What I’ve Learned Over the Years About Flags and Anthems

Here is a recent inquiry to a law firm about an incident in Indiana:

I work for a prominent company in a small city here in the Hoosier State, and we are very involved in our local community. We sponsor a corporate softball team, and last night one of our team members “took a knee” during the national anthem before a game. His supervisor asked if the player can be disciplined for this conduct or at least transferred out of the supervisor’s department.

This comes on the heels of President Trump making political hay over the demonstrations by some NFL players (taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem to draw attention to racial injustice and police brutality).

The current stink over athletes’ nonviolence demonstrations caused me to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned over the years about flags and anthems.

Flags

They’re an object. A piece of cloth or other material. They have no inherent value or meaning. Yet people love to rally around them. I’ve done it myself.

Sometimes, the rally is for good (maybe). Sometimes, it’s innocuous (neutral). Often, it’s for bad purposes.

The mighty Roman Empire employed flags in its pageantry and celebrations of war victories. And to lead their troops into battle. Flags are useful in getting young men to charge into situations from which they might not exit whole or alive. The elite (rich, powerful people who pull the strings of war and government) are very good at using flags to manipulate the emotions of others. Consequently, many flags are stained with blood.

The Romans weren’t lone, of course. Examples are replete throughout history, including the Pope as he extended the military reach of the “Holy” Roman Catholic Church beyond Rome, the king of England as he marched troops to the “Holy Land” to kill heretics, Hitler as he mustered support among the youth and other impressionable people to establish and expand his Third Reich, modern-day neo-Nazis who march in Charlottesville, and now Donald Trump, with his red MAGA cap as he uses bigotry, fear and hate to solidify and expand his political base even at the expense of driving a stake through the heart of America.

The president rails against those who supposedly disrespect the flag, while intentionally distorting and misrepresenting the motives and actions of the demonstrators and while assaulting the very Constitution he professes to respect (e.g., his blatant attacks on the First Amendment). Obviously, he’s doing this for purely selfish political purposes. Yet his tactics are effective.

If some people think anyone is disrespecting the Stars and Stripes, they get angry. And angry people are highly manipulatable. They become unthinking and unreflective people, the kind of people whom demagogues want and need to claim and retain power.

So here’s my take on flags — impressions more than 60 years in the making:

  • Flags are things. That’s all. One cannot respect or disrespect a piece of cloth or plastic. It’s what flags represent that matter. They can represent good things. And really bad things, too. Some flags represent both. But, in the end, it’s just a thing.
  • I don’t pledge allegiance to any flag. Allegiance means you’ll do whatever you’re told to do by your country — i.e., by its political leaders (who typically do the bidding of the wealthy powerful class). I won’t. I’ve seen too much. I know that some of those leaders have led us into immoral wars. Have engaged in torture. Have overthrown democratically elected governments. Have slaughtered — or, more often, have directed others to slaughter — defenseless native Americans and even entire cities of women and children, and, today, by its drones and other instruments of death, to kill countless innocent people, including children and babies. Some have run medical experiments on Americans without their consent. Imprisoned people without due process. I’m not about to blindly promise my allegiance to such people. (As an aside, I never understood how a Christian could pledge allegiance to a flag or nation. It’s so obviously antithetical to the life of discipleship.)
  • Despite what I just wrote, the American flag does represent something I value. Specifically, it represents the ideals and principles on which the country was founded and under which it has grown and thrived. It’s true we have not fully realized those ideals, and we never will. That’s what makes them ideals. We’re a work in progress. Yet I thoroughly embrace and adore the principles of freedom and individual liberty, and the right to choose for oneself and not be bound by the mandates of a king or president. The freedom of press, of expression, of religion, of dissent — these are ideals that the flag represents to me and which would cause me never to deface the flag. Yet I’m not so blind as not to see what the same flag may represent to others — to those who have been oppressed by people who pledged allegiance to the flag and claim to respect it so much.

Anthems

Much of what I wrote about flags apply equally to our national anthem. I have and will sing it. To me, the words “Land of the free” are the most important words in the Star Spangled Banner.

I don’t much care for the genesis of the lyrics or its glorification of war. There are better songs. But it’s what we got. To be honest, I don’t spend anytime thinking about it.

Freedom: The Thread That Supposedly Hold the Stars and Stripes Together

Observing the anthem/flag controversy in the NFL today reminds me of the dangers of being sucked into the hysteria of nationalists — the very kind of people who are prone to wrap themselves in flags. We ignore such people at our peril. Scared, angry people with power — especially those with strong nationalistic and militaristic tendencies — are capable of doing really bad things. We’ve seen it too often throughout history to take it lightly.

What all of this does, for me, is to highlight a truth that has been present for most or all of our country’s existence: many Americans don’t actually like freedom and some of the principles embedded in our constitution. Actually, they feel threatened by it.

Again, this isn’t new. The majority didn’t much care for Martin Luther King, Jr. and his nonviolent resistance to institutionalized racism, and they don’t much care for resistance today, especially when it’s delivered by people with dark skin.

Moreover, those in society’s dominant position (principally, white men) try to impose discipline — that is, penalties — to ensure dissent doesn’t spread or become accepted. Fire the employee! Transfer him (see opening request of the Indiana supervisor)! Kill the troublemaker’s prospects for promotion. Refuse to sign the athlete. Boycott them and hit them where it hurts: in the pocketbook. Erect statutes of white supremacists (known affectionately as Southern heroes) and fly the Confederate flag to remind them who’s really in charge! Scare them by shooting some defiant college students (Kent State). Try to intimidate them by carrying guns in the public square.

The underlying tactic is always the same: impose discipline through fear and preserve the existing power structure at any cost.

That’s what the NFL controversy is really about. It has nothing to do with a piece of cloth or song. It has everything to do with quelling dissent and keeping black folk in their rightful place — with reclaiming the white European culture and power structure that predated Brown vs. Education, the integration of our Armed Forces by President Truman and the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s. It has everything to do with reclaiming the world that President Trump has promised will return. It has everything to do with fear. And insecurity.

Does that mean I think everyone who objects to the football players’ demonstration is a racist? Of course not. And it doesn’t mean I think the players’ tactics are effective or the best means of advancing the cause of justice and equality.

Personally, I have no opinion on the matter. I’m not black. I haven’t been the subject of racial discrimination and police brutality. I haven’t lived in a society that thinks I’m inferior because of the color of my skin.

It would be presumptuous of me to question the methods discriminated people choose to improve their lot, especially when their methods are nonviolent.

It’s their call, not mine. But I will respect them and support all people who strive for freedom, justice and equality. I will support anyone who yearns for the best of what the flag represents to me. And I will not defer to hatred and bigotry and the forces that seek to divide us even if such forces are wrapped in the flag. I can see through their disguise.

History shows in stark terms that such hatred and bigotry often hides behind flags and anthems. And it’s hiding behind our flag and anthem today. And under a red cap as well.

Well, perhaps it’s not hiding so much. Perhaps it’s come out and revealed itself in all its despicable forms.

The people who are taking a knee are merely trying to promote awareness and foster justice and equality. They’re not rejecting America or its flags and anthems. They are simply calling on America to live up to its ideals. They are pleading with the country to become more American.

On the other hand, those who are distorting the demonstrators’ motives and choosing to ignore the injustice that is rooted in our society are using the flag and anthem as a club. And as an instrument to reclaim and perpetuate a cruel and unjust social structure.

I do not and will not pledge allegiance to a flag if it stands for oppression. I will stand for a flag that represents the ideals of a just, fair and compassionate people.

But even then, one must ask why? Why the need for flags? Why not instead focus on the people — our actions, our values, our choices, our humanity?

In the final analysis, flags and anthems don’t matter much. But values and principles matter a lot.

I pledge allegiance to compassion, justice, equality and the inalienable rights of people for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And I oppose any person or method that seeks to deny those rights to others.

And I couldn’t care less whether anyone attends or watches an NFL game this weekend.

Just Because

Day care was closed yesterday for a Jewish holiday (Shmini Atzeret). So you did something better, Vera: you came over to our place.

At one point, I asked if you’d like to do something. I can’t recall what it was. You replied, “No.” I asked why not. You said, “Because.”

“Because.” I have to confess, I hadn’t expected such a retort from a 27-month-old. I laughed.

I didn’t push the issue because I thought your reply, although surprising, was sufficient. Basically, “because” or “just because” simply means you’d rather not, and you don’t feel compelled to justify your decision to anyone else.

That’s cool. You shouldn’t have to. The world would probably be a better place if all of us were more willing to take “because” for an answer.

Why didn’t you complete your homework, Johnny? Because.

Why did you not come to visit me? Because.

Why did you eat half of the peach pie? Because (and guilty as charged).

Why did you quit your job? Because.

Why did you vote for that person? Because.

Why don’t you have cable? Because.

Why did you move to Indiana? Because.

The older I get, the more “because” becomes acceptable. Often, it’s simply a matter of respecting boundaries and accepting the right of someone else to choose differently than we might.

Often, it’s simply a matter of perspective, and not allowing little things to blow up into big things.

It’s true that sometimes because is simply a dodge. But, if it’s their dodge and not yours, so what?

In my younger years, as a parent, I was probably more inclined to push the issue. With age, as a grandparent, I’m more inclined to think, That works for me!

Why the change?

Because.

At the Mercy of Other People’s Judgment

Sunday, Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, claimed President Trump (a member of his own political party) was treating his office like “a reality show,” with reckless threats toward other countries that could set the nation “on the path to World War III.”

The Senator said he was alarmed about a president who acts “like he’s doing ‘The Apprentice’ or something.” “He concerns me,” the senator added. “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.”

None of this is surprising. I knew it was a risk, which is why I thought the election of Donald Trump to the presidency was the most reckless act undertaken by the U.S. electorate in our history — by far.

That doesn’t mean the worst case scenario will unfold. Rather, it means the risks are higher than they need be and we’ve put other people’s lives and welfare at risk unnecessarily (as well as our own).

That’s on a grand scale (casualties could exceed those of WW II). Everyday, of course, others make decisions that harm or threaten others (physically or financially) without most of us giving much thought about the matter.

Policy makers make decisions about trade, spending and other matters that could (and often do) have a material effect on our futures.

CEOs and boards make decisions about investments that could affect our livelihood.

Plant managers and railroad personnel make decisions that could make the difference between life and death for many people within range of their plants or tracks.

Drivers make decisions (or fail to make decisions) that can forever alter the lives of fellow drivers and their families.

I could go on. The list is endless. The point is simple: we are at the mercy of other people’s judgment in countless ways. And some of them may be at the mercy of ours.

So what is one to do about it?

I don’t claim to know what anyone else should do about it — that’s their decision. But here are some guiding principles I have acquired for myself over the years.

First, I try no to fret about it; rather, I try to focus on that over which I have some control.

So if my fellow citizens decide electing someone like Mr. Trump is in our best interest, so be it. My lot is part of theirs. I shall benefit or be hurt with the broader community we call country. Some call it fate. Call it what you want. I simply say, “It is what it is.” I’m not going to allow it to destroy my happiness.

Part of this is trying to avoid any sense of entitlement. And nurturing a sense of gratitude. I may not have complete control over such feelings and emotions. But I can influence them for the better. It’s most certainly preferable to fretting and worrying about things over which I have no control.

Second, I try to limit my reliance and dependence upon other people’s judgment as best I can. Stated differently, I try to avoid servitude.

One way of doing this is to acquire financial independence as soon as possible. If I got to live life over, this would be a major early goal of mine. The sooner, the better. Retirement age is much too late.

Third, I endeavor to associate with people of sound judgment and good character. This isn’t always easy because often there is misalignment between economic opportunity and virtue. Again, if I got to live life over, I’d try to spend more time and deal more with virtuous people and try harder to keep distance between myself and the other kind of people.

Last but not least, I endeavor to improve my own decision-making processes and, by extension, the quality of my own decisions.

I’ve made some really poor decisions in my life. I wish I’d spent more time reflecting on my mistakes and endeavoring to instill the rigorous discipline to reduce the number of mistakes going forward. And I really wish I had involved more people in the process and been less dependent upon my own perspectives and biases. 

I also wish I’d been more rational and less emotional. More practical and less idealistic.

I’ve made some good decisions of course. But decision making is a lot like investing: the key is to eliminate or reduce the size of your losses. Avoiding big mistakes is a key to a good life.

Charlie Munger is right: he and Warren Buffett got tremendous advantage from simply trying not to be consistently stupid instead of trying to be very intelligent.

I used to tell students that my primary objective in teaching was to help them become better decision makers, that is, to hone their judgment. Schools don’t talk about judgment. They should. It’s far more important than most of the other stuff that commands their attention.

I don’t know if the country will escape the Trump years without a major disaster. I do know we’re playing with fire and, when that happens, someone often gets burned.

In any case, don’t ever allow yourself to be overwhelmed by that which you can’t control, Vera. There is much you can control, including, to an extent, your thoughts and outlook.

Choose wisely. Become the very best decision-maker you can possibly become. Nothing will serve you as well as sound judgment.

Victimization and Vindictiveness

There are so many victims today. Not so many in reality. But many in self-perception.

Sadly, this sense of victimization leads to vindictiveness. Rooted in anger and outrage. Self-pity. Self-delusion. Entitlement. Fanciful expectations. Vile blame. Abdication of responsibility. Inaction. Passivity. Surrender.

Victimization abounds in our country today.

It’s nasty. Indeed, ugly. It diminishes our country. But that’s not the worst of it: it diminishes the individual.

I’m not sure how we got to this place. Perhaps it’s inevitable as a wealthy empire matures. And peaks.

I’m not sure. I’m pretty sure, however, that it’s something to be avoided, for no other reason than it’s self-destructive.

Vindictiveness works that way. You think you’re hurting someone else. Or that your self-righteousness elevates you. But, in reality, you’re turning on yourself. You’re allowing the good within you to be eroded.

If you want to catch a glimpse of some of the consequences, read Peter Hessler’s “Letter from Colorado: Follow the Leader” in a recent edition of The New Yorker.

It’s hard to read. It’s sad. Disconcerting. Pathetic — not the people, but the situation that’s led to this.

I’m not sure there is anything worse than thinking of yourself as a victim. And blaming others or the world for your condition.

The moment you think of yourself as a victim, it’s a downhill slide.

Try not to succumb to the temptation, Vera.

You will be tempted. All of us are at some point in our lives.

At times, I’ve succumbed. I know better. But its alluring power sometimes prevails. Even when you know it shouldn’t. Even though you know you are the only one who will be hurt.

Vindictiveness works that way. It gives the appearance of being directed outward. But it never is. It always eats the soul of the person who harbors it. The person who allows it to settle in.

If it settles in, recognize it for what it is and work to evict it as soon as possible, not because your grievances aren’t real or legitimate, but because it will do you in if you don’t.

Today, victimization and vindictiveness threaten to do our country in. Perhaps it will be done in. Perhaps the tide has crested and is in the process of breaking along the shore of history.

But perhaps not. Perhaps we will take charge of our individual and collective destinies. Perhaps we will reclaim our collective can-do spirit. Our fading courage and vision.

Perhaps the day will come when we no longer countenance that which is turning us against each other. Against ourselves.

I don’t know. But I do know that it’s serious.

In the meantime, one thing is certain: if we allow self-pity, anger and the urge to be vindicated to prevail, we will become that which we claim to loath. Self-loathing works that way. It’s insidious. And deceitful.

My prayer for you, Vera, is that your soul will overflow with gratitude. And that you will never embrace victimhood. Or be vindictive. Or wish ill on anyone or anything.

As a two-year-old, you are pure. Cling to that purity and goodness as much as you can. The world will try to steal it from you. Guard it jealously.

In the final analysis, perhaps that’s what life is all about: nurturing and protecting the goodness that was embedded within each of us at birth.

Liberalism At Its Worst

Some time ago I wrote about Conservatism At Its Worst. It’s now time for me to share my brief critique of liberalism. To be more precise, I’m talking about liberalism in the present era, in America.

My mind immediately returns to 2009-10 when I was serving as Pennsylvania’s Secretary for Community and Economic Development. The worst of the financial crash and what is commonly referred to as the Great Recession was upon us. Unemployment was high, asset values had plunged and economic activity was anemic at best.

To my mind, the first priority for government was obvious: jobs. People need work, for both financial and psychological reasons. Yet it didn’t seem to me like the Obama Administration and Democratic-controlled Congress shared this view.

Rather, they pushed their policy agenda as though unemployment wasn’t sky high. Their stimulus bill was woefully inadequate and misdirected. They used the opportunity to advance the causes of special interests that had co-opted the party, and seemed oblivious to fostering conditions for job-creating economic activity. They pushed through a deeply flawed health care bill designed more to placate drug companies, insurance companies and shareholders than to address the basic problem. And the Administration did nothing to hold accountable the white-collar elites (criminals who long ago learned the benefits of campaign contributions) who had brought the financial system to its knees through their fraudulent and deceitful practices. In short, the party that is supposed to be the party of the working class proved it had become captive to Wall Street and progressive special interest groups — i.e., to money.

The Republicans were even worse, favoring, as they always seem to, fat cats and the top 1 percent. But I don’t expect party leaders on the Right to care about the working class. I do expect progressives or liberals to care. Suffice it to say they came up short.

I wasn’t totally surprised by any of this. For quite some time, I realized national politics had become a money game, and that those without the money to play didn’t have much of a say in the matter. And that Congress was filled with many very small people — people devoid of vision and ideas but skilled at getting elected and reelected by artful manipulation of the electorate and rampant gerrymandering.

My other grips about liberalism concern its simplistic solutions. Too often, they think the solution to every problem is to increase taxes and redistribute money (not that there isn’t a role for redistribution mechanisms). Too often liberals seem blind to the insidious effects of handouts and oblivious to the role of incentives. And seem delusional about the basic character of humans. In that vein, they seem to think (or pretend, I’m not sure) that people are better than we are. Liberals’ solutions often seem premised on the integrity and good character of all (sans fat-cats, of course). It’s fantasy. At its worst, it’s simply vote buying. And paternalistic and condescending.

The Left also went all in with coastal urbanites and largely abandoned rural, Southern and Rust Belt voters, as well as those who didn’t embrace the party’s social agenda. Again, liberalism lost sight of the centrality of meaningful work and respect for all people, even the ones who might hold views the elite (rich, highly educated people) or social liberals deem deplorable.

Finally, liberalism embraced globalism and militarism as if it were puppets of multinational corporations and the defense establishment. Again, no one seemed to care about the workers. Or the growing inequities of proportions unseen for 100 years.

None of this is to suggest a progressive’s task is an easy one. The world is a harsh and unjust place. Unfairness and injustice permeate our systems, structures, institutions and laws. Protectionism and redistribution mechanism reward the privileged.

I share the progressive’s desire to foster a more just world and not to allow people’s lust for more wealth and power to dominate the public square unopposed. And I share liberals’ realization that unconstrained capitalism yields much injustice and sows the seeds for civil strife. But I don’t share the view that the solution is simplistic redistribution, or solved by identity politics.

Justice work is a complicated task, one fraught with unintended consequences for well-intended solutions. Which is fine, for the degree of difficulty is but a challenge not an impenetrable barrier. Yet too often the progressive’s solution is geared not to the best outcome; rather, too often it is geared to the “solution” that will ensure the uninterrupted flow of financial support to the party or reelection of the incumbent, or to solutions that merely supplant one problem for another. In short, today progressives suffer from that which also afflicts the Right: lack of character, vision and compassion.

At its core, the election of the mean-spirited megalomaniac who presently occupies the White House was, in part, the consequence of liberalism’s abandonment of the working class and their inability to advance solutions that appealed to the working class as opposed to only the special interest groups that lined the party’s coffers. People could sense the political leaders cared more about raising money to ensure their own reelection than the people. Reacting by electing a charlatan was foolish, yet it was predictable.

In the world of capitalism, there is capital (ownership) and labor. The Right, despite its artful and successful strategy to convince workers that its policies are pro-labor, are all about capital. If liberalism is to reclaim the mantel of labor, it must stop demonizing capital and recognize the crucial and important role it plays in advancing the general welfare. And it must advance solutions that don’t do more harm than good and that aren’t designed simply to move money from one hand to another.

In short, liberalism must represent a path forward grounded in a bold, practical vision grounded in respect and dignity for all, including those born without privilege and who simply want to be treated fairly and not be forgotten or constantly beaten down by the hammer of wealth and privilege.

I’m not holding my breath.

The Day Death Chose Not to Stop

I remember hearing the sound of a violent crash. The next thing I knew, I awoke, only to see a spidered windshield and deformed car door pressing against me. Concussion-induced amnesia stole from me (perhaps protected me from) other memories adjacent to the collision.

I do recall emergency personnel being on site, but don’t recall being extricated from the car or loaded into the ambulance. Vera, I remember calling your grandmother from the ambulance because I was concerned she’d go to the airport to meet me as planned. But I don’t recall sending an email and photo to her and your dad and uncle, although later I was presented with proof that I had. It was an odd thing to have done.

I recall arriving at the trauma center, the hall lined on both sides with medical personnel anticipating my arrival. Once on the table, I recall someone struggling to remove my wedding ring, to no avail. I recall suggesting lubricant. It worked.

I recall someone cutting off all my clothes. And I remember a doctor examining my spine for injury. I especially recall the intense pain as I was rolled on my side as they checked for internal hemorrhaging.

I’m sure there had to be more, but that’s all I remember, until being moved for a CAT scan. A short time later, I recall the excruciating pain as technicians endeavored to move me into position for x-rays.

Twelve hours later, after IV drips, pain meds, more tests, sutures, a failed attempt to set a bone, and a splint being plastered on me, I was discharged, barely able to walk but one lucky guy.

Reflecting on this day later, the thing that stood out for me, through it all — the trauma, pain and vast unknowns — is that I hadn’t experienced a single moment of fear.

It wasn’t a matter of courage. It was more like an act of grace. And peace.

Beginning with the moment I regained consciousness to the present, I have been experiencing an overwhelming sense of gratitude, and the feeling that death had passed by on that road, but for reasons I’ll never know, decided not to stop.

The paramedic remarked that I probably would not have survived if I hadn’t been wearing my seatbelt. When looking at the crushed metal from my captive, scrunched position inside the car, and later when viewing a photo of the exterior of the car, I knew that it took more than the seatbelt to save me that morning and, at the very least, the injuries could have been much, much worse.

I’m healing now, as are the occupants of the other vehicle, who remain in my constant thoughts and prayers.

Yesterday afternoon, we picked you up from your school, Vera. I couldn’t lift you up to put you in the car seat, and I think you’re wondering why I have so many boos-boos and a strange thing on my arm. But it doesn’t seem to matter to you. And it doesn’t matter to me, either.

Today, I will be wheeled into an operating room for back-to-back surgeries. Bone stuff — nothing life threatening. And then I will get to know my oral surgeon and dentist even better. There are worse ways to spend time.

Along this short, intense journey, I’ve encountered people of compassion, ranging from health care professionals, taxi and shuttle drivers, airlines personnel, strangers who offered assistance at the airport, friends from Colorado extending their arms 1,000 miles, family and others.

I also encountered some people who weren’t helpful or, worse yet, were actively unhelpful. But I’m just going to pretend I didn’t.

Some people say they’re sorry. I don’t say it (because I appreciate their concern), but what I’m thinking is, “For what?” 

There have been times in my life that I’ve felt sorry for myself. But this hasn’t been one of them.

I used to close letters and emails (and sometimes still do) to certain people with the words, “Peace and grace to you.”

This past week, the words returned home to me.

 

Do You Have the Right to Have an Opinion?

I love this quote from Ray Dalio:

Ask yourself whether you have earned the right to have an opinion.

We seem to live in an age in which everyone has an opinion about everything, no matter how ill-informed. And many of us aren’t shy about sharing our opinions (me included). Worse yet, many of us seem to regard our opinions as fact. (I think of it as the age of rampant self-delusion.)

Which brings me back to Ray’s comment. I wonder what the world would be like if we thought we should have to earn the right to have an opinion. Or at least the right to express it in public.

I suspect it would be a better place.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to have fewer opinions (mainly because, with age, I’ve realized how little I actually know), but I’m sure I still have far too many. Undoubtedly, I haven’t earned the right to have some of them.

I’m going to strive to discard those opinions which came cheap, that is, for which I haven’t earned the right to possess. And I’m going to endeavor to become slow to form new opinions. And to form only those that are earned and necessary.

Will I succeed? Probably not. At least not entirely. But even if I succeed in part, the world will be a better place — only to an infinitesimal degree, of course. But every little bit helps.

So with what shall I fill the void — the void left by these discarded and unformed opinions?

I think I’ll fill it with questions and hypotheses, things that opinions often stifle and suppress.

It should make for a less obnoxious and more interesting person.

Just Be Mindful of What You’re Up Against

According to a story in today’s Wall Street Journal, there is a “boom in federal prosecutions alleging theft or attempted theft of trade secrets.” I’m not the least bit surprised.

I’m not surprised because, if there is one thing life has taught me, it’s that most people are dishonest. Not all people, to be sure. But most.

I can’t prove it, but it seems as though dishonesty — in particular, stealing — has become more widely accepted during my lifetime, whether it’s stealing from the government (actually, from other citizens) by cheating on one’s taxes, stealing trade secrets, shoplifting, padding one’s expense reports, overbilling a customer/client/patient/etc., insurance fraud, bank fraud, securities fraud, hacking a database, price fixing, misrepresenting the quality or character of services or products one sells, or any of the other garden variety ways of taking something that isn’t rightfully yours.

I don’t recall anyone warning me of this when growing up. To the contrary, I was led to believe that people are basically good, the inference being they are to be trusted. Right.

I have absolutely no interest in the philosophical debate over the true nature of humans. Whether they are “inherently” or “basically” good is of no consequence to me. I’m too practical for that. I’d rather focus on dealing with what is.

And what is isn’t a pretty picture, Vera. What is is this: if you assume a person is honest, you do so at your peril.

I suppose I should be grateful for this. After all, I’m a lawyer. I’ve drafted many contracts and been involved in suing quite a few people and organizations that have reneged on their commitments. In other words, I’ve profited from the shortcomings of humanity.

The security industry undoubtedly is grateful, too. They prosper from the threat posed by the untrustworthy in our midst.

But that’s not the point. The point is, don’t let your guard down (which, of course, is one reason we’ll continue to have a lot of lawyers — to help guard people and companies from the lies and false promises of others).

Fortunately, there are some people who can be trusted — people who would never dream of taking advantage of another through lies, misrepresentations or outright theft. Insofar as possible, try to funnel your business and dealings to such people. And try to avoid as best you can the other people.

Often, however, there isn’t any way of knowing whether someone is trustworthy or not. You will be tempted to infer trustworthiness even if the evidence is lacking. Again, you do so at your own risk.

In the meantime, companies will continue to steal each other’s trade secrets, and many will continue to rip off their customers in one fashion or another. People will continue to cheat on their taxes and shoplift. That’s life. I suppose it will never change.

At times, it may seem as though everyone is doing it and, therefore, that it’s O.K. If you ever have that sense or feeling, stop and reflect.

Ponder what it means to be willing to take or keep that which isn’t rightfully yours. And what you’d be giving up if you live your life in such a manner.

I could be wrong, but I think it’s a lot.

Perhaps the Amish Can Teach Us a Thing or Two

I grew up in Pennsylvania, not far from Amish territory. We always regarded Amish territory as Lancaster County, although since my childhood the Amish turf has expanded. There are now quite a few Amish living in close proximity to my childhood home.

The Amish were always a novelty of sorts: buggies and horses; no cars, electricity, or phones; plain dress; bad haircuts; detachment from the broader society. It was never a life that appealed to me, yet I was aware that most kids who grew up Amish remained with the community throughout their lives, even after being given an opportunity to leave.

This morning, when reading a blog post about digital minimalism by Cal Newport (Study Hacks blog), I came across this statement about the Amish and their decision to reject much of the technology I take for granted:

The Amish, it turns out, do something that’s both shockingly radical and simple in our age of impulsive and complicated consumerism: they start with the things they value most, then work backwards to ask whether a given technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.

Such incredible intentionality, I thought.

It’s hard to imagine a community that consciously evaluates technology in such a way. The English (the Amish’s term for me and you) rarely if ever undertake such a self-examination. Instead, we automatically embrace new technology if we can afford it and if it brings us pleasure. Or at least if we assume it’s going to bring us pleasure (whether or not it actually does is a different question).

But are we better off for it? That’s another matter. And it’s a question we don’t wrestle with much if at all.

I do know that the Amish don’t seem to be worse off for not having embraced many of the technologies that are part of our lives — at least if the measure is happiness. And if the measure isn’t happiness, then what is it? What should it be?

I suppose the Amish would argue we (the English) tend to undervalue community and relationships. Has it occurred to us they may be right?

And if they’re right, how would we live our lives differently if we better aligned our decisions with what we truly value?

Personally, I think we tend to undervalue relationships and time. Consequently, we have a plethora of fractured families and communities, and we tend to lives our lives like there is an inexhaustible supply of time when, in reality, time is a very limited, precious resource that could be gone in a heartbeat (literally).

There are some things I think we overvalue, too. Money and stuff head the list. I never cease to be amazed by the amount of storage space Americans rent in which to keep their excess stuff. And by the amount of debt Americans carry so they can buy more stuff.

But my goal, Vera, isn’t to convince you that my list of under and over-valued things is better than anyone else’s. Rather, it’s merely to raise the questions, might the Amish be on to something? And might we be well served by extending their question (does it do more harm than good) beyond decisions about technology?

I think they are and it does.

Life constantly tempts us to compromise our values for something else.

Often, the something else is something someone wants us to embrace (and value) because they can make money off of our decision to buy it. Or pursue it. Or acquiesce to it.

Often, the something else is merely ego gratification and short-termism — the failure to learn from history and to separate the wheat from the chaff.

It may be the right thing to do. But it also might be something that undermines our values and detracts us from the things — and people — that truly matter. The things that bring happiness into our lives. Or a deep sense of purpose or contentment. Or simply peace and grace.

Does it do more harm that good?

It’s not a bad question to ask ourselves each and every day of our lives.

Look for the Tailwinds

I never fully appreciated the impact of tailwinds and headwinds until I started cycling. I couldn’t believe the difference they make. Even when the winds are light, a tailwind does wonders. I wish I’d better understood this phenomenon earlier in life — not with respect to cycling, but with respect to life generally.

Recently, I read some comments by Warren Buffett about tailwinds and headwinds. Buffett stressed the importance of being in a business where tailwinds prevail.

“There are some businesses that are inherently far more opportunity than others,” he said. “So you want to give a lot of thought to which train you’re getting on.” It’s important to be “in businesses where tailwinds prevail rather than headwinds,” he added.

Take Mr. Buffett’s advice seriously, Vera. It will make life so much easier.

Twice in my life I joined businesses with headwinds: once with a chemical company and once with a small private college.

It’s not that either experience was bad. It’s just that there were limited opportunities. And the job was so much harder than it needed to be.

From an employment perspective, the chemical industry had been contracting for quite some time (still is). Technology, competition, demographics, globalization and commoditization had taken a heavy toll. It’s also a capital intensive business, which presents its own challenges, especially in this era of high-margin, capital-light businesses. In short, it’s an industry with headwinds, particularly with respect to employment and career opportunities.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have a satisfying successful career there. It just means there are industries with far more opportunity. And which are more exciting and dynamic. Why deal with headwinds if you can avoid them? (Of course, if you’re a chemical engineer, perhaps it’s the right place to be.)

The headwinds at the college were even stiffer. The 20th century was the century of colleges; the 21st is the century of universities. For a myriad of reasons, the vast majority of students want to attend a university, not a small college, especially one that is nestled in a rural community far from centers of commerce and industry.

Small, under-resourced colleges have a tough go of it these days. Most are struggling financially. There’s never enough money. Many are struggling academically, too.

Maintenance ends up being deferred. Salaries can’t keep pace with wealthier institutions and research universities, and it’s tough to compete for the best talent. The colleges have a hard time competing for the strongest academic students, too. It’s a constant struggle.

Again, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a satisfying career there. But it does mean the opportunities will be limited. And it means the environment is one of scarcity and not abundance.

Why deal with such headwinds? Why not go where tailwinds prevail?

One of my faults (there are many) is that I’m a sucker for a challenge. It’s a fault because it makes life harder than it needs to be. Looking back, I’m convinced I’d had been much better off looking for tailwinds instead of being attracted to headwinds, even though, from a career standpoint, things worked out pretty well for me. But perhaps not as well as they would have if I’d ridden more with tailwinds.

Don’t make the same mistake, Vera. Life is hard enough. Strive to ride with the wind, not against it. It will make the ride so much easier.