How Will This End?

“How will this end?”

In this terribly divided time, many are asking that question. As it happens, our current divide reminds me of something I witnessed in Panama when I was young. The divide then – between fervent Americans and equally fervent Panamanians – was as fierce as anything we see in the U.S. today. The fact that divide ended might give us hope, but that end only came after five terrible days.

I was an American 6th grader living in the Republic of Panama and going to school in the Canal Zone. On January 9th, 1964 I saw the effects of my first political experience explode into the world news and leave 28 dead and many more injured.

Life Magazine cover with photo from Panama riots

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 then was how quickly spirited fun and frivolity can turn to tragedy and fear.

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 a kind of 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. The Zonians weren’t happy with that order either.

Shortly after we returned to school from Christmas break that year, I became aware of a growing restiveness among many 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 couple 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.

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, the Panamanian flag was torn, and soon riots were raging along the Canal Zone borders on both sides of the isthmus.

The next morning my father 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.

Photo of burned out Pan Am building.

The riots persisted for 4 more days. When they were over, they left millions of dollars in property damage and at least 28 people dead.

Beyond the visceral fear I experienced during those riots, I distinctly remember how the Zonians acted after they ended. After the shock over the death and destruction, they never spoke of what had preceded it, and they put up minimal resistance to the Panamanian flags flying with American flags throughout the Zone.

Eventually, canal treaty negotiations that had opened because of the riots led to the dissolution of the Canal Zone all together. The Zonian belief that they could preserve their illusory American colony from “foreign” interlopers blew up in their faces, eliminating their “homeland” instead.

I learned from those days that 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.

This is what happens in Fritz Lange’s movie “Fury.” It tells the story of Joe Wilson (played by 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.

Poster for "Fury"

The mob’s passions subside with the flames, and in the cold light of the following day the shock of what they had done fills the perpetrators with shame and denial. Nobody wants to acknowledge what they’d done; they just want to go back to their normal lives. Events in the rest of the movie prove that wasn’t possible.

The self-righteous anger and passion I hear from Trump supporters reminds me of the time before those 1964 riots. As with the Zonians, the idea of any change that acknowledges the concerns and feelings of people not like themselves has inspired an unreasoning rage against all involved. Only the feelings of those who oppose such change matter. As far as they are concerned, nobody else matters.

As I watch and listen to these people, I can’t help wondering what kind of event will shake them the way the Panama riots shook the Zonians. Sadly, it seems that is the most likely way this divide ends.

If we look at the big picture offered by modern science and by current events, it’s clear we live in a diverse, interconnected and interdependent world. This fact is not welcomed by those who, one way or another, benefited from the previous world order.

Today we are confronted by a schism between those who welcome this new world and those who oppose it. With history as our guide, we can predict that someday this divide will end, and we will move forward and adapt to today’s dynamic new world. But we may have to go through some terrible days to get there.

=== 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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The “Job Creator” Myth

Quick – which came first: economies or wealthy elites?

I raised this question because some politicians have a passion for referring to the wealthy as “job creators” – inferring that the well-being of the economy is tied to the well-being of the wealthy elite. The House Republicans made the claim in 2017 that their massive tax cuts would benefit “job creators.” Former House Speaker John Boehner once claimed that “job creators are on strike.”  There’s even a group of business leaders who have established something called the Job Creators Network.

Since the middle of 2011, it has become almost impossible to find a Republican who will say that someone is rich. As Jon Stewart noted at the time: “Republicans are no longer allowed to say that people are rich. You have to refer to them as ‘job creator.'”

The question begging to be asked in all of this is whether the wealthy are, in reality, “job creators.” Based on a look at the facts involved – including both relevant statistics and insights provided from modern science – I believe the answer to that question is NO.

In an article about Boehner’s “job creators are on strike” claim, the website Crooks and Liars offered an array of numbers that don’t support his claim. They pointed out:

On January 9, 2009, the Republican-friendly Wall Street Journal summed it up with an article titled simply, “Bush on Jobs: the Worst Track Record on Record.” (The Journal’s interactive table quantifies his staggering failure relative to every post-World War II president.) The meager one million jobs created under President Bush didn’t merely pale in comparison to the 23 million produced during Bill Clinton’s tenure. In September 2009, the Congressional Joint Economic Committee charted Bush’s job creation disaster, the worst since Hoover:

The reason Republicans claim the rich are “job creators” is that they believe in “trickle down economics.” According to Investopedia:

Proponents of this theory believe that when government helps companies, they will produce more and thereby hire more people and raise salaries. The people, in turn, will have more money to spend in the economy.

Basically, if you let those at the top of the economic pyramid have more, the benefits will “trickle down” to everyone else.

This reflects a classic mechanical, “top down” view of how things work. In such a world, those at the top of an organization – be it economic, social or political – “operate” the machinery of the organization. They make the decisions and call the shots. Those below them in the hierarchy follow their orders.

If those on top operate the machinery properly, they reap the benefits; those who follow orders are compensated as those on top see fit. If they don’t operate things properly, then (in theory) the organization replaces the operators. It’s all very controlled and orderly – especially for those in control at the top. At least that’s the way it should be according to the believers.

Unfortunately, after 38 years of trickle down economics, it’s pretty clear things don’t work that way. How could we have such economic inequality if they did?

So why don’t they work? It’s because they’re based on an outdated world view. Proponents of trickle down economics – basically Republicans and conservatives – have been looking at things from the traditional paradigm of Newtonian physics, which presented us with the “mechanical universe.” According to this paradigm, the best way to understand things is mechanically: an organization can be structured according to distinct tasks, each making a discrete contribution to the larger task of generating value, with everything managed according to classic command and control principles.

This view of management, which was the basis for mass production, was very successful for industrial production in the 19th and 20th centuries. And from this perspective, it might make sense to focus on those at the top who are “operating” the machinery.

However, some have begun to recognize that the mechanical universe is an illusion. As Dr. Brad Cox noted in a 2004 presentation titled “Command and (Out of) Control – The Military Implications of Complexity Theory“:

The Newtonian paradigm was so compelling, so neat, so logical – in short, so “right” – that it saw and imposed regularities where none existed. For the sake of finding solvable problems, science simplified reality by assuming an idealized world. It connected the discontinuities and linearized the nonlinearities – in short, it simply ignored all the countless inconsistencies and surprises that make the world – and war – such a complex and interesting problem.

The evidence is unmistakable: the Newtonian paradigm no longer satisfactorily describes most of our world (if it ever did). Science is slowly coming to recognize that the world is not remotely an orderly, linear place after all.

The same thing is true in economics. As Richard Wagner noted back in 2003, in an article in Financial Advisor:

Trouble is, our money words tend to ground in old models, particularly 17th Century physics and 19th Century biology. They have yet to incorporate the integral visions of 20th Century quantum physics or ecology. The result: “machines” vs. “ecosystems.” Not wrong, but not necessarily helpful. Often harmful. Mechanistic metaphors induce linear thinking that doesn’t accurately reflect 21st Century money. And money is hard enough without dysfunctional underpinnings. Unfortunately, inappropriate metaphors contribute to misunderstandings and questionable actions.

If we want to get beyond “inappropriate metaphors” that lead to “misunderstandings and questionable actions,” we need to face the facts. Trickle down economics doesn’t work, those at the top of the economic scale are not “job creators,” and making the rich richer will not make the economy stronger.  But where does that leave us?

We need to get to the bottom of this – literally.

One of the basic principles of complexity theory is called emergence. According to this principle, complex systems – be they biological, military, economic, etc. – develop from the bottom up.  As Dr. Cox explains in talking about military battles:

Evolution moves from the simple to the complex. Healthy complex systems evolve by chunking together healthy simpler systems. Attempts to design large, highly complex organizations from the top down rarely work, if ever. This merely confirms what successful military organizations have long recognized: success starts at the small-unit level. Build strong, adaptable squads and sections first. Train and equip them well – which includes giving them ample time to train themselves (i.e., to evolve). Give them the very best leaders. Give those leaders the freedom and responsibility to lead (i.e., let them act as independent agents). Then chunk the teams and squads together into increasingly larger units.

What this means is that if you want to improve the economy and create jobs, you need to focus on the simplest element in the economy: the individual consumer. If they feel economically secure and have sufficient funds, they will buy products, which will stimulate production, which will lead to the need for more workers. As venture capitalist Nick Hanauer blogged in his post “Raise Taxes on the Rich to Reward True Job Creators“:

…I’ve never been a “job creator.” I can start a business based on a great idea, and initially hire dozens or hundreds of people. But if no one can afford to buy what I have to sell, my business will soon fail and all those jobs will evaporate.

That’s why I can say with confidence that rich people don’t create jobs, nor do businesses, large or small. What does lead to more employment is the feedback loop between customers and businesses. And only consumers can set in motion a virtuous cycle that allows companies to survive and thrive and business owners to hire. An ordinary middle-class consumer is far more of a job creator than I ever have been or ever will be.

From the perspective of emergence, this is easy to understand. It’s not just “quantum sense” – it’s common sense.

Say you have some money and a passion for baking. So you decide to open a bakery. If your cakes and pastries are affordable and a hit with your customers, they will come back to buy more and tell their friends about your shop. The end result? With more and more customers you prosper – eventually to the point you need help and hire others.

But what if your customers don’t like your shop? What if they think your cakes and pastries taste bad or are over-priced?  What if your shop is not convenient or they just don’t like you? It doesn’t matter how much money you have. Unless you make the right changes, your shop is never going to prosper. At the least, you won’t be hiring others to help you. More likely you’ll be firing any help you have and sooner or later you’ll go out of business.

And if you’re the richest person in town and hardly anybody else has money for cakes and pastries? The end result will be the same. Without enough customers, your shop is doomed.

The essential point here is that an economy is a complex emergent system. It starts out as something small and simple; only as it grows does it become more complex.

The earliest economies really were small and simple. Unlike market economies or even barter economies, they were “gift economies,” in which people gave things to each other – often without an expectation for immediate or future compensation. As economic anthropologist David Graeber described it:

…what would really happen, and this is what anthropologists observe when neighbors do engage in something like exchange with each other, if you want your neighbor’s cow, you’d say, “wow, nice cow” and he’d say “you like it? Take it!” – and now you owe him one. Quite often people don’t even engage in exchange at all – if they were real Iroquois or other Native Americans, for example, all such things would probably be allocated by women’s councils.

As societies grew larger and more complex, their economies gradually evolved into what we now call a market economy. However, we still can find examples of gift economies in modern life. These include free software like Mozilla and websites such as Wikipedia. In a sense this is also true of science itself, in which discoveries are shared with others who are then free to build on them. The main benefit received by those doing the sharing is an enhanced reputation – a kind of variation of Graeber’s “you owe him one.”

So, getting back to my original question: which came first: economies or wealthy elites? As emergence teaches us, the answer is “economies.”  While more or less wealthy elites may develop in an economy over time, they are not the primary force behind that economy’s growth. Most importantly, they are not the “job creators.”

If we truly want to be effective in promoting economic growth and creating jobs, we should use what we learn from emergence. Let’s stop giving special favors to the rich and powerful, and let’s start focusing on the well-being of the real job creators – the middle class consumer.

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The End Of The World As We Know It

Back in 1987 REM had a popular song proclaiming “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” That certainly seems to fit the spirit of the times today. But that was also the feeling of physicists back in the early 20th century.

Werner Heisenberg, discoverer of the Uncertainty Principle, observed back then: “The violent reaction on the recent development of modern physics can only be understood when one realizes that here the foundations of physics have started moving; and that this motion has caused the feeling that the ground would be cut from science.”

Fast forward to life today: it seems things are similarly going out of control. We see institutions that are crumbling, traditional values that are often disregarded, and governments that are unable to effectively address the serious problems we face. We wonder how the future will turn out, when so many events in the present are so disturbing. We feel the old rules no longer apply, but we don’t seem to have a clue about what the new rules are. If there are any.

As in modern physics, our world has dramatically changed in the past 100+ years. Just as modern technology has enabled scientists to learn more about the make up and workings of matter, modern technology has enabled us to learn more about the make up and workings of the world we live in.

Most people in 1900 knew less about what was happening 100 miles from where they lived than we know now about events on the other side of the world. Life was simple back then because there was no widespread knowledge of viable alternatives to local customs and beliefs. People were born into a culture with an accepted set of values, and that was what they believed for the rest of their lives.

In today’s global village, it is impossible to believe in a set of values without being aware of the fact that there are many others in the world who believe just as deeply in other sets of values. Belief in the rightness of a particular way of life has become less a matter of tradition or fate and more a matter of individual choice. In such a world, we are each confronted with a question that was rarely asked before: why do we believe what we believe? Confronted with so much change and uncertainty in our lives, we are left without a framework with which to answer this question.

If modern science has shared our sense of upheaval, perhaps we can use its emerging principles to create a new framework for understanding our world and our beliefs. After all, science does more than just provide the tools that lead to the technologies that affect our lives in so many ways. Science also provides a framework by which we understand our world and our place in it. If we describe events in terms of causes and effects, we are manifesting a sense of dynamics that classical science provided for us. If we view ourselves as “cogs in a machine,” we are reflecting the mechanical paradigm embodied in classical scientific thought.

Just as science has had to redefine its world, its findings can help us redefine ours.

– Perhaps if we recognize that uncertainty is fundamental to the basic building blocks of our universe (per Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle), we can come to accept and learn how to deal with the uncertainty that will always be an inherent part of our lives and our world.

– Perhaps a knowledge of the interrelated nature of the quantum world will help us understand and deal with the interrelated world we find ourselves in today.

– Perhaps an awareness of the dual particle/wave nature of elementary matter will help us understand that we don’t have a choice between individualism and collectivism: we are always intrinsically individuals and members of groups at the same time.

– And perhaps we can come to understand, as the science of complexity has revealed, that living systems, be they ecological, economic, social or political, are actually based on the flow of energy (power) from the bottom up within the context of their environment.

“Quantum Sense,” in exploring the social and cultural implications of modern scientific thought, is dedicated to the search for the “new rules” for living in today’s world. It is offered as a small contribution to the necessary dialogue about the values by which we should live.

Perhaps, in using modern scientific ideas to help us understand the world modern technologies have created, we can join in REM’s proclamation:

“It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine”

 

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All Together Now

We’re all in this together.

That’s not a popular thought these days.

These days we prefer to think of how we’re different: conservative, progressive, young, old, white, black, woman, man, Republican, Democrat, Christian, Muslim, Jew, vegan, meat eater, Yankees fan, Red Sox fan, soccer mom, NASCAR dad, beer drinker, wine swiller, etc., etc.

Dueling Marches – Albany, NY

We’re eager to proclaim our differences whenever we can – on Facebook, Twitter, email, the web, the radio, TV, and at marches. For support, we gather together with those who share our values. After all, there’s strength in numbers. We feel embattled and oppressed by those who are different than us. To buck up our spirits for the fight we must fight against our enemies we tell ourselves:

We’re all in this together.

Against THEM.

You’ve got to watch out for THEM. You can’t trust THEM. THEY want to destroy the country. THEY want to destroy our way of life. You can’t believe the crap THEY pour out on Facebook, Twitter, email, the web, the radio, TV, and at marches. THEY are wrong. THEY are liars. THEY don’t know what THEY are talking about. Or maybe THEY know exactly what THEY are doing, spreading lies, half-truths and propaganda to have THEIR way against US.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what their tactics are. But one thing is clear: THEY are responsible for what’s wrong with today’s world.

WE had better watch out, WE had better be on our guard against THEM. WE had better use all the tools WE have available these days to fight back against THEM: Facebook, Twitter, email, the web, the radio, TV, marches. WE have to be strong and stand together as one against THEM. After all:

We’re all in this together.

In the fight against THEM.

WE are ready for this fight. THEY deserve whatever WE can do to them: THEY have it coming. The world would be a wonderful place, WE would have peace and happiness, if it wasn’t for THEM. Because THEY fight US, WE must fight THEM. WE have no choice. The world is a jungle because of THEM.

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine a better world, a world free of fear and hatred and conflict. Sometimes it seems hard to believe that THEY have enough power to ruin the world for US. Is that really possible? Can THEY really do that all on their own?

Or do they need US to help THEM create this jungle world? Is this a Fight to the Death? Or is it a Dance? WE react to what THEY do; THEY react to OUR reaction; WE react to THEIR reaction; THEY react to OUR reaction… and so forth.

This raises a question: if THEIR actions are in response to OUR actions, to what degree are WE responsible for THEIR actions? Conversely, to what degree do THEIR actions determine OUR reactions? Do THEY have some influence over OUR actions?

This raises another question: what would THEY do if WE didn’t react? What if we just did our thing, followed our beliefs, went on our way, and ignored THEM? Would the Dance end, the music stop?

What would THEY do if WE weren’t here?

What would WE do if THEY weren’t here?

And what would the world be like if the music stopped and the Dance ended?

Another question: to what degree are WE defined by our opposition to THEM? To what degree are THEY defined by their opposition to US? Who would WE be without THEM? Who would THEY be without US?

In quantum physics, all things exist in a state of potential until they encounter something that forces them to be defined as THIS rather than THAT. Physicists have a term for this: decoherence.

Maybe that’s what is happening here: our beliefs exist in a state of potential until we encounter the different beliefs of others. Confronted by those beliefs, we are forced to choose: do we agree or disagree? It is only in encountering these different beliefs of others that we come to clearly know what we believe.

Just as we can only know light when we’ve encountered darkness, we can only know what we really value when we encounter others who don’t share those values. We are inextricably linked to our opposite, as black is to white.

If that’s the case, then there’s only one possible conclusion:

We’re all in this together.

Earthrise – 12/24/1968

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Enter The Young

AlbMFOL-11.jpg

Here they come, yeah
Some are laughing, some are crying
Here they come
And some are doing, some are trying
Some are selling, some are buying
Some are living, some are dying
But demanding recognition one by one

Enter the young, yeah
Yeah, they’ve learned how to think
Enter the young, yeah
More than you think they think
Not only learned to think, but to care
Not only learned to think, but to dare
Enter the young

“Enter The Young” – The Association

Among the many amazing things about this past Saturday’s “March For Our Lives,” one thing that stands out to me is its genesis. Only four days after the school shooting in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School  in Parkland, Florida, a group of the surviving students announced the march on Washington, DC. Only 34 days after that, over 1,000,000 people participated in the Washington march or in one of about 800 other marches in every state of the country and every continent except Antarctica.

School shootings have been occurring in the United States ever since November 12, 1840, when law professor John Anthony Gardner Davis was shot at the University of Virginia by student Joseph Semmes, However, for over 120 years such shootings have generally involved few people and were precipitated by some kind of beef between the shooter and the victim(s).

However, on August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman randomly shot and killed 16 people and injured 31 more in what became known as the “University of Texas Tower Shooting” in Austin, Texas.

Such random school shootings have subsequently taken place with an alarming frequency, including Columbine on April 20, 1999 (12 dead, 21 injured; Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007 (33 dead, 23 injured); Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 (28 dead, 2 injured); Umpqua Community College on October 1, 2015 (10 dead, 9 injured); and – of course – Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018 (17 dead, 14 injured).

In addition, there have been numerous other random mass shootings in the US, including the Orlando nightclub Pulse on June 12, 2016 (49 dead, 58 injured); the Sutherland Springs Church on November 5, 2017 (26 dead, 20 injured); and Las Vegas on October 1, 2017 (58 dead, 851 injured).

After every mass shooting, calls for stricter gun control have been deflected by gun rights advocats’ unctuous offers of “thoughts and prayers” for the victims. As the death toll from gun violence of all kinds (school shootings, other mass shootings, and the steady stream of other shootings), frustration has grown over the lack of change in policies and laws to address this problem. Even advocacy groups like Everytown For Gun Safety have been unable to make headway on this issue.

And then suddenly, in the space of 38 days, students from Parkland and many other places around the country have created a groundswell of support for addressing gun violence. While it’s too soon to say how successful they’ll be in the long run, it’s hard to deny their effectiveness at mobilizing a great number of people for this cause.

How they’ve done it will be a subject of study for many. But I think part of the answer can be found in their time in history. I’ve written before that many people in power today came of age and gained power in a different world – before modern technology revolutionized so much of our daily lives. As I noted eight years ago in “Failing Institutions”:

“…many institutions are failing because they haven’t adapted to the ways our world has changed. One thing that’s striking about many of the big institutions finding themselves in hot water these days is that a big part of their problem appears rooted in a mistaken belief that they are able to tightly manage/control the information about problematic issues. Toyota had problems with car defects; it tried to hide them. The Church had problems with perverted priests; it tried to hide them. Goldman Sachs had problems with very risky investments and very shady dealings to get rid of them; it tried to hide them. Tiger Woods had a thing for cocktail waitresses; he tried to hide it.”

In all cases like these, the inability of those in charge to recognize and adapt to today’s world just made things worse.

“However, they apparently didn’t realize that in today’s hyper-connected world it’s almost inevitable that bad things will come to light – whether it’s vehicle flaws, priests behaving badly, devious investment strategies, or adulterous affairs. And now when the news DOES come out, the impact is likely to be much greater than it might have been before the Internet and global communications – especially if it’s apparent there was a cover-up involved.”

For years we’ve been witnesses to the growing incompetence of many in power. We’ve also seen an increasingly frantic reaction by many to the ways our world has changed. There’s a sizable subset of our society who would like to turn back the clock to the 1950s – or even earlier. They’ve been like King Canute vainly ordering the tide not to come in. If we are going to continue to be a dynamic, vital nation, their wishes are impossible to fulfill.

But the tide will always come in of its own accord, and a healthy society will always be changing. The solutions for our current problems will come from those familiar with today’s world. As I noted in 2010: “When the times are changing, the ones who understand and adapt to those changes will be the ones who thrive in what comes.”

The young people who have brought us so quickly to a possible tipping point in the gun control debate have always known today’s world. The Internet, social media, the tricks and quirks of the modern news media – these things have been a part of their lives since they were born. While many of us have been stuck in the past, they have only known the present.

What these young people have done in the past 40 days may be just a foreshadowing of what they might accomplish going forward. For me, being at the Albany march on Saturday and seeing the spirit of the young people there gave me the greatest sense of optimism since 2016.

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“Walking Up” Is Nice – But It Won’t Stop School Shootings

In the wake of the student protests against school shootings, a new meme has come up: #WalkUpNotOut. According to ABC News:

Jodie Katsetos, a sixth-grade teacher at Arcadia Middle School in Oak Hall, Virginia, wrote a message on a large poster board in her classroom that read, “Walk Up Not Out.”

The world first found out about her action when she posted a photo of that message on Facebook. Her post went viral, which then led to ABC News paying her a visit.

The “Walk Up” idea arose in response to the national student protests, in which students walked out of class on March 14th and then observed 17 minutes of silence to honor the 17 people killed in the Parkland school shooting. Katsetos told ABC her suggestion was to augment rather than replace the student walkout:

“I am adamant about it staying positive,” she said about the dual messages of the walk out and walk up. “I’m not pushing either. I made those suggestions as alternatives to walking out and just an everyday reminder to include others and be considerate, which is something that I talk about with students each day.”

While Katsetos may not have been pushing either option, some others apparently view the “Walk Up” movement as a way to deflect from calls for stricter gun control. According to an article on Quartz, retired Texas teacher David Blair, who promoted the idea in a February Facebook post, said: “Gun control or more laws is not, and will not, be the answer.”

Quartz also noted that the Walk Up idea has been spread by groups who support the NRA:

The message is also being spread by adult groups with links to gun manufacturers. A post has been featured on the Facebook page of “One Million Moms Against Gun Control,” which has about 75,000 members, has an NRATV set as its main photo, and is affiliated with “Red Legion Tactical,” which sells military-grade weapons and gear, according to the group’s webpage.

Hmmmm…I wonder if that’s why the idea is “WalkUpNotOut.”

Regardless of where this “Walk Up” idea came from, I can go along with the idea of being nice to fellow students. We live in an interconnected and interdependent world, and making an effort to get along with others is generally a good idea.

However, I do have a problem with the idea that simply “walking up” will somehow prevent school shootings. For one thing, it sounds like victim blaming: if somebody shoots up a school, the inference is that the students must have somehow bullied or been unkind to the shooter. This kind of thinking can lead to the outrageous idea that the victims in a sense were responsible for what happened to them. I’m not saying that’s what “Walk Up Not Out” advocates are saying; but that’s a logical implication.

Beyond that, I don’t believe walking up to people will have much effect on school shootings. I base that belief on personal experience.

Many years ago I worked for the New York State Employment Service, which helped match employers with job seekers. It also served as a mandatory resource for able-bodied people collecting unemployment insurance or welfare, who were required to visit on a regular basis.

I remember one client in particular who was on welfare and visited regularly. She was generally well-dressed and appeared intelligent. She also exuded a certain strong emotional intensity. While she was usually cool and remote, on occasion she would erupt in anger, yelling and at least once slamming a chair against the side of a counselor’s desk.

Our dealings with her finally ended when – for reasons unclear – she threw a neighbor’s baby into a creek. Fortunately, others saw this action and the baby was saved. But her time in the welfare system ended with an extended stay in the corrections system.

Whatever inner demons this woman was dealing with, our being nice to her wasn’t going to make much of a difference. Some people just have such inner demons, and there’s little an untrained teacher, student or some other person can do to “fix” them.

Keeping AR15s out of their hands would be a great idea though.

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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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