Things Have Changed – 2017

Like many people of a certain age, I remember exactly where I was and how I learned about President Kennedy’s assassination. However, my experience of that event was very different from most other Americans.

That day I was in my sixth grade class at Balboa Elementary School in the Panama Canal Zone. It was shortly after lunch, and I was still cooling off after playing outside in the tropical heat. Our school principal, a slight, middle-aged woman, came to the door of our classroom. She spoke briefly with our teacher and then announced to our class that President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. I remember the boy in front of me rather dramatically snapped his pencil in two on hearing the news.

Over the next four days everyone in the U.S. was glued to their TV sets. For the rest of that Friday, they learned what the President and First Lady had done before the tragic event and followed news about the search for and capture of a suspect. On Saturday they watched reports on the investigation of Lee Harvey Oswald and saw preparations for the President’s funeral in Washington. And on Sunday they watched in horror as Oswald was gunned down by Jack Ruby in the basement of the Dallas jail.

In Panama, we didn’t see those events and reports on TV. That is because in 1963 there were minimal satellite transmissions of network TV signals. Those of us living in Panama at that time had never seen live television from the States.

Without live TV coverage, the Canal Zone’s Southern Command Network (SCN) did the next best thing: it broadcast the radio coverage over their TV network. However, without live images to offer, they placed on the screen a static image of what looked like a gravestone: a granite-looking background with President Kennedy’s name on it, underneath which were his dates of birth and death. So we spent the time watching TV but hearing radio reports while looking at a mock-up of a headstone.

Television coverage of that event was the first of its kind. While it would be years before I ever heard of the “global village,” I sensed then that something unique and important had happened. And those of us overseas had not been a part of it. We were “out of the loop.”

Fast-forward to the present and things are very different.

In today’s world everyone is in the loop. With the Internet, satellite communications and cell phone networks, anyone can know what’s going on anywhere else in the world. And everyone sees events happening at the same time. When Barack Obama was declared the winner of the 2008 presidential election, celebrations in front of TV screens broke out simultaneously all around the world. Given what I experienced back in 1963, I found that amazing.

President Kennedy once said, “In a time of turbulence and change, it is more true than ever that knowledge is power.” Today, everyone has access to that power. In many ways this dispersal of power has overwhelmed the world as we have known it. The old world order has collapsed as borders fade, things spin out of control and many familiar institutions appear incapable of effectively reacting to the problems they face. Today individuals and tiny groups can wreak havoc all out of proportion to their apparent size and influence.

It all feels very unsettling and disturbing. The old rules no longer seem to apply, and many people question what the new rules are. Faith in traditions, institutions and political parties has fallen greatly. People are worried; some of them seem to be freaking out.

Rather than blaming one group or another for what has happened, perhaps our first step to address this new world is to simply recognize and acknowledge this change. We can start by noting it has taken place at all levels: for individuals, for governments, for businesses and for cultural institutions. This change is rooted in the revolution in technology that we have been experiencing since at least the 1950s. This revolution in technology, in turn, is rooted in the revolution in scientific knowledge that began in the early 20th century.

To succeed as individuals, businesses and governments, we need to come to terms with the way things are now, rather than the way they were in a warmly remembered past. We can mourn what we’ve lost by this change, much as we once mourned the loss of an inspiring young president. But we must recognize that the past is gone, and it’s time to live in today’s strange new world.

Albert Einstein once said, “No problem can be solved by the same consciousness
that created it. We must learn to see the world anew.” Why not try addressing today’s problems by borrowing concepts from the modern science that has been the source of so much of this change?

  • Physicists tell us the building blocks of our world manifest both individual particle and collective wave qualities simultaneously; the only difference comes from how they are observed. Perhaps we humans are also always both individuals and members of collective groups at the same time. Maybe we’re not either individualists or collectivists, but both simultaneously.
  • Physicists tell us that particles have two basic qualities: location and speed. According to the Uncertainty Principle, the more we can pin down one of those qualities, the less we can pin down the other. Perhaps in a similar way the more controlled and constrained people feel by businesses or government, the more likely they are to rebel against such restraints. Instead of mandating good behaviors, maybe we should focus on inspiring them.
  • Complexity scientists tell us that complex organisms and systems can emerge out of basic ingredients – producing things like a woodland ecosystem or our modern economy. In such instances, the properties of the system emerge from the bottom up, within the context of that system’s environment. (A woodland cannot develop in an arid desert environment, for example.) Might we consider that the qualities and energy of any organization also emerge from the bottom up rather than the top down? And isn’t this what makes democracies more sustainable over time than the reign of any single individual – be they benevolent dictator or tyrant?

These are just three examples of how drawing ideas from modern science can offer us new ways of viewing the problems that so often stymie us today.

Thanks to modern technology – and the science that underpins it – it’s true: the rules have changed. However, thanks to over a century of study and exploration, scientists have been refining a deeper understanding of what the rules really are. Perhaps it is time for us to begin learning these new rules and considering how they might be applied to today’s problems.

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Building Holistically

Architecture is a field that has numerous examples of the benefits of taking a holistic approach to design. Rather than the traditional method of inflicting one superstar architect’s “brilliance” on a community whether the residents appreciate it or not, some architects today view themselves as facilitators of relationships. These professionals investigate the “ecology” of the community in which they’re working, solicit suggestions from the residents and future users of the space, and then develop designs that reflect what they’ve learned. Jeanne Gang – a superstar architect in her own right, who has some fascinating ideas for holistic projects – recently talked about this at a TED conference.

Here in Albany, NY we have a preeminent example of non-collaborative, non-holistic modern architecture: the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza. While I enjoyed working in the Plaza for 19 years, it was reviled by some critics, including the charge that it is “fascistic architecture”:

I wonder what Jeanne Gang’s group would have come up with for that space.

Perhaps, beyond the critiques of its design, comparing the Empire State Plaza today to Jeanne Gang’s Aqua Tower gives us a sense of how much the times have changed. Such a comparison might even inspire a little hope for the future.

AquaTower

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“The Fascinating Physics of Everyday Life”

I just came across this great TED talk by Dr. Helen Czerski, in which she drops the equations for a moment and talks about how physics helps us understand the world we live in.

There is so much about today’s changing world that can make us feel helpless. However, Dr. Czerski suggests that physics provides us with a framework for understanding how things work. With that framework we can get beyond that sense of helplessness and actually have fun exploring our world.

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Fury (There Will Be Blood)

Last weekend a mélange of various white nationalist hate groups – including the KKK and neo-Nazis – converged on Charlottesville, Virginia. While they were there to ostensibly protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, the all too predictable result was chaos and bloodshed.

Given the times we live in, nobody should be surprised by the events in Charlottesville. As I’ve noted before, technology has changed our lives in many ways – helping to empower those who had previously been marginalized while the resulting changes threaten those who had benefited from the previous social order.

Over the past 50 years or so the anger of those who are part of the fading old order has grown, often egged on by various politicians, media personalities and others. The presidential campaign and election of Donald Trump stirred things up even more. Trump’s rhetoric, often tinged with intolerance and hints of violence, invoked a mythical glorious past in which “true Americans” (mainly white and male) were in control and not threatened by “others” either within or outside the country.

In addition to further inciting the anger of his predominantly white base, Trump’s campaign and election has been seen as a signal for fringe right-wing extremists to come out into the open and push their white nationalist agenda. This has led to a gathering storm of unreasoning anger against contemporary society and its values, and against those who embrace them.

Given the huge divide in our country today, as well as the rising passions and anger of those opposed to change, the question arises: how will this end? The answer, I fear, is: there will be blood. Once a mob gets going, it is not open to reason. All too often, the only thing that quells the passions of a mob is some event – to which it is a party – that is so horrific that people are shocked back into reality.

Fritz Lang’s movie Fury offers a powerful study of mob violence.

It tells the story of Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), an innocent man who is accused of murder simply because he was a stranger passing through a small town shortly after a murder had been committed. Agitated about the crime and suspicious of this stranger, the locals soon turn into a crazed mob that gets so worked up they storm and set fire to the jail. In the conflagration that follows, Wilson is apparently killed. The mob’s passions subside with the flames, and in the cold light of the following day the shock of what they’d done fills the perpetrators with shame and denial. Nobody wants to acknowledge what they had done; they just want to go back to their normal lives. Events in the rest of the movie show that isn’t possible.

I personally saw something similar happen when I was living in Panama and going to school in the Canal Zone in 1964. To keep peace with Panama, President Kennedy agreed in 1963 to fly the Panamanian flag wherever the US flag was flown in the Canal Zone. After his death that November, the Canal Zone governor decided to mollify Zonian anger over the Panamanian flags by limiting where US flags were flown. That further angered the Zonians: demonstrations by Americans in the Zone broke out, passions rose, some Panamanian students appeared wanting to symbolically raise their flag, a scuffle broke out, and the end result was 4 days of rioting, millions in property damage and at least 28 dead. After those riots Zonians acted as if they never wanted to acknowledge what had happened, and minimal resistance was put up to the Panamanian flags flying with American flags throughout the Zone. Eventually, canal treaty negotiations opened because of that episode led to the dissolution of the Canal Zone all together.

Finally, another example of how mobs can be radically shaken back to reality by the horror of the results of their actions is Germany. Many Germans became passionate followers of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, and embraced his vision of the Third Reich and the Aryan master race. However, since the end of World War II and the revelations surrounding the Holocaust, most Germans want nothing to do with Nazis and their beliefs.

Last weekend’s events in Charlottesville were very disturbing, and the sight of that car driving into the crowd was horrific. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to have been horrific enough. Those involved in the extreme rightist rally don’t appear at all shamed by what happened; instead at least some of them are branding it a “success.” They’re also making plans for more rallies and marches. It also appears Trump has not been shocked into completely renouncing the extremist groups involved in that rally. Although he eventually issued a statement condemning those groups, it did not convey any of the passion of the many criticisms of others he is known for.

Sadly, it appears events have not yet shaken the extreme rightists – or Trump and his loyal followers – back into reality. I fear something much more horrific is yet to come.

♦ ♦

=== Fair use for January 24, 1964 Life Magazine cover ===

The image of the Life magazine cover was taken from Wikipedia. Though this image is subject to copyright, its use is covered by the U.S. fair use laws, and the stricter requirements of Wikipedia’s non-free content policies, because:

# It is a historically significant photo of an historical event
# It is of much lower resolution than the original. Copies made from it will be of very inferior quality.
# The photo is only being used for informational purposes.
# Its inclusion in the article adds significantly to the article because the photo and its historical significance are the object of discussion in the article.

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Science is more than just an opinion

On this Saturday I will be joining with thousands of people around the world in the March for Science.  While many will be in Washington DC, I’ll be at the one in Albany, NY.

There are many people today who believe – erroneously – that science is just a matter of opinion. As a result, we see popular arguments against scientifically-based matters like evolution, vaccinations and climate change. Thankfully, there are groups pushing back against false science. An example is Climate Feedback’s reviews on news and opinion pieces about climate change, like this dubious Wall Street Journal opinion piece.

The trouble many have is they don’t understand the essential feature of science that differentiates it from run-of-the-mill opinions. Fortunately, Nobel physicist Richard Feynman offered an excellent explanation of this feature in his 1974 commencement address at Caltech, drawing on the experience of cargo cults in the South Pacific:

In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing. … It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in Cargo Cult Science. … It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

As usual for Feynman – he was a very interesting guy – his whole speech is entertaining and I highly recommend it. Early on in it he says

…even today I meet lots of people who sooner or later get me into a conversation about UFO’s, or astrology, or some form of mysticism, expanded consciousness, new types of awareness, ESP, and so forth. And I’ve concluded that it’s not a scientific world.

I wonder what he would think of today’s world of “alternative facts!”

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Cleanup Time

In the sadness and disappointment I felt after the recent US election, I was reminded of similar feelings I’d had many years before, in January 1998. That earlier loss hadn’t involved politics or friends or family. It had been related to an aspect of the Mad River Glen ski area that I had grown to love.

I’ve been an avid skier for a long time, and for many years I’ve had a great fondness for skiing in the woods. Unlike open trails, tree skiing offers a sense of both adventure and intimacy with nature. Since 1996 I’ve worked on crews clearing the “secret tree runs” in Mad River’s woods. In the winter I go back and ski the runs I’ve cleared, as well as others I’ve been shown by friends or discovered on my own.

On New Year’s Day, 1998, a friend showed me a whole new area of tree runs I hadn’t known existed. After that day I couldn’t wait to get back and explore that area some more. But then, only a few days after I’d skied it, Mad River was hit hard by the great ice storm of 1998. When I returned in mid-January, I found all of my favorite tree runs ruined, filled with impenetrable tangles of downed trees and branches. Like everyone else there when the mountain reopened to skiers, I was devastated. It appeared it would be many years before the woods would be skiable again.mrg-icestorm_jan98_12

However, the previous owner of Mad River Glen was philosophical. She observed that ice storms were simply one of Nature’s ways of renewing the forest, knocking down the weak and diseased trees and opening things up for new trees to sprout. It seemed like a faint hope at the time, but it was still a hope.

That spring Mad River sprang into action to repair the extensive damage. While volunteer crews usually only work in the woods during the fall, in 1998 there were workdays once a month throughout the late spring and summer, along with a few more in the fall. And while work crews usually only use hand tools like loppers, saws and scythes, that year professionals with chain saws worked with us.

It was hard work, but by the time the next winter arrived we once again had numerous tree runs open for skiing. Other parts of the woods were marked off for several years, to allow vibrant young trees to establish themselves. And in subsequent years we’ve continued working in the fall to reclaim tree runs. Today, the only sign of that ice storm is a more vibrant forest, through which we can find many runs through the trees.

mrg-me_2015-4-3_sm

April, 2015

Back in 2010 I wrote about about failing institutions, in which I noted that many organizations have not adapted to today’s world. The leaders of these organizations are products of a system in which all major decisions have traditionally emanated down from the top.

This top-down approach stifles creativity and effectiveness. It slows the ability to respond to changing circumstances. It also leaves the organization vulnerable to  damaging news about problems in its operation. When such news has come out, these leaders inevitably compound the negative effects by attempting to “control the message” and to cover things up, rather than to acknowledge and correct the problem. As many have come to learn the hard way, the cover-up has often been even more damaging than the original bad news. For just one of many examples, consider the Catholic Church and its mishandling of its pedophile priests.

The fact is that many of our institutions – in all sectors – are sick with old ideas and traditions that are not suitable for thriving in today’s world. Their leaders are trying to address the problems they face with “tried and true” solutions that no longer work. In government, neither political party is immune. While their goals differed greatly, all of the candidates in last year’s presidential election started from a traditional top-down approach to solutions that in many cases will not work.

I have little doubt that we are in for a very difficult time over the next few years. Those in charge will do a lot of damage and many people will be hurt in one way or another. Our one faint hope is that, just as that forest at Mad River Glen was eventually renewed, in time we will move beyond all of the current negativity and destruction. With a lot of hard work, we can change or replace our failing institutions with more vibrant ones that better serve the people in general rather than just those at the top.

Last Saturday’s Women’s Marches revealed the energy of a great many people ready to tackle the challenges we face. Now it’s time to get down to work and clean this mess up.

ABC News photo of Women's March

ABC News photo of Women’s March

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Swept Away

January 9th is a milestone date in my life. My experiences from January 9, 1964 have etched into my mind a life lesson that I carry to this day. Eight years ago, on January 9, 2008, I shared it from one perspective. Today I want to share it from another. As the lesson starts from the same place, my story about it starts the same way. The perspectives, however, are very different.


Sometimes images from a life-altering event can remain fresh even after 53 years. For me every January 9th brings back images from 1964, when I was a 6th grader living in Panama. That was when I saw the effects of my first political experience explode into the world news and leave 25 dead and many more injured.

life9enero64

I was purely a bit player – a crowd extra – in what led up to that day. The fact that I was only 11 years old at the time provided an element of farce to what transpired. One thing I learned from then was how quickly mindless fun and frivolity can turn to tragedy and fear.

Detailed historical accounts of the events of January 9th, 1964 – Martyrs’ Day, as it’s known in Panama – are readily available here, here and here.

In 1963 President Kennedy ordered that all American flags in the Canal Zone be accompanied by Panamanian flags, to acknowledge Panamanian sovereignty over the Canal Zone. This order wasn’t popular with many Americans living in the Zone, who mistakenly felt it was really kind of an American colony. After President Kennedy’s death, the Governor of the Canal Zone decreed that as of January 1st, 1964, American flags would not be flown over schools, post offices, cemeteries, etc., to avoid the aggravation of flying Panamanian flags there as well. It would turn out the Zonians weren’t happy with that order either.

I was living in Panama because my father’s American company had a warehouse there due to the canal. Because my parents didn’t work for either the U.S. military or the Panama Canal Company, they paid a monthly tuition to send me and my sister to the American schools in the Zone. (It was believed easier to get into an American college from the American schools than from those in Panama, due to the American curriculum. This was why numerous Panamanian families who could afford it also sent their children to the Canal Zone schools.)

Shortly after we returned to school from Christmas break that year, I became aware of a growing restiveness among the Zonians: they were unhappy about the absence of the American flags from the usual places.

The first demonstrations took place at Balboa High School, clearly visible a few hundred yards across a green from my elementary school. Along with the one on the flag pole, there were soon numerous American flags attached to parts of the school, waving in the tropical breezes.

The sentiment quickly spread and demonstrations broke out around the Canal Zone. One such demonstration took place at Ancon elementary school, the other elementary school on the Pacific side of the Zone. Bizarrely, it was reported the students there occupied the administration office (remember, these were elementary school kids), took a flag and ran it up the school flag pole.

At Balboa elementary school, we weren’t quite that brazen. Or maybe the adults in charge were a little more…adult. But we did have lunchtime demonstrations, running up and down the playground waving flags that had magically arrived for us. (Actually, one of the suppliers was a Panamanian classmate named Ramon, who was a natural leader/instigator.) It was all very exciting and fun. So much fun, in fact, that after school we waved our American flags out of the windows of our school bus as we rode through the streets of Panama City to our homes.

Looking back, that was a clearly dumb and provocative thing to do. But what did we know? We were just kids caught up in the moment.

On the evening of January 9th, things came to a head. Panamanian students marched to Balboa High School, where they wanted to symbolically raise their flag and then take it back down and leave. Americans surrounding the flag pole resisted, a scuffle broke out, and the rest – as they say – is history.

For me, the specific chronology of what happened over the next few days has faded from memory. What remain fresh are fragments of memory. My parents had gone that night with friends to the Ft. Amador officer’s club in the Zone. (As a WWII vet, my father qualified for membership and we went there often.) As news bulletins started breaking on the Canal Zone TV station and we gradually realized something was up, we began to wonder how and where they were. (Not really knowing what was happening, they wound up having to make a very circuitous route to find a safe way back across the Canal Zone border to Panama City – encountering a loaded convoy of armored personnel carriers in their journey. )

As I recall, the next morning my dad drove over to the border near Ancon to check out the destruction from the night before. One of the things he saw, which he later photographed, was at the burned out Pan-American building – apparently destroyed because it had “American” in its name. (The building was owned by a Panamanian.) On the side of the building someone had written in red paint “Johnson-you-kill-Kennedy Yankees Killers Go home Soberania O’ Muerte!” (“Sovereignty or Death!”) It was an interesting statement – Haiku-like – revealing an anger at Americans combined with a hinted sense of loss for the recently killed Kennedy. (Only 7 weeks before, Panamanians had widely mourned Kennedy’s death.) It also reflected a certain Panamanian sense of how leadership succession might take place.


The rioting persisted for about 3 more days. During that time, we were confined to our apartment. NBC Monitor, a weekend radio show, reported Panamanians were going from house to house in Panama, dragging Americans out into the street and lynching them. (This turned out to be false, although we did occasionally see cars cruise down our street decked out with Panamanian flags and filled with angry young men.)

There was little else to do, as there weren’t computers, iPods, video games, etc. back then, and the news was frightening. So my family spent countless hours playing Rummy Royal, a board game my mom had gotten us for Christmas. Looking back, it was a peculiar time of crushing boredom and very real fear. It was awful. After the riots ended, we never wanted to look at that Rummy Royal game again.

History will show that the events of that weekend eventually led to the renegotiation of the Panama Canal treaty and the returning of the canal to Panama. The Zonian belief that they could preserve their illusory American colony from “foreign” interlopers blew up in their faces, eliminating their “homeland” instead.

The events of that time shaped me in a number of ways. How I – all of us, really – had gotten mindlessly swept away in the feelings of the crowd made me very leery of large group activities. Years later, when I attended the occasional anti-Vietnam war demonstration, I was always on my guard to avoid getting swept away into any kind of mob action. In retrospect, the events of January 1964 gave me my first awareness of the way individual and group behaviors can be intertwined.

When Barack Obama became President in 2009, it was a time of great hope for many. As the first African American President of the United States, his achievement appeared to signal a new era. It seemed to indicate that we as a country had risen above the racism and division that had stained our nation’s history from its earliest days. It also offered the hope that we might also get beyond other divisions and prejudices that had plagued us for so long.

But from the start in 2009 it became apparent that not everyone shared that hope and enthusiasm for such change. Over the last eight years our country’s divisions appear to have gotten deeper and wider; the passion of those opposed to this change became greater and greater.

There have been a variety of causes attributed to this division and passion. Some feel it’s rooted in the economic upheaval the country (along with the rest of the world) has experienced. Others argue that it’s a reflection of the biases of those opposed to change: their inherent racism, misogyny, nativism, homophobia, etc.

I think each of these issues may be a factor in getting us to where we are now. But I believe on a deeper level the fact of cultural change itself has inspired a passionate resistance to it. It’s a simple fact that America today is very different from the way it was in the 1950s, and many are unhappy with this change. As David E. Stannard noted in his book The Puritan Way of Death – A Study in Religion, Culture and Social Change:

Whereas certain individuals and certain cultures find adapting to change relatively easy, many others, for various reasons, do not.  Their resistance, which may seem revolutionary because it tends so often to focus on overthrowing the new social orthodoxy, is in fact no more than an effort to forestall or at least postpone dealing with the changes taking place around them.

In many ways, the passions I’ve seen expressed by many Trump supporters remind me greatly of the passions expressed by Zonians in 1964. Back then many Americans living there recoiled from the idea that they didn’t “own” the Canal Zone – that the Zone might actually belong to Panama and the Panamanians. Today many recoil from the idea that this country isn’t “owned” by white Christians. Hence the cries to “take our country back.” 

One trait that many Zonians in the 60s and many Trump supporters today share is a willful disregard of the facts. Many Zonians apparently believed the Canal Zone really was American property, even though a reading of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty would make clear the land was leased from Panama. And many Trump operatives and supporters share a lack of interest and concern about objective facts.

Beyond the question of basic facts – or possibly in connection with it – there is also the matter of “mob mentality.” At times a group can get so worked up that people lose themselves in activities that grow increasingly unreasonable – and potentially violent.

I saw this in 1964, when we started demonstrating over the flag. At first it just seemed exciting and fun. But as time went on the energy and excitement of the group built to a crescendo that vitiated reason and self-control. We lost sight of anything besides the fact that we were all united in waving flags. In short order things started happening that in retrospect seem crazy – like a group of elementary-school kids taking over an administration office.

A sad fact of mob mentality is that often it takes an event of shocking violence to bring people to their senses. The riots and death that broke out on January 9, 1964 finally broke the spell. After the riots were over the fever of excitement was gone. Aside from expressions of surprise and shock about events, nobody wanted to dwell on what had happened. It was like waking up after a night of wild drinking: we wanted to just forget about the whole thing. Shortly afterwards, American flags returned to Canal Zone buildings – accompanied (without objection) by Panamanian flags.

Unfortunately for groups unhinged from reality – and for those affected by their actions – reality has a way of eventually making itself known. For the Zonians, reality came in the shape of a renegotiated treaty that abolished the Canal Zone. It is not yet clear how reality will assert itself during a Trump administration. But those who reside in the “reality-based community” understand that sooner or later it will.

The troubling question is: how will we as a country and society return to reality? Will Trump supporters become disillusioned when they realize we won’t return to the 50s; that the rich will continue to get richer while the middle class and the poor drop further behind? Will they be shaken by increasingly weird weather events to realize climate change is real? Will they eventually realize that Trump is simply not fit for the role of President of the United States? Or will something else bring them to their senses?

Or will it take an event of shocking violence – as some of us experienced in Panama in January 1964? Will another war of choice bring disillusionment, as the Iraq war eventually turned people away from George W. Bush? Could it be a shocking collapse of the economy, as we experienced in 2008? Or could it be something even worse?

Or…perhaps we can begin to turn things around by asking what, exactly, makes America great. Many may feel America’s greatness is tied to it’s wealth and economy. But other countries have been wealthy. Many may feel our greatness is tied to our military might. But other countries have had powerful militaries which ruled the world.

In either case, that wealth or power didn’t last. Sooner or later the wealth was lost and the power faded.

In this emphasis on wealth and power we are also faced with the fact that America only became truly wealthy and powerful – compared to the rest of the world – after the Second World War. Does that mean America was not great for most of its history?

If we believe America is indeed great, we need to recognize that it’s not because of our wealth and power. Such things inevitably ebb and flow. And America is not great because we can wave our flag in the face of other nations. Such actions only bring resentment and hatred.

America is great because of our ideals – as represented by our Constitution and Bill of Rights. America is great because even when our leadership differs tremendously on what course our country should take, the succession between leaders takes place through ballots instead of bullets. America is great because, thanks to the flexibility and rebirth enabled by our democratic institutions, we have been able to continually face troubling times and adapt to them, coming out stronger in the end. America is great because at our best, like President Kennedy, we sometimes inspire others with genuine hope and idealism. When we are at our best, many others around the world see us as truly a sweet land of liberty.

Sometimes, a seed of admiration for our idealism shows up in the most unlikely of places – like an angry message painted on the wall of a burned out building.

It’s the peculiar fate of America that even with our military might and wealth, we are not geared to lead the world through coercion. We’re not good at it and, deep down, the idea of empire makes us uncomfortable. Perhaps due to our rebellious origin, it’s not in our national DNA.

It is now January, 2017. We are confronted by a time fraught with danger, led by people who only view America as great through the lens of wealth and power. It will take an enormous effort by many people working to preserve those things that make America truly great. But in this work we can draw strength from the fact that time and reality are on our side. As Stannard said regarding those resisting social change:

…such movements rarely enjoy long-range success.  They result from an opposition of the needs of the emerging social structure with those of the existing group culture…and when such incongruity is not resolved by effective integration of the two competing elements, it has historically been the almost inevitable fate of the traditional culture to give way to the needs of the ongoing social structure.

=== Fair use for January 24, 1964 Life Magazine cover ===

The image of the Life magazine cover was taken from Wikipedia. Though this image is subject to copyright, its use is covered by the U.S. fair use laws, and the stricter requirements of Wikipedia’s non-free content policies, because:

# It is a historically significant photo of an historical event
# It is of much lower resolution than the original. Copies made from it will be of very inferior quality.
# The photo is only being used for informational purposes.
# Its inclusion in the article adds significantly to the article because the photo and its historical significance are the object of discussion in the article.

===Photograph of Pan-Am building by Donald M. Higgins===

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