Good News Everybody! I Made Four New Year’s Resolutions So You Don’t Have To…

I’ve always believed New Year’s resolutions were… well, bullshit to be quite frank. Why wait for a day to roll around on your calendar to decide to change something about your life? Yes, yes – there’s the end of the year and maybe you’ve had some time off from work or spent some time with your family and received just that little extra bit of changed perspective that inspires you to change. If so, go for it! But I suspect the majority of resolutions come about because:

  1. We think we should because everyone is (supposedly) doing it
  2. We’ve tried to make a change in the past and it didn’t work out, so we hope the impetus of a new year is the boost we need to make it happen
  3. We’re desperate due to some unhappiness in our life and we can’t face another year without trying to do something — anything really — to try and change that.

With the exception of number 1 above, those are good reasons, and again I say go for it! (But maybe don’t wait for the calendar to force you. No time like the present and all that.)

So why am I writing a piece the purports to put forward a set of resolutions for all of us if I think they’re not that helpful? It comes down to that “all of us” bit. These aren’t resolutions for each of us as individuals, these are resolutions for us collectively as humans. Now, to be clear, it takes a fair bit of arrogance to presume you have all the answers and while I have never been accused of being overly modest, I honestly don’t think I have all the answers. Or even most of them for that matter. But some things have stood out to me more and more over the past couple years and I want to encourage us to try and address them. I could be wrong and freely admit that, but if one of the ideas below gets you to thinking about something in a different way, I say mission accomplished!

One note about context: most of these came about because of exchanges and postings on the Internet. That, however, does not mean that they only apply there. And that leads to to…

Error MessageResolution #1: Let’s stop pretending the Internet is something different from everything else. Just because communication is broken down to 1s and 0s and then reassembled does not offer some magic transmutation that isolates this mode of communication from everything else. As I’ve written before, there is no “real life” and “online life” – it’s all just life, because it’s us. That’s all the validation it needs. This idea that because something happens online – whether it’s a posting to Facebook, meeting someone, or whatever is different from “real life” is not only wrong, it’s toxic and unhealthy. By distancing what occurs online from “real life” we are hamstringing our empathy, which when it comes down to it, is the only thing that makes the great sea of humanity around us at all tolerable. Without empathy, without the ability to see those you interact with as humans and something like ourselves, interactions devolve into tribalism, wars, distrust, and hate. So basically the worst part of ourselves. When we view “online” as separate from ourselves and our lives, we take no ownership for what happens there. The “tragedy of the commons” writ larger than it has even been writ before in human history and our ability to communicate with each other being the resource being depleted.

There are other aspects as well, especially legal, where it makes no sense to treat what is online or digital as somehow different, but those are mere inconvenience next to the giant morass that is our inability to constructively interact and communicate with each other. One can argue (fruitlessly it seems to me) about what “makes us human,” but when it comes down to what makes a civilization and culture, it’s the ability to communicate and empathize. So if we like that sort of thing, we should probably at least consider this one.

256px-Radio_News_Sep_1928_CoverResolution #2: Stop watching TV news.
I grew up (back in the ancient times of the ’70s and ’80s) watching the local news, the national evening news, and in my later teens, the local evening news. I also grew up listening to news radio and reading the newspaper, weekly news magazines, and pretty much anything else I could read. (tl;dr – my parents were news junkies for various reasons) Then as I grew older and the Web came to be a thing, I stopped. First went the local news. Then the national news. Then the newspapers and magazines. But when it comes to current events, I consider myself better informed than most (thanks Internet and diverse news sources!). For some of you millennials, I’ll probably have to explain that it used to be the case that something wasn’t regarded as having happened until the likes of Walter Cronkite told us so, and then we read the paper the next day to figure out the details of what it was that happened, and then we read a weekly magazine like Newsweek to find out what it all meant. We’d spend up to two weeks just getting it straight in our heads what happened. It was imperfect, flawed, and slow, but it worked in it’s own way.

Then something changed. We got 24-hour news channels. To fill all that time, they’d hype stuff relentlessly, just to keep eyeballs glued to the screen (because that got viewers and that gets advertisers and that gets money). Local and national network broadcasts changed to compete in an escalating war of “This common household product may be killing you!” stories. Then they hit on the real winning formula. Celebrities. But not just movie or sports celebrities – anyone who had the least bit of fame was fair game, and being a democracy, we have a whole host of people who are most notable for being slightly famous – politicians. So now we treat entertainment gossip as “news” and political news as gossip. Today, those channels still have 24 hours of programming to fill, and they continue to create “narratives” rather than news. “The reveal” morphs into “the backlash” which then dives into coverage of “the debate,” and this in turn will sometimes spinoff into the “why this difference of opinion reveals how broken everything is“, and then it all either gets ignored (if it just becomes too boring but no worries – it will be revived later with the “whatever ever happened to…” piece in a year or two) or it merely starts again – rebooted if you will – once some new event happens. I mean, we all complain about movie reboots, but CNN and Fox News have been pulling that crap for years.

So what I’m suggesting is, that no matter your ideological bent,  we all just stop watching TV news. No more MSNBC, no more Fox News, no more CNN… no more network evening news — none of it. Sure, other news sources are just as beleaguered, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with them as formats. Whereas news and TV are inherently incompatible – TV news provides the illusion of being informed with none of the substance – it has no information density and becomes merely an echo chamber. Want to learn something about what’s happening in the world? Do literally anything else. Read a newspaper (if for no other reason than you can tell your grandkids about it one day), or preferably go online. But don’t just go to one site, go to as many as you can – read articles from places where you won’t know what the article is going to say before you read it. Don’t know where to start? Browse Twitter. Sign up for Feedly. Just whatever you do, don’t turn on the TV to get your news – it not only doesn’t work, it pollutes the well of discourse in the name of increasing some megacorp’s bottom line. When a news source becomes more concerned with it’s bottom line than in reporting the news, it should stop being considered a news source.

Resolution #3: Realize no one gets a cookie for being right. What do I mean? I mean that, especially in America, we are so concerned with winners and losers, we’ve lost sight of the fact that not every issue has a winner or a loser. We seem to have become so uncomfortable with gray areas that we avoid thinking or talking about them and every issue becomes a battle between opposing sides, and the ultimate casualties are nuance and understanding. We’ve all become this:

Except we’re all this way with everything now, not just the Internet

To give you an example: the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare.” Back before this was passed by Congress and signed by the President, there was discussion about what the legislation actually did (not nearly as much as there should have been, but some). So what do we hear about now? If you’re a Republican holding office, you’re stance is pretty much required to be “Repeal it!” or at the very least “Sabotage it’s implementation!” And if you’re a Democratic office holder, you’re dictated stance is “Protect it at all costs.” The debate has stopped being about how to generally improve health care in this country, and become who can score the most political points off the opposition over this flawed piece of legislation that nonetheless has improved healthcare for millions.

Photo by sajbrfem / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It’s mental laziness. Rather than thinking about the hard stuff, we drift towards what’s easy: declaring ourselves right, and anyone who disagrees with us as wrong. Never acknowledging what’s wrong in our own assumptions and what’s right in the assumptions of others. I could literally spend all day giving other examples: abortion, the death penalty, climate change, race, guns, police use of force, GMOs, sexism … the list goes on. These issues have become entirely focused on the debates themselves and have lost sight of trying to find solutions that actually might improve the world we all live in. The only time a specific point is raised is when one side attempts to wield it like an intellectual Excalibur to slay every argument of the opposition.

So let’s be clear. Being “right” doesn’t entitle you to anything. No awards. No trophies. And no cookies. And it most certainly doesn’t entitle you to stop thinking about things. Which leads us into…

chooseagain-8ballResolution #4: Choose again. Lastly, we come to this. All good fiction, in my opinion, is transformative for the reader by definition. But once in awhile, you’ll run across something that truly and deeply changes your perspective. Such was the case with myself and Dan Simmons Hyperion/Endymion novels (known as ‘The Hyperion Cantos‘). A fascinating amalgamation of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy liberally sprinkled with literary allusions, it introduces a Messiah-like character named Aenea whose message for mankind is simply “Choose again.” To explain that, let me provide this excerpt from Rise of Endymion, the fourth book in the series:

“I got my message down to thirty-five words. Too long. Then down to twenty-seven. Still too long. After a few years I had it down to ten. STill too long. Eventually I boiled it down to two words.”
“Two words?” I said. “Which two?”

“Choose again,” said Aenea.
I considered that for a wheezing, panting moment. “Choose again?” I said finally.
Aenea smiled. She had caught her wind and was looking down at the vertical view that I was afraid even to glance toward. She seemed to be enjoying it. I had the friendly urge to toss her off the mountain right then. Youth. It’s intolerable sometimes.
“Choose again,” she said firmly.
“Care to elaborate on that?”
“No,” said Aenea. “That’s the whole idea. Keep it simple. But name a category and you get the idea.”
“Religion,” I said.
“Choose again,” said Aenea.

When we look for answers, humans tend to either adopt a stance based on what they think they should (parents, society, etc.) or by rejecting a stance based on what they dislike (again parents, society, etc.) — but, and this is the part where we all fail time and again, we don’t often revisit those assumptions. By believing in them, we take them into ourselves and they become a part of us, and when they are challenged, we react as if we ourselves have been attacked. Once that happens, discussions stop being about the issue and become about us.

The benefits to changing this — to constantly and consistently deciding to “choose again” — are two-fold. First, we can better adapt (you know, that trait that got us from being single-celled critters intent on eating each other to creatures that could wear smart watches and order a Triple, Venti, Half Sweet, Non-Fat, Caramel Macchiato) – to changing circumstances or new evidence. Secondly, by focusing as intensely on questioning ourselves as those around us, we gain better understanding of ourselves and empathy towards others. Institution after institution throughout human history has survived and even flourished by working against this – and yet human progress continues on, always because of someone deciding to choose again. And then the the disruption becomes the new status quo, until someone chooses again – often at great cost.

It’s by no means easy, but let’s realize perfect is the enemy of good enough and give it a try. What can it hurt?

And there you have it…

So if everyone follows these resolutions in 2015, can I guarantee world peace, an end to hunger, and whiter whites and no ring-around-the-collar? Nope. I can’t guarantee bupkis. That’s sort of the whole point. And certainly none of these ideas are original to me. But are any of them inherently flawed? I don’t think so. In my own can’t-quite-shake-being-a-child-of-the-70s way, I do believe if enough people adopted these as their own, the world would be a better place. There is so much energy that we pour into discussions of certain issues without ever realizing we’re talking about effects without ever dealing with causes. So if by some miracle, some consensus is formed that allows us to move forward, we’ve only won a temporary reprieve as the original cause still has not been addressed.

And the original cause is almost always us. Humans. We continue to push back the edges of what we know about the universe and yet spend so little time and attention on understanding ourselves and how we interact with one another. My daughter has already been taught the basics of economics in 1st Grade (she was explaining this to me just the other day), and yet she’ll probably never receive any in-depth instruction in school about:

  • Critical thinking
  • Conflict resolution
  • Effective personal communication
  • Developing emotional intelligence

…suffice to say, the list goes on. We have an educational system that’s main avowed purpose is to turn out the next generation of workers, when what we need is the next generation of decent human beings. Again, I don’t have all the answers, but I know enough to see that things can’t continue as they are.

On a personal note, my goal (no, not a resolution!) is to write twelve posts about these sorts of topics in 2015, one each month. I hope you’ll check back in occasionally.

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I am not fighting for your rights.

I am not fighting for your rights.

I don’t care where you fall on the various spectra of gender, race, ethnicity, belief, socioeconomic class, or sexual orientation. I don’t care if you accept or reject anyone’s ability to label you with any of those things. I don’t care if you’ve lived a life with or without privilege.

It doesn’t matter to me whether you’ve been a perpetrator or a victim of oppression and assault. It doesn’t matter to me if you’ve been shamed or done the shaming. It doesn’t matter to me whether the laughter has fallen hard upon your ears or been launched like a bullet out of your mouth.

Your views on sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll are immaterial to me. As is the taxonomy of your uniqueness as a snowflake.

I am not fighting for your rights.

I am not fighting for my rights.

I am not even fighting for the rights of my children.

I am fighting for the only rights that matter.

I am fighting for our rights. Each and every goddamn one of us.

The people we hate. The people who are different. The people who hate us.

Because the moment I stop fighting for our rights and start fighting for my rights is the moment I lose.

This late night rant brought to you by seeing too much activism simply degrade into bullying and identity politics. You want to bring about change? You want equality, civil rights, and social justice? Then work to bring it about for everyone, because every case of inequality and oppression throughout history is the result of someone else getting what was theirs and then deciding that was enough.

An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Portrait of a Poll Worker

So, as you’re walking to your polling place on Election Day (I’m not giving you the option — just do it), you’ll pass by some individuals hanging out front. They will politely offer you some literature and you will react in one of the following ways:

  • You will politely take it or refuse
  • You will utter something along the lines of “Hell no!” “Not from that party a**hole!” “Don’t you people have something better to do?” “Why do you hand that stuff out? If someone doesn’t know who they’re going to vote for by now, they shouldn’t be allowed to vote!” or something equally polite and/or sensitive.
  • You will make every effort to not make eye contact, but if you do, you’ll pretend you don’t speak English, offer an embarrassed shrug, and hurry past.

I’ve been one of those people standing out front for somewhere around 25 years. I was working polling places before I was old enough to drive or big enough to ride most amusement park rides (so for you smart asses out there, yes, that means before I was 25).

It started out as an obligation. My mom or dad would be working a polling place and they’d drag me with them. As I got a little older (around 14 or so I think), I would work the outside of the poll while my father was inside taking down names so that other volunteers could call the folks who hadn’t voted yet. And then I started doing it on my own.

Pretty much from the beginning of my mom’s career, I had my own polling place shifts. I did the fire station in Annandale, I did St. Albans Church (which I’ve now been working on and off again for about 20 years), I did Sleepy Hollow, Baileys, and Belevedere Elementary Schools — and churches, community centers, and schools all over Fairfax County. I always seemed to have pretty good luck drawing polling places where my mother’s opponents were working as well.

And in all this, I discovered some interesting things.

Old couples like to vote together — in fact, some couples I met had been voting together for more than five decades — and some of them were doing it with the stated intention of canceling their spouse’s vote. Of course, many were voting the same way, but it was the ones that went in bragging about how their vote was going to cancel out their spouse’s that always fascinated me. Did they really do it for just that reason? Did they really vote the way they said they were going to? Or, as I understand a little better myself now having been married for almost 15 years, is it just a little married-life joke that lives on as proof of your commitment to each other?

Some people don’t know who or what to vote for before they show up at the polls. It’s true, and its not just those stupid bond questions or ballot initiatives that most people never read — we’re talking state and federal offices here! But considering that most people don’t vote , especially here in Virginia, where (because of how local, state, and federal elections are scheduled) we have elections every year — can anyone really complain? I mean isn’t a vote decided on at the last minute still better than no vote at all? Especially since most people vote for candidates for silly reasons, i.e. the taller candidate, who they’d like to have a beer with, or whom they are related to.

In fact, here’s one of my best stories about both working at the polls and on why people vote the way they do: It was 1987 and my mom was running for re-election for the first time to the Va. House of Delegates. Her opponent was a local businessman named Strode Brent (how’s that for a politically unfriendly name?). He was basically plucked from obscurity and thrown up as the “pro-business” candidate.

Anyway, point was he was not a “natural” politician by any means and I was working the polls against him at Ravenwood precinct in Fairfax (polling place was my high school – JEB Stuart). A woman walked up and I gave her my best spiel: “Hi! Would you like a Democratic sample ballot? And I hope you’ll vote for my mom, Leslie Byrne!” (I was damn cute delivering this line!). She cuts me off and gives me a sort of “Humpf!” sound and seeing the Republican stalwart Mr. Brent right there, she walks up to him. “Hello Mr. Brent! I remember you — you came and walked through my neighborhood a few weeks ago” she says.

Strode stops — I mean he literally “stopped” — just seemed to go through a mental reboot for a second and he replies “I’m sorry, I don’t remember you.” The woman turns and walks into the polling place, only to return a few minutes later, and says, sotto voce, as she’s walking past me “I voted for your mom.”

Democracy in action!

And I’ll be out there again tomorrow, at least for a short evening shift. It might be raining, and some people will be grumpy because of the weather, or the wait, or just because it’s what they do on Election Day as they play the selfless martyr sacrificing their time to come and vote. But they’ll get no sympathy from me. Because I’ve also seen the 96-year old great grandmother come to the polling place, refuse the offer of the election worker coming to take her vote at the curb, and make her way into the polling place on her walker, at a slow and dignified pace. And I’ve seen the World War II vet come in, proudly displaying a flag lapel pin and a number of discrete medals on his jacket to cast his ballot. And I’ve seen the young immigrant couple bringing in their children to show them how this is done in the country they chose to live in, rather than the one where they were born.

And that’s probably one of the real reasons I do this year after year. Because even though I’m a natural cynic, I can’t help but enjoy seeing this play out every year, bearing witness in a way for each person that comes in to vote. And it’s not some schmaltzy “Oh, we’re a great country coming together to do this!” No, it’s more along the lines of “I will make sure my voice is heard, even if I don’t think my candidate or issue will win.”

As Thomas Jefferson said, “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then.” And what is voting but a ritualized resistance to government, or formalized rebellion?

So whether you’re voting for McCain or Obama, when you see those volunteer poll workers in front of your local polling place, give them a smile even if you don’t take their literature. They are there for the same reasons you are — to overthrow our current government and put in a new one. We may not all agree on the details, but in a conspiracy like this, that’s pretty much always the case 🙂