A Key to Intellectual Vitality

Physical fitness results from two things, engaging in physical activity until muscles break down, and replenishing the body with healthy food and rest, especially sleep. As a result of this pattern, one’s muscles spring back a little bit stronger.

In similar fashion, intellectual vitality results from serious consideration of ideas that challenge one’s worldview. Instead of muscles breaking down, one’s assumptions do. Dan Dan the Transportation Man reminded me of this recently. DDTM is a good friend with whom I run about 25-30 miles a week. He’s the Federal Government’s boss man for Washington State’s freeways. Which means whenever anyone in our running posse gets stuck in traffic, we give him shit.

At the end of a recent run, he excitedly told me about a bold traffic experiment taking place in a small town in Northwest England. Here’s the introduction to the story:

No traffic lights. No traffic signs. No painted lines in the roadway. No curbs. And 26,000 vehicles passing every day through a traditional village center with busy pedestrian traffic.

It’s called “shared space.” Is it insanity, or the most rational way to create a pleasant place where drivers, cyclists, and people on foot all treat each other with respect?

The village of Poynton in the U.K. has undertaken one of the most ambitious experiments to date in this type of street design. . . .Variations on the shared-space model have been implemented in other European cities since the early 1990s, but never before at such a busy junction. Poynton’s city leaders sought the change because the historic hub of their quaint little town had become a grim and unwelcoming place.

After explaining the concept of “shared space”, Dan said, “It challenges everything I’ve always thought to be true about traffic planning.” Intrigued, he’s wondering whether some elements of the concept can be applied in Washington State. It speaks well of his intellect that he’s open to entirely new ways of thinking.

That sounds elementary, but it’s not. Increasingly, people surround themselves with like-minded people. We suffer from intense intellectual insecurities so birds of a political feather fly together. Conservative Republicans and Liberal Democrats read different periodicals and blogs, watch different cable television news programs, and listen to different radio stations. Then on the weekend they socialize with people whose politics affirm their own.

As a result, intellectual laziness prevails. It’s not nearly as obvious as our suspect physical health, but our intellectual well-being is just as bad. It’s impossible to maintain any kind of intellectual vitality in an echo chamber. We must exercise our minds by reading material and talking to people who we know see the world differently than us. For example, this weekend I read Peggy Noonan’s Wall Street Journal article titled “The Inconvenient Truth about Benghazi” (nearing 3,000 comments).

Many of my liberal friends wouldn’t read the article because it appears in Rupert Murdoch’s paper and they’ve disagreed with things Noonan’s written in the past. We write one another off, on both the left and the right, all the time. I’m guessing most of my liberal friends would give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt regarding their initial explanation and believe the mainstream media already accurately reported the story. I found Noonan’s article well reasoned; cogent; and in the end, quite damning. My intellect is better for having considered her perspective.

Live differently. Test your assumptions and exercise your mind. Your intellectual vitality is at stake.

The U.S. Electoral College Map Explained

Take a gander.

Since you always aced your social studies courses you already know the President needs 270 electoral votes out of the 538 up for grabs. The winner can lose darn near forty small states, win the most heavily populated ten plus, and be the first to tag the bible on January 20, 2013.

Show the above map to grade schoolers and ask who is likely to win. They’ll say the Red Team.

Even though you understand how the Electoral College works, you probably don’t know why some states tip blue and others red. That’s what I’m here for.

It all starts with cool ocean breezes in the Pacific, upper Atlantic, and Great Lakes region. Those cool breezes translate into more moderate temperatures especially on the West Coast and in the upper Northeast. In contrast, the great, red, middle swath of the country is mired in hot and humid summers and killer cold winters almost all the time. Ocean and Great Lake breezes and cool temps contribute to blood flow, heightened brain activity, and altogether clearer thinking. Sadly, over time, people living in the great, red, middle swath of the country develop cognitive deficits as a result of oppressive heat and humidity and dramatic temperature swings. The technical term for this is Climatic Induced Cognitive Deficit Disorder or CICDD.

Also, until the last presidential election, very few people knew that on clear days you can actually see Russia from the West Coast of the U.S. That proximity to Russia—coupled with shared suffering during earthquakes, mud slides, and forest fires—explains the more collectivist mindset of Left Coasters.

Then there’s dietary considerations. Reds don’t just like their heat, humidity, and bugs, they like breaded and fried meat casserole-based potlucks more specifically. All washed down with whole milk. Blues prefer roasted vegetables, fresh fruit, and wine. That explains the dramatic physical health divide, which like the climatological differences, translates into a mental health chasm. Eat well, be well, think well.

Then there’s preferred outdoor activities. This time of year Blues hike among trees and meditate silently upon their changing colors all while looking forward to snow shoeing and cross country skiing. Reds hike among trees too, in search of large defenseless animals to shoot and kill. Then they drag them home, bread them, and fry them. All while looking forward to firing up their snowmobiles and making lots of noise and pollution. Blue outdoor activities lead to enlightenment. Red to blight and lunacy.

Then there’s different artistic sensibilities. Blues prefer classical music, independent and foreign films, modern dance, national public radio, and The New Yorker. Reds, country and heavy metal, Arnold Schwarzenegger films, reality television, Fox News, and The Washington Times. Heightened enlightenment and even greater lunacy.

Class dismissed.

Bridging the Political Divide One Mile at a Time 1

The first in a two-part series. The election is heating up so I thought it was time to “reprint” this essay which appeared in the Tacoma News Tribune in October 2004. At the time, it struck a chord with quite a few people.  

Increasingly it seems birds of a political feather almost exclusively fly together. All of my teaching colleagues are Kerry supporters as are the parents from my daughter’s soccer team; on the other hand, I live in a Bush-Cheney neighborhood (2008 update: surprisingly, the Obama signs outnumber the McCain signs). I buck this trend towards ideological segregation four times a week when I run between 10 kilometers and 10 miles with M, my neighbor, friend, and loyal training partner. M is a conservative republican; I’m a liberal democrat.

Our friendship, formed over several thousand miles of running together over the last six years, is unique. Few people have close friends whose politics are markedly different than their own.  People prefer associating with like-minded friends who affirm rather than challenge their thinking, their values, and their politics. We are either too insecure to engage with those who think and vote differently than us, or it takes too much energy, or we haven’t figured out how to disagree with one another without compromising our friendships.

My friendship with M gives me hope when pundits tell us our country has never been more divided and partisanship has never been more pronounced. How do we, as red and blue runners (2008 update: dated cliche), bridge the political chasm that exists between us?

We bridge the chasm by spending time together getting to know one another as people. 

We pass the miles debating the merits of the war in Iraq, multiculturalism, Title IX, gay marriage, candidates for political office, and tax and education reform (2008 update: Sarah Palin). Sometimes I measure our debates by miles telling my wife after a run, “We had a nine mile debate on gender differences and athletics today.” Our political disagreements often lead to personal stories, stories that help me respond more thoughtfully to M’s conservative claims.  The nature of my internal dialogue has changed from “How can you be so stupid or reactionary to take a position like that?” to “What in your past might explain you’re taking that position?” In listening to M’s stories, and learning his story, I better understand his politics. 

In interacting with M, I have also learned to appreciate many of his personal qualities including his work ethic and unpredictable sense of humor. More importantly, despite our extreme political differences, we have learned we hold some important values in common. He is as committed to his wife, kids, church, and friends as I am to mine. We work hard and respect those with whom we work. We both try to make our corners of the world better than they otherwise would be in our absence. In the end, M’s human decency matters more to me than the way he votes. 

We bridge the chasm by respectfully considering each person’s position on specific issues while realizing neither person is going to forsake their overarching political philosophy.

People are threatened and fearful of political differences. When a dinner party guest states an unpopular point of view, typically he or she is met with awkward silence. Conservatives don’t just want liberals to support the President’s actions in Iraq; they want them to passionately embrace the ideas of limited government and free market capitalism. Similarly, liberals don’t just want conservatives to oppose the death penalty; they want them to passionately embrace the ideas of pluralism and social justice. 

To be continued.