J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Ellegy is a must read

I actually met J.D. Vance some years ago at a mutual friend’s wedding, though I honestly don’t recall much about him other than that he was a generally polite and intelligent gentlemen. Still, the mutual friend speaks very highly of the man, and given my respect for my friend, my ultimate conclusion is that J.D. is a genuinely good guy, which this book did nothing to change. If anything, hearing the story of his childhood amidst the culture of rural Appalachian whites only made his current state all the more interesting.

If you read this book without any intent to gain insight into societal issues, you will still not be disappointed. Vance’s writing is compelling and he spins a well thought narrative throughout. From the fiery rhetoric of his grandmother, affectionately known as “Mawmaw” (who frequently threatens to blow peoples’ body parts off upon any hint of threat towards her grandchildren), to the loving but ultimately tragic relationship with his mother, this is a story worth hearing for that sake alone. But I think to get the best out of the book, we must take Vance’s story in the context of the times, as window into a dark and rarely explored section of our society.

Vance’s paints a picture of a culture that at times exhibits admirable qualities. The hillbillies of Kentucky are fiercely loyal, protective, and insistent on handling matters themselves. When a child molester is caught, Vance’s grandmother brags about how he was found riddled with bullet holes before the justice system ever had a chance to be invoked. Mawmaw defends her grandchildren in a way that would make most mothers look like lightweights, at one point telling her own daughter that she will shoot her in the face if any more harms comes to Vance or his sister. And Vance credits her installment of the virtues of hard work and perseverance with his ultimate success. There is much to be imitated and lauded.

At the same time, Vance talks honestly about the darker underbelly of this forgotten corner of America. Physical abuse, drugs, and rampant familial chaos are commonplace, and often excused as normal rather than called out for the harm they cause. The so-called “nuclear family” is virtually non-existent, replaced by a revolving door of boyfriends through his life, ultimately causing him to grow cold and resistant towards forming any attachments. Underlying it all is a disturbing lack of personal accountability, where all problems are caused by some ever present, insurmountable external force. Vance tells of friends who complained after being fired from numerous jobs, seemingly blind to the fact that their own tardiness and poor work habits caused their demise.

Vance is careful not to give prescriptions for solving these issues that he feels he is not qualified to offer. But he does point out that the often simplistic outside view of poverty, that all poor people are merely downtrodden and working through hard times, is no more true than its polar opposite, that all poor are merely lazy and lack motivation. Rather, the picture is much more nuanced and painted in shades of gray. Yes, it’s true that welfare can be helpful in keeping food on the table, but it has led to the erosion of communal assistance and the larger familial unit, along with encouraging those in poverty to stay there. Child protective services, no doubt an overal force for good, inadvertently encourages children not to implicate their parents in abusive behavior, lest they be wrested from the very support structures they have known all their lives (in Vance’s case, his grandparents).

Ultimately, the book is a thoroughly enjoyable (though at times depressing) and informative read. Anyone who cares about the plight of the poor, especially white rural populations, should read this book. The vivid portrait of a culture in crisis may well reshape your views and ultimately the policies and actions you advocate for. In light of the rise of Donald Trump, whose emotionally targeted rhetoric plays directly into the fears and world views of those in the rust belt and coal towns of America, perhaps we can no longer ignore the plight of this silent majority of Americans.

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Ellegy is a must read

I actually met J.D. Vance some years ago at a mutual friend’s wedding, though I honestly don’t recall much about him other than that he was a generally polite and intelligent gentlemen. Still, the mutual friend speaks very highly of the man, and given my respect for my friend, my ultimate conclusion is that J.D. is a genuinely good guy, which this book did nothing to change. If anything, hearing the story of his childhood amidst the culture of rural Appalachian whites only made his current state all the more interesting.

If you read this book without any intent to gain insight into societal issues, you will still not be disappointed. Vance’s writing is compelling and he spins a well thought narrative throughout. From the fiery rhetoric of his grandmother, affectionately known as “Mawmaw” (who frequently threatens to blow peoples’ body parts off upon any hint of threat towards her grandchildren), to the loving but ultimately tragic relationship with his mother, this is a story worth hearing for that sake alone. But I think to get the best out of the book, we must take Vance’s story in the context of the times, as window into a dark and rarely explored section of our society.

Vance’s paints a picture of a culture that at times exhibits admirable qualities. The hillbillies of Kentucky are fiercely loyal, protective, and insistent on handling matters themselves. When a child molester is caught, Vance’s grandmother brags about how he was found riddled with bullet holes before the justice system ever had a chance to be invoked. Mawmaw defends her grandchildren in a way that would make most mothers look like lightweights, at one point telling her own daughter that she will shoot her in the face if any more harms comes to Vance or his sister. And Vance credits her installment of the virtues of hard work and perseverance with his ultimate success. There is much to be imitated and lauded.

At the same time, Vance talks honestly about the darker underbelly of this forgotten corner of America. Physical abuse, drugs, and rampant familial chaos are commonplace, and often excused as normal rather than called out for the harm they cause. The so-called “nuclear family” is virtually non-existent, replaced by a revolving door of boyfriends through his life, ultimately causing him to grow cold and resistant towards forming any attachments. Underlying it all is a disturbing lack of personal accountability, where all problems are caused by some ever present, insurmountable external force. Vance tells of friends who complained after being fired from numerous jobs, seemingly blind to the fact that their own tardiness and poor work habits caused their demise.

Vance is careful not to give prescriptions for solving these issues that he feels he is not qualified to offer. But he does point out that the often simplistic outside view of poverty, that all poor people are merely downtrodden and working through hard times, is no more true than its polar opposite, that all poor are merely lazy and lack motivation. Rather, the picture is much more nuanced and painted in shades of gray. Yes, it’s true that welfare can be helpful in keeping food on the table, but it has led to the erosion of communal assistance and the larger familial unit, along with encouraging those in poverty to stay there. Child protective services, no doubt an overal force for good, inadvertently encourages children not to implicate their parents in abusive behavior, lest they be wrested from the very support structures they have known all their lives (in Vance’s case, his grandparents).

Ultimately, the book is a thoroughly enjoyable (though at times depressing) and informative read. Anyone who cares about the plight of the poor, especially white rural populations, should read this book. The vivid portrait of a culture in crisis may well reshape your views and ultimately the policies and actions you advocate for. In light of the rise of Donald Trump, whose emotionally targeted rhetoric plays directly into the fears and world views of those in the rust belt and coal towns of America, perhaps we can no longer ignore the plight of this silent majority of Americans.

How Social Media and E-Mail Hook You and Keep You

When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip…. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters proud of his extensive correspondence has not heard from himself this long while. – Henry David Thoreau

I found this passage in William Powers’s excellent book Hamlet’s Blackberry(aff link). I struggle quite a bit with the near addiction I have to checking e-mail and social media (mostly Facebook). It’s become an almost automatic response to being on any kind of digital device. I’m connected, therefore I check (email | Facebook | Twitter | Feedly). My fingers tap across the screen without any conscious thought, and before I know it I’m looking at the latest updates or seeing another work e-mail that will ruin my quiet evening.

It makes sense why things like e-mail or Facebook can create these kinds of behavior, and why in Thoreau’s day we could say the same thing about going to the post office. In the behavioral model of psychology, a “reinforcement schedule” is a concept defining how and when a subject is rewarded for behavior. For example, in a simple fixed schedule model, subjects are rewarded every time they produce the desired behavior (every time your dog obeys your command, you give him a treat). But research has shown that over time constant reinforcement tends to produce a leveling effect. The frequency of the behavior slows, and even stops as the reinforcement loses effectiveness. In contrast, if rewards are delivered on a varying basis the behavior continues and is highly resistant to extinction (i.e. it is very hard to stop). This is especially true of so-called “variable ratio” reward schedules, in which subjects are given a reward after a randomized number of times they show the desired behavior.

Think for a moment about that. When rewards are given after randomized counts of behavior, we see the fastest rate of the behavior and the most resistance to change. Now, think about how Facebook works: you check it constantly, and from time to time you see a particularly interesting post, or that someone has left a comment on one of your previous posts. That little glowing red globe symbol is like a tiny shot of dopamine to your brain, and just like a rat in a cage who receives food at random for pressing a lever, you’re hooked.

The same is true of Thoreau’s “poor fellow”. Every time he goes to the post office, there’s a chance he’ll find a letter from a friend or lover. Thus begins the cycle of seeking out the reward, never knowing whether or not this time will be a lucky one.

Lately I’ve worked hard to break this habit as much as possible, with some success. First, it’s best to make getting to Facebook or e-mail as hard as possible; I log out of Facebook once my designated time is done, and turn off my e-mail on my phone. At times I go so far as to turn my expensive smart phone into nothing more than a dumb telephone, at least in the sense of connectivity (for the record, the recipe is to turn off wifi, then disable cellular data. At first it was downright painful, but as time went on, it’s become more and more pleasurable, these brief interludes of silence.

Try it yourself. Today, turn off all your devices and go for a walk. You might be amazed at the things you notice.

The Power of the Little Writing Habit

I love writing. It’s a chance for a little creative output, to clear my head and express what’s on my mind. But life intervenes, and lately I’d largely stopped writing on a regular basis. There were always more pressing things: lines sitting on my to-do list clamoring for attention, small children demanding attention, the siren call of a warm and cozy bed. I gave in to these, letting my writing habit slip away. At first it was easy, and I felt like it was entirely rational. After all, these things were important; spending time with my family and being productive are two incredibly large parts of who I am.

But, so is being a writer.

As time went on I missed my time with my words more and more. I felt stifled, repressed. The words and ideas lay on my mind’s proverbial back burner, simmering away, until that simmer became a rolling boil that I could no longer ignore.

So, I decided I had to find a way to keep writing, no matter what life might throw at me.

At first I tried to set aside large blocks of time on the weekend to write, or set larger goals of finishing an article, writing a short story, or finishing the next section of my science fiction book. It seemed to work at first, but increasingly it felt inadequate. My creative mind sat largely idle for most of the week, building up pressure until it was unleashed. And more often than not, life intervened and I missed most or all of my writing time due to pressing family concerns or more “urgent” work that came up, which would cause that pressure to build even further.
I realized after only a short time that my strategy wasn’t working, and I think there’s one major reason.

Big goals are, by their nature, fragile and inflexible. If I set the bar so high (2-3 hours of sustained writing on a Sunday afternoon), it’s far too easy for things to get in the way and throw me off course. And if I don’t meet my criteria for success, I’m going to feel discouraged, that little inner voice of mine kicking in with it’s negative thoughts of “Give it up, you’ll never be a writer.” And you know what? The voice is right. As Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” If I didn’t find a way to keep writing, then my identity as a writer would be lost.

Fortunately, I think the answer comes in the rest of that same quote from our ancient Greek friend: “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
I had to make writing a habit.

But how? I’d already established that it was difficult to reliably get large swaths of time on the weekend. But then I remembered something I read in bestselling author Gretchen Rubin’s book on habits, Better Than Before (aff link), which was (to paraphrase): “The habit of the habit is more important than the habit itself.” What she means is that the act of doing the habit, or some rough approximation thereof, is far more important than completing the full measure of the act itself.

I would be better of writing a single word, each and every day, than I would be trying to write in large chunks of time. This was where I got the idea of my little writing habit.

The next morning, I woke up a mere 15 minutes before I usually do. I rolled out of bed, stretched, drank a glass of water, then walked into my office and sat down at the computer. At first, the words didn’t flow easily; I’m by no means a morning person, after all. But as time when on, it felt good. It felt really good. The words came easier, and I quickly got into a rythm. Before I knew what had happened, the little bar in Scrivener turned green, and I had hit my writing goal. I even went a little beyond that, before calling it good for the day. I still managed to get ready and out the door on time, and I found that for the rest of the day I felt strangely free. Is this what it feels like when I get even that little bit of time to clear out my creative juices? I don’t know, but I liked it.
So the next morning, I did the same thing. And the day after that, and so on. As it stands I’ve done this four days in a row, with nearly three thousand words written out. I’ve finished another short story, completed an article for one of the technical publications I write for, and even finished another chapter in my book. And now, I’m writing this very post.

This is the power of little habits.

There will be days when I only hit my minimum word count. And there will probably be days where I can’t write at all. But you can be sure I am going to keep up this ritual. Get up, sit at the computer, and write. Because, as Stephen King writes in his wonderful work On Writing (aff link):

There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in.

I’ve found my muse again. And it feels wonderful.

Words of Wisdom From a Ray Bradbury Character

“We’re all fools,” said Clemens, “all the time. It’s just we’re a different kind each day. We think, I’m not a fool today. I’ve learned my lesson. I was a fool yesterday but not this morning. Then tomorrow we find out that, yes, we were a fool today too. I think the only way we can grow and get on in this world is to accept the fact that we’re not perfect and live accordingly.”

Ray Bradbury, “The Illustrated Man”

This quote struck a chord with me immediately upon reading it. I’ve remarked several times on this blog (and oh so many times in conversations) about just how irrational and (more dangerously) ignorant we humans are. We believe we knew what was coming all along, seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs, and dismiss or discount information which challenges them.

I’m certainly no exception. Despite my awareness of these things, I often find myself falling into their traps. Just the other day, for example, I fell prey to a clever use of the default effect while attempting to unsubscribe myself from a mailing list. After clicking the “unsubscribe” link in the e-mail, I was brought to a page where there was some text along with a series of check boxes. In many cases, one checks the items one wants to unsubscribe from, and submits the form. Since I saw the boxes were already selected, I hurriedly clicked the submit button and went on my way. Naturally I was shocked to find more e-mail from the sender in my inbox the next day. Upon returning and closer inspection of the opt-out form, I found that in fact I needed to un-check the boxes for the lists I no longer wanted to receive. Read the fabulous… oh you get the idea.

I’m fond of saying “I’m just as much of an idiot as everyone else, I just readily admit it.” Even with this awareness, however, my ability to invoke reason and logic is limited. And so, as Bradbury’s character suggests, I live accordingly. Or, at least I try. I keep sweets from easy access in the cupboards, I make it a point to listen to the opinions of those I heartily disagree with, and I try and limit the decisions I make on a daily basis. I frequently get “sanity checks” from those around me and, despite the uncomfortable feeling it brings on, welcome challenges to my thinking.

If we are going to overcome our shortcomings as humans, the first step is awareness. That’s one of the main reasons I write about things like cognitive biases or how preconceived notions can hurt us in our daily lives. Writing about these things helps keep them in the front of my mind, while helping me to connect related information together. Keeping the our emotional irrational nature in check is a difficult task, but one we must engage in every day, and do so intentionally.

Every day, look youself in the mirror, and remind yourself (in the words of author David McRaney(aff link)), “You are not so smart.”

We Must Let Our Children Fail If We Want Them To Succeed

In trying to protect too much, kind people can inflict great cruelty.
-Eric Greitens

The quote above is from the Greitens’s book Resilience, which I’m in the process of reading.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to teach my children the best skills for success. I’ve long been a believer that while a parent’s job is to guide and help their children on their path, it’s not for us to make sure the path is without obstacles. We learn best through hard work, and by turning our mistakes and setbacks into well valued experience.

All too often today I see signs that people are treating their children like delicate dolls, rather than what they are, merely small adults. Parents refusing to let their children ride their bikes to their friends’ houses, or even worse, getting in trouble with the law for letting kids walk themselves home from school. Kids now receive trophies even when they place dead last in tournaments. But it doesn’t even stop at children or teenagers; in fact I recently read an article by none other than one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Haidt of The Righteous Mind, detailing how “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like.”

Greitens hits this one square on, writing:

Not everyone gets a trophy, because not every performance merits celebration. If we want out children to have a shot at resilience, they must learn what failure means. If they don’t learn that lesson from loving parents and coaches and teachers, life will teach it to them in a far harsher way.

Some time ago, I read the book Raising Resilient Children, by Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein. It made quite an impression on me, and has stuck with me ever since. The authors mainly focus on fostering a mindset of problem solving and creativity in children, so that they can navigate the inevitable bumps and bruises life will hand them. Ever since then, I’ve tried to always step back and let my children work themselves through things, rather than leap in and correct things as quickly as possible.

Is this hard? You bet. Any parent with any degree of compassion (and I’d hope most do) will find it downright painful to see their child struggle. Whether it be in school or when playing with friends, we always want to see our children happy. But truthfully, we do them more harm by making things easy and swatting things from their path, rather than teaching them the skills to handle it themselves.

When I was in college I remember seeing a fellow freshman student struggle mightily with the task of doing her own laundry. Had I not intervened, I think she would have readily poured bleach all over her (rather expensive looking) clothes. It made me think, “If she can’t even handle doing the laundry, how is she going to handle all the far more adverse challenges college life will contain?”

We may well have the best of intentions when we intervene constantly in our children’s lives. It’s only natural to want them to be content and enjoy life. But we must consider the long term consequences of our actions. Just as our muscles grow stronger only by stretching beyond comfort, so too must we expand our children’s resilience only through the occasional pain of failure.

How Bright Lines Make Life Easier

I’ve been focusing as of late on simplifying my life. I have a lot going on, between a full time job, raising two young children, trying to be a good husband, fulfilling my desire to write, and starting a business. There are plenty of times when I’ve felt overwhelmed by all the minutia of managing this on a day to day basis. So, I do what I have always done when I feel dissatisfied with something in my life: I try changing things up to see if it improves things (because more change is exactly what I need, right?).

One of the things I’ve focused on as of late is the idea of using “bright lines” to reduce the number of decisions I make on a daily basis. I heard about this concept in Roy Baumeister’s excellent work Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength(aff link). He writes:

“You can’t help but notice when you cross a bright line. If you promise yourself to drink or smoke “moderately,” that’s not a bright line. It’s a fuzzy boundary with no obvious point at which you go from moderation to excess. Because the transition is so gradual and your mind is so adept at overlooking your own peccadilloes, you may fail to notice when you’ve gone too far. So you can’t be sure you’re always going to follow the rule to drink moderately. In contrast, zero tolerance is a bright line: total abstinence with no exceptions anytime.

The idea is this: bright lines are clear and simple rules for how you go about your day. There’s no room for interpretation, no space for arguing over ambiguity. The choice you face is clear: either you follow the rule or you don’t.

While Baumeister mainly talks about applying this to abstaining from bad behaviors (like drinking), I also find it useful in defining daily routines and rituals. If I decide the night before exactly what I’m doing in the morning prior to heading off to work, it eliminates the expenditure of energy in choosing between various paths (do I have eggs or oatmeal for breakfast?). This includes not only what I do, but in what order I do it (do I make my coffee first or do my meditation breathing?). Sometimes things go awry based on the interruption by certain small children, but it’s helpful nonetheless.

I also find this useful in defining how I work during the day. I might create a bright line around my use of social media: I only check Facebook after lunch and before heading to the gym. Or I might limit when I check e-mail: I check e-mail once per hour at the fifty minute mark after a forty five minute work session. I can define how I administer my systems: there will be no changes made between 9AM and 5PM EST that have any chance of being disruptive (I wonder on that last bit, do we always know what changes will be “disruptive”? Anyway, I digress.).

Some might argue this is rigid and doesn’t allow for spontaneity. That’s absolutely true, but it’s also the point of so-called bright lines; they take away from flexibility in areas of my life where I don’t need it, so that I reserve my energy for parts where I do. Do I really want to expend energy deciding whether to wear a polo or a t-shirt? Or would I rather keep that energy in reserve, so that I am a more patient parent, or a calm and collected problem solver in the face of an emergency at work?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, consider implementing a few of these bright lines into your life. You just may find that you free up your energy for far more productive things. Share what you did and if it worked in the comments!

Can Racists Be Reasoned With?

I’m fortunate to have a lot of pretty smart friends, who give me plenty of material for thought (and thus eventually for writing, since that’s how I generally try to organize my thinking). Just yesterday, a friend of mine posted this article, which argues rather convincingly that the cause of many of America’s current ailments is what the author describes as “an abandonment of reason”. He gives numerous examples of this, from climate change denial to sex education. And while I find the argument a good one, I think that there is little cause for optimism of the triumph of reason in this or just about any other case.

In his excellent book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt shows how reason is consistently subjugated by emotion. He uses the very descriptive metaphor of an elephant and a rider, where reason is the rider and emotion / intuition the elephant. The rider can try and guide the elephant, but in case of conflict, the elephant is going to win. Our cognitions, our very deeply held beliefs, are largely the result of post-hoc reasoning rather than sound logistical deduction. We experience a feeling in reaction to something, and our minds come up with a seemingly rational explanation for why we felt that way.

Because of this, I would say that focusing on reason alone is a poor approach to work towards solving problems such as racism. Certainly, racist beliefs generally cannot stand up to the lens of logic, but for someone who holds them this matters little. As he was engaged in his murderous rampage, the suspect reportedly stated “…you’ve raped our women, and you are taking over our country.” This sounds exactly like an appeal to two of Haidt’s six moral foundations, namely those of “Sanctity” and “Authority”. To a racist, those of different racial backgrounds are corrupting the very moral fiber of their nation, threatening the orderly boundaries of society. I have not searched for studies on the matter but I would surmise that these come from deeply seated intuitions, some of which may even be genetically based. As such, anything trying to contradict them is likely to be summarily dismissed.

So is all hope lost? Is there no way to affect change in the minds of racist individuals? There may be a glimmer of possibility, which we glimpse in another friend’s thoughts on the matter:

How do we change their thinking from a young age? Unfortunately most have parents with warped views who are their driving influence, but can we as a community step-up and be just as influential? Would arranging for greater exposure at a young age to those children seemingly different from themselves, in race, religion, etc. be the most effective? Providing the opportunity to internalize the commonality of all humanity by having these relationships when young seems about right to me.

Much like the character of Derek in American History X, organic exposure to other cultures and ideas may be the best hope. Even so, I don’t know that any top-down effort to accomplish this would be effective. Rather, it would only be seen as yet another invasion of culture. Combine this with the media’s continual efforts to polemicize their constituents for the sake of ratings, and sadly I remain rather pessimistic of any kind of large scale resolution to this problem.

*Note: links to Amazon from this page may contain affiliate codes, so if you purchase items I may receive a small commission. If you’d rather not donate to my kids’ college fund that’s fine, simply look up the title on Amazon without clicking the link.

On My Mixed Beliefs – Part II – Humanism

In part one of this series, I talked about how my long time exposure the traditions of Quakerism shaped my quasi-religious beliefs. Their tenets of nonviolence, belief in shared divinity, and respect for individual rights and opinions have all had a profound impact on my views. However, it would be too simple to say that my beliefs start and end there.

I am also a firm believer in at least some of the ideas of humanism. From the link:

Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism).

The more I read and learn, the more I am amazed by what we have accomplished as a society. We live in a time of remarkable progress, where technology advances at an astounding pace. Here’s a very clear example. Just before I was born, the Apple II+ computer came out in June of 1979. For the low price of $1,195 (around $3,800 in today’s dollars), you got up to 64kb of memory, a CPU capable of up to 2MHz, and 5.25 inch floppy disks as the main storage medium. By the time I graduated high school in 1999, you could purchase a computer with a processor 200-300 times more powerful for less than half that original price (for reference, this is the iMac G3, which retailed for $1,299 (around $1,800 adjusted to today’s dollar value).

Even outside of technology, progress has been amazing. Even though it seems every day we hear about war, famine, or some other tragedy, the data simply doesn’t support the narrative that the world is falling apart. Quite the opposite in fact! Here’s some examples that turned my head:

-The mortality rate of children under age 5 has dropped from around 160 per 1,000 in 1960 to 36.25 in 2012.
-Between 1990 and 2012, the percentage of people in Africa who had access to improved water sources increased from 58% to almost 90%.

I could go on and on about this. It’s utterly fascinating to see just how far we have come, and equally frustrating for me to hear doomsday prophets or those clamoring for a return to “simpler times”. I don’t know about you, but I rather like that I don’t have to spend hours and hours each day in the sun, doing backbreaking manual labor, all for the sake of getting minimal nutritional needs. And let’s not forget that modern marvel, the washing machine!

Some might say that my humanistic beliefs inherently clash with my spiritual beliefs, but to me this makes no sense. Just because I believe in the utility of human beings doesn’t mean that I cannot also believe in a greater power. Why can’t the marvel of human progress co-exist with the experience and faith in the divine? Must things be so black and white? Why could we not believe that God set things in motion, then stood back and allowed His creation to develop largely on its own agency, perhaps with some tweaks here and there? Would not God make human beings capable of wonderful things on their own accord?

I think it will take another post to fully explore just how I believe that the staunch rationalism and empiricism of humanism can live peaceably with faith, but for now, it’s sufficient to say I see no reason why I cannot take from both. Perhaps this is just another example of how I try to be a pragmatist at heart, and reject dogmatic ideals for flexible and open-minded thinking. Then again, I always say I’m as much of a biased moron as anyone else, but perhaps I’m just a little more aware of it.

The Caitlyn Jenner Story Perfectly Illustrates All That’s Wrong About Modern Politics

I think the Caitlyn Jenner story is an interesting micro-representation of all that’s wrong in politics these days. I have friends on every side of the spectrum, so I can see how both sides are presenting it.

On the left, her story is being held up as inspirational and a milestone in transgender rights, while at the same time cited as an example of how we need to do more as a society to support transgender individuals, including calls for things like making gender reassignment surgery fully covered under health insurance. People who disagree are called “savages” and “bigots”.

On the right, what you see is general disgust and disdain. People say this is getting way too much attention and that we should be focusing on more important things like our balooning debt, ISIS, and government overreach. She is called names like “freak show” and people who disagree are called things like “libtards”.

But in both cases, the response is mostly righteous indignation, whipped up by memes appealing to the moral base of their audience. There’s no sense of nuance, no compassion on either side for the opinions of the other. Crude ad hominem attacks are far more common than sound moral and logical arguments.

How about we really listen to what each other’s concerns are and try to understand rather than call each other names? We might find that in fact both sides have valid points.

Yes, her story is a good one, and yes it’s true that transgender individuals are often marginalized in our society. But, yes it’s also true that things like the voting on the USA Freedom Act and other pressing national problems are being drowned out.

But sadly I don’t have much faith that will happen. People love to be righteously angry. They love caricatures of their enemies and telling others “You’re wrong!”

It’s a wonder anything is getting done in this country.