Intentional Silence

An interesting tension is building between two profound changes.

The first change is the privileging of marginalized people’s voices in debates about contemporary issues like policing, systemic racism, capitalism, and criminal justice. Increasingly, this means silencing whites, especially wealthy, heterosexual males so that people of color, gender atypical people, heterosexuals, and the poor can be empowered in ways they’ve long been denied. This phenomenon is completely understandable if you know the history of policing, systemic racism, capitalism, and criminal justice in the (dis)United States.

Despite knowing the history and understanding that impulse, some caution is in order, because in its most extreme form, a strict privileging of marginal voices can become a reverse silencing which is antithetical to a vibrant democracy. It’s understandable why people who have been silenced all their lives want to do whatever is necessary to finally “have the floor”, but completely silencing any particular group’s voices is not a viable long-term strategy for strengthening the common good.

The second, more recent change, is the notion that “silence is violence”, an idea that informs this essay by Mark Fraser, a Caribbean-Canadian hockey player. This is the idea that not speaking up about injustice makes one complicit in it. Here Fraser applauds “white peers” for speaking up:

“I cannot recall a time in my life when I have cried for a week straight. I cannot recall a time when I have been on such a roller coaster of emotions. But out of everything I’ve read or heard this week, what has hit me the hardest and has made me shed the most tears is seeing my white peers stand up and say, ‘This isn’t right.’

I cannot express the deep, deep emotion that is stirred up inside me seeing people who have only ever known white privilege stand up and join our cause. This is a moment in history that we should all want to look back on and think we contributed to forward progress in fighting against systemic racism.

. . . . The majority have to speak up and stand up for us.”

Fraser’s perspective contradicts the first trend, and in doing so, illustrates pluralism’s complexity. The take-away is that diverse thinking is even greater within ethnic groups than between them. Expecting people of color, or African-Americans more specifically, to think and act the same way because of similar skin pigmentation is among the most oppressive things of all.

It’s great that Fraser is finding strength in his white friends’ words of support, but many people of color spent the week getting even more angry as high profile whites in entertainment, sports, business, politics, and other industries made ignorant, insensitive comments that they then quickly apologized for in desperate attempts to salvage their personal brands.

If they had only uttered Fraser’s three words, “This isn’t right,” maybe things would’ve been different. But they were not nearly that succinct. And the more they wrote and talked, the worse things got. It was a week-long argument for intentional silence.

Maybe it’s time for people of my complexion, who share aspects of my privileged background, to consciously stop writing and talking. To press pause. Different than a forced silence, I’m advocating for a voluntary one marked by active listening.

And a week, or a month, or a year, after a change in administrations, let our first words form questions. About what it was like to be George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery. Or what it is like to be Marques Brownlee or Mark Fraser.

Then maybe, we will rise above our differences, find commonalities, and begin building a more just and better future.

ap_20155577134993_2500Stringer/Sputnik via AP.

 

 

 

Not For Sale

These are strange days. The Good Wife kicks off most with an early morning walk through the hood, visiting assorted animals, and then stopping at Jim’s at the end to pick wild flowers.

We never met Jim, who lived two houses away, he died before we moved in, but his story lives. He was generous to a fault, much more committed to caring for others than himself, which explains his dilapidated home that’s now owned by some bank. Like Jim, his yard keeps giving even in its natural state, especially in its natural state—apples, pears, and amazing flowers.

The GalPal should’ve been a florist because she is a natural at arranging flowers. And they bring her incredible joy. She just beams at them. I’ve tried talking her into setting up a table out front where she could sell her bouquets to passersby so that I could buy more raspberry chocolate gelato as the weather warms, but she has no interest in homegrown laissez faire capitalism.

Probably because she studied abroad in Sweden in college. Whatever the reason, do not look to her to jumpstart our moribund economy. But by all means, do look to her for natural beauty.

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Democracy Is Cool When You Vote Like Me

I’m not Bernie Sanders’ target audience. I’ve benefitted way too much from capitalism; I’m okay with my health insurance; and our recent weather aside, I’m not nearly angry enough. AND LISTENING TO HIM IS LIKE READING MILLENNIALS!!!

But I’m even less fond of the James Carville’s* of the world and other liberals who are constantly ripping Sanders youthful supporters. Instead of whining about them, try these alternatives.

Stop castigating them for their idealism; instead, affirm their engagement in the political process. For every committed “Bernie bro” there are ten apolitical apathetic people their same age. And hell, if they don’t start out idealistic, what chance do they have?

Set your Boomer pragmatism aside long enough to consider their perspective by substituting questions for the incessant, negative diatribes. Write these on an index card and put it in your shirt pocket. Why Medicare For All? Why a wealth tax? What’s it like having so much student debt? Why such an intense concern with climate change? Why dismantle capitalism? Then move on to their stories. If you’re not careful, you might learn WHY they vote differently than you.

The more respect they receive from mainstream Demos, the more likely they will be to eventually support another candidate in the case another candidate wins the nomination. Right now, given the knee-jerk invective they’re constantly subject to, I wouldn’t blame them if they simple say “A pox on both of your houses.” Which, of course, is the worst possible outcome.

*Pains me to write that, because during his Bill Clinton administration heyday, I really liked Carville. I found his smart, funny, direct, Southern, Creole riffs on all things political super engaging.

How Not To Indoctrinate Students

Excellent advice from David Gooblar’s Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “What is ‘Indoctrination’? And How Do We Avoid It in Class?

His answer. . . by modeling open-mindedness and intellectual humility.

Gooblar thinks we can guard against closed-mindedness if we:

“. . . admit when we’re wrong, discuss our failures, and let students know when we’re unsure about something.”

When researching my doctoral dissertation, I spent two months closely studying a master high school teacher with a PhD in Mesopotamian history. Most PhD’s in Mesopotamian history would fall FLAT on their face if required to teach high school, but not this one because he never flaunted his intellect. One time, I recall, he started a story about something he had recently read about Egyptian pyramids. “I recently read in a book, but I don’t know if it’s true, . . . ” With one simple phrase, he demystified textual authority. The take-away, reader beware, authors are flawed.

However, there’s more to the “indoctrination story” than Gooblar reveals. A year ago, I was teaching an interdisciplinary International Honors course to a dozen whip smart juniors and seniors at my liberal arts university. One session, when discussing economics, a winsome but exasperated senior said, “I’ve never had a single professor here say anything positive about capitalism.” And on a scale of “1 to 10” in terms of liberal, liberal arts campus cultures, I’d rate my university a 4.

I thought long and hard about that statement, but also the student’s seeming resistance to critically question obvious, albeit unintended, negative consequences of unfettered free-market capitalism. As a conservative surrounded mostly by liberal faculty and peers, did he feel compelled to overcompensate? “I’m planting my flag on the hill of free-market capitalism come hell or high water!”

No, I don’t think that’s what was happening. I also taught the same student writing four years earlier in a seminar where we got to know one another well. I was reminded in the Honors course of how close he was to his mother whom he talked about affectionately. When I probed a little about how he came to his pro-capitalism views, he talked about his mother’s passion for it and their numerous conversations about it from when he was little. His hesitance to question capitalism as an economic system didn’t have anything to do with peer relationships, it had everything to do with his love for his mother. To even question capitalism, let alone reject it like an increasing number of his peers, would’ve required him to reject his mother. Far too high a cost to pay.

When teaching anything remotely political, that is the educator’s dilemma—how to honor each student’s familial context while also challenging them to expand their worldview. Or more specifically, given our example, how to celebrate the beauty of a loving child-parent relationship, while simultaneously cultivating critical thinking about closely held, unquestioned assumptions learned from birth.

How do educators challenge students to thoughtfully confront their families ideological blindspots knowing their intellectual awakening will disrupt those cherished relationships?

 

We Project Our Work Worldviews Onto Others Without Realizing It

A good friend of mine spent decades as a sales manager. Now he manages managers. His compensation has always been based in part on commissions; as a result, he thinks employees are almost entirely motivated by money. Not just his employees, all employees. He’s grown so accustomed to the cutthroat competition of his workplace, he thinks free-market capitalism is the answer to whatever the question is. There’s no public sector, tenure, or labor unions in his work world, so they are economic problems, not solutions.

He’s a conservative. Another good friend, a liberal, is a transportation engineer for the Feds. Since he’s in charge of Washington State’s highways, I like love to complain to him about my daily commute. As an engineer, he believes any problem can be solved if we’re just rational enough. One form that rationality takes is letter writing. He thinks everyone should write letters, like he does, to people in leadership positions because they still influence policy even in this information saturated, digital world in which we live. And he’s absolutely right, the world would be a better place if everyone followed his lead.

But his engineer friends and him don’t seem to appreciate how differently other people think. People like me. I confess that I don’t feel much sense of efficacy at all. If I’m honest, I feel like my worsening commute is done to me, I feel totally defenseless. As evidence of that, I don’t even vote in a lot of local elections. I’m an educated writer, so if I feel that way, how many others are likely to pick up paper, pencil, envelope, and stamp despite our engineer friends’ very well intended rationality.

That sorry state of affairs didn’t stop my friend from sending me an email yesterday titled “Public comments wanted on the draft Washington Transportation Plan”. With this little addendum, “No comments made then no whining allowed.” The bold is him raising his voice which he only does when a local high school football ref makes an iffy call. One more detail to note in the email. “Washington State Department of Transportation seeking input on 20-year plan by Nov. 6.” 20-YEAR PLAN. That’s hilarious.

I’m glad our state’s traffic engineers are thinking in 20 year terms, however, it’s cray cray for them to think non-engineers like yours truly think similarly. In twenty years I want to be napping in my back seat as my car drives me to the Home Course for a quick 18. When I think of transportation infrastructure, hell, when I think of life, the short-term is 1-2 years, the medium-term is 5 years, and the longest term is 10 years.

Note to engineers. Non-engineers think differently. If you want to enlist their help in data gathering and problem-solving, you have to be a lot more savvy in reaching out to them. You’re probably better off delegating it to people rooted in the social sciences and humanities.

This subconscious tendency to generalize from one’s work and then to project one’s work worldview onto others is probably inevitable. As are the associated conflicts and frustrations when others don’t conform to expectations.

I’m sure I generalize from my work and project my work worldview onto others too, I just need to think more about the ways I do that. I will report back in 20 years.

Reader Beware

From today’s inbox.

Hi Ron,

We are interested in sending over a quality and relevant article to your site (pressingpause.com) as a contribution. Is this something you might consider? If yes, please email me back and I’ll be happy to send over the article for your review asap.

Note that the copy will include a few references to our client. We’ll also pay you $100 per post through PayPal, for your time and effort. I look forward to hearing from you, Ron.

Have a good day!

[name]
Marketing Manager
[email address]
http://www.letsgetwise.com

You’re probably hip to product placement in television and film, but what about in on-line and traditional print? When reading, do you ever ask, “What am I being sold?” If not, it’s time to start.

Please help me refine my reply to Ms. Marketing Manager. Here’s what I have so far.

Dear Ms. Marketing Manager,

Hell no.

Sincerely,

Ronald S. Byrnes

Which Way the Economy?

One of the perks of living in the upper left hand corner, is getting Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) television programming. I dig me the CBC. So much so if hockey was my religion, I might move North.

A recent CBC documentary titled “Secret Suppers of Vancouver” was interesting on several levels. This 2+ minute trailer provides a nice feel for the case study of grassroots economic change.

When new business models bubble up, like Uber and Airbnb, the established businesses they most threaten, such as city-based taxi cab companies and hotels, hire lobbyists to get legislators to pass more and more legal requirements for businesses to operate which makes it virtually impossible for cash-strapped startups to comply.

No surprise that most of Vancouver’s restaurant owners find this loose network of semi-secretive personal kitchens threatening. The restaurateur in the trailer who says, “. . . and I respect the hell out of hustlers” is an outlier.

Some regulation is necessary for large swaths of consumers to trust businesses are competent, and in the case of the food service industry, to ensure public safety is maintained. But it’s wrong to use regulations as a tactic for limiting competition. Doing so stifles the creative destruction that’s part and parcel of a vibrant economy.

I couldn’t help but think about my industry, teacher education (and also charter schools) while watching Secret Suppers of Vancouver. My industry works tirelessly to make sure teacher licensure requirements remain sufficiently rigorous, thus protecting our jobs. Clearly though, one person’s “rigor” is another’s excuse for limiting competition.

Whether Vancouver, San Francisco, or your municipality is getting the regulatory dance just right is something upon which reasonable people will disagree.

It’s too simpleminded to generalize about regulations, we have to ask whether the current level is appropriate on an industry-by-industry basis. Once public safety is assured, we should error on the side of limiting regulations so that new new types of economic activity, like Secret Suppers of Vancouver, will regularly bubble up. Large, established companies should be expected to adapt to upstarts creatively meeting consumer’s needs and desires.

More personally, I was really conflicted by some aspects of Vancouver’s secret supper network. In all honesty, I would love to be a member of the club eating amazing food with all the cool kids. But the movement also has an exclusionary feel to it. You have to have ample social capital to even learn about the personal kitchens and to score an invite. Then you have to have more money than average to be able to afford the exquisite, personalized service.

Watch the full length documentary and then help me be less confused.

 

 

 

 

If Only Schools Were More Like Businesses

Every once in awhile, it’s important to inflict pain on yourself. Builds character. Run a marathon. Fast for a day. Do your taxes. Watch a Wayne LaPierre press conference. Or most painful of all, listen to politicians and business people talk about what we need to do to reform education in the United States.

Their message—breakdown the government monopoly on schools by infusing them with business principles. Most importantly, competition. Between teachers, schools, and districts. Highest standardized test scores win. Their unquestioned premise is that the business community has its shit together. The pro-business propaganda is so steady we start to believe it.

Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

Lots of schools would close every year. But I guess we could just tell the affected families that “creative destruction” is just a natural, even healthy part of the business cycle. They’ll understand. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

And teachers would start relating to students the way my local bankers and insurance agents routinely do, from behind websites, and sometimes via the telephone. Last week I received birthday cards from my bank and my insurance agent. I recycled both cards without opening them. No one at my bank or insurance agency would know me if I walked into their offices. We have no personal relationship, only an economic one. The best teachers know their students individually, and something about their families, their interests, their hopes for the future. But maybe all that effort to connect with students is misguided. Maybe teachers should be more like my banker and insurance agent. Just design some websites where students can get assignments and submit their work and mail out computer generated birthday cards once a year. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

And every school would ace every state assessment whatever the form. Because that’s the way my car dealership works. When I take my car in, I’m told they have to get perfect scores on the evaluation they mail to me afterwards. Heaven for bid if they get any “9’s”. It seems like gaming the system to me, but I guess it’s just an advanced form of assessment thinking, everyone getting perfect scores all the time. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

Most importantly, the best thing about business people is they’re always accountable for their performance. Regular performance reviews ensure it. That’s what teachers need most of all, more business-like accountability! Or maybe not. Here’s Nassim Taleb blowing that fallacy apart:

Those who have the upside are not necessarily those who incur the downside. For example, bankers and corporate managers get bonuses for “performance,” but not reverse bonuses for negative performance, and they have an incentive to bury risks in the tails of the distribution – in other words, to delay blowups.

Read the history of Wall Street from 2007-2008 for sordid example after example. Five years later, in the U.S., there’s a sure-fire way for business people to avoid accountability. Climb the corporate ladder as high as possible. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

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Apple Inc. and the Betrayal of the American Dream

Big week for Apple fanboys and girls. New iPhone. You better keep up with all the cool people and buy one. It will change your life. Well, maybe not, but you’ll be the envy of all those iPhone 4 losers. “Wow dude,” you can say to them, “that’s one short, thick, throwback phone.”

A recent book by two Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporters titled, “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” criticizes Apple for outsourcing too many of its jobs. Here’s a National Public Radio story on the authors and their book.

Even though I’m an Apple fanboy and investor, I believe the bigger the company and the greater its influence in the world, the more we should hold it accountable for being transparent, honoring workers’ rights, and protecting the environment. Apple’s marketing, products, and momentum can bedazzle at the expense of critical inquiry.

I’ve been swapping emails with my friend—Dan, Dan, the Transportation Man—about driverless cars. The last one I sent him linked to an article that suggested, initially at least, driverless cars will cost around $300k. “Just do what Apple does” he wrote back sarcastically, “and outsource it (the manufacturing of the driverless car) to China.”

In the United States, especially during election season, knee-jerk criticism of outsourcing is legion. Few of the critics take any time to consider how much more they’d have to pay for their toothbrushes, clothes, iPads, bicycles, and cars if they were all completely manufactured in the United States. Heaven for bid if we connected a few dots.

In their critique of Apple, I wonder whether the “Betrayal” authors factor in the daily benefits of its products to users around the world. I made light of the newest iPhone, but you’d have to pry my MacBook Pro from my cold dead fingers.

Also, outsourcing is an abomination only when economic nationalism prevails. It’s possible, theoretically at least, to think more globally without sacrificing love of country, and therefore, to cheer job growth irrespective of political borders. Especially given global economic interconnectedness and the fact that most of Apple’s foreign-based employees buy some U.S. imports.

The authors would chuckle at my naivete. They’d point out we continue to run a tremendous trade deficit with China because international trade is conducted on a grossly uneven playing field. China has far fewer labor and environmental regulations, pays workers far less (even when adjusted for cost of living), and places protective tariffs on our imports. The uneven nature of the international trade playing field is a pressing problem.

But I wonder what the authors would say about the charitable giving the GalPal and I will be doing the next few years as a result of recently selling some Apple shares that had quadrupled over the last four years.

For me, the jury is still out on what kind of corporate citizen Apple is. I value critical analyses, but at present, I will continue to use its products and invest in it. I am not a model to follow. Apple’s fate will be determined by the individual and collective decision-making of technology users around the world.

For cutting edgers like me, there’s just one decision left. A black or white iPhone 5?

And The Medium Sized Fish Eats The Small Fish

I often get frustrated with the Michael Moore’s and Rush Limbaugh’s of the world because their ideological analyses slight endless economic, political, and cultural subtleties that require deeper thinking and more tentative conclusions.

Peter Whybrow, in his excellent book American Mania, explains Adam Smith’s work in ways few conservative free-market zealots probably understand. “Smith favored private ownership, with capital being locally rooted,” Whybrow writes. “He distrusted large institutions—be they government or corporate—as forces that foster greed, distorting and suppressing the dynamic market exchange and social intimacy that are essential to fair dealing.

As businesses merge and increase in size,” Whybrow contends, “and as manufacturing and services become geographically remote from each other, the behavioral contingencies essential to promoting social stability in a market-regulated society—close personal relationships, tightly knit communities, local capital investment, and so on—are quickly eroded.”

In other words, your less likely to exploit someone you know.

It’s in this context that I recently read Alpine Experience’s dead-tree newsletter that arrived old school in the mailbox. Alpine Experience is a local independent retailer that specializes in high quality outdoor gear of all sorts. If their website wasn’t so poorly designed I’d link to it. Here’s their slightly less bad Facebook page. I used to have an Alpine Experience t-shirt that said, “Friends don’t let friends shop at chain stores.” I shop at AE once a year when they have their annual sale. When their prices are marked down 30-40%, they almost seem normal.

I like their irreverent, personal newsletter, but I’m sure it’s probably more expensive to produce than they can afford. Inside this issue was an honest, interesting reflection on Olympia’s newish REI store’s impact on AE’s bottom line. The author, I think the store’s owner/manager, said the new REI is definitely impacting their bottom line. Admitted they’ve fallen behind projections and need to have a good winter. I really hope I’m wrong, but given REI’s economies of scale and vastly superior on-line presence, I anticipate AE going out of business.

REI is a large national chain, but its progressive business practices give it a positive, medium-sized, community-based essence. Like AE, it’s a groovy store. It has been voted one of the Top 100 businesses to work for the last 14 years in a row. Read more about its enlightened business practices here.

Recently I was cycling with an acquaintance, an independent architect who has fallen on hard times. He’s taken a job at REI to get by, working as a cashier 16 hours a week. We were discussing the AE-REI tug-of-war. He told me he needed glove liners shortly before getting the job and they were $20 bucks at AE and $7 at REI. Probably an exaggeration, but I suspect comparable products are often 30-50% more at AE. That would be a huge headwind to building a reliable customer base even in a good economy.

Back to Whybrow. REI is not a megacorporation that fosters greed, nor does it distort and suppress the dynamic market exchange and social intimacy that are essential to fair dealing. But it’s not as small nor as local as AE and it doesn’t share it’s long history.

What to make of this capitalist case study?