Thursday, March 29, 2012

It That Too Much To Ask?

Some people “say it so well” that you can’t improve it much. Gail Collins, in her New York Times piece entitled, “MoreGuns, Fewer Hoodies,” makes the argument, with her usual good sense and subtle humor, that the nation has gone crazy for guns and that those who should be treating the madness – our legislators – are running scared from the American Rifle Association and all the unthinking dupes who parrot their paranoid assertions. The argument runs that without a citizenry, armed to the teeth with every imaginable form of firearm, we will be overrun by hoodlums wearing gray hoodies and carrying Skittles and iced tea home from the local convenience store. A frightening prospect indeed.

Isn’t it interesting that those supporting the shooter in Florida argue that their man had the right to shoot a young boy acting – if he did indeed act at all against Zimmerman – with nothing but his fists, in self-defense, against an unknown man who had been trailing him threateningly, but that the young boy had no right to “stand his ground” against an armed man who accosted him? The logic seems to get more twisted the farther south one goes. It must be related to the greater centrifugal force nearer the equator.

But Wisconsin cannot boast. Under our shiny new “Castle Law,” we too can shoot, with impunity, intruders hiding on our porches. Warn your kids that there is another reason not to play hide-and-seek in the neighborhood after dark – or in broad daylight for that matter. Another reason for them to stay inside playing their harmless “shoot-em-up” video games. (I’m aware that the young man killed on the porch of a Slinger, Wisconsin residence was not playing hide-an-seek, and had no business being there, but the crime for which his gave his life was not significantly more serious than a kid’s game.)

Collins’ concern, expressed in her NYT piece today, is that federal legislation is being promoted to allow those holding gun permits from states like Florida – or others that don’t even require a written permit – to carry their loaded guns into every state of the union and to legally use them there, presumably under the rules that apply in their home state. Collins’ final plaintive words catch the despair of the dwindling band of defenders of civility in our gun totin’ culture: “. . . personally, I’m worn down from arguing. . .” She says, “Really, just leave us alone. If you don’t like our rules, don’t come here. Is that too much to ask?” (Emphasis added.)

Of course, those who “come here” to Wisconsin, could expand our right to defend our “castle” to include a right to “stand our ground” on a junk-laden back porch, or our front lawn, or on the playground of the local elementary school. A pistol on every hip and a shooting on every block! Nirvana is coming to a neighborhood near you.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

There Are Big Black Spiders In The World

A few weeks ago (February 12, 2012) I wrote about a big black spider that I saw on my office floor while taking my blood pressure reading. When I finished taking the reading and went to dispose of the spider I found that it was not a spider at all but a piece of candy wrapper that fooled me into thinking I was in the presence of a sinister creature. The lesson I drew was that the things (the people) who frighten us are not always as dangerous as we think they are. Sometimes they are perfectly harmless.

That is a good lesson that I don’t want to forget. I can easily misjudge the motives of those around me. But a couple of days ago I had an experience that provided a counter lesson. Again I was taking my blood pressure reading, sitting in my office, attached to the monitor when suddenly a large black spider, just about the size and type that I had imagined a month or so ago, came racing out from under the recliner I usually sit in. He (she) ran toward me about half the distance between us and then suddenly stopped, apparently aware that I was there and that I presented a danger to him. Indeed I did. I have little tolerance for spiders of any kind but the large black ones are particularly onerous to me.

But, as in the previous instance, I was connected to the blood pressure monitor and didn’t want to do anything to provide a false reading, so I waited, and watched, and hoped the spider would wait and watch too. When the monitor had processed through its three cycles I carefully removed the cuff and armed myself with my preferred spider-wars weapon, a double Kleenex. With one swift stroke I had enfolded the spider in the Kleenex and dispatched him to spider heaven (or perhaps it is the other place) with one hard squeeze.

As I deposited the spider laden Kleenex in the waste basket it occurred to me that I had learned a lesson equally as valuable that day as the one I had learned back in February. In the earlier instance I learned that not everything that looks evil is evil. But now I had learned that there really are evils in the world, real black spiders.

I’m told that in Wisconsin we have no spiders that pose a threat to humans. That may be so. But there are real black spiders nonetheless, both literally and figuratively. It is the latter that are most dangerous. There are people who, like spiders, prey on others, using stealth and wealth to attack. I see them most often on the screen of my television during the evening news. They creep out, spew their venom, and then retreat under cover of small print and mumbled disclaimers. But in those few seconds they have injected the viewers mind with lies and half-truths that will continue to work after they are gone.

I’ve found a weapon to use against those black spiders on the TV. It is called the mute button. I encourage everyone to use it. Let’s stamp out the big black political spiders that are trying to paralyze our elective system. Start with the mute button on the remote and then, when you go to the polls, pull only the levers that support those candidates who refused to employ black spiders in their campaign.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Conservative Econ 101

I must state at the outset that I DO NOT subscribe to the belief that the Bible supports specific forms of modern government or economies. Over the centuries much blood has been shed over those matters. Humans are best served by living in harmony with each other, providing equity and humanity for all regardless of the economic and/or political system they adopt.

That is not to say that all economic and political systems are equal or equally moral. But the extent to which they are not is more often the result of abuses of the principles upon which they are based than weakness or immorality in the principles themselves. (Tyrannies and dictatorships and their near cousin, anarchy, are obviously exceptions; the principles upon which those systems are built are flawed, dooming any government based on them to corruption and inequality.)

Many, but thankfully not all, conservative Christians seem to have concluded that any politician  who subscribes to individualistic capitalism, coupled with a form of republicanism favoring the wealthy and disadvantaging the poor, is more Christian than a politician who believes in some form of government-regulated distribution of wealth and power. In fact a great number of conservative Christians are willing to label our current president un-American and anti-Biblical/anti-Christian because he favors “entitlements” for the poor including universal access to affordable healthcare.

Ideas about the relative merits of economic theories and systems are worthy of discussion, but the position one takes on them should not become the basis upon which we judge the moral character of our friends or our politicians. Certainly we should not be declaring our presidents “the most dangerous president in the history of our nation” as Newt Gingrich has done with President Obama, simply because he subscribes to an economic theory different than Gingrich favors.

I would argue that, based on personal morality over the years, President Obama has as much, or more claim to moral standing than many of those who wish to diminish his Christian bone fides. His fidelity to his marriage and family, his work with and for the poor, his espousal of causes that benefit the disadvantaged, his non-retaliatory personality, all stand in stark contrast to those of his critics who have spent their lives scrambling for power, advantage, and wealth. Mr. Obama’s wealth is recent, modest, and completely attributable to the popularity of his two or three books. Compare that to the much greater wealth of those who are his major opponents and critics, much of which has been gained by wielding political influence as politicians and “consultants” to politicians, or by manipulating capital in ways that produces vast wealth that is shielded from taxation on the same basis as the wages of the working class.

I repeat that I do not believe the Bible is intended as a text book for a course in Christian Economics, or Christian Political Science for that matter.

But there are those who disagree with me; they are willing to challenge my firmly held belief that Christians in particular, and all morally sensitive persons in general, should favor a level of income distribution that allows all citizens to live with adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, and opportunity for advancement. Their challenge usually takes the form of a suggestion – more often an assertion – that it is unchristian and unbiblical to support income redistribution. The unspoken assumption is that the wealthy are good people, honestly rewarded for their moral uprightness and thrift, the poor are lazy, unthrifty, and unworthy of assistance. Voluntary redistribution of wealth will, in their view, meet the needs of the poor, and will not undermine their will to “help themselves.” (No one has ever explained to me why a dollar handed to me by a rich benefactor is less corrosive to my character than one sent in a government check.)

I would simply point out that the only two economic systems prescribed or described in the Bible, under which the Jews and later the Christians lived, were (in theory at least) highly redistributive. Under the Law of Moses all property was supposed to revert to the original owners and all debts were to be forgiven every 50 years, during a “Year of Jubilee.” No exceptions – no excuses. At the outset of the Christian era we read in the early chapters of the book of Acts that the believers in Jerusalem sold what they had, distributed it to assist the poor and “had all things in common.”

No one I know – especially not President Obama – is proposing anything so Judeo-Christian as a Jubilee redistribution of wealth at the start of every century and again in the middle of each. Neither is it being proposed that all wealth should be equally shared as the early Christians did. All that is proposed by the “entitlements” that are so despised by the Tea Party (the vast majority of which are benefits which the Tea Partiers knowingly or unknowingly receive themselves, or will receive in years ahead) be provided by a modest redistribution of wealth through taxation.

The Hebrew Year of Jubilee was never, as far as we can tell, observed. Likewise there is no record that the early Christian communism spread to other areas where Christianity took hold. Let’s face it, the Jewish Jubilee was never instituted because human nature worked against its implementation. And the Christian experiment in first century Jerusalem was not sustained for the same reason. In both cases it was selfishness that undermined the system – I want for myself what I am being commanded by God, in the case of the Jubilee, to return to my neighbor. And it is selfishness that is at work today in those who decry “high taxes and vast government give-a-ways.”

I can’t change human nature but I can point out that the selfishness that comes from human nature is not mankind’s most endearing trait. American? Perhaps. Capitalist? Perhaps. But definitely not Christian. So we don’t need conservatives suggesting that a preference for economic redistribution of wealth such as the President (and I) support, has less Judeo-Christian warrant than their opposition to it. If anything, it has more.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Justice or Jousting

I was surprised to discover that “justice” and “joust” derive from the same Latin root. My idyllic vision of justice was that of wise and fair-mined jurists meeting to determine the facts of a situation and issue a judgment intended to set things right. Not so, apparently.

This problem of unrequited injustice is old. Two and a half millennia ago a prophet of Israel, looking at the condition of his nation cried out: 

No one calls for justice; no one pleads a case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments, they utter lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil . . . there is no justice in their paths . . .

So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows . . .

We look for justice, but find none . . . justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey . . .

The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice.

Zondervan (2010-12-26). Holy Bible (NIV) (p. 674). Zondervan. Kindle Edition. Isaiah 50:4 – 15 excerpted.

In Wisconsin we read of dissention – even verbal and physical violence – among the jurists in our highest court. A Montana Federal judge is revealed to have distributed vulgar and racist (though he denies being a racist) e-mail messages savaging the President of the United States. While serving jury duty a few years ago I observed the judge sleeping during testimony, the prosecutor manipulating evidence to favor his case, and the defense attorney – provided to the defendant at public expense – slouching in his chair, dressed as though he had hurriedly crawled out of bed to get to the trial, and offering no defense of his client.

If these were exceptional indications of the state of “justice” in our land, it would be one thing. But they are all too common. Trials are not a search for truth and justice. Rather they are jousting matches between competing lawyers. Occasionally justice, or some rough equivalent of it, emerges from these contests – the bad guy goes to jail and the good guy is vindicated – but that does not occur because the system is designed to find a true and just result. It is designed to allow those who can afford the best “defense” to escape justice. In the process those who can’t afford such luxury go away empty-handed or, in the worst case, pay with their life.

At the highest level – the United States Supreme Court – things are no better. It may never have been the case that appointments to that body were made based on the belief that the person being appointed would be unbiased and non-partisan. But it is assumed – in theory – that if all other recourse fails, one will get a fair hearing at the highest level and that justice will be done. But that is a pipe dream – hallucinatory. When the opportunity comes for a President to appoint a new justice it is assumed that he or she will appoint someone whose political allegiances are aligned with his own. So we end up with courts predictably divided into “conservative” and “liberal” factions, delivering predictable decisions in all but the least controversial cases.

Justice, if we could get it, would not always be popular. It would not be “pretty”. It would sting the powerful and the weak alike. But in the end it would send a message through our society that right living and right actions stand one in the best position to be vindicated if they must come before a court of justice. The assumption now is that by winning elections we can pack the courts with those who will support our cause right or wrong. That means, of course, that over the years we simply swing from one version of injustice to another.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Drawing Something Out of the Hat

There are days that seem to offer a writer nothing of interest to write about. Those are difficult days if one feels compelled to write. But such days are no more difficult than those in which a half-dozen ideas clamor to be considered.

This is one of those multiple idea days. So I’ve literally drawn a subject “out of the hat.” And the winner is . . . the recent spate of anti-union ads appearing on TV during the local news hours. Anyone not familiar with them can get a sample at:

I don’t point to their website because I agree with their purpose or their content. The Center for Union Facts, originated by Richard Berman, is a partisan organization more interested in achieving its goal of eliminating unions from the American workplace than in disseminating any “facts.”

The most recent ad shows a group of workers in a factory looking at what appears to be their paycheck stubs and wondering why money is being deducted from their checks to support a union they didn’t vote to be a part of. All of the men in the ad deny having voted for union representation. The announcer declares the dubious “fact” that only 1 in 10 union members voted to join the union. The ad ends with one employee making the guess that it was “Harold” who voted for the union thus making them all subject to union dues. Poor Harold! In fact, if he did single-handedly bring them the benefit of a union, he should be their hero, not the butt of their ire.

It is true that in “union shop” states – only about half of the states allow a union shop these days – workers have the right to select a union to represent them if more than fifty percent (not 10%) of the workers vote to certify that union. In that case all workers must pay the equivalent of the dues the union uses to represent workers. In all cases NO ONE is required to be a member of the union but they must pay their fair share of what it costs the union to bargain for their pay and benefits and to represent them in disputes with the employer. In no case that I know of are the unions allowed to use those dues for political purposes as the ad falsely infers. Any political activity the union wishes to engage in must be done with funds raised voluntarily from the members and administered through a political action committee.

(Most people are familiar with the term “PAC”, now made famous by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who seems to get most of his support from out-of-state PACs, and the Republican Presidential Candidates with their vicious Super PAC ads that slash and burn their opponents. PACs, you see, are not the sole preserve of labor unions.)

But back to the ad. The question the men in the ad seem to be seeking an answer to is, “Why are these dues being taken from our checks if we don’t want to be a part of the union?” The answer, simply put, is that they are choosing to work for an employer whose workers have voted to be represented by a union. There must be something attractive about working at a union represented concern or they wouldn’t be there. Workers in union companies generally receive higher wages and more and better benefits than those working in equivalent non-union concerns. They also have the right to be represented by the union when disputes arise between the employer and the employee rather than having to resolve them in lone confrontations with the management, an enterprise that nearly always ends with the employee the loser.

The ad says nothing about what these workers would lose (sooner or later – as soon as the employer could make it happen) if they lost their union representation; things like vacations, sick leave, hiring and firing rules, rules for promotion, and of course negotiated pay raises. Nor does the ad point out that even workers in non-union industries (even Wal-mart employees with their abysmal pay and benefits) benefit from the fact that unions exist and by their existence over the years  have pushed up wage and benefit levels. And the ad fails to mention the history of unionization – the conditions in the late 19th century and early 20th century that drove workers, at the risk of their jobs and even their lives, to strike and picket and protest until the government finally enacted laws granting workers the right to form and join unions and bargain collectively for improved benefits and working conditions.

There is a massive assault being waged against the working class in our nation. Sadly, many of those who are the target of the assault have been persuaded to join those who are working to repeal the very laws that uphold their current marginal standard of living. In Wisconsin such efforts are funded by the Koch brothers who openly boast that they have been influential in Wisconsin politics even though they do not reside here. They further boast that they intend to continue to be so. In other states there are others who take the lead. The working class – wage earning – citizens can stop this raid on their standard of living at the ballot box. But the time to do so is short. Recent Wisconsin history shows how quickly fifty years of labor progress can be wiped out. It is literally now or perhaps never again in this generation’s lifetime.

I can’t help concluding with two quotations from the Book of James in the Bible: chapter 5, verses 1 – 5. They describe so well the wealthy who today are duping the poor and middle classes into supporting their war on unions and every other law that protects the livelihood of the working folk. 

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.

Zondervan (2010-12-26). Holy Bible (NIV) (p. 1107). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Earlier in the book (Chapter 2 verses 5-7, the apostle James warned the early believers against favoring these rich oppressors of the poor: 

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. (By fawning over the rich at the expense of poor people when they came into their meetings.) Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong? 

Zondervan (2010-12-26). Holy Bible (NIV) (p. 1106). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Some would call James’ arguments an invitation to “class warfare.” I would call the current attacks on working peoples’ livelihood, “class warfare.” James’ admonition to those 1st century Christians, I would call good sense.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Myth of the Self-Made Man:

Cooperation as an Adjunct to Individual Effort

Most of us know someone who is quite certain he owes nothing to anyone. When asked to share with someone less fortunate, he indignantly refuses, often saying, “Why should I? Everything I have, I’ve gotten by myself; let them take care of themselves.”

In considering such ignorance and arrogance we will put aside the most obvious objections – that they could not have started their life without the assistance of, and genetic material provided by their biological parents; that they would not remain a viable person without the care of their Creator who provides them with air to breathe, water to drink, and a thousand unseen protections every day. Those indisputable facts alone make their claim ridiculous.

But there are other reasons to reject their claim. Such braggadocio ignores the fact that the land in which they live – I’m speaking of U. S. citizens – would be rich whether they inhabited it or not. Anyone who wishes proof of the fortunate location of the United States needs only to put their finger on the globe in the middle of the United State and spin it, tracing a line at the same latitude all around the world. No other nation has the variety of rich, productive land at just the right latitude that the United States enjoys. The fact that one lives here is a “gift” without which their success, if it came at all, would not have been so easily won. They owe a debt to geography.

Those who feel they have been the master of their own success forget the blessings bestowed on their efforts by the society in which they live. While there is plenty to bemoan in our culture it is, nonetheless, one of the most beneficent in the world. Through cooperative efforts (funded by taxation) every citizen has at their disposal relatively healthy air to breathe, clean water to drink, a reliable food supply, communications and transportation that allows commerce to thrive, and an educational system that provides opportunity for everyone to progress while supplying businesses with a well-trained workforce. All of this is provided by cooperative efforts envisioned and initiated by our founding fathers. They owe a debt to our political-economic structure.

There is a final reason to reject the claim of the “self-made man”; he fails to give credit to the moral climate in which he lives. Although I reject the claim that the United States is a Christian nation, it is nonetheless true that the moral climate of our land is influenced (shaped, actually) by the fact that most of its citizens subscribe to the tenants of Christ’s teaching. The core of that morality requires that we be our brother’s keeper, that we do unto others as we would have them do to us, that we feed and clothe the poor, care for the sick, and identify with the persecuted. Whether the “self-made man” knows it or not, his success has been made possible in large part because others do not march under the banner of selfish greed that he proudly waves. If everyone sought only their own interest, everyone would be a loser. We owe a debt to the moral fabric that holds our society together.

There are no self-made men or women. Our biology, geography, politics, and morality all testify against such a notion. Our genes, our ecosphere, our freedoms and protections, and the bubble of moral culture in which we live, all belie the frailty of that boast.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Trust (Faith) As An Adjunct to Human Reason

In previous blog entries I’ve discussed the power of human reasoning and the need for humility in the application of that reasoning. In this essay I want to add some comments about the role of trust in human decision making.

In this virulent political season we are in – it seems we are perpetually in a “political season” these days – trust is the lynchpin that holds political parties, campaign organizations, and groups of constituents together. Candidates, who cannot possibly have all the information on every subject they are called upon to discuss lean heavily – and trustfully – on staff members to provide them with that information. When their trust in their staff is betrayed and the statements they make are shown to be false or ill-conceived, the onus falls almost invariably on the candidate. They fail not always because of logical ineptitude but because they put their trust in an unworthy source.

It is no different in all other areas of life. We read frequently of persons, highly competent in some area of endeavor, being duped by a con artist in some other area in which they must operate by faith. But without faith it is, the Bible famously says, “impossible to please God.” We might add that without faith it is impossible to get from the bed to the job and back to the bed again. Trust/faith is almost as essential to our being as the air we breathe.

Christians are characterized by some as na├»ve because they take much of their belief system “on faith”, relying on the Bible, or ancient Creeds, or present “authorities”. But any perceptive person can easily see that there is no area of life, no academic discipline, no worldview that does not do the same. The “Bible” used by people in these situations may be different, the “authorities” may not wear clerical collars, the “creeds” may be scientific formulations, but at some point the true believer puts his or her trust in something, or some aspect of something, that they have not expeienced, or cannot personally experience or vouch for, and must therefore accept – by faith – that which is beyond their powers of verification.

One of the great affirmations of the Christian faith was spoken nearly 2000 years ago by the apostle Paul. He declare, “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to preserve that which I have committed to him to the end.” (My loose paraphrase.)  To some that sounds like “blind faith” and therefore nonsense. But a careful look at the statement reveals how much care went into its formulation. It does not declare that Paul knew his faith was true and irrefutable. It mere states that Paul held his faith to be in safe hands – he knew in whose hands he was putting his faith. At another time he said to the church at Corinth, “If the things we believe about Jesus resurrection are not true – if he did not rise from the dead – our faith is worthless, we are still in our sins, and we are more miserable than all other people.” (Again, my paraphrase.) Paul was willing to admit that the possibility existed that he could be wrong, but his faith in the One to whom he had committed his life was so complete that he was willing to live and die for those principles he believed.

What is too often viewed as blind, irrational faith is actually the opposite. A rational person, when he/she comes to the end of his/her understanding, reaches out in faith to the most logically defensible authority, or theory they know. At times there is no such person or idea, in which case a logical person remains agnostic (not knowing; not taking sides). But in most of life we decide, and more often than some are comfortable admitting, that decision is based on logic assisted by trust – faith added to,  and sometimes the basis of, human reasoning.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Humility as an Adjunct to Reason

In the most recent blog entry I wrote about the power of human reason. One definition of reason is: the power of being able to think in a logical and rational manner. There was a time, even in my lifetime, when most humans believed that “reason” was the exclusive reserve of human beings. We spoke of “dumb beasts” meaning more than that they simply could not speak, but that they would not know what to say even if they could speak. Perhaps most humans still believe that, but there is increasing evidence that other sentient creatures have the same “power” we humans possess, although to a lesser degree. Future research may show that our assessment of the “degree” of reasoning power in “lower animals” is greater than we imagined. There is a lot to be learned before we can say we understand the world in which we live.

And that brings me to the subject of this essay, humility. Some human traits seem to be inbred, genetic, and nearly universal. But probably not humility. At least for the sake of this essay I’m going to contend that humility is a learned trait, and further, that some humans never get it learned. I would argue that it isn’t just the “simple folk” who are deficient in it; that in fact they may have an advantage over their more “privileged” brothers and sisters due to the circumstances of their lives that expose them to more opportunities to observe the severe penalties enacted against those who misuse – place too much confidence in – their powers of reason.

In my previous essay I recited a series of incidents involving automobiles I have owned, all of which developed a similar dysfunction – reduced engine function when an attempt was made to accelerate above a certain rpm – but in each instance the cause was unique; different than all the others. Try as I did to use my reasoning powers to reference past experience, I still failed each time to correctly diagnose the problem. It was a humbling series of experiences and I cannot honestly say that I learned anything from it regarding the likely cause of any particular instance of engine failure, except not to trust myself to know the cause in any future similar situation.

Older adults (of which I am one) like to think of young people as brash, self-confident, even prideful. No doubt that is a frequent, if not quite universal, description of youth. Sadly it is also a frequent description of old age too, and every age between. It is not hard to find examples from personal experience, or from the daily news, to illustrate, both the prevalence of, and often the tragic results of, human pride. We sometimes use other words to describe it: over weaning self-confidence, arrogance, bull-headedness, intellectual snobbishness, and more. But pride encompasses them all. It is an unwillingness to admit that our prowess is less than we wish, or hope, or think it to be.

Among the many Biblical quotations my mother loved was one taken from the Proverbs: “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Whether applied to politics, theology, economics, sports, business, romance or, in my example, mechanics, the proverb is proven true a hundred times a day. We need only tune in the evening news to see the latest paragon of pridefulness wiping egg from his or her face.

The interesting aspect of all these tumbles from the pinnacles of society is that in each case the person thought they were operating reasonably – according to good, proven rules of success. They reasoned, “If I put this before that, and do what other successful people before me did, and watch out for the pitfalls others have encountered, and do it all employing my immaculate skills, I’ll be at the top of the heap; my barns will be full and I can look forward to a long and comfortable retirement. And some are fortunate enough to go to their grave still confident that their successes were all attributable to their great genius. Those few successes contribute to the overconfidence of less fortunate ones who follow in their path and take unwarranted comfort in their example.

But most truly successful persons learn, relatively early in their career, that they are insufficient in themselves to accomplish complex tasks. There are no self-made men or women. All loners are losers. We need each other. Ideally we need daily and intimate association with each other. But at the very least we need to learn from others in one way or another. To some, that is a blow to their pride.

I’ve watched helplessly as a talented person wasted his skills in a vain attempt to “do it all himself” and thus receive all the credit for what was done. A little humility; a willingness to blend his skills and experience with that of others, could have averted the wreck that ultimately resulted from his pride.

Human reason is a marvelous tool in the hand of mankind, but it requires a healthy respect for human frailty – a healthy dose of humility – or it will destroy the man or woman wielding it. We need to remember that “human” comes from the same etymological root as “humas”. We are from the earth, lowly dust. But so does “humility” come from that root. Humility is a recognition of our roots – we are men (adam – of the earth) and not gods.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Power of Human Reason

“Experience is the best teacher.” We’ve all heard that, and said it too. We believe it. What we have seen with our own eyes, heard with our own ears, handled with our own hands is more real to us than anything we merely “dream up” in our minds. We are children of the Enlightenment, thoroughly modern men and women, believers in the power of empirical research, informal as well as formal. Reasonable (and reasoning) people are more reliable, we believe, than those who rely on intuition or on the authority of others. And it works!

Or does it? That may depend upon a number of factors: the power of the intellect doing the reasoning, the reliability and comprehensiveness of the information it has at its disposal, the sensitivity of its organs of sense, the biases it brings to the operation of its reason, and much more. In other words, there are variables, and the quality of the variables makes reasoning a variable, and sometimes downright unreliable, exercise.

My first automobile, a 1949 Chevrolet, developed a problem. When it was “asked” to accelerate above a certain speed, or go up a hill, the engine began to sputter and the car lost speed. After some experimentation I found that the problem was a failing gas pump. I stored that information away, changed the fuel pump, and I was on my way.

A few months later, while on a trip, the car began to stall out at about 40 miles per hour. I pulled into a filling station and suggested to the mechanic on duty that the fuel pump must be failing. The symptom was very similar to the previous problem. He lifted the hood and had me accelerate the engine. Ah, there was a pinhole in the upper radiator hose that, when the pressure built up at higher speeds sent a stream of water onto the distributor causing it to short out at higher speeds. New radiator hose and I was on my way.

Some years later, my 1952 Mercury developed the same symptom, stalling out at about 40 miles per hour. I took it to a mechanic and told him what I had learned in the previous two experiences. He said he thought he knew the problem. That particular car had a fault in the distributor so that when the engine speeded up and the distributor turned – as it was designed to do – a wire that circled the distributor shaft was drawn around the shaft. Eventually the insulation wore off and the wire shorted out against the distributor shaft. New wire, and I was on my way.

In 1960 when my new Ford developed the same problem I had it figured out. Same auto maker – same problem – a wire touching the distributor shaft. No, I was informed; that problem had been solved by redesigning the distributor. In this case it was a matter of a cracked distributor cap. New cap, and I was on my way.

In each case I was doing all that a child of the Enlightenment could be expected to do. I carefully observed and “recorded” my experiences and applied those experiences to similar situations. I formulated an hypothesis based on previous experience and current circumstances. But still I got it wrong 100% of the time. I haven’t lost faith in the power of human reasoning but my faith in it has been tempered by those – and by many subsequent – experiences.

And it should be. Human reason alone is insufficient to provide us with the guidance we need to navigate our world with relative success. In future essays I want to talk about other things that should supplement our reasoning skills; things like trust (faith), cooperation, humility, and providence.