Monthly Archives: February 2014

Power and Corruption

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

These ominous words from historian John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton have joined the canon of popular catch phrases.

And while some psychological studies argue that power simply “heightens pre-existing ethical tendencies” – bringing out a person’s best or worst morality – the idea that power corrupts seems to resonate.

The popular question, would you rather be forgotten or hatefully remembered? gets to this point as well. As if those are the only options. To be great – to be remembered – is accept your own corruption.

Conceptualized differently, power doesn’t necessarily corrupt so much as it deadens. When radical organizations come into power, they become institutionalized, bureaucratic, attached to the new status quo. What once was radical becomes entrenched and stagnate, needing a new radical wave to sweep it aside.

Much of my work ultimately comes down to questions of power. Examining power, mapping power, sharing power, building power.

But if power is so terrible, why should we fight for it so? And if power is destined to corrupt us, how do we escape that destiny?

Well, for one thing, even if “power corrupts” that is not sufficient cause to leave the corrupt in power.

And if we all shared equal power, or if at the very least if there was less entrenched unequal distribution of power – the ultimate goal of many I work with – perhaps that would mitigate the corruptive influence of power.

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, perhaps we’ll be saved by modest power corrupting modestly. The power of the people should always serve as a check on the power of authority.

And if power corrupts, how can any of us with even a modest modicum of power hope to emerge unscathed?

Perhaps we can’t. Or perhaps we’ll get lucky and power will just make us more ethical after all.

But neither conceding nor hoping sound like sufficient solutions.

Perhaps the best we can do is to be honest with ourselves. To regularly regard our morals, to check ourselves for corruption as we might check ourselves for ticks. To question ourselves, to doubt ourselves, to hold ourselves up to the light and invite honest feedback.

Perhaps what we must do is to acknowledge our own corruption and then join in the fight to stamp it out.

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Exit, voice, and duty

“Idealist” is a somewhat derogatory term.

There are, of course, those radicals who wear the badge with pride – flaunting their faith in hoping for the best in a world which seems to always be preparing for the worst.

But generally speaking, “idealistic” is often used as a synonym for “unrealistic.”

And perhaps it’s just the recent run of Man of La Mancha commercials, but this characterization seems somewhat unfair. I suppose it depends in large part on how you define an idealist.

Did Don Quixote de la Mancha try to reach the unreachable star because he thought he could? Or because it would be unchivalrousness to do less than try?

Should we be the change we want to see in the world, as Ghandi never actually said because that’s they only way to change the world, or because it’s our responsibility to constantly change ourselves to the best we can be?

In Albert O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyaltyhe outlines “alternative ways of reacting to deterioration in business firms and, in general, to dissatisfaction with organizations: one, ‘exit,’ is for the member to quit the organization or for the customer to switch to the competing product, and the other, ‘voice,’ is for members or customers to agitate and exert influence for change ‘from within.'”

For Hirschman, loyalty mediates these two options. If you’re loyal you will stay and fight (voice), if you’re not loyal, you will peace out (exit).

I’d argue that an “idealist” is loyal. An idealist doesn’t have to believe they will win. An idealist doesn’t even have to believe that it’s possible to win.

But an idealist believes that it’s their duty to try. To exercise voice and forgo the option of exit. To fight with every breath for what they believe in, even when no one cares to listen.

If “idealist” is derogatory, its because these knights put us shame as they tilt at windmills with buckets on their heads. Because so often we choose to exit – through apathy or pragmatism – rather than to voice what we believe.

The challenges we face are complex. The forecast for success is gloomy. But the idealist knows this for certain: exit will get you nowhere.

If you feel a duty to confront these challenges – to fight the unfightable foe – then voice is the only option. You must chose to run where the brave dare not go.

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Action in Non-Action

Wu-wei, a central concept of Taoism, can be literally translated as non-action or non-doing.

Yet, wu-wei more fully is an embracing of action in non-action. As the Tao Te Ching reads:

The Tao is constant in non-action
Yet there is nothing it does not do

Wu-wei is a natural state of being. It is being a leaf on the river, carried by currents through tumultuous times and peaceful times.

With unattached action, there is nothing one cannot do

I’m not sure these ideas translate well into traditional Western thought. The leaf on the river metaphor helps, but it seems detached in a negative way.

Why should people be at the mercy of the elements around them? Shouldn’t they have power and voice and autonomy?

I don’t think Taoism would disagree. But just as stubborn bows break and supple bows bend, but survive – wu-wei encourages a certain flexibility, a willingness to let go, that ultimately leads to greater understanding, and therefore, to greater autonomy.

If your car spins out, you turn into the spin. (Or so I’m told, I don’t drive.)

If you try to fight the spin out, try to force your will on the physics carrying the car – physics will win every time. But if you turn into the spin, you can let it carry you while maintaining control.

There are so many things in life that are outside your control. And if you fight the spin on all of them you’ll end up frustrated at best and crashed at worst.

Perhaps the closest thing from Western thought is Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

But even this does not deeply do justice to the spirit of wu-wei. A more Taoist version would read, perhaps:

Grant me the serenity to accept
There is nothing I can change
Accepting this
There is nothing I cannot do

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What is Community Organizing?

I’ve been co-teaching a class this semester, Introduction to Civic Studies: Theories for a Better World. Today, we began discussing Saul Alinsky, and more broadly, community organizing.

But what is community organizing?

Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge, describes community organizing as: “a process where people who live in proximity to each other come together into an organization that acts in their shared self-interest.”

Well, I don’t know about you, but I find that entirely unhelpful. So, let’s move past the dictionary definition. Stories are more effective anyway.

I wouldn’t consider myself a community organizer, but I have been organized as part of my community. In that process, I’ve attended one-on-one trainings, strategized about issues, organized and attended rallies, protests, and speak out events.

I am, it would be said, a “leader” with Somerville Community Corporation’s Jobs for Somerville. I don’t know that I’d call myself a leader – I’m not a big fan of that phraseology – but that’s what it’s called when I’ve been organized sufficiently to organize.

That is to say – we’re all leaders. Not in an annoying, everyone wins a prize for showing up kind of way. We’re leaders because we’ve been drawn to an issue we care about. We’ve been trained in some skills, but, more critically, we’ve realized the skills we already have.

We’ve discovered the power of our own stories as well as power of hearing others’ stories. We’ve learned that we have a voice. We’ve learned that when we speak up, others will listen – and if they don’t, we’ll just speak up louder. We’ve learned that power isn’t something intractably bestowed upon a few, but something that is ours for the taking. With our voices and our stories, we build power.

I remember the first time an organizer invited me for a one on one.

I was surprised to get her call asking me to coffee. I’d met up with friends for coffee, but I’d only met this woman once. I didn’t understand why she wanted to talk with me.

I wasn’t anybody special.

Perhaps more surprisingly, when we met…she seemed genuinely interested in learning about me. It wasn’t a brief bout of small talk followed by a here’s what you can do for me pitch. She asked where I was from. She asked about my family. She asked if it was hard being so far away. She asked what I was passionate about. She asked why I cared. She shared some of her own story, her travels and tribulations.

We talked for an hour. I don’t even think there was an ask at the end. Isn’t there always supposed to be an ask at the end?

She said it was really nice to get to know me and that she looked forward to talking with me more.

She made me feel special. To her, I was special.

And thus I was organized, as I so gracelessly put it. And since then, I’ve learned to ask others out for coffee. To ask them their stories and learn from their experience. To treat them as special – not because that’s what nice people do, but simply because…they are special.

So what is community organizing?

I guess I would say – it means recognizing that every single one of us has power. It’s spread unequally and leveraged unfairly, but every person has power. Community organizing means recognizing your own power, supporting others in recognizing their own power, and doing everything, everything, within your power to share that power equitably.

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Never Volunteer for Anything

My father always told me to never volunteer for anything.

This was something of a joke from the man who constantly found himself volunteering to build set pieces and school desks. Who led class field trips to lay track and who poured hours of (often unpaid) effort into historical interpretation.

Never volunteer for anything.

When I say this to other people, they often look aghast. Sometimes just confused. “Why would your father tell you such a thing?” they ask, as if afraid of what other dark life lessons might spring out.

Well. The wording of this has always been very precise for me. It’s not like he told me to never do something to benefit some else. Simply, never volunteer for anything.

It’s actually pretty good advice.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch because you’ll always have to pay for that lunch one way or another. With time if not with money.

Volunteering is not so different. You can never really do something for free, because even if you don’t get paid for your trouble, at the end of the day, it’ll still be something of a trouble.

My father grew up in the world of theater, where volunteering for something meant being the rube to raise his hand when the magician asks for some one from the audience. You may think you want to be that person, but really…you don’t want to be that person. You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into when you shoot that arm into the sky.

Never volunteer for anything.

Perhaps this is why I find the concept of “public work” so appealing. Because working in the community is work. It’s a whole lot more than stepping up to the stage for a moment in the spotlight. Though it’s just as likely once you get there you’ll discover you just agreed to get sawed in half.

Never volunteer for anything means to always accept the cost of everything. It’s no free ride you’re giving away, it’s time, energy, and whole lot of effort.

And that work is worth it. There’s so much wrong with our lives, our communities, and our world. Or perhaps, more optimistically, so much opportunity for improvement. There is unspeakable injustice and shocking events and entrenched idiocy. And all of us must dedicate real time, energy, and effort in tackling those deep issues.

So never volunteer for anything. You may not get paid, but at the end of the day – the work is worth it.

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Moral Duality

Sometimes two ideas appear to be in conflict.

And not just two ideas held by two different people with wildly different backgrounds and life experience. Sometimes one’s own ideas don’t quite line up with each other.

I may be tired of the rain, but glad there’s not a drought. I may wish I had fight instinct when I actually had a flight instinct…or vice versa. I may crave other’s approval, but be determined to be myself – unmoved by what other people think. I may hold freedom in the highest esteem, but be willing to curtail my own and other’s freedom to things that would cause harm.

Life is complicated, and context is everything.

One of my favorite metaphors is light. Going back at least as far as the Greeks, there have been arguments over whether light is a particle or a wave. Aristotle envisioned light as a disturbance of air – a wave, while Democritus argued for discrete particles.

Experiments in the 19th and early 20th century provided conflicting results. Sometimes light acted like a particle and sometimes it acted as wave. Eventually, physicists pieced together an understanding of electromagnetism that explained how it was both a particle and a wave.

But wave-particle duality is no metaphor. It’s not just light that exhibits this duality – it is all matter. All matter. Everything. I am a particle and wave.

The metaphor, of course, is saying there is a duality. We understand waves and we understand particles, so while it may be confusing and complicated to say there’s a duality…that’s still easier than really understanding some third thing, just outside our mental grasp, that behaves like a particle and behaves like a wave.

I go on this tangent about wave-particle duality, because if all matter has this duality, isn’t reasonable to assume that ideas have a certain duality, or perhaps multi-ality, to them as well?

We think of morals as fixed, concrete things – perhaps with some flexibility or fluid properties – but essentially as particles, as discrete quanta that can be somehow measured and defined.

But if we look closer, perhaps we’ll see the wave interference patterns. We’ll see the seemingly inexplicable conflicts that make sense in our own minds, though we can’t begin to articulate it to others.

Perhaps if we look closer we’ll discover our own duality and embrace this so-called conflict. Not everything can be neatly defined as a particle. Sometimes, we must recognize the wave.

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Futile and Hopeless Labor

At least once a year I read The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. Sisyphus is immortalized by his punishment in the underworld – “ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight.”

The gods had thought, Camus explains, “that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”

And one can imagine why such an existence would be punishment. Futile and hopeless labor. Pushing with all your might to accomplish something. And accomplishing nothing. Trying again, perhaps more forceful than before. Aiming for that peak. Fighting to meet that goal. And accomplishing nothing.

How long could you go on?

Camus is interested in Sisyphus’ decent. “That return, that pause…That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering.” That moment, Camus says, “that is the hour of consciousness.”

And consciousness is what makes Sisyphus tragic. Alas, he “knows the whole extent of his wretched condition.”

Yet consciousness is also Sisyphus’ victory.

“At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock…His fate belongs to him. His rock is a thing.”

According to Camus, that long decent, with its moments of pause, of thought, of reflection, those are his moments of victory.

I like to take it further.

There are two moments for Sisyphus that interest me. At the top of the hill, Sisyphus turns to watch his rock effortlessly fall down the slope he effortfully just pushed it up.

Then he goes down the hill.

At the bottom of the hill, Sisyphus looks up at the peak he and his rock just returned from.

Then he sets himself, and begins to push.

Those are the moments that interest me. The story of Sisyphus has no villains. No harpies plucking out his eyes or monsters threatening his fate. There is only Sisyphus and his rock.

The gods think they forced Sisyphus to this fate. They decreed his punishment and so it must be so.

But Camus is right – his fate belongs to him. Sisyphus chooses to push his rock. Neither man nor god can force it upon him. The rock is his alone to chose.

I imagine Sisyphus to know the wretched state of his condition throughout his struggle, not only in those subtle moments of silent decent. He sets his shoulder against the stone knowing the outcome. Knowing the rock will fall. Knowing it will happen again and again and again.

And Sisyphus pushes anyway.

Indeed, “these are our nights of Gethsemane.”

We all of us have our burdens to bear, our rocks to push. And while at times these burdens may feel forced upon us by a merciless or unjust world, they are ultimately ours to choose.

But the alternative is far worse. “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.”

To avoid our rocks is to avoid the world. To shut ourselves off from all that is around us. To will ourselves into the inky void of unconsciousness, where the weight of the world can’t follow.

Camus’ Sisyphus chooses consciousness. He pushes his rock, embracing the pain and hardship that come with his toil. “There is no fate that can not be surmounted by scorn,” and indeed, Sisyphus scorns his so-called punishment – reveling in the blood, sweat and tears which tell him plainly that, in the underworld though he may be, he is very much alive.

So, yes, we “must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

As he stands on that peak, watching his rock roll away, I imagine him taking a deep breath, narrowing his eyes, and gritting his teeth. Then, hardened and focused, prepared for his descent and the grueling ascent to follow, I imagine Sisyphus says himself, a wry smile on his lips, “Okay, then. Let’s do this.”

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A Year of Service

Tonight, Tisch College and Tufts University, where I have the privilege to work, are hosting General Stanley McChrystal for a Service and Leadership Symposium.

The event this evening will officially launch a new initiative: Tufts 1+4. As  a story in today’s Tufts Now explains:

Tufts 1+4 will provide a structured year of full-time national or international service before students begin their four years of undergraduate study here. The program will begin in the fall of 2015.

“The idea behind the program is to give incoming students a transformational experience that will inform the next four years of their education,” says Alan D. Solomont, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of Tisch College.

In addition to General McChrystal, the event will feature the personal stories of two Tufts undergraduates – Lydia Collins, A17 and Phillip Ellison, A16 – who have both completed years of service. Collins through Global Citizen Year and Ellison through City Year.

You can hear their remarks and watch the full event online at http://activecitizen.tufts.edu/mcchrystal/

Enjoy!

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Zip-Barrow

With all the snowy days – and particularly all the icy days that follow – I’d like to propose a new business idea to make winter travel a little easier for all of us.

I call it Zip-Barrow.

Or perhaps not, as that might qualify as copyright infringement. But you know those wheelbarrows built so as to disperse salt as they pass? Apparently they are called Salt Spreaders, but perhaps everyone else already knew that.

On these icy days, I’ve seen several salt spreaders. On the campus where I work, for example, they use them on most of the walkways, and it seems like quite the efficient method for de-icing a slippery slope.

But not so with private, residential walks.

And with this pattern of snowing, freezing, melting, freezing, snowing, etc there has been many a time lately when I’ve tiptoed on a walk made icy by the sheer forces of nature – despite the better attempts of homeowners to keep the path safe.

So I thought perhaps I should get a salt wheelbarrow, as I call them, to push around town with me. Salting as I go.

But this is an imperfect solution. For one thing, I bet I’d go through a lot of salt. Then I’d have to figure out how to store the wheelbarrow at home or the office. And, of course, the ultimate path cleared by my wheelbarrowing efforts would be relatively minimal.

Enter Zip-Barrow. Or perhaps Salt Share.

Pick up a salt spreaders (and some salt, of course) at a local hardware store, push it a few blocks then return it to another hardware store. Chip in, perhaps, the cost of one bag of salt. In return, you get a salted path to where you’re going while others salt other paths. Then together, we will clear our sidewalks of ice.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Someone once told me that only one out of every hundred ideas is a good idea. This might be one of the ninety-nine. But now you know what I think about as I try not to fall.

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Happy Martyr’s Day!

Growing up in northern California, at a small public school nestled among the redwoods, we used to frequently have all school assemblies where we would discuss upcoming issues and topics of note. Some other day I’ll tell you all about this magical three room school house that grew from 50 to 75 students over the nine years I attended.

But, today, I’ll share the story that one teacher used to share with us during all school assemblies just past the days of early February.

St. Valentine was a kind man, he told us.

St. Valentine was a Catholic priest in a time and place that was venomously anti-Catholic. The state had outlawed Catholic marriages on the theory that if a good Catholic isn’t married…he or she cannot reproduce.

But St. Valentine believed in love, so he held private wedding ceremonies, consecrating the love of his brethren in darkened caves, hidden from the eyes of the state. But St. Valentine was discovered. He was caught and imprisoned and told he would answer for his crimes.

St. Valentine was a kind man. All the neighborhood kids loved him and missed him and wanted him to be free. So they wrote little notes of encouragement and dropped them through the bars. And the notes fell down into the pit where St. Valentine was imprisoned – this is where the idea of sending “valentines” came from.

St. Valentine read these notes and he was deeply moved by the love of his community.

Then he was beheaded.

~The end~

Perhaps this story was the inspiration for Game of Thrones. I couldn’t say. And perhaps it’s because I heard this story every year for eight years, but – I always found Valentine’s Day a little weird.

I mean, I’m pretty snarky about love to begin with, but then you add on a dude beheaded for his religious beliefs and…I don’t think I’ll ever figure this day out.

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