Capitalism’s minuses

The Thinker by Rodin

This just in: former TV conservative crybaby Glenn Beck is going Galt, John Galt, that is. Galt is the central character in Ayn Rand’s seminal novel “Atlas Shrugged”. Through Galt, Rand fully articulated her philosophy of Objectivism, which emphasizes the virtue of complete, unfettered Laissez-faire capitalism. It is capitalism freed from the burdens of tariffs, subsidies, monopolies and annoying government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission. Beck wants to build “Independence, USA” where its citizens can go completely Galt all the time. No taxes ever. Anyhow, it’s not necessarily cheap to Go Galt. Beck estimates he needs about two billion dollars to create Independence, USA. Presumably to construct his capitalist utopia he won’t invite a bunch of capitalists to create the machinery he will need on site. But anyhow when it’s all done, the citizens of Independence, USA will be a completely self-enclosed market. People will make stuff that other citizens will buy. Perhaps they will have their own currency. It’s unclear what governmental mechanisms they will have, if any. Laissez-faire capitalism is not exactly the same thing as no government, but presumably it would be a very austere government, far more austere than the State of Florida after several years of Rick Scott as Governor. That’s pretty damned austere.

Also presumably the city will operate more like its own country, since it won’t want anything to do with state and federal laws. There will be no annoying consumer protection laws and no warranties expressed or implied on anything sold. If your next door neighbor wants to turn his house into a smelter and spew out dangerous carcinogens in your general direction, well, more power to him. You are, of course, free to buy your own anti-pollution devices (presumably made only in Independence) to encase your house so you don’t have to breathe the pollution coming from next door. I don’t know if they will have a sheriff in Independence, but maybe not. So perhaps you can express your displeasure the old fashioned way, and load up your semiautomatic assault rifle and empty it into your neighbor’s house. He, of course, is free to wear only bulletproof clothing and encase his house in steel to deter assaults. You, of course, are free to up the ante, buy yourself a bazooka and wreak your unhappiness that way. Presumably since all residents share the same values about capitalism, there will be only brotherly love and no onerous taxes.

My guess is Independence, USA will never get built, but who knows? Beck can use more income to finance his vision, but the Koch brothers have plenty of it and might put up the two billion dollars. If it gets built, Independence, USA will doubtless become the center of capitalism worldwide. It will become the ultimate enterprise zone.

A friend of mine commutes regularly to China for her small business. She reports that contrary to reports that China is a communist country, it is already a lot like Independence, USA only they have gone nationwide. The truth is that China has pretty much ditched communism and is now a capitalist utopia. The state and the Communist Party pretty much exist to ensure capitalism remains free and unfettered. Freed of archaic concepts like religion, China has become a money-grubbing entrepreneurial heaven. She reports that the acquisition of wealth is pretty much the only thing on the mind of the Chinese. They get together to compare how fancy their Rolex watches are.

One thing she has noticed in particular is that the Chinese (or at least the Chinese businessmen she works with) don’t understand ethics. You might as well try to explain nuclear physics to them. They just don’t get why anyone would want to do anything ethical. They will happily do everything possible, legal or illegal, to allow a competitor to fail and for themselves to prosper without even a tiny qualm. This is hardly news. Even we self-absorbed Americans have read press reports about how copyright law is meaningless within China. DVDs and software are pirated, copied and sold for whatever they can get for them. Famous brand names are cheaply imitated and passed off as branded items. The idea of sales territories seems to not exist. Her company supposedly has sales territories within China where only one distributor is supposed to distribute her product, but of course these territories are widely ignored by their various sales agents.

While lots of people are getting richer in China, there have been a few undesirable effects. For example, there is the rampant air pollution in major cities. Lately it’s been so bad that no one in Beijing goes outdoors without wearing a facemask. So I am betting if Independence, USA ever gets built it will devolve quickly into a place that looks a lot like Beijing. It’s not a hard inference to make since this is pretty much how it has gone everywhere since the start of the Industrial Revolution, at least until government said “Enough!” Capitalism is all about making money and increasing your personal standard of living. The cost is borne by those not skilled, agile or moneyed enough to make the transition. Capitalism without regulation also ensures the land will get raped. This should not be news but just in case you don’t get it, maybe it’s time to reread Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax”. I’m guessing Brother Beck hasn’t.

While there are undeniable virtues to capitalism, there are many ugly sides as well. Perhaps its ugliest side is that it strips us of our humanity and appreciation of the connections between each other. In China, dog-eat-dog capitalism means you cannot expect a consistent set of rules because the government will be largely hands off. There is also no religion to speak of, so there is nothing to ground you, and no set of moral standards to use to measure your behavior. There is no reason to care at all about your neighbor, or your community, or your neighbor’s future, unless you can profit from them. It’s all about me, not about we.

Capitalism is simply an amoral system to help facilitate the acquisition of wealth that has the benefit of allowing for the broad distribution of goods and services at reasonably low prices. If there is one thing it is not, it is not a philosophy of living. Here is where Ayn Rand, John Galt and Glenn Beck fall off their moral railings. They don’t get this. Ayn Rand constructed a whole philosophy of life around capitalism, as if it were the shiny city on the hill that Ronald Reagan envisioned. (Independence, USA is literally that city, in Beck’s eyes.) In their eyes, capitalism has become a church, and its cathedral is the inside of a bank vault. They assume that capitalism had a meaning greater than what it is: a meta-meaning. It does not. The consequences of unchecked capitalism though are easy enough to see: the collapse of our moral fiber, the heightening of self-interest over shared interest and the natural tendency to rape the land of resources and the people of their connectedness. It destroys trust and integrity and makes ethics obsolete. It dehumanizes us and turns us from people into profit centers.

There was a time in my living memory where you went to work for a company for life. A company was an extended family. You were a valued worker and were nurtured. You were cared for and your earned loyalty was given back in the form of intimate concern about the company and meeting its goals. Money was put aside into a pension fund so that you could live comfortably in old age. It was paternalistic. Companies reflected the values of the society in which they thrived. Over time, companies changed their values from human-centered to profit-centered. Pensions died. You became a worker, not a strategic asset. Your pension became a 401(k). You became mere a cog in a bigger wheel. You became disposable, something to be used and thrown out when no longer needed.

Sorry Brothers Beck, Galt and Sister Rand. Capitalism is not a utopia. It has its virtues and it has its weaknesses, but unrestrained it will suck the soul out of the society it exists within. It will either use you up as cheap labor or it will crush you spiritually as you acquire wealth. You will have become a slave to profit, loss and wealth and bereft of the values that connect us and enrich us.

Review: Doubt

The Thinker by Rodin

Doubt director and writer John Patrick Shanley can be forgiven for framing his movie inside the insular world of a Catholic parish in the Bronx in 1964. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a better setting for this movie. Catholicism of course has little room for doubt or uncertainty. Its priests and sisters are expected to have a finely honed sense for the presence of sin. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the principle of a parochial school in the parish. From her long experience among the unwashed and sinful masses, she can sense a fire long before there is any combustion. For a Sister of Charity she has few things charitable to say about the students she oversees. It seems that without her constant vigilance all her pupils are doomed to lapse further into a life of sin. She rules the school through fear and intimidation to such an extent that even her fellow sisters are cowed and silent in her presence. She makes no apologies for her methods and cannot conceive of any other way of governing.

Meanwhile over in the rectory Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is hard at work trying to become a more liberal and expansive priest. He is full of enthusiasm for Vatican II and wants to be known as a warm and accessible priest. This naturally raises Sister Aloysius’s suspicions. What does it mean when the school’s only African American student is called into a private conference with Father Flynn and he returns smelling of communion wine? For Sister Aloysius, this means something sinful and unnatural must have been going on. She plunges headfirst into these dubious moral waters, determined to make Father Flynn accountable for his behavior. After all, she has spent a career witnessing it among her pupils. Confirmation of her suspicions is rather beside the point. She must bring a stop to whatever immorality is occurring, no matter what the cost.

Streep and Hoffman provide fine performances as you might expect. What you do not expect is that Amy Adams (who plays Sister James) will rise to their level and by many measures give the finest performance in the movie. Sister James is deeply troubled because the boy is in her class. She becomes anguished and feels pulled both ways by Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius. Her inability to resolve her feelings, which are amplified by both the stakes and the clarity of Catholic theology, nearly destroys her. Adams gets far less camera time than either Streep or Hoffman but in many ways her performance is the most memorable. Is Father Flynn a child molester? Are Sister Aloysius’s suspicions unjustified? The film magnificently explores the issue of reasonable doubt in a climate where none is permitted, and the havoc the dichotomy can cause within such an insular community.

If you enjoy fine character driven and human stories then without a “doubt” you should see Doubt. If you are a Catholic or ex-Catholic, you also might enjoy inhabiting again the world of the American Catholic Church in 1964, which is flawlessly rendered. As a result a number of those Catholic hymns that I had thought I had purged from my brain are now running around in my mind again, along with long forgotten memories of my own time as an altar boy.

I spent nine years in parochial schools. We had our own Sister Aloysius, so I can attest that Meryl Streep’s portrayal as school principle is dead on for the period. We had our Irish priest too, whom we secretly suspected of drinking too much communion wine. Consequently, I found the plot entirely plausible. The Catholic Church, like many moral institutions can run but not hide from the moral squishiness and ambiguity of life. Doubt captures it brilliantly.

3.4 on my 4.0 scale.

P.S. The metaphor of the windows in Sister Aloysius’s offices so often being unexpectedly open is, I am sure, quite intentional.

My Widened Stance

The Thinker by Rodin

It is not often that I am bothered by the downfall of a Republican politician. Yet I am troubled by the on again, off again (currently on again) resignation of Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho. Craig pled guilty to a disorderly conduct charge that occurred in a men’s room at the Minneapolis airport on June 11th. Allegedly, he was making signals to an occupant of an adjacent stall that he was interested in engaging in homosexual conduct. For tapping his feet, moving his feet partly into an adjacent stall (the “widened stance”) and allegedly peeking into a neighboring stall, he pled guilty to a misdemeanor. (Craig is now trying to retract his plea.) For this minor transgression, he was arm-twisted by his fellow Republicans and asked to resign from the Senate.

If Craig is a closeted homosexual, of course he is also a hypocrite. He has plenty of company on Capitol Hill. It is virtually impossible not to be a hypocrite and be a politician. Even the most ideological Republican though is not stupid. They know murkiness exists in all human beings. The hastiness by which the Senate Republican leadership are hustling Craig out of the Senate is far more unseemly than any alleged conduct that Craig may have conducted in Minneapolis. Fairness dictates waiting for an impartial review of the facts at a Senate ethics committee hearing. Yet the Senate Republican leadership could not wait. The Republican brand may be a fading brand, but it is a brand nonetheless. Homophobia remains one of its key values, subsumed under their alleged commitment to “family values”. Such a hasty action merely reinforces the opinion of most Americans that Republicans have no sense of fair play.

I do know one thing from fifty years of living. Humans are complex and multifaceted creatures on all levels, including sexually. Kinsey documented half a century ago that virtually none of us are exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. We may have strong preferences in either direction. Many of us may choose not to act on these pulls but that does not mean they are wholly absent. Yet sexual preference is just one tiny aspect of our sexuality. Some of us have strong sex drives. Others have non-existent sex drives. Some of us are not attracted to any gender; we are effectively asexual. Some of us are dominant, others are submissive, and many of us like to switch roles. Some prefer anal sex and others do not. Some take erotic pleasure wearing diapers or dressing as the opposite sex. Some older men prefer younger women. Some older women prefer younger men. Some of us will probably always be attracted to illegal expressions of sexuality like pedophilia.

We are all sexually multihued. If our sexuality were a painting, most of us would have strange patterns consisting of many overlapping and mixed colors. Larry Craig’s failing was apparently for being exposed for not having a black and white canvas. If his alleged behavior actually describes his own sexual preferences, he likely finds some attraction to his own gender. On the Kinsey scale, he is utterly ordinary.

You would be very unusual if you never had even one incident where you did not find someone of your gender attractive. I know I have. Having an occasional tug does not mean I feel compelled to act on it. When it happens I acknowledge it and go on with life. Larry Craig may be wholly accurate when he says that he is not a gay. Like most of us, he is probably bisexual. We are all sexually expressive creatures. Most of us are content to dine at our favorite restaurants. Eating at a different restaurant on occasion does not necessarily make us food deviants. Neither does an occasional incident where we partner with someone of our non-preferred gender. Given the prevalence of infidelity in American, occasionally mating with someone other than our own spouse is more normal than not too. The issue is not the inclination, which is wholly natural, but dealing with the angst, guilt and dysfunction that results when our natural impulses move us in one direction but society requires us to choose a different direction.

So Larry Craig is probably just another multifaceted sexually complicated person. In other words, he is a lot like you and I. Please raise your hand if you have been completely faithful to your spouse, never even had a stray fantasy about another person during your marriage, are completely content with sexual intercourse only in the missionary position and, since marriage at least, have never masturbated. Also raise your hand if you never went beyond chaste kissing during your dating years. I am sure there are some of you out there and that is fine. It is either your preference or supposed societal norms overrode these impulses. However, you represent just a tiny portion of the public. Your values are fine for you but are not in the least bit mainstream. I hate to tell you this but if you are an ordinary human being you are likely a lot more like Larry Craig than not.

It is hard to put myself inside Larry Craig’s brain. However, I am completely certain that wherever it is at, it is consistent with the person he is as he has evolved. Personally, a restroom would be the last place I would go to solicit for sex, but I am not inclined to find someone of my own gender with whom to have sex. If I were a prominent person like Larry Craig and driven by such demons I would look for safer forms of behavior. (I doubt he is the only senator with such inclinations.) Rather than look for it in a Minneapolis men’s room, perhaps I would solicit it on Craigslist. Maybe part of Craig’s sexuality is to be turned on by anonymous sex. If so, he has plenty of company.

I do not want to be solicited for sex by men in men’s rooms or anywhere else. In restrooms, I simply want to do my business and leave. When I am solicited by my own gender, which does not happen very often, I simply say, “No thanks.” It should not be unlawful for one person to tell another person you want to get it on with them. It is certainly impolite in most contexts, but it should not be unlawful. I do care about being mugged or sexually abused in a men’s room. I hope that we prosecute these lawbreakers. I do think there is an expectation of privacy in a men’s room stall but it would astonish me if this were codified into law. If Craig, as alleged, actually was peeking through the cracks of men’s room stalls then he should be held to account. I would note though that two men urinating at adjacent stalls, even if one of the men checks out the other guy’s package, is not a crime. Having to pay a four-figure fine for such an “offense” seems excessive. It should not amount to more than a parking ticket and should never go to court.

The Craig incident simply illustrates to me that many of us cannot yet accept people for being the complex sexual creatures that we all are. Private conduct between two consenting adults is simply none of our business. I wish that Senator Craig had more spine. Bullies usually remain bullies until someone stands up to them. Senator Craig could do people everywhere a favor by standing up for himself. He should draw a clear distinction about official duties vs. private conduct. The voters can throw him out if they find his personal conduct offensive. His fellow senators should not.

Someone needs to tell the people who run our nanny state when they are out of bounds. As a final act of leadership and courage, Senator Craig could forever change the political dynamics. He could do it by boldly asserting his right to be judged solely based on his job as senator. He did not deserve this shabby treatment.

New Hampshire’s civil unions decision is good for business

The Thinker by Rodin

New Hampshire’s decision yesterday to allow its gay and lesbian residents to have legal rights equivalent to marriage is not only a just and equitable thing to do. It is also a smart way for the state to keep its economic edge.

Mind you, I think it is terrific that New Hampshire is giving equal rights and privileges to gays and lesbians through progressive acts like legally recognizing civil unions. The religious community will doubtless argue to death the morality of the issue, but it is not arguable from the standpoint of American values. While it took the United States a while to extend equal rights to women and minorities, we eventually did the right thing. It was hard to get past our own Declaration of Independence that declared all people equal in the eyes of the law. Those who dismiss the declaration as a historical but not a legal document need only look at the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the federal government or any state from giving preference to one individual or group over another. Slowly states and courts are wakening up to the fact that it may be unconstitutional if gays and lesbians are not given equivalent rights of heterosexuals, because otherwise they do not really have equal protection under the law.

It can be taken for granted that New Hampshire’s decision is going to ruffle feathers. It takes a generation or two for both minds and hearts to change. Yet change they will. Much of our latest generation is growing up in a multicultural America. In my generation (the Baby Boomers), homosexuality was rarely acknowledged openly. In fact, I was a teen before I had much of an inkling of just how prevalent homosexuality actually was. Certainly, no one I knew admitted to being gay.

While unfortunately many Americans still treat homosexual behavior as immoral, even the most homophobic of us realize that homosexuals are still human beings. Being homosexual has no bearing on intelligence or your capability to perform any kind of work, except possibly in the narrow career of heterosexual sex surrogate. The homosexuals that I know are among the most gifted and creative members of society. If I ran a business, I would not want to limit my talent pool. States that discriminate against homosexuals are essentially giving homosexuals a reason to move to more gay friendly states. If I were a gay person, I would seek to live in states where the laws respected my human dignity. I would avoid states like Virginia, where I live. In Virginia, homosexuals can be legally discriminated against in employment and can be kept away from their spouses at hospitals. Unfortunately, these are not the only Virginia state laws that discriminate against homosexuals.

When I moved to Virginia in 1984, I gave no thought to such laws. I was simply interested in living in Reston, a planned community that I fell in love with. I am settled here and gainfully employed in a job that I will probably stay in until retirement. When my wife and I do retire though, we will feel freer to live anywhere we choose wish. Certainly how comfortable we feel in our community will have a bearing on our choice. Although we are years from retirement, we have already discussed states where we might retire. Off the list is Florida, not just because it is gay unfriendly, but because we hate its climate. However, since we are both tolerant people states like Oregon, which is becoming more and more progressive, is on our list, in spite of its rainy seasons.

The effect of New Hampshire’s decision is not only that gay people have incentive to move to the state. It also means that people like me who, if they have a choice of where to move to, can choose a state based on our values. Through its laws, Virginia is telling gays they do not want them as citizens. Yet even in Virginia, things are changing. Northern Virginia, perhaps because of its proximity to the nation’s capital, is trending toward being both more tolerant and Democratic. For example, in the 2004 elections the county where I live, Fairfax County, was one of a handful of counties whose presidential vote moved from the Republican to the Democratic Party.

Businesses everywhere are discovering that being gay friendly is good for their bottom line. Not only does it give them a richer talent pool to choose from, but catering to the needs of the gay community can be profitable too. You have to wonder, for example, what Walt Disney would think of its gay friendly policies. While he might be upset by the morality of Disney’s 1995 decision to allow health coverage for live in partners of gay and lesbian employees, the other part of him would be glad. The Disney management chain demonstrated that it was serious about ensuring that Disney was attracting the best talent. Disney has also figured out that making homosexuals feel included in the Disney experience was good for its profits too. While laws in Florida and California prohibit gay marriage, both theme parks allow gay couples to schedule commitment ceremonies at their parks. In addition, both parks schedule special days during the year for gays, their friends and their families. Doubtless Disney stockholders have benefited from their progressive approach.

What is true for Disney is doubtless true for most companies. Companies that have a choice of where they will relocate will give New Hampshire a special look. Not only is the state known for a business friendly attitude and low taxes, now it is also offering equal rights for gays and lesbians. Most companies already have gays or lesbians working for them. Having them live in a progressive state like New Hampshire will be seen as a bonus.

As for backwards states like Virginia, give it a decade or two. It may decide that to stay competitive it too needs to loosen its discriminatory laws against gays and lesbians. Otherwise, its economy may be left behind while gay friendly states like New Hampshire’s are likelier to soar.

My Father the Boy Scout

The Thinker by Rodin

I have written many words chronicling my mother’s sad decline, death, funeral and burial. Such a seismic event in my personal life could hardly go unnoted in my blog. Even though I have accepted my mother’s death, I am sure I will never be wholly over it.

I have spent less time talking about my father. Thankfully, my father is still among the living and in decent health for a man of 79. I am optimistic that his grandchildren and we his children will have him for many more good years. My father is always a delight to be with. He exudes healthiness and the joy of living. Now that my mother his gone, he is reveling in the pleasure of his retirement community, which keeps him happy and fully engaged. A naturally affable man, he is very much at home in his relatively new digs. He makes friends easily and rarely lacks for dinner companions. His social life has become so busy that I cannot always be worked into his schedule.

Having read a number of books on relationships and marriage dynamics, it becomes a bit easy to typecast my parents. My mother was the emotionally expressive side of the marriage. My father was its logical side. While my mother was emotionally expressive, she was also introverted. My father, logical as you would expect of someone who made engineering his profession, was the more extroverted. It made the dynamics of their marriage interesting.

Certainly, I was blessed with a wonderful mother. I am equally blessed with an outstanding father. Even with our jaundiced childish eyes, it was not too difficult to see that my mother had issues. However, it is almost impossible to find anything imperfect about our father. He is a tough act to follow. Each of my brothers and sisters (as well as myself) tries to emulate him in our own ways. I think we all understand that while we are all good people he has definitely won the Gold Medal. Maybe we can hope for a Bronze Medal out of life.

To enumerate his many good points is to in some way understate them. And though he seems surreal to describe, he is entirely real and fully human. My father is the perfect boy scout all grown up. Do you ex scouts remember your Boy Scout Oath? My father emulates it.

Trustworthy. With my father, you could give him a million dollars in cold, hard cash and be completely confident that he would not abscond with even a nickel of it. With how many people could you truly say that? Would you even trust your spouse with that kind of money? If my father had not been an engineer, he would have been natural fit as a banker. Customers would be lined up around the block.

Loyal. No one could doubt my father’s loyalty, and certainly not to my mother. He reeks of loyalty. While she doubtless drove him to distraction many times, he was endlessly and doggedly loyal to her. He cared for her until he was physically unable to lift her anymore. During her decline, he tended to her numerous and complex needs day and night for months on end. Total fidelity is a natural fit for him.

Helpful. He is wholly incapable of not helping a stranger in need. During my mother’s sad decline in the nursing home, he chatted up and lifted the spirits of everyone at her table. He tutored one of the nurse’s aides working there in math in his spare time. Heck, I still do not understand how he tutored each one of us children in so many life skills. He had eight children and he taught all eight of us to drive. Moreover, he is an excellent teacher. I cannot shift lanes without signaling. By instinct I leave at least ten feet between me and the car ahead of me for every ten miles an hour that I am driving. Yet driving is just one of numerous and time consuming skills he helped us master from tying our shoes to learning how to tie a necktie.

Friendly. The best way to imagine my father is to think Mr. Rogers. No, really. That’s him, except for the cardigan sweater. He prefers flannel checkered shirts. My Dad is uniformly friendly with everyone he meets. His friendliness is utterly sincere and totally innocuous. Wherever he lived, he was the block’s Mr. Wilson. Unlike Mr. Wilson, he welcomed attention from children. They were drawn to him like moths to a flame. You expected him to fix the bikes of neighborhood kids. Like us, they came to watch him at his workbench, but what they really came for was to talk to a man who would listen to them sincerely and with an open heart.

Courteous. Complements are second nature to my father, yet every complement is completely sincere. No meal is too ordinary not to be mentioned for praise. He looks for the best in everyone. Any old lady trying to cross the street had a ready and unsolicited volunteer.

Kind. My father goes out of his way to help people. He is uniformly sympathetic, humane, tolerant, generous and liberal with his time and energy. When he lived in Midland, he usually spent a day a week driving older people to and from their various medical appointments.

Obedient. My Dad is one of an achingly small number of people who scrupulously obeys the speed limit and all the traffic laws. A deeply religious man, he follows the Catholic Church’s commandments to the letter.

Cheerful. There are people who have learned to fake cheerfulness. With my father, no faking is necessary. He is the original Good Humor Man. That is not to say that he is always happy. Dealing with my mother’s decline was very stressful. Occasional stress fissures could be seen in his personality. Nevertheless, he is never deliberately mean. It takes huge painful events to strip away his cheerfulness, but they rarely lasted for long. Cheerfulness bubbles out of him irrepressibly.

Thrifty. My Dad always lived within his means. He was not a tightwad, but he lived prudently, almost frugally, taking only what he needed. He is the type to save old screws or wires in case he might need them later. He never carried a credit card debt. He had one auto loan in his life and so disliked the feeling of being in debt that he saved up and paid cash for all his other cars. He is not a man impressed with status nor felt the desire for lavish things. Suits off the rack at Sears were plenty fancy for him.

Brave. At the start of his marriage, he helped manage his new mother in law, who was suffering from a debilitating mental illness. He did this while managing an infant and holding down a full time job as the sole breadwinner. At the end of his marriage, he dealt adroitly with my mother’s many difficult issues, while consistently attending to her varied needs around the clock. In the nursing home, he visited her twice a day like clockwork.

Clean. Dad is always gentlemanly and never lascivious. The engineer in him would no more tolerate a smelly body than he would a poorly designed circuit.

Reverent. My father’s faith in God is simple and almost feels naïve. Attending mass weekly is a given, and he will gladly attend more often if the opportunity presents itself. He is utterly sincere in his religion. We were all raised to be good and devout Catholics. It is a mystery why with him for an example so few of us did not follow his chosen faith.

With my mother’s death, I now realize the time we have left together is limited. Each remaining visit feels both special and blessed. I am grateful beyond words to have this man for my father. I feel privileged to have him in my life, still puttering around, smiling so sincerely, generous with the complements and utterly in love with life.

The Game of Generations

The Thinker by Rodin

Most of what happens in any generation is just noise. Events that seem monumental in our time, such as September 11, 2001 will be but a few sentences in our history books in just a couple hundred years. We’ll have moved on. You will be dead. Your children will be dead. Your great great great grandchildren will be grappling with their own problems, small and large. The players will have changed but human drama will continue in its macro and micro levels as long as our species survives.

What endures? What truly survives from generation to generation? After all for the most part we are an impatient race. Tearing down and rebuilding is something we do almost by default. If life doesn’t seem to suit us then we will reconfigure it until it does suit us.

Our myopia on the present makes it difficult to predict what will matter about the past to future generations. But we understand innately that the values we teach the next generation probably has the most enduring effect on future generations. After all, ideas and knowledge will change but guiding principles in life successfully handed down from generation to generation have a sense of true immortality. So for many of us the ultimate meaning in life simply comes down to successfully transmitting our values to the next generation.

As I pointed out elsewhere, it is unlikely that billions of people would choose a particular religion of their own free will. It is comparatively simple to instill our values and faith in our children. As proselytizers discover, it is much harder job of selling beliefs to those outside the faith. That’s a lot trickier, since the supply of people who are open to a change in belief today is pretty small. Given the reality that when the current supply of savages is so low, market share is gained by religions that emphasize the virtue of larger families. Since both Catholics and Mormons have no qualms about large families it is reasonable to expect that they will gain more influence and mind share in the future. Most likely religions like mine (Unitarian Universalism) will continue to be marginal. (I’m not sure I am acquainted with any UU family where there are more than two children in the family.) So beliefs like Christianity and Islam will pick up steam while those with little traction like Zorasterism disappear altogether. The Shakers believe sexual intercourse is sinful. Not surprisingly their religion is almost extinct.

So the game is about faith, but really it’s about faith minus the mysticism: values. In reality faith is irrelevant. This may be news to many of the devout. There may or may not be an afterlife, but the true purpose of a faith is not to prepare people for the hereafter, but to instill guiding principles in the current generation that make life endurable at worse, and inspiring at best. Values are these guiding principles. Values are the energy that does the work of controlling human behavior at macro level.

That is why values discussions permeate our politics. While even the most conservative Christian in Congress would love it if all Americans shared his religious beliefs, what matters more is that they share his values. So he affiliates with people with similar but not identical values. Over time these values are manifest in what we call political parties. And inside each political party are subfactions that agree on the larger goals but are anxious to promote their particular values inside a receptive community. And sometimes it works. Twenty years ago libertarian principles were almost unknown in the Republican Party. Today we have a Republican president promoting libertarian values like private social security accounts.

So in a sense modern politics has become tribalism at the macro level: it’s my sets of beliefs against your sets of beliefs. Every generation in every country fights the battle on many levels. It takes many generations to see who the winner is. At least in America we don’t usually resort to violence to get others to agree with us. The current war in Iraq is, of course, the obvious current and dangerous exception.

What I find interesting is that the process of transmitting the values really says nothing about the correctness of the underlying beliefs and values. Instead the process only demonstrates the efficacy of the process itself: how well it moves a set of values from generation to generation. If a hundred years from now America is the neo-conservative paradise people like Don Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz are promoting, all it really says is that their sales strategy worked better than the others. Their values may not be empirically correct but they are correct in the sense that they have thrived while others have withered. Value Darwinism succeeded. (One way to possibly get values to thrive is to force them on people through law. Not surprisingly that’s why issues like abortion rights become flashpoints.)

The game continues like a game of tennis where each set lasts a generation. Most people don’t even see it happening at all because it generally happens only a glacial generational pace. Occasionally though monumental changes can happen very rapidly. Communism is an example of such a radical change. The old rules of the social order (serf vs. nobility, worker vs. capitalist) broke down rather abruptly and the serfs took command. Social structures that facilitated the old system, like the Russian Greek Orthodox Church, disappeared, or at least seem to disappear. As the Communists learned, religion is a meme that, if it can be erased at all, requires many generations. After all we all have the same sense of foreboding that is inherent in our mortality. Religion provides a natural solace to the angst of death.

Perhaps then it is our mortality and the certainty of death that makes the promotion of values so terribly important for each generation. Knowing that, as the Catholics say at the Sacrament of Confirmation, “You are made of dust and to dust we shall return”, it behooves us to get off the dime and actively push our values. So we tend to respect those who are forceful in pushing their beliefs, even if we don’t always like the beliefs they are promoting. While some of us might like to have had parents that emphasized the value of kicking back and living a life of leisure, it doesn’t feel a natural fit. Because we are mortal we feel life as fleeting and precious. The older we get the more fleeting it feels and the more important values become to us. While I don’t consider myself old at 48, I have heard from many people far my senior that leaving a legacy becomes a driving goal as they age. Otherwise our lives often feel meaningless.

So we are all caught in a whirlwind of values that I believe have their roots in our inherent mortality and the impermanence of all things in general. But perhaps if we were wiser we’d take the time to examine our own values and determine if they truly ennoble our species. Do our values offer a true solution, or are they simply a response to the angst that comes from our mortality? Perhaps instead of growing up as a species, value transmission becomes a form of societal thumb sucking that is passed from generation to generation. If so will we ever grow up?