conditions as the primary drivers of historic events. Stephen King famously tried to answer the question asked by all of us of a certain age: "What if Kennedy hadn't been shot?" Ultimately, he surmises (spoiler alert) that Kennedy's idealism would have led to an entirely different set of problems than what we experienced with Nixon, but serious problems nonetheless. I guess his bleak view of a world led by Kennedy is supposed to make us find his loss less tragic, but I can't help but wonder? What would the world be like without the untimely loss of Lincoln, or Martin Luther King, or Bobby Kennedy, or Paul Wellstone? The mental exercise of imaging the impact of a great man is simpler than envisioning different societal circumstances.

Which brings me to another "great man" (meaning larger-than-life, not heroic or even good), Donald Trump. In the midst of his presidency, it's difficult to have any reasonable perspective on the lasting impact he will have. Analyses of the factors that drove his election and its potential long-term implications are already extensive.  I was struck this week by an article focused on the international implications of a single wildly offensive remark made by Trump: "Trump's Insults Will Nudge African Nations Closer To China." Despite the arc of history that brought us to this point, it is hard to argue against a "great man" view of history when we see the dramatic effects rippling across the globe each and every day.

Quote of the Day -- Arnold J Toynbee

To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization.
-- Arnold J Toynbee

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Quote of the Day -- John Rohn

We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.
-- John Rohn

Friday, January 19, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Franklin Roosevelt

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.
-- Franklin Roosevelt

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Ronald Reagan

(Yes, really, Ronald Reagan -- or an insightful speech-writer)

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free. 
-- Ronald Reagan

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Erma Bombeck

It takes a lot of courage to show your dreams to someone else.
-- Erma Bombeck

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Epictetus

There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.
-- Epictetus

Monday, January 15, 2018

Maps and Perspective

Last week was a tough week to be an American who values attributes like civility, honesty, and respect for other cultures. According to a reliable "witness," our President (a.k.a. racist-in-chief) referred to immigrants from Africa and Haiti as coming from sh#%hole countries. You could hear people around the world literally gasp. And then you could hear the apologists on Fox News declare that the President was just representing what the average Joe in a bar in Wisconsin would say. First, I think that many average Joe's in Wisconsin would probably cringe at that generalization, just like people around the world cringed at our President's generalization.  And second, I don't want an average Joe from Wisconsin as my president. I think the president should be smarter, better-educated, and more qualified than I am. He should be someone I look up to, not an object of disdain.

I wonder how much our President or the average Joe knows about Africa? I'm sure he's never visited. Does he have any idea how big it is, how many countries it contains, what languages the people speak?  I recently stumbled across this map in my internet wanderings. It's a great perspective on the vastness of Africa -- it can hold the United States, China, the Indian subcontinent and big chunks of Europe. I know from personal experience that the drive through the Serengeti, which is just one part of one African country (Tanzania), seems endless. Africa is immense and immensely diverse -- not to be dismissed with the wave of a hand or a thoughtless remark.

On the other hand, we know from experience in our US elections that size is not necessarily the most important measure of value and importance. People have struggled with many different ways to represent the relationship between population, geography, and electoral votes in the US states. This is the best one that I've seen. While it's true that both the US Senate and the electoral college are designed to make sure that rural America has a voice, this map demonstrates that their voice has become disproportionately loud. We live in an urban world. We live in a diverse world. And we need to find a way to better represent that in our political system. (By the way, you can find much more detail about this map and the ideas behind it here.) 

Maps like statistics can be useful or they can be misused. And they can also teach us that size isn't the only thing that matters.

Quote of the Day -- Martin Luther King Jr

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
-- Dr Martin Luther King Jr

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Dan Buettner

Living longer and feeling better is the sum of a few small easy choices you can incorporate into everyday life. 
-- Dan Buettner

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Henry Ford

Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.
-- Henry Ford

Friday, January 12, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.
-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Theodore Parker

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. 
-- Theodore Parker 
(often attributed to Martin Luther King)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Dave Pell on Oprah

My sense is that the reaction to Oprah's speech is less about her ambitions and more about our yearning for sanity. Compared to what we've gotten used to over the past year, she seemed both very stable and fairly genius. But what if Oprah's speech was less about running for office and more about an even higher calling? What if she wants to be something more important than a president: A citizen who takes a stand. 
-- Dave Pell on Oprah

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Oliver Wendell Holmes

Every now and then a man's mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes

Monday, January 8, 2018

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Paul Coehlo

If you think adventures are dangerous, try routine: It's lethal. 
-- Paul Coehlo

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Evan Osnos

China has never seen such a moment, when its pursuit of a larger role in the world coincides with America’s pursuit of a smaller one. Ever since the Second World War, the United States has advocated an international order based on a free press and judiciary, human rights, free trade, and protection of the environment. It planted those ideas in the rebuilding of Germany and Japan, and spread them with alliances around the world. In March, 1959, President Eisenhower argued that America’s authority could not rest on military power alone. “We could be the wealthiest and the most mighty nation and still lose the battle of the world if we do not help our world neighbors protect their freedom and advance their social and economic progress,” he said. “It is not the goal of the American people that the United States should be the richest nation in the graveyard of history.”
-- Evan Osnos, The New Yorker

Friday, January 5, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Jeff Jarvis

Let’s begin by recognizing that the goal is not to create one shared view of reality but instead to inform discussion and deliberation among many different communities with different perspectives and needs. That’s what society needs. That’s what journalism must become.
-- Jeff Jarvis

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Quote of the Day -- André Gide

Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.
-- André Gide

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Winston Churchill

The malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous . . . They lived from hand to mouth and from day to day, and from one election to another . . . The cheers of weak, well-meaning assemblies soon cease to echo, and their votes soon cease to count. Doom marches on.
-- Winston Churchill

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Ovid

Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence. 
-- Ovid

Monday, January 1, 2018

Quote of the Day -- Paul Smalera

Realize that we live in an era where news rockets around the globe in seconds, and bad news in particular comes with social media booster rockets. Yes, there are big, scary things, like the prospect of accidental nuclear war, that could wipe us out. But it’s no one’s moral obligation to martyr their emotional well-being in order to be plugged into the minute-by-minute developments of the goings-on of nearly 8 billion people. We can’t have empathy for the plight of our neighbors if we don’t first have empathy for ourselves.
-- Paul Smalera, Quartz